The Republican Takeover of the Senate: Implications for Louisiana

November 5, 2014

Had control of the Senate rested on the outcome of Louisiana, money and media attention would have poured into the state at an unprecedented level. The Louisiana Senate race would have been a national affair, arguably to the disadvantage of incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu. Even without the nation hanging in the balance, Louisiana will get its share of campaign spending, media attention, and political activism, but the stakes are not nearly as high. This has the potential to cut either way for the Louisiana Senate race.

  • Licking their wounds from the 2014 beat down, Democrats may work extra hard to save the Louisiana Senate seat. Having won the U.S. Senate, Republicans may not have the same sense of urgency. This has the potential of giving the Landrieu campaign the boost it needs to win the run-off.
  • The more likely scenario is that turnout declines in the run-off, particularly among Democratic voters, giving a boost to the Cassidy campaign.
  • Having the election outside of the national context of the 2014 midterm elections may force voters to look more carefully at the candidates. This should help Landrieu who is more personable. There is a reason she requested six debates.
  • Landrieu’s chairmanship of the Energy Committee is now a moot point. Saving the ranking minority member hardly has the same appeal.
  • Having said that, as a conservative Democrat in a Republican Senate, Landrieu could serve as important broker in any bipartisan negotiations with the White House.   Her influence may be diminished  but it is still very real.
  • All in all, the overall context still favors Cassidy.
  • However, intangibles are also important and Landrieu has been here before and knows how to win a close run-off election.

Ignore the Spin: Midterm Election Edition

November 4, 2014

Republicans will likely win an important victory tonight that will make it even harder for Democrats to win back the House and the Senate in 2016. As a result, divided government is the probably best case scenario for Democrats for the foreseeable future – as they could potentially win back the Senate but not the House. The election, however, means very little for the 2016 presidential election which will be driven by a very different set of contextual influences and political calculations. By midterm standards, the results pale in comparison to 2010 or 2004 and “Republicans in Congress” remain unpopular. Dissatisfaction has not yet melded into Republican support.

On the Democratic side, please disregard any talk about how losing the Senate in 2014 helps in 2016 (it doesn’t) or how the party avoided any even more disastrous outcome. The Democratic silver lining may come in gubernatorial elections, but the gains will hardly offset the loss of Senate control.

No-Win Elections

November 3, 2014

When the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, they imagined the U.S. House of Representatives as the repository of the public will, a disorderly and raucous chamber capable of giving voice to the nation’s base democratic impulses.  Elections every two-years and frequent turnover would assure the House of Representatives closely reflected the public’s policy preferences. These preferences would be heavily filtered and refined in the more aristocratic Senate whose principal job was to assure that the bad ideas originating in the House of Representatives didn’t become bad laws.

Two-hundred and seventeen years post-ratification, the House of Representatives is mostly immune to collective democratic accountability.  The Washington Post recently mapped out the lack of competition in U.S. House elections using the ratings from the Cook Political Report. The picture tells the simple story: Throughout most of the country, there is no meaningful competition. Out of 435 House elections, only 26 House races are rated as toss-ups while the vast majority of seats (85 percent) are safely in Republican (209) or Democratic (161) hands.

Such a scenario might make sense were voters largely content but this is decidedly not the case.  Congressional approval stands at an anemic 13 percent, President Obama’s favorability ratings are at or near their low point, and only 27 percent of Americans say the country is heading in the right direction. While Republican candidates may have benefited more from this collective discontent, “Republicans in Congress” are even less popular than President Obama or “Democrats in Congress,” with only 1 in 5 Americans approving of the job they are doing.  Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about our collective discontent is that it has nowhere to go, no easy targets for attributing blame or affixing responsibility.

This isn’t the way that democratic elections are supposed to work. In a democracy, elections serve as an imperfect mechanism for translating voter preferences into policy outcomes.  At a bare minimum, elections should provide voters with the opportunity to throw the bums out. Yet, this election cycle of discontent will mostly reinforce a status quo of gridlock and intransigence, giving voters even more of what they believe do not want.

Voters are unquestionably part of the problem, their demands are often contradictory and their policy preferences uninformed and unstable. Dissatisfaction with the health care system, for example, means very little in terms of support for health care reform as policy preferences shift quickly when the public realizes they might actually have to actually pay the bill.

Yet, if the voters are partly to blame, the problem is also deeply structural.  Congressional elections provide very little in the way of collective accountability and almost no incentive for actually governing. Thanks to carefully drawn single-member districts, individual House members run in overwhelming partisan districts and win easily on party-line votes. Indeed, in contemporary politics, incumbent politicians are more likely to be punished than rewarded for working constructively across the aisle or effectively negotiating compromise on difficult and complex issues.  The safe political strategy is to stand firmly on the right side of the issues, denounce the other side, and get little or nothing done.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Congressional scholars have long noted the ability of individual representatives to succeed even as Congress as an institution flounders. Once upon a time, however, incumbents worked hard to represent their districts, secured funding for district projects, and gained seniority on committees and subcommittees to influence policy. Effective legislators kept their seats even as local partisan tides were shifting because they were effective legislators.

In contemporary politics, polarization and partisan districting have turned what was once a curious and distinct trait of American politics into a pathology.  In such an environment, serving as an effective policy-maker – rather than loudly and uncivilly representing the views of constituents – is a liability.   Ineffective legislators can succeed as long as they are faithful representatives of their very local and partisan constituencies.

We can fix this shortcoming but doing so requires rethinking our electoral process and the possibilities for reform. Advocates for campaign finance reform and term limits, for example, often target the lack of competitiveness in elections without getting to its source.  Remove all the incumbents and many districts would still overwhelmingly favor one party over another. Provide public financing in uncompetitive districts and you only marginally improve the level of competition.  Instead, the path to meaningful reform requires rethinking the incentive structures that reward individual politicians while undermining collective decision-making. I would offer three suggestions here:

  1. Replace single-member districts with proportional representation requiring members to represent more diverse constituencies.
  2. Create a set number of at-large seats (30-40) requiring the winners to represent national rather than local constituencies.
  3. Require a nationwide vote on performance of the U.S. Congress that would be binding on all members, effectively imposing term limits with an unfavorable vote. Such a vote would provide the sort of collective responsibility mostly absent from contemporary politics.

None of these solutions is perfect but each gets more directly at the problem than other well-intended but misguided reform efforts. If we can have an election defined by wide-scale disaffection and little or no competition, something is deeply wrong.  And, if we can have an election amidst this collective discontent that yields no significant movement in policy and that instead endorses an undesirable status quo, then our electoral process is indeed broken and needs fixing. We can fix the process or we can continue to be frustrated and dissatisfied with the representatives we continue to elect.

My Blog: The Road to College

August 21, 2014

[this blog is a little different as it is a reflection on taking my son to college]

The son you knew, who you once carried easily in your arms, head tucked into your chest, afraid and unsure of the world, now packs his car and heads out the door. You tell yourself he is only going to college for a small dose of life, a bit of reality on training wheels, but you know this is a defining moment.

If not for him, then for you.

We are defined in our children, in the space they occupy in our lives. When they are gone, we are left uncertain and unsure of who we are and what we will become.

You are reminded of a similar scene nearly thirty years ago when you were driving the getaway car – a dull green 1972 Oldsmobile 98 – and you left your mother crying in the driveway. She didn’t cry often – almost always opting for optimism over anger, sadness, or fear – but on that day she broke down and sobbed. Undeterred, you started the car and drove on, taking your mother’s glass half full optimism and father’s quiet but keen eye along with you.

This is a small truth worth remembering: Wherever your children go, a small piece of you goes with them, whether they want it there or not.

But the emotions of letting go are not only about sadness and loss. There is excitement and hope this step will be transformative and full of joy, that the fun of college will be mixed with discovery and meaning. That your son will have most (but definitely not all) of the experiences you had.

As you watch him go, the tear and the smile find an uneasy balance. Sadness and laughter in this life are intractably intertwined and inseparable. He is uncertain as well, but you both know he must start the car and drive on. There is an open road in front of him, and if he is lucky – as lucky as you have been – each new destination will be better than the last. And the road ahead of him only get open with possibility with each passing mile.

The Declining Power of the Political Press

August 10, 2014

[I am transitioning this blog to my new Polling Station blog but at least for the short-term will cross-post some content. Please update to keep following]. 

Interesting story in the Columbia Journalism Review noting the increased influence of PR professionals in Washington and the declining influence of the press. This is an ongoing theme, reflected also in complaints that the Obama Administration has limited access even beyond the Bush Administration.

In the contemporary media environment, elected officials have a range of tools to communicate directly to voters making reporters (traditional or online) less important to their communication and political strategies. Who needs a reporter when you can send your message directly to supporters and followers?  This is true regardless of whether the “news” is online or in print or on television. Even when government officials do interact with journalists, they have more leverage to set the rules for the exchange, tightly controlling content.

The late Tim Cook, a former colleague, wrote about the “negotiation of newsworthiness” in his seminal and still very relevant workGoverning with News.  While journalists wrote the stories, government officials controlled their access to reporters making the process of creating the news a two-sided negotiation in which each side had some leverage. In this exchange, digital media. which many thought would democratize politics, can become a tool of the powerful. With institutional resources and immediate access to followers, tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter provide an avenue to communicate directly to constituents. They can be used to counter news stories reported in the mainstream media in real time or to simply limit media access to the candidate or public official. The key for public officials, political parties and candidates  is to make sure they have developed strong enough social networks allowing this direct line to their supporters.

It is hard to see how political reporters regain their footing in this environment. One line of thought suggest reporters be harder-nosed, refusing to cede to the demands of limited access. According to this line of thought, the politician needs the journalist more than the journalists needs the politician. Here the news marketplace may serve as a competitive disadvantage by empowering competitors to gain inside access on important news stories. (Of course, that access comes at a cost to their independence). Tougher reporting also likely assures less access as politicians increasingly decide their strategic interests are better served by going around rather than through journalists.

More to the point, political parties, candidates, and interest groups will continue to devote resources to developing the information and communication infrastructure necessary to communicate independently of an independent and objective press.  This reality portends poorly for the future of independent and objective news and is yet another indicator that our sources of political news and information will likely become ever more partisan and politicized.

Playing the Odds on Bobby Jindal and the Presidency

May 23, 2014

This week, Clancy Dubos is offering his assessment on why Bobby Jindal will never, ever be president. His analysis is smart and informed and generally on the money, but – at least so far – it is missing the most obvious point. It is unlikely that any single individual will ever be president.

First, betting against Bobby Jindal is the equivalent of taking the field in any major sporting event, so it is the safe and smart bet. Want to bet on the next year’s college football season? I’ll bet LSU doesn’t win the national championship. And, I’ll gladly take the field against the New Orleans Saints in the NFL.  This is also the equivalent of betting before the season even begins. 

Second, play this game: Fill in the blank with the following names: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, or Scott Walker and write an essay on why any of these contenders can never, ever be president. It is pretty easy to detail their flaws. All of these candidates currently have better odds than Bobby Jindal. 

Third, fill in the blank with the former presidents before they ran for president and outline the reasons they shouldn’t have been able to win. Barack Obama should have never beaten Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, and there were substantial doubts about whether he could overcome voters’ racial prejudice. George W. Bush should have never been able to beat incumbent Vice President Al Gore during a period of strong economic growth. And, Bill Clinton was a little known governor of a small southern state with skeleton full of closets. It is easy to argue that none of them should have won. With Clinton and Obama, it is easy to argue – based on the odds – that they should have never run. 

None of this is to suggest Bobby Jindal will ever win the presidency. I’ll gladly take the field on that bet against Jindal, but it is worth remembering the single most important characteristic successful candidates possess is the delusional belief that they should be president. Bobby Jindal has this in abundance.   

Why Vance McAllister is No David Vitter

April 11, 2014

The cheap and easy question goes something like this, “Why should Vance McAllister resign if David Vitter didn’t?”  The follow-up: “Where were the calls for David Vitter to step aside?”

The answer is just as easy and just as straightforward: Because Vance McAllister is not David Vitter. McAllister is a newly elected member of congress, elected in a special election, and facing reelection this fall. David Vitter had the good fortune to not to have to face voters right away and to have an established base of political support. He was subsequently able to mute any intra-party calls for his resignation.  Calls for resignation from the other side don’t matter a great deal in such scenarios. We expect Democrats to call for a Republican resignation (and vice versa), what really hurts is when your own party calls for your resignation. As an aside, for those complaining about hypocrisy, keep in mind that hypocrisy is a two-way street. [And yes Virginia, there is a double standard in politics].  

Several other factors work against McAllister. First, there was no video in the Vitter scandal (thank god), there was no angry friend speaking out on CNN, and there was no intrigue about how the information got released and why. This is an intriguing story, a curious mystery layered with betrayal and sexual infidelity. I personally continue to think one of the most fascinating story lines is how the video found its way on the pages of the Ouachita Citizen.  The intrigue works against McAllister as it likely extends the story line. How much coverage is devoted to the story is a critical variable in determining whether a politician can survive. The only way to effectively end the story line is to resign.

Second, David Vitter was masterful in shutting down press coverage of his scandal. He apologized, swore he would never speak about it again, and lived up to his promise.  Whatever one thinks of David Vitter, they should at least be willing to acknowledge that Vitter should teach a class in scandal management.  It continues to amaze and confound his Democratic opponents who can’t come to terms with the fact that David Vitter was (and is) a special case.

Third, we can also make a comparison to Bill Clinton. While Republicans called for Clinton’s resignation, most (but not all) Democrats circled the wagon. The same with David Vitter: Very few Republicans called for his resignation. The challenge McAllister faces is that his own party is turning against him and calling for his resignation. You can survive members of the other party coming after you, particularly if your fellow partisans rally the troops. It is much harder to defend your castle from the inside.  Given that McAllister defeated an establishment candidate and his noted streak of political independence, he lacks the political support of a more established party-line candidate.  It is impossible to say whether her would have been treated differently had he been the Governor Jindal’s endorsed candidate and/or had he not bucked the Republican Party on Medicaid expansion, but it is hard to imagine that this has played no role in the strategic calculation to pressure McAllister to resign. Remember party decisions on whether to push for resignation are not based on abstract principles but on strategic political calculations. 

As of this writing, there are signs that McAllister is resisting the calls to step down. As an aside, keep in mind that public calls for someone’s resignation tend to happen when the private conversations have already failed.  The fact the Governor Jindal, Speaker Boehner and others are calling for his resignation publicly suggests (I have not inside information) that the private calls have gone unheeded. Going public raises the stakes and increases the pressure on McAllister but it also raises the stakes for the Republican Party.  Running against McAllister will only elevate and prolong the scandal and the disarray. And, there is always the chance that he will turn party opposition into a strength and win yet again. After all, should he not take himself out of the running, it is the voters who will decide whether his actions were an embarrassment.