Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Americans Elect and the Disconnect Between Policy and Politics

A few weeks ago when I read Thomas Friedman's editorial, "Down With Everything", there was a lot to like. There was an overt recognition that our nation's political problems arise in large part from structural problems, particularly with the U.S. Senate, and (although omitting discussion of the problems that would result from trying to diminish the input and influence of special interests) how powerful special interests have an undue influence on policy. Friedman also acknowledges the role of government and regulation in creating the nation's economic success.

The editorial, though, reflects Friedman's (dare I say) anti-democratic tendencies. He loves magic men - individuals he perceives as able to transform governments, institutions and popular movements - and there's virtually nothing that he doesn't seem to believe could be improved by finding a Steve Jobs or a Nelson Mandela to bring about reforms that Friedman himself cannot articulate - but which we are to assume would fix (or perhaps, more modestly, significantly improve) whatever is wrong. He has shied away from proposing a "magic man" solution to the problems of the United States, perhaps because in his heart he realizes that such an approach is inherently anti-democratic, or perhaps because he recognizes that "magic man" arguments work best when people don't know much about either the proposed leader or the organization or movement he would supposedly transform. But he does love his super committees:
If we are to get out of our present paralysis, we need not only strong leadership, but changes in institutional rules,” argues Fukuyama. These would include eliminating senatorial holds and the filibuster for routine legislation and having budgets drawn up by a much smaller supercommittee of legislators — like those that handle military base closings — with “heavy technocratic input from a nonpartisan agency like the Congressional Budget Office,” insulated from interest-group pressures and put before Congress in a single, unamendable, up-or-down vote.
Filibuster reform has never been high on Friedman's list of priorities. But supercommittees and "up or down votes"? He loves them. Even if it means pretending that a committee has succeeded when it failed... that is, if a report that comes from the committee's leaders accords with Friedman's own notions of good policy.

On one hand, you might think that Friedman is suggesting that the problem is institutional, and that what we really need to do is to find a way to get our government to focus less on politics and more on policy. The problem with that argument, it would seem, is that Friedman's own policy goals (which are most commonly articulated in the form of massive cuts of Medicare and Social Security) are impeded less by factionalism and more by democracy. George W. Bush's (terribly misguided) proposal to partially privatize Social Security failed not because he couldn't have mustered enough votes, but because too many Senators recognized that they would not be reelected if they supported the changes.

Simply put, an era of supercommittees would do little to insulate Congress from wealthy and powerful special interests. Those interests would help define the scope and power of the supercommittees and limit the scope of their authority. What they would do is allow Members of Congress to tell their constituents, "It's not my fault that these cuts went through - I didn't vote for them." Such an approach does nothing to remedy the institutional problems that, in Friedman's view, necessitate the foisting off of every difficult issue to such a committee, nor do they do anything to educate the public as to why reforms - even reforms that are unpopular or that will detrimentally affect the voter - represent good or even necessary policy. It does little, perhaps nothing, to reduce the power of the special interests that so heavily influence government, instead creating a context in which special interests will battle to influence the supercommittee process. And to the extent that it allows the government to move forward even when a majority of legislators are not willing to act responsibly, it effectively divorces their decision-making from the goals, priorities and interests of their constituents. Also, as with the committees that currently exist in Congress, powerful voices on supercommittees will themselves become targets for lobbying.

Friedman also makes the assumption that supercommittees will always work for good - by which I mean that they will always advance the policies that Friedman personally supports. Although some, at times most, Members of Congress may demagogue about the importance of issues that Friedman regards as inconsequential, or advocate policy reforms that Friedman regards as misguided, Friedman seems to believe that they will never be able to either control the creation of a supercommittee on one of those issues or that a majority of a supercommittee's members will focus on irrelevancies or advance bad policy.

To some degree, Friedman's wishful thinking is borne of a history in which supercommittees have been created to address a specific, genuine problem, with members selected in a manner that makes it pretty clear whether the committee will succeed and what its conclusions will be. But the less consensus there is for any given policy solution, and the more supercommittees you create to bypass the normal legislative process, the more examples of incompetence, outside influence, and even corruption you will find. It's a simple truth of bureaucracy - open, democratic processes are apt to seem messy and disorganized, whereas closed, non-democratic processes are apt to be more efficient but less responsive. As we move in the direction of "every important decision shall be decided by supercommittee", we move toward a closes, non-responsive, non-democratic form of government.

Friedman seems to recognize the importance of having a government that can form good policy, although he shares the natural human tendency to define "good policy" as "policies I, personally, think are good." But to the extent that his proposed solutions to political gridlock aren't anti-democratic, they tend to focus on introducing more politics into the equation. I'm sure Friedman believes that by introducing third parties with additional ideas - ideas he once again assumes will correspond with his own - their ideas will resonate with the public, cause the other political parties to see the light, and cause powerful special interests who have kept those policies from being implemented to fade into the woodwork. Having lived in a couple of nations with multiple political parties, and having seen the political processes of many others, I think that concept of how a third party would work is naive.
Here is how [Americans Elect] will work.... First, anyone interested in becoming a delegate goes to the Americans Elect Web site and registers. As part of that process, you will be asked to fill in a questionnaire about your political priorities: education, foreign policy, the economy, etc. This enables Americans Elect to put you in contact with others who share your views so you can discuss them and organize together. Then you will be invited to draft a candidate or support one who has already been drafted and to contribute to the list of questions that anyone running on the Americans Elect platform will have to answer on the site.

“The questions, the priorities, the nominations and the rules will all come from the community, not from two entrenched parties,” said Ackerman.

Any presidential nominee must conform to all the Constitutional requirements, as well as be considered someone of similar stature to our previous presidents. That means no Lady Gaga allowed. Every candidate will have to post in words or video his or her answers to the platform questions produced by the Americans Elect delegates. In April 2012, the candidate pool will be reduced to six through three rounds of voting. The six, assuming they all want to run, will then have to name their running mates. The only rule is that a Democrat must run with a Republican or independent, and a Republican with a Democrat or independent.

“Each presidential candidate has to pick a running mate outside of their party and reaching across the divide of politics,” said Ackerman.
So the idea was not truly to open up the nomination process to non-traditional candidates - somebody you might want to run the nation but who had eschewed politics - for fear of a "Lady Gaga"-type nomination. And bipartisanship was fetishized to the point that a Presidential candidate would have to pick somebody from the other political party - presumably again somebody with a sufficient political résumé to be firmly associated with the other of the two major political parties - a policy that demonstrates no apparent understanding of the history of the Presidency and why we moved away from having a separately elected Vice President. And these Republican-Democratic teams would stand as something unique and apart from the Republican and Democratic teams they would be running against because... bipartisanship!

Commenting on the failure of Americans Elect, Daniel Larison observes,
Americans Elect failed because it stood for almost nothing, and what it did stand for (bipartisanship, mindless “centrism”) are things that the people who vote for third party candidates dislike or don’t value as something desirable in itself. Americans Elect is a financially opaque, unaccountable organization that pretends to be a vehicle of transparency and political accountability. It has no program or agenda, and it cannot identify substantively where the government has gone wrong under the current two-party system. All that it is capable of doing is complaining that members of the two parties are insufficiently chummy and collaborative, and it has presented this message at a time when there is not much confidence in either major party.

Successful third party candidacies have to tap into discontent with something specific about the incumbent, or they have to represent a more radical challenge to both parties. To the extent that it has a political position, it is the opposite of radical, and it has floundered because its backers don’t really disagree with Obama about very much in terms of policy. It an organization of Tom Friedmans with ballot access.
I think Larison is on to something about the circumstances under which third parties can emerge, particularly in the context of our system which is structured toward two dominant parties. But I think it's also fair to note that it's naive to posit that adding a third political party to an election is going to reduce the level of politics in government, any more than the panoply of Republican candidates in the recent nomination contest helped that party focus on key policy issues. The idea that a Presidential ticket split between two political parties is going to be the least politically contentious of the three (presumably) leading partnerships is interesting. I personally can't see how you could have two candidates who were more than nominally aligned with the two major political parties who would not be doing more explaining away of policy differences than elucidation of shared policy goals throughout the campaign and in the debates.

Fundamentally, adding another pairing of candidates to the presidential race (even if you assume that they will resonate to a greater extent than any of the other third party candidates who already appear on the ballot) does not seem to me to be an opportunity to shift the focus of the race from politics to policy. I don't share Friedman's certitude that the best policy decisions are reached by compromise between the two parties - that reflects, to me, Friedman's mistaken bifurcation of political views into two dominant camps, never mind how fractured those camps often are, and a mistaken belief that the two major parties are so completely correlated with and representative of conservative and liberal ideology that any compromise they fashion will be acceptable to both groups. Frankly, if it were that easy we wouldn't need supercommittees to protect elected politicians from being responsible for the actions of Congress. To me, Friedman seems to be among those who focus on the political horse race, assume that the campaigning and demagoguery are about policy formation not political victory, and thus believe that adding more politics to the fray will somehow lend itself to better policy formation. I would expect that, at best, the third party Friedman envisions might not make things worse, but better? I see no reason to expect that.

Paul Krugman has a criticism of Americans Elect that isn't entirely fair to its proponents:
So why Americans Elect? Because there exists in America a small class of professional centrists, whose stock in trade is denouncing the extremists in both parties and calling for a middle ground. And this class cannot, as a professional matter, admit that there already is a centrist party in America, the Democrats — that the extremism they decry is all coming from one side of the political fence. Because if they admitted that, they’d just be moderate Democrats, with no holier-than-thou pedestal to stand on.
Although perhaps Obama's proposed "grand bargain" on the deficit, rejected by the Republicans, should have established his crediblity with this particular group, the reason why "professional centrists" don't see themselves as Democrats, and see the Democratic Party as a part of the propblem, is that they tend to advocate both balancing the budget (now!) and the position that it's impossible to do so without massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Although for entitlement reform, when push comes to shove the Republican Party is more words than action, the Democratic Party is the primary defender of both Social Security and Medicare. (Never mind that, just as last time, you could get the Democratic Party to sign on to the modest reforms necessary to stabilize Social Security for the indefinite future, and that only the Democrats have introduced serious cost-cutting measures to Medicare as opposed to the Paul Ryan "unlikely to ever happen" privatization plan.)

When President Obama took office, the Democratic Party had a golden opportunity to demonstrate that it was a mature, capable and responsible political party, able to implement sound solutions to serious problems. Instead, just as it did during Clinton's early years, it proved fractious, unwilling to boldly tackle the big issues, and susceptible to extortionate demands from a handful of legislators who held deciding votes. When you hear prominent Democrats talk about healthcare reform you do not hear explanations of how they might have achieved a better bill - you hear complaints that the issue should have been deferred or abandoned. Extremism may not be the problem among Democrats, but opportunism, avarice and politics remain.

Still, that's not problems you're going to resolve by introducing a third "bipartisan" party.

Krugman optimistically expresses,
Americans Elect was created to appeal to this class of professional centrists — which meant that it was doomed to go nowhere. Because outside that class, the large number of people who believe in all the good stuff the centrists claim to favor are, you know, going to vote for Obama. The large number of people who don’t believe in any of that are going to vote for Romney.
The problem here is that a lot of centrists don't believe that President Obama is going to advance the policy goals they favor. They may not have any more confidence in Romney, perhaps less, but if they believe that entitlements are out of control they have seen three years of Democratic inaction on Social Security and cost-saving measures for Medicare that, at present, remain theoretical. As much as they may believe that President Obama would implement some sound policy reforms if presented with a blank slate, they recognize that he is at heart very conservative in his approach to reform. His most dramatic reform, the Affordable Care Act, is a modest echo of ideas of the Heritage Foundation and of his Republican opponent in the coming election. I think there would be appeal to voters who want to see the formation and implementation of good policy, to have a third party candidate who they believed could deliver what they want - what the country needs.

The problem for Americans Elect is that there is no reason to believe that they would deliver. That serious candidates would sign on, that the forced pseudo-bipartisanship of the ticket would be either genuine or helpful. That the contribution to an election would be anything more than adding more politics, more sound and fury, instead of bringing more attention to the most serious policy issues and the most credible responses to those issues. Were the focus on issues, not politics, Americans Elect could do something very different - attempt to articulate the issues, propose solutions, and ask candidates from across the nation to endorse those solutions. It could then articulate which candidates it most supported in any given race based upon the candidates' response. But alas, that would be a lot more work, a lot less fun, and may serve to highlight how it's less a matter of partisanship between the parties that's impeding progress, and more a matter of voters wanting to derive significant benefits from government without having anybody be asked to pay the bill.

It sounds like much more fun to create a website through which we'll supposedly find ourselves a magic man and call that a solution.

1 comment:

  1. Americans Elect is a defective concept. They expected to attract a stellar politician to win millions of disaffected voters. Instead, they attracted political failures and unknowns who obtained a mere few thousand votes. Of course!

    Stellar politicians today are either Republican or Democrat. A stellar politician would know that it is politically impossible to win the presidency as a third party candidate. The most a third party candidate could do would be to act as a spoiler, splitting the vote of his own party, Republican or Democrat, so the other party’s candidate would win. No stellar politician would want to be the cause of that “treachery” to his party compatriots.

    If, by some miracle the AE candidate won, how could he/she ever accomplish anything as president? He would have no AE members in Congress to work with. Every member of Congress would be in the opposition party, with his former party members hating him the most. There would be increased gridlock as all of Congress would want the AE president to fail, proving the AE idea does not work.

    AE should start at winning seats in state offices and in Congress, before aiming at the presidency. No athlete runs his first race at the Olympics. Why did the AE donors think they could start first at the highest political office?

    The only reason Buddy Roemer is seeking the nomination is that he has had a failed political career and no party wants him.

    He was one of the worst governors in Louisiana history. He could not get along with people, put together a competent staff, or pass legislation. He did not work hard and had no ability to govern. Read this history of LA governors, pages 259-268:,%22+Roemer&source=bl&ots=GXt38E_jVv&sig=poXJMn9QbCUESjDIP2-foOb3YLY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=n-xjT7CXDOORiQL8n_SiDw&ved=0CGMQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=%22Often%20wrong%2C%20but%20never%20in%20doubt%22%20Roemer&f=false

    Even today, he is LA's most UNfavorite son. A recent PPP poll rated him the most unpopular presidential candidate, with a 2:1 unfavorable rating in his home state!

    As a LA commentator quipped, in bayou style:
    “Buddy Roemer, who has been out of politics for 19 years, couldn't win an election as a dogcatcher in Louisiana, much less the Presidency of the United States."


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