Monthly Archives: December 2008

Happy New Year

I apologize that I haven’t posted lately or responded to comments. But like our new president, I’m on a tropical vacation. I’ll be back in the New Year.

Categories: Uncategorized


In the aftermath of the 2006 election, the era of polarization was declared over in such astute analyses as this one:


The impetus behind such conclusions was the extraordinary success of “Red State” Democrats such as Jon Tester and Heath Shuler. But few pundits took note of the fact the these Red Democrats were only moderate or conservative on a few social issues, but quite populist on economics and trade. Even fewer considered the consequences of the extinction of “Blue State” Republicans for polarization in Congress.

But now that Congress has adjourned sine die, Keith Poole has fired up the NOMINATE machine, and we can look at what impact, in any, the 2006 elections had on the level of party polarization in the House and Senate.

This first figure is an update of the data presented in our book with Howard Rosenthal showing the average difference between Democrats and Republicans on the DW-NOMINATE conservatism scale.


Do you see the dramatic collapse of polarization in congressional term beginning in 2007? Me neither. In fact, polarization rose in the 110th Congress just as it has almost every term since 1975. The House had set a record for polarization in the 109th, but the 110th broke it. The Senate broke its own record set in 1867.

So what might the future bring? To get a prediction that is hopefully at least as accurate as Joe Klein’s, I have forecast the average conservatism of Democrats and Republicans for the next congressional term in the following way:

  1. Assigned all returning members their DW-NOMINATE score from the preceding term.
  2. Assigned all new members the average DW-NOMINATE score for their party and region. In other words, a new Democrat from the Midwest gets the average of all midwestern Democrats and a new Republican from the South is assigned the average of all southern Republicans.

Essentially, this procedure captures the effects of the regional distribution of partisan seat shifts. A seat shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the Northeast increases polarization whereas a Democratic pickup in the South decreases it. So here is what the House and Senate may look like next term.


senate_fc.jpgIn each of the figures, the red line is the average conservatism of Republicans, and the blue line is the average conservatism of the Democrats for each term since 1969. The triangles are my prediction for the next term. The Democratic average is expected to change very little, but the Republicans will be considerably more conservative. This, of course, is due to their continued hemorrhaging of seats outside the South. The net effect is again an increase in polarization.

All of this is predicated on the assumption that there will not be any major deviations from recent historical patterns. Of course, things could change. In the conclusion of our book (written in January 2005), Keith, Howard, and I speculate that a financial crisis triggered by a housing bubble might lead to a swing in the public’s partisanship and ideology that might cause the Republicans to moderate. So we have the crisis, a modest swing in public attitudes, but if the congressional votes on the bailouts are any indication, the Republicans haven’t take that last step.

Progressives in the Cabinet

David Lewis offers a very insightful response to my post on the composition of Obama’s cabinet. So insightful, in fact, that I want to re-post and respond here rather than the comments section.

One thing to remember here is that there arguably aren’t that many progressives with resumes to easily qualify them for a top spot after 8 years of Bush and 8 years of Clinton. I suspect where you will initially see lots of progressives, if at all, will be in the White House and in the sub-cabinet. The appointments of the science advisor and the NOAA head yesterday were both progressives. You bring them in, you credential them, and then you elevate them later.

Another thing to consider here is that most of the people who have been pre-vetted are Clinton people who tended to be more moderate.

  • The point about the pipeline is good one, but not entirely persuasive since Obama went heavily to the legislative and gubernatorial wells and overwhelmingly chose moderates. There are certainly progressives in the academic and think tank worlds who are sufficiently credentialed.

  • One of the striking things about Obama’s appointments is that each time he appointed a progressive he tended to balance him/her with a moderate. Stephen Chu gets Energy, but Ken Salazar gets Interior. Hilda Solis gets Labor, but free-trading Ron Kirk will be the U.S. Trade Representative. But moderates aren’t balanced off. Where is the Joe Stiglitz to the Larry Summers?

  • I agree that there may be more progessives in the sub-cabinet. Clearly, the strategy of the Bush adminstration was to get movement conservatives into sub-cabinet positions and then coordinate them from the White House. But I question whether, Obama could pursue a similar strategy. After all, such high profile picks are not likely to be so keen to have appointments dictated to them from the White House.

  • I also agree that climate and the environment is one area where the new adminstration appears the most willing to push to the left.

Let me just conclude by saying that I think Obama’s cabinet is one incredibly impressive group of individuals. My only doubt is whether his “Dream Team” can function in such a way that most effectively pursues his agenda.

The Cabinet

That Obama is set to nominate so many former legislators to his Cabinet and senior White House staff provides a rare opportunity for comparing the ideological make-up of the new administration to that of Congress.

With the nomination of Hilda Solis to be Labor Secretary and Ray LaHood to be Transportation Secretary, there will be six former House and Senate members in the cabinet (including Clinton, Daschle, Salazar, and Richardson). Throw in Obama himself, Joe Biden, and Rahm Emanuel, we have a pretty good sample of former legislators to compare to the current composition House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

To gauge the differences between the administration and Congressional democrats, I use Keith Poole’s “common space” measurement of conservatism. This measure is an adjustment of DW-NOMINATE scores designed to facilitate comparison of the House and Senate. Each legislator is given a single conservatism score for her entire career ranging from around -1 (very liberal) to 1 (very conservative). One drawback is that these scores are only available up through the 109th Congress (2005-2006). So I can only compare the cabinet to the Democratic caucuses of that term. Another is that Bill Richardson’s score more than a decade old (but the rest continued to serve through the 110th Congress).

The following table list the conservatism scores for the administration as well as the House and Senate leaders and the medians of the caucuses.

Pelosi -.455
Solis -.451
Clinton -.359
Obama -.343
House Democratic Median -.329
Biden -.326
Emanuel -.323
Senate Democratic Median -.316
Daschle -.278
Richardson -.255
Reid -.251
Salazar -.220
LaHood .265

The evidence is pretty strong that the administration lies considerably to the right of the Democrats in the House, but is reasonably representative of Senate Democrats. But only Solis comes from the most liberal wing of the party. The center of the party is well represented in powerful positions by the president, vice-president, secretary of state, and WH chief of staff while the lower cabinet is filled with more moderate Democrats and a Republican. No wonder Nancy Pelosi is worried about being triangulated.

Of course, maybe the table is misleading because it only includes cabinet-designates who served in Congress. Maybe liberals and progressives are better represented in the other positions. Doubtful. Gates is a Republican. Teachers unions were disappointed with Duncan. Geitner is a Robert Rubin/Larry Summers protégé. Napolitano and Vilsack are red state governors. Shinseki is a hero to the left, but probably not of the left. Donovan appears to be a centrist who worked in both the Clinton and Bloomberg administrations. Holder is a corporate lawyer. So think I that leaves Stephen Chu as the only remaining cabinet member with views consonant with the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

There has been a fair amount of grumbling just below the surface about how poorly progressives have fared. Rick Warren’s invitation didn’t help matters. It will be interesting to see how long Obama can keep the lid on it before it boils over.

The Good Old Days

Maybe it’s a sign that I am finally getting old, but I seem to recall a quaint time in years past where governors seemed content to fill Senate vacancies with caretakers who served out the term and did not seek reelection. The norm against using the appointment to launch a Senate career was so strong that many serious politicians shied away from accepting.

Fortunately, the useful people at the Senate Historical Office have compiled a list of all appointed Senators since the adoption of the 17th amendment and whether they ran for and won election to a full term. So I can test my recollections against hard data.

The list contains 180 appointed Senators. More than a third, 63 to be exact, chose not to run for election to a full term (one died in office). And many of those that did run suffered an ignominious fate. Twenty-two were not nominated by their party and 34 were defeated in the general election for a full term. So only 60 appointees, less than a third, actually won a full term as senator.

So how have things changed over time? To see, I have broken up the data by decade.

Decade Total Appointees Did Not Run Lost Nomination Lost General Won
1910’s 16 7 1 2 6
1920’s 26 7 2 6 11
1930’s 29 10 5 3 11
1940’s 38 19 4 5 10
1950’s 21 11 2 5 3
1960’s 20 3 3 7 7
1970’s 9 3 4 1 1
1980’s 6 1 0 2 3
1990’s 8 2 1 2 3
2000’s 7 1 0 1 5

Some interesting patterns emerge. The number of vacancies filled by gubernatorial appointment has fallen. I’m not sure, but I suspect it is some combination of the increasing use of special elections and increased longevity of senators (fewer die in office). There is also some evidence in favor of my recollections of the good old days. A greater percentage of appointed senators run for a full term over the past several decades than before (full discloser: I’m actually not old enough to remember those good old days). The appointees have fared significantly better in elections over time (especially in the last decade). If Blago is right and an appointed Senate seat is “an f—-ing valuable thing”, it appears that its appreciation is quite recent.

It seems to me that the changing expectations about how this appointment power is to be used calls further into question the continuance of this practice. Back in the day when most appointed senators were placeholders and caretakers, granting this power to a governor seemed okay. Now that the norm is that appointed senators are expected to run for reelection and hold the seat, the practice creates more opportunities for corruption and conflicts of interest than we really ought to tolerate.

Politicians in the Cabinet

With the announcement that Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, will be nominated to be Secretary of Agriculture and that Colorado Senator Ken Salazar will be nominated to be Secretary of the Interior, six of the fifteen cabinet departments are likely be headed by individuals who have reached the top rungs of electoral politics by serving either as governor or senator (the others in this category are, of course, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Janet Napolitano, and Bill Richardson). This seemed like a large number to me, so I thought it would be worthwhile to compare to recent presidents. For comparability purposes, I’ll focus only on the first appointments to each position.

George Bush’s initial cabinet had only three former governors or senators — John Ashcroft (Gov & Sen, MO), Tommy Thompson (Gov, WI), and Spencer Abraham (Sen, MI) — in the 14 departments that existed when he came to office. Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was added when Homeland Security was created.

Bill Clinton also appointed three high-flying politicians to his cabinet — Lloyd Bentsen (Sen, TX), Richard Riley (Gov, SC), Bruce Babbitt (Gov-AZ) — while George H.W. Bush held over Dick Thornburgh (Gov, PA) from the end of the Reagan administration but didn’t appoint any of his own. Ronald Reagan appointed Richard Schweiker (Sen-PA) and James Edwards (Gov-SC) to head departments he didn’t care much for (HHS and Energy).

So six is a big number. Moreover, big-name politicians will be running many of the departments that will be crucial in developing and implementing President Obama’s agenda and may determine the success of his presidency (e.g. State, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security).

So what are the pros and cons of so many politicians in the cabinet? One argument in favor is that cabinet appointments are useful for building and maintaining coalitions and avoiding party factionalism. This may explain the Clinton appointment, but it is not so obvious that this can account for the others most of whom supported Obama in the primaries. It is also curious as to why avoiding party factionalism is so much more important to Obama than it was for the other presidents of the past 30 years. The second benefit is that senators and governors bring strong ties to Congress and the states. Legislative relations will be obviously important to Obama as he tries to ensure that the “most liberal Congress in history” does not get too far out in front of him. Harmony with the states will be crucial on health care, the environment, and a host of other issues.

But politicians in the cabinet create problems as well. Unlike the career civil servant who ascends to the position or the Washington newcomer, former senators and governors have power bases and networks that are independent of the White House. So it will be considerably harder for the administration to control and manage what happens in the agencies. Second, senators and governors are usually generalists without deep expertise about the policy jurisdiction or culture of the departments that they are to lead. Such a lack of expertise may lead to policy failures or to capture by careerists or both. My former colleague David Lewis has produced ample evidence that careerists do a much better job running sub-cabinet agencies than do political appointees. It would be troubling indeed if his findings were to apply to cabinet departments as well.

More on Balancing

Boris Shor, Andrew Gelman, and I have had a couple of exchanges about the role of “balancing” in the Georgia Senate runoff. Gelman is skeptical of balancing and stresses the importance of low turnout in runoff and special elections. The problem with turnout explanations (as I pointed out in my original post) is that it is hard to predict who benefits from a low turnout election.

I thought it might be useful to bring in a little bit of data on special elections. Fortunately, someone has compiled a list of special House elections and put it on Wikipedia. From WWII onward, the list contains 163 special House elections with the name and party of the winner and the previous holder of the seat. Of these elections, 95 were won by Democrats and 68 by Republicans.

The “balancing hypothesis” would predict that the president’s party would do worse in these elections than the out party. Looking at all of these elections, the president’s party lost 97 of the 163 (about 60%). For those of you who care, the p-value for the hypothesis that the president’s party does no worse than the out party is just .03.

But looking at all special elections may underestimate the president’s disadvantage. After all, many House districts are not competitive so the incumbent party will win easily no matter who is president. Ideally, I would collect data on district partisanship to use as a control. But that is too much work for a blog. So let’s just look at the pattern of districts that switched from one party to another. In such cases, the president’s party lost 29 seats and only picked up 11.

So I’m not wedded to the balancing hypothesis, but it seems to me any explanation about special and runoff elections ought to account for how poorly the president’s party performs. Maybe there is a theory of turnout that does that, but I am unaware of it.

The Politics of Bailouts

Tom Edsall quotes me and several other political scientists at the Huffington Post. My take away:

A carefully modulated analysis of likely trends by Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty suggests modest gains for proponents of intervention.

“Whether intervention changes attitude toward government more broadly depends whether the public perceives that intervention primarily benefits ‘haves’ or the ‘have nots.’ Free markets and deregulation have long been justified by the notion that markets will provide discipline by punishing bad decisions. If it appears that government is stepping in only to protect those responsible for those mistakes, Americans could become even more cynical about government and trusts it less,” says McCarty. Conversely, “government intervention that tries to hold bad executives accountable has its own problems. It generates huge incentives for companies and executives to cultivate political favoritism to avoid punishment — pay-to-play writ large.” The net outcome, according to McCarty, is likely to be “somewhat more support for macroeconomic intervention and broad forms of regulation, but continued skepticism about government ownership and microeconomic planning.”

Not sure how “modulated” my analysis was, but I do come down squarely between Gary Jacobson and John Ferejohn.

The Senate Vote

I would like to take credit for exactly predicting that there would be only 52 votes for cloture. Unfortunately, it is not the same 52 votes that I predicted. More Republicans voted in favor and more Democrats voted against than my quick-and-dirty projection based on the House vote. But ideology still seems to have been a major factor. Democratic moderates Baucus, Lincoln, and Tester voted against (Reid did also to preserve the right to bring a motion to reconsider). Republican moderates like Collins, Snow, and Specter voted in favor.

The factor I didn’t consider in the House vote was the behavior of lame ducks (too much work), but defeated and retiring Senators tended to vote in favor (e.g. Domenici, Dole, and Warner).

Regardless of how one feels about the bailout, it is really disturbing that 12 senators didn’t even bother to show up to vote.