Post from August, 2011

School Days

Tuesday, 23. August 2011 14:59

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Pre-Fall Semester Palate Cleanser

Tuesday, 16. August 2011 14:16

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It’s the Entitlements, Stupid

Tuesday, 9. August 2011 0:39


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The End of Realignments?

Monday, 8. August 2011 22:38

The Realinging Election of 1800

One of the long-standing identified regularities in American politics has been party realignment — where every generation or so the party system realigns, the old order is swept away, and the new order (and usually a new majority party) takes its place. While there was much debate on exactly what percipitates realignments (generational change and immigration are the big factors), how to precisely define realignments (changes in the social groups supporting the parties, see Petrocik), and whether the Southern ‘realignment’ counts as a realignment given the mixed electoral results for the Republicans of the 1980’s and 1990’s, that realignments happen in American politics is as close to Durvergar’s Law, one of the few political science ‘laws’ yet identified, that American behavioralists had gotten. However, the post-modern age of politics (1970’s to present) has called into question the notion of realignment (first identified by V.O. Key in his famous article on critical elections) itself.

In 2008, many predicted we had seen the end of the Republican realignment and we’re embarking on a new Democratic realignment. James Carville famously predicted “40 years of Democratic dominance” after the heady victory for Obama and the complete control of the government they had won. Two short years later and Republicans reclaimed the House and are almost certain to reclaim the Senate in 2012. Of course, it was but a few years prior to that where some political scientists, in the wake of the 2002 and 2004 elections, were arguing that Republican control of the House was assured for decades to come given electoral advantages (e.g. redistricting, Southern districts, etc.). In 2006, the Democrats took back both the House and the Senate. And that was, of course, preceded by Gary Jacobson’s famous prediction of perpetual Democratic control of the House in the 1980’s (shortly before the Republican revolution in 1994). The electorate keeps fooling the experts. The branches have cycled between the parties over the last three decades with no one party gaining a sustainable foothold. As I noted in my post on the alienation meme, one good point in that article was the assertion that ‘sustainable’ control of government may have gone the way of the dodo.

Ross Douhat takes up the realignment question in a recent article in the NY Times, taking note of the perpetually crushed dreams of ‘realignment’ over the last few decades and, like I noted, pointing to polarization as a potential explanation as to why realignments may be a thing of the past.

This dream has hovered over national leaders from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. But it has loomed larger in the last decade, as our politics have grown more polarized and our country has suffered through a series of dislocations and disasters. Events like 9/11 and the Great Recession have persuaded partisans on both sides that a dramatic realignment is imminent; the breadth of the ideological divide has convinced them that it’s necessary.

Douhat puts a new spin on the realignment story. He argues that realignments have become a partisan goal, and as a consequence we see less compromise and less capacity to handle our looming fiscal crisis in our democratic institutions of government.

The dream of realignment has become the enemy of such compromises. It inspires politicians to claim sweeping mandates from highly contingent victories: think of Dick Cheney insisting on another round of deficit-financed tax cuts in 2003 because “we won the midterm elections” and “this is our due,” or the near-identical rebukes that President Obama delivered to Eric Cantor (“Elections have consequences — and Eric, I won”) and to John McCain (“the election’s over”) during the debates over the stimulus and health care.

The losers, meanwhile, wax intransigent, while hoping for a realignment of their own. After all, why cut a deal today if tomorrow you might overthrow your rivals permanently? Better to just say “no” flat out, as the Bush-era Democrats did with Social Security reform and the Republicans did with health care, and hope that the next election will deliver you the once-in-a-generation victory.

It’s a seductive story, but I think it misses the mark. Parties have always sought out realignments (nay, permanent and perpetual control of the government) and the ‘shadow of the future’ has always influenced the partisan politics of the present. What has changed is not that the prospects of realignment have become more enticing…rather, the parties have polarized. And as a consequence of that polarization, it is rational from both an electoral perspective (their constituencies demand ideological purity), from a campaign perspective (ideological purity draws larger campaign donations), and from a policy perspective (perfering the status quo to grand compromises) for parties to say “no” rather than cooperate and produce middle-solutions.

In the past, the parties were more ideologically diverse and thus bipartisan agreements (giving both parties cover) were much more palatable and more acceptable to the re-election constituencies of the representatives from each party. No more. Now “getting something done,” no matter how well it polls in the abstract, is a dirty word in election politics. Examples abound. TARP cost many Republicans their positions, as the Tea Party primaried them out of their elected positions. Is it such a surprise so many were unwilling to join Obama in some grand bargain? The Democrats steadfastly refused to even make an alternative proposal in 2005, when George Bush tried to take on Social Security. They were no less intransigent in the Debt Ceiling debate. While Douhat has adequately identified the consequence, he has misdiagnosed the cause. It’s not some grand example of the “actor-observer” bias. Rather this is simply the product of political and partisan polarization. Polarization explains why realignments may be unlikely in future elections…and polarization explains why the parties increasingly refuse to compromise. D.GOOCH

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Hammer Time

Monday, 8. August 2011 14:55

Deficit Reduction Math:

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Fisking the Alienation Meme

Friday, 5. August 2011 13:32


Interpreting polling trends is not an easy thing to do. Understanding how they relate to the world of electoral politics is even more difficult. Some manage to offer important insights, and then we get…well… this. OK, it’s not the worst bit of political analysis I’ve ever seen, but it certainly isn’t good political analysis. I’ll explain why as we work through this…effort…at politial analysis from the National Journal’s Robert Brownstein.

In the shadow of the bitterly fought agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, the independent voters who usually hold the balance of power in American politics are expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress, and the Washington system itself.

This towering wave of alienation presages more volatility for a political system that has seen the public turn from Republicans in 2004 toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008, only to snap back toward the GOP with near-record force in 2010. Now, on several key measures, the public’s assessment of Congress is even more bleak than it was at this point in the last election cycle–even as Obama’s ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his presidency, particularly among independents.

This intro paints a rather apocolyptic picture for partisans — the public (and especially independents) appear to be offering a collective “pox on both your houses” to the respective parties. Well, until you look at the actual data:

Public Approval of Congress

Wait a second…Congress’s approval has slipped from 20% to 18% since January 2011, a whole two percentage points (hint: that difference falls within the Gallup Poll margin of error) and we’re getting a story about a “towering wave” of alienation? Uh…OK. Even a 14% approval rating isn’t all that different from the norm, though certainly on the low end for congressional approval. But there are two even bigger problems:

  • Public approval for Congress is ALWAYS low. And commonly this low.
  • Congress is currently divided between the two parties, complicating partisan interpretations of approval.

  • As the Gallup article notes: “Americans’ opinions of Congress have not been very positive historically, with an average 34% approval rating since Gallup began tracking this measure in 1974.” What’s more, congressional approval has been on a steady decline since the 1970’s irrespective of factors like party control, the economy, and other exogenous events.

    Historical Trend of Congressional Approval

    Note, exempting the Black Swan event of 2001 and the subsequent temporary spike in approval ratings for everyone in the government, there is essentially an upper and lower bound to the approval of Congress…it ranges from about 40% to 20% give or take a few percentage points. But more importantly for this analysis, approval ratings for Congress have only spiked to the 40% ceiling twice since 2005, and for the most part congressional approval has settled around the floor of 20% during that period. What this tells us is that low Congressional approval ratings don’t mean much. They’re always low. And calling something a “historically low” approval rating when all it did was dip a few points is simply misleading. Yes, it is an “hisorical” low but it was already at a “historical” low and has been “historically” low for some time. Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along. What’s more, it is likely due to the fact of divided government. While voters tend to like divided government in the abstract, in practice they have little patience with gridlock. Furthermore, with both parties controlling one branch (and checking the other), it gives partisans from BOTH parties reason to disapprove of Congress…likely contributing to the ‘historically’ low approval rating. There’s little reason to let our collective imagination run away with us by suggesting we are headed towards some kind of ‘unprecedented’ political environment ripe for a major upheveal in our two party syst….

    With each party hemorrhaging public support amid political polarization and economic stagnation, the implications for 2012 are complex and unpredictable. American history lacks a true example of an election in which voters turned out large numbers of incumbents from both parties, but to some observers that no longer seems impossible amid the declining support for both Obama and congressional Republicans. And while no serious independent presidential candidate has yet emerged, the numbers show an unmistakable opening for a Ross Perot-style outsider candidate who mobilizes voters unhappy with both major parties.

    …oh well, never mind. I guess now is precisely the right time for just that. Oh, and by the way, Robert, Perot ran third to both major party candidates and didn’t win a single state’s electoral votes. The best result for an independent in 100 years, and not a single electoral vote. Anyway, let’s move on to the question of whether these “historically” low congressional approval ratings tell us much about the partisan electoral fortunes in the next election. If only we had a simillarly low congressional approval rating before an election to tell us…oh, wait…

    2007 Presidential & Congressional Approval

    As you can see, in 2008 and a few months prior to the election, Congress’s approval rating was at 19%, which was statistically indistinct from the current approval rating of 18%. And Bush’s approval rating makes Obama’s current approval look positively rosey. So…did we get some kind of third party wave in 2008 as independents lead a rush to some new Ross Perot-like figure and both parties experienced a public rejection by the electorate? Ummm…not exactly. Obama beat McCain by 6 points, and a whopping total of 1.4% of the electorate voted for all of the independent candidates running combined. And what about that congressional approval rating at a time when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress? Democrats picked up 8 seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House. Congressional approval ratings tell you very little about a party’s electoral fortunes in the next election.

    And they are even less relevant when we have divided government. What does it mean to “approve” of Congress, from a partisan perspective, when one party controls the Senate and the other party controls the House? Note, the approval of Republicans and Democrats in Congress has been relatively flat through 2011:

    Approval of Republicans and Democrats in Congress

    Note that approval for both of the parties in Congress is much higher than approval of the institution itself. This underscores precisely why we shouldn’t be treating approval of Congress, as an institution, or even congressional parties, as if they are the same thing as approval ratings for the president (a singular, individual national leader). It is comparing apples with footballs. Presidential approval ratings, unlike congressional approval ratings, do correlate with partisan outcomes in future elections. Unlike Congress, presidents do serve as the head of their national party and approval of a president correlates strongly with approval of that president’s party. Voters identify the president with his party in a way they do not do with Congress or even the parties within Congress. Poor presidential approval ratings are almost always a leading indicator for a poor electoral showing nationally for that president’s party whether it be in an off-year or presidential year election.

    Party Identification

    This measure of party identification in the American electorate by Gallup is much more indicative of the partisan fortunes of the parties in a forthcoming election. Party identification tells us the percentage of Americans in the country choosing to identify with the parties or to not identify with the parties. Note how the spike in Republican party ID and the decline in Democratic party ID presaged the Republican landslide in the 2010 congressional elections. What do those numbers look like in 2011? While we don’t have Gallup numbers for the full year (it only being August), Michael Barone’s analysis of recent Pew data indicates that the GOP’s 2010 advantage has held steady through 2011 with no signficant errosion apparent in the data.

    So, to wrap it up:

  • Congress’s approval rating, while “historically low,” has only slightly declined from January of this year and is wholly within the margin of error.
  • Congress’s approval rating is almost always low, and has been lower in recent years despite major partisan changes in control of Congress.
  • Congressional approval ratings, even when one party controls both branches, are not an indicator of partisan fortunes in a forthcoming election.
  • Party identification seems to have remained stable throughout 2011.
  • Presidential approval ratings are a very good indicator of that president’s electoral fortunes and his party’s electoral fortunes
  • Current polling does NOT suggest an opening for an independent-lead third party movement in 2012. Rather it indicates Democrats will likely suffer losses simillar to those suffered by Republicans in 2008.
  • Of course, much can change between now and then. But that’s what the data suggests at the moment. To Mr. Brownstein’s credit, he does go on to cite the political scientist Gary Jacobson, who points out that it is very unlikely to see a rejection of both parties and the rise of a successful independent party in 2012. However it is clear from Brownstein’s article that he credits the MacKinnon argument that the election will be ripe for an independent challenger. And that argument is bad. Sure, there will be independent candidates. And if you’re going to take the over or the under of 1.4% for independent candidates in the 2012 election, I’d take the under. So to answer the questions Brownstein poses in his article:

    These findings raise three intertwined questions for 2012. The first is whether this broad and corrosive discontent could encourage a third-party independent presidential candidacy.

    Not likely. There will be independent candidates. None of them are likely to gain traction. This will be, as usual, a competition between the incumbent party defending their record against the challenge to that record from the out party candidate.

    The second big question posed by this alienation is whether it could simultaneously threaten all incumbents, perhaps overturning the Republican majority in the House, the Democratic majority in the Senate, and Obama’s hold on the Oval Office.

    Absolutely not. This is patently ridiculous. You might as well ask whether the Grey Aliens from the planet Alpha Centuari are going to cause independents to give Ralph Nader the presidency. It’s that nonsensical. Brownstein has badly misinterpreted what congressional approval ratings tell us about elections. Answer: not much. Amazingly he quotes Gary Jacobson essentially telling him the same thing, and he quotes Jacobson pointing out the same thing I do (presidential approval is the indicator)…and he still poses this as a question as if it hasn’t already been defintatively answered. Uh, Robert, yeah. It has. Gary just did it for you. Pay! Attention! This is not a question to be answered. It is a question that has been answered.

    That whiplash pattern points to the third, and possibly most important, conclusion from the dismal polling numbers confronting all sides in Washington: the extent to which both parties have failed to secure enough support from independents to sustain a lasting advantage over the other.

    Now here he has a better point. I think it is certainly an open question whether or not we’ve left the generational realignments behind permanently or whether we are in a brief period of partisan equality before the realigment trends re-emerge. It’s a legitimate question. And Brownstein is right to note that political polarization may play a factor in preventing lasting realignments from restablishing themselves on a generational basis. But the congressional approval ratings are not a good measure with which to assess that question or any electoral question. The numbers indicate that 2012 is likely to be a bad year for Democrats, all things being equal at the moment. And this talk of “alienation” is simply a waste of time and bad political analysis.

    Oh, snap! D.GOOCH

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    Quote of the Day

    Friday, 5. August 2011 11:25

    Something to think about as the Dow continues its free fall:

    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as “bad luck.” – Robert Heinlein

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    Obama vs. Bush on Deficits II

    Monday, 1. August 2011 22:22

    I discussed the NY Times graph seemingly showing Bush era deficit contributions far in excess of President Obama’s. I discussed a few of the problems with that statistical representation. Steve McMillin takes on the graph over at the Daily Caller. He points out that the NY Times compared 8 years of Bush to 2 years of Obama and, more importantly, failed to assign Obama blame (credit?) for the old policies he continued as president. For example, Obama supports most of the Bush tax cuts and signed a bill extending all of them for 2 years. Does all of that “blame” go to Bush while none of it to Obama, simply because Bush enacted the tax cuts in the first place?

    McMillin gives us another entry in the deficit comparison graphs of Obama vs. Bush, assigning responsibility to each for both old and new policies the presidents enacted during their presidencies. The deficits and spending were marginally higher under Obama as opposed to Bush, and revenues were roughly the same under both presidents:

    Obama vs. Bush 2

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    Debt Ceiling: End Game

    Monday, 1. August 2011 16:58

    The Debt Ceiling

    Well, it looks like we have a deal. The whip count by the Hill indicates it has enough support to pass the House and the Senate, and the president has already indicated his support. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic leadership, have indicated they will vote “yes” as has Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader. The Republican House and Senate leadership is on board as well. The deal on the debt ceiling (we expect a vote aroung 7pm EST tonight in the House) is as follows:

    The Budget Control Act of 2011:

  • Establish caps on discretionary spending through 2021
  • Allow for certain amounts of additional spending for “program integrity” initiatives aimed at reducing the amount of improper benefit payments
  • Make chances to the Pell Grant and student loan programs
  • Require that the House of Representatives and the Senate vote on a joint resolution proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution
  • Establish a procedure to increase the debt limit by $400 billion initially and procedures that would allow the limit to be raised further in two additional stpes, for a cumulative increase of between $2.1 trillion and $2.4 trillion
  • Reinstate and modify certain budget process rules
  • Create a Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to propose further deficit reduction, with a stated goal of achieving at least $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings over 10 years
  • Establish automatic procedures for reducing spending by as much as $1.2 trillion if legislation originating with the new joint select committee does not achieve such savings

  • The CBO score indicates Boehner got his “dollar cut for every dollar increase in debt ceiling” bottom line. There are no tax increases and there are no structural changes to entitlements, though conceiveably either could be proposed by the special select committee. It looks like Obama has achieved his goal of having the debt ceiling issue off the table during the election year. Keith Hennessy has a good summary of the bill’s particulars.

    All in all, this compromise looks vaguely familiar. 😉 There will be a vote on the balanced budget amendment, but with the requirement set at 2/3rds of each House by the Constitution, there is almost no chance of that amendment passing. Furthermore, the amendment doesn’t have to include the Republican version (which created a 2/3rds supermajority requriement for tax increases). The vote will be symbolic and fodder for the 2012 election.

    I would have to rate this a qualified Republican win. Obama originally wanted a clean debt ceiling hike. Instead he has been forced to agree to significant budgetary cuts. The big question is whether or not the committee will be able to find savings without substantially altering entitlements (Democrats will vote it down) or raising taxes (Republicans will vote it down). The “poision pill” of the automatic across the board spending cut with big hits to Medicare and the Defense budget is certainly an incentive for Republicans and Democrats to go to the table…although they would probably be able to wriggle out from under the automatic thumb with a “fix” bill much like the “doctor fix” for Obamacare. This does kick the can down the road, but I expect they’ll be able to find savings and get the second “tranche” passed in the Fall. Still, there’s reason to be skeptical.

    The next big question is: whither the economy? Growth has slowed significantly over the past several quarters and we may be looking at a double dip recession. If GDP hits negative numbers and unemployment begins to spike again, Obama is a one term president. It’s as simple as that. D.GOOCH

    UPDATE: Houses passes the Budget Control Act of 2011 by a margin of 269-161 with 175 Republicans voting yes and the Democrats splitting evenly 95-95 on passage. It’s on to the Senate (where passage is expected) and then the president’s desk (where he is expected to sign the bill into law). D.GOOCH

    UPDATE II: The Senate passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 by a vote of 74-26 on Tuesday.

    UPDATE III: The president signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 into law shortly after Senate passage.

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