Friday, July 29, 2016

Campaign Pageantry: Offspring on the Campaign Trail

So I should be writing a serious analysis - particularly since we now have vice presidential candidates.

Putting aside my feelings about the candidates themselves, let me be completely and utterly bi-partisan here. I have no interest in what their children say. Unless the children have some significant achievement in their own right, there is little reason for them to be addressing the convention or the nation. It is however an interesting illustration of the concept of semi-institutionalization.

First - I do not mean to criticize Chelsea Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. etc. I am sure they are all perfectly nice, charming people. But their primary qualification is their parentage. Most of their professional achievements involve having gone into their parents' business. Good work if you can get it. They are all young and may have substantial achievements ahead of them. Consider George W. and Jeb Bush - there is little doubt that they were helped immensely by have a president for a father (and a Senator for a grandfather by the way.) Nonetheless, THEY won big elections. That is an accomplishment of some note - no matter what kind of help you get.

Nonetheless, nominees keep trotting out their children to give humanizing testimonials. Pundits and partisans cite these articulate children as evidence that the candidate is a good parent and thus a good person and fit to be president.

I am deeply suspicious as to whether any of that is true. Giving a good speech is not magic, it is a skill that can be learned. That the children speak well of their parents is hardly remarkable. Would they really stand up before the world and say, "My father/mother is a crappy human being who never paid any attention to me! Do not vote for them!"

A Long Job Interview
The Presidential campaign is basically a very (very, very) long job interview. Most jobs are a combination of explicit and tacit skills (hard and soft skills if you prefer.) Explicit skills usually have credentials. A dentist for example has a degree and passes exams. In the case of tacit skills you hope that they are either intuitive (like getting along with people) or will be learned on-the-job.

When you are hiring someone you are naturally evaluating their skills, but you are also making sure they aren't crazy. I don't mean to mock mental illness here - that is a serious issue. But we all know people who just kind of radiate negative energy. If you bring such a person into your workplace you open the door to expanded gossip, backbiting and distraction.

That is why the last question of a job interview is always, "Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself?"

It is one last check to see if there is anything fundamentally off about the person.

That is what the campaign trail is about - we are trying to figure out if there is something off about the person. That determination can be based on very superficial and subjective criteria. But we have to consider them. (Because sometimes a superficial oddity does indicate something deeper.)

So the candidates trot out their children, who dutifully tell cute stories indicating that the candidate is a regular person who does normal and very nice things - all in an effort to show us that they are ok and we won't regret seeing them on TV for the next four to eight years.

Semi-Institutionalization
A semi-institution is something that is not required but has become expected. The president does not have to meet the VP every week or give them an office in the West Wing. But it would look pretty bad if they did not provide these perqs.

Same now with speeches by the candidate's children. It is expected. It seems unlikely that people will vote for a president because their child gave a good speech. But, if a nominee's offspring did not give at least a competent speech - or gave no speech at all - we would wonder what was wrong. Were they a bad parent, had they messed up their child somehow? Maybe they shouldn't be president after all.

Nixon once said, "Your vice presidential pick can only hurt you." When you are president, that goes for a lot of things.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Veepstakes 2016 Part 3: Elizabeth Warren & the Insider Dilemma

Joe Biden, in his inimitable way, has thrown Sen. Elizabeth Warren's hat in the Veepstakes ring. Biden began by saying that if he'd been the nominee he would have picked her and urged Hillary to do so.

Would she have one in Hillaryland?
Let's leave aside the politics of choosing Warren. She either shores up Hillary's flank on the left or she pushes Hillary too far to the left to get votes from moderates who are offended by Trump. In having an historic two woman ticket, the campaign will really bring out the woman vote to counteract Trump's appeal to men or it will lead the campaign to be stereotyped by gender and turn off voters. I honestly have no idea how this will play out. I assume people who have actually run in and won elections have far, far better judgment about this kind of thing than I possibly can.

I'm interested in the VP as a governing partner and on this front Warren would be an interesting choice for either Clinton or Biden. The vice president's role is defined by the president's needs. The rise of vice presidential influence has accompanied an increased tendency to select outsider vice presidents with little Washington experience. Some of these outsiders have explicitly chosen a VP with experience they did not possess. Carter chose Mondale in part because he wanted someone familiar with Congress. Bush 43 chose Cheney in part for his national security experience. In other cases the VP's role develops
with the administration, as the VP fills deficits in the decision-making process. Reagan choose Bush because you have to have a vice president (it's in the Constitution.) But, in office, the Reagan White House had a chaotic national security process and at several points Vice President Bush filled the gap.

Overall, as experienced politicians, vice president possess a unique blend of policy and political experience that can be a unique source of counsel to the president.

The problem for a potential VP is that Biden and Clinton are insiders. Both were Senators who had an inside seat at the White House. You may not like where they are going, but you can be pretty certain they know how to drive the car. Or, building on my metaphor as the president as a realtor, you may not like the houses they are showing you but you can be confident that they know how to close the deal.

Under insider presidents, VPs do a lot of fundraising, campaigning, and funerals. The most recent insider president was Bush 41 and Quayle had limited scope for influence. (In foreign affairs, with a savvy advisor, he did take the initiative in US-Japan relations and in Latin America - primarily because Bush himself and Secretary of State James Baker weren't that interested.)

So VP Warren would not have much to add to the inner councils of a Clinton White House. Hillary knows what she wants to do and how to do it. If she seeks the unique blend of political and policy advice a VP can provide, she'd probably appeal to Bill Clinton first.

But Warren is a renowned expert on a particular very important issue - banking reform - and would be utterly credible and well-placed to oversee work in this realm. This could establish an interesting precedent for future insider candidates. Clinton or Biden wouldn't particularly need a senior advisor to help them work Washington, but a VP who could oversee a particularly critical policy area could be useful.

Flies in the Ointment
There are two problems with a Clinton-Warren ticket as governing partners. The first is that Warren has very strong feelings on her critical issues. What if Warren's reform efforts are beyond what Clinton believes are politically feasible. The ongoing challenge of giving the VP a major long-term policy portfolio is the danger that VP will have to be removed, which would be politically embarrassing. This is not simply a problem for Clinton-Warren but really for any administration.

The other problem is Warren's credentials. She is clearly smart and accomplished - that is not in question. However, she has only been in the Senate for four years (the same amount of time Barack Obama was a Senator before becoming President.) Is that sufficient experience? She has not worked on national security issues in the Senate. Clinton does not particularly need a VP with national security experience - she already has it. But for her VP pick to appear "presidential" there ought to be some on the running mate's resume.

Still, this is an interesting possibility. Generally the VP is a generalist, helping out the president wherever he (and probably soon she) can. But an insider president won't need as much help, so choosing a specialist could be an asset to an administration.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Veepstakes 2016 Part 2: Insiders, Outsiders, and Amateurs - A Metaphor

What do presidents really do? They are the chief executive, but they do not truly administer the federal government (no one can) although they can set priorities. They make big political decisions. This is not a pejorative - the root word of political is polis (city-states) - political means the affairs of the polis. They work with (wrestle) the other institutions of the government. And they communicate with the American people about what they are doing and reassure us in the face of adversity.

Let's think about it another way.

Imagine you live in NYC and want to move. NYC is an incredibly complicated place to acquire a home. Realtors have an interesting combination of tacit and explicit skills. There are specific legal and financial aspects of home-buying that a realtor must know. There are softer but still crucial skills like negotiating and the psychology of the buyers and sellers. Then there are the contacts, knowing the contractors who can actually get stuff done in a timely manner or the local officials. Then there is area knowledge about neighborhoods. Some of this will be facts and trends, but other aspects will based on feel. It is an odd combination of specific actions, hand-holding, and personal contacts. It is an interesting analogue to being a political leader.

Now, imagine that you are frustrated with NYC realtors and believe they are all in cahoots (one of my favorite words) and working for themselves playing some inside complicated baseball. So you bring a skilled realtor in from someplace else - an outsider. Or you get a smart friend to advise you - an amateur. You trust this friend's judgement, but they are not actually a realtor. These might be good decisions to make (they are similar to the decisions the American people have made in choosing their presidents for the past 40 years).

But, you would want your outsider/amateur realtor to work with an experienced New York realtor. They would still need access to reliable information about the law, the neighborhoods, and - perhaps most crucially - the contacts (the people who could help actually get stuff done). Your outsider/amatuer realtor is still in charge, they are making the decisions for you. But they will need help.

Time and again outsider presidents have found that - whatever their ambitions for "changing Washington" they need people who actually know something about the nuts and bolts of how Congress and the bureaucracy work to get things done. The vice president is one of those key people, along with the chief of staff. An important component of Reagan's early successes as president was having insider Jim Baker as chief of staff. His predecessor Carter initially did not want a chief of staff, but vice president Mondale often filled that gap helping to set priorities and manage relations with Congress. The Clinton White House floundered under the guidance of outsider chief of staff Mack McClarty (to the annoyance of insider VP Al Gore) and righted itself under insider Leon Panetta. The list goes on.

Some light food for thought. Back to punditry...

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Veepstakes 2016 Part 1 (of many): Frameworks not Names

I know what everyone wants. They want me to say who Trump and Hillary will pick as their running mate. I don't know. I can make some educated guesses, but I'd much rather discuss the framework I use for making the guesses than pretend I have any insider knowledge. I don't. And the campaigns have not chosen to consult with me - although I am available. (CALL ME!)
What the president wants from his VP (I study the tiny bit in purple)

Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist and expert on the presidency, has a good discussion of why the VP pick matters - it is a lot like what I would have written, only better and faster.

Trump has said he wants someone who can be a governing partner, which is a pretty positive thing. I did my dissertation on the VP as a governing partner and think a lot about. But I have nagging doubts. The graphic from a presentation I gave summarizes the president's priorities. 


  1. The nominee wants to be elected/re-elected. EVERYTHING else is commentary.
  2. The nominee, knowing that the running mate will be around for the next four years would prefer someone who is loyal and will not make any problems. VPs can't be fired, so a VP who fails to heed the president's wishes can be a real embarrassment and general pain. We haven't really seen that recently, but go look up the Jackson-Calhoun struggles.
  3. Given these two items, it would be great if the VP could also be useful in office.
All of the presidential candidates will say they value their running mate's advice and will make them a partner in the government. But of course they are going to say that - do you think they'll say anything else? Would they actually say:
The Constitution makes me pick someone, so it might as well be this guy. He looks pretty good in a suit, and he'll have to wear one a lot for all the funerals and rubber chicken fundraisers he's gonna have to go to!

Of course not, but does that make the candidates' insistence that the VP is qualified and will be a partner, just lip-service? Of course not, it is good politics. The research on how much a VP candidate can help electorally is murky, but a lousy un-presidential pick will hurt - especially for someone like Trump who has so many negatives and questions attached. So there is every incentive to pick someone capable and experienced. Now the VP is going to be right down the hall and coming to a lot of meetings, so they probably will become something of a partner (although presidents can always cut people out - or just ignore them.)

I really can't judge how serious Trump is about a governing partner. In the same article he said he wanted a seasoned politician he also said, “I think I’ll be absolutely great on the military and military strategy.”

But let's not kid ourselves, he's proven he's smart at politics (or at least electioneering which is a part of politics) so if saying he'll pick a pro as his running mate is good politics for him - he'll do it. And if that person is a real pro - they'll make themselves useful in office.

So what does Trump need? Someone with a good sense of Capitol Hill and DC in general, and maybe also of how the bureaucracies work - and gravitas! Sweet, sweet gravitas...

Look over the list of GOP Senators who have been there a while, but aren't much over 70. Maybe if they are from a purple state that could help (Rob Portman or Mark Kirk!) If you can think of a Dick Cheney type - someone who has held a number of high-level jobs, elected and appointed, that would work. So there's your short-list.

Later, Hillary and what Trump actually needs of a VP in office. (Hillary needs nothing from a VP in office, she already has Bill.)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Veepstakes 2016 Episode 1: Why Carly?

It is really never too early in the presidential cycle to talk Veep. Hence I've been pushing my preferred GOP VP, Ohio Senator Rob Portman. In Hillaryland, what I've heard a Senator from VA fits the bill. There is much more to say, and Veep season has started in earnest, but I've been distracted by he who shall not be named. And now, Ted Cruz - who is obviously a huge fan of HBO's VEEP - has pre-empted my plans to write an article laying out the VP basics by choosing Carly Fiorina has his running mate.

Why Carly?
Because he wants to win the election, or rather, prevent Trump from getting the nomination outright, and position himself in a contested convention.

Look, love or hate Cruz, he's a really good politician and smart guy (Princeton & Harvard - as Texas Solicitor General he argued multiple cases before the Supreme Court.) He's won a big election (Senator from Texas) and has run a pretty credible presidential campaign. So in choosing Carly Fiorina as his running mate he's calculated the odds. I'm not inclined to second-guess him on the politics.

A few factors probably include that she's a woman and a good campaigner. She might send a signal to the "establishment" (if such a thing exists) that Cruz is a sober figure who can at least talk to the party moderates. Most importantly, she creates buzz when Cruz is in big trouble. Trump's sweep last night makes it increasingly likely that he'll get the nomination outright. Anointing her is the emergency parachute cord.

Will it work? Who knows, maybe? Probably not. Even if Cruz somehow derails the Trump train (and I for one sincerely want this), the political scientist in me doubts we can really prove there was a Fiorina effect.

Anyway, the last time a GOP presidential candidate selected a woman as his running mate, it did not go well (and this odd video harks back to that unfortunate decision.)



Fiorina as Governing Partner
I don't claim to be much of a pundit and there are plenty of people making a lot more money that analyze elections. I studied what VPs do in office. Here I don't see that Fiorina brings much to the table.

Fiorina was a CEO of a big company. Her record as CEO was, um, controversial. But let's grade on a curve here and say anyone who even gets that far is pretty smart and capable. (Debatable of course, but bear with me.) So she knows something. But I have become extremely skeptical of business talent correlating with political talent. They are fundamentally different capabilities. Businesspeople make money, in politics the outputs are more complicated and the constraints are more extensive. The record of businessperson politicians is not inspiring (Herbert Hoover, Andrew Johnson, Jimmy Carter). Harry Truman, on the other hand, was a failed businessman.

Cruz is not a vastly experienced politician. He has a little time in the Senate and he presumably knows something about the law. But a fundamental paradigm of my research is that outsider presidents who are not deeply familiar with how Washington works are well served in choosing an insider VP who can help them. Cruz is an outsider, he will need help working with Congress. understanding the federal bureaucracy, and communicating with the Washington press corp. Carly Fiorina has nothing in her background that suggests she has any particular assets in this arena.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump v Cruz: That Delegate Thing - Part 2

As I wrote in my previous post, a half-hearted non-endorsement of Cruz over Trump, process matters.

We are hearing a lot about the nominations process in both parties, as Sanders and Trump both complain about a process rigged against them by arcane rules (despite the fact that there is a good case the rules are actually helping them). To this complaint, as with so many, I want to scream: READ THE FEDERALIST PAPERS!

Look, remember this commercial for Nextel about how great things would be if firefighters ran things. Bunch of people with common sense would be able to work things out. It's a pretty image, but utterly, profoundly, false. In the commercial everyone agrees we need good roads and clean water. That's awesome. In the real world there are quite limited resources and competing priorities. So how should limited resources be distributed?

Vote on it?

It is never that simple. Can 51% vote to take stuff from 49% without recourse on every issue? And that's assuming an up or down vote. What if it is more general so that there are multiple options? Could the group with the most votes get power even if they were in a minority overall? What if in a multi-party free-for all 25% elected themselves as a dictatorship even though 75% agreed they hated this 25% but couldn't unite on anything else?

That's silly, it would be yes or no on a bill. Fine, but then who writes the bills and who sets the agenda?

Democracies have procedures, rules, about how business is conducted. They have to! That's what the Constitution does, it sets out the basic procedures and operations of the U.S. government. The founding fathers (does that always have to be capitalized?) knew history and that the democracies of antiquity destroyed themselves, collapsing into mob rule. In establishing a Republic they sought to give the people a voice, but not create a government that quickly responded to every popular whim. They created a vast mechanism that filters public sentiment, giving voice to a range of interests and constituencies. And yes, this can make our system ineffective, that is by design. They felt that a more effective government would be a more dangerous government.

The decision-making structures shape the process (focusing on this is known as institutionalism in poli-sci world). Poor structural design can really hurt decision-making (exhibit 1 - Israel - see here and here).

The point here isn't that the Democratic and Republican parties have just terrific decision-making structures. I'm kind of agnostic. Rather, understanding how to operate within these structures and maximize your effectiveness.

Sort of like in baseball. Getting lots of people on base is essential to winning - it is probably the single most important component to scoring runs. But you still have to drive those runs in. If you keep leaving men on base, you will lose.

Being President means dealing with institutions with arcane rules and decision-making procedures (Congress, the bureaucracy) so if you can't master this on the campaign trail - you probably shouldn't be president.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Cruz v Trump: For the love of process - Part 1

So at this point I am a RINO. I remain registered because I live in a deep blue state and believe firmly in the two party system. The occasional GOP governor (as we enjoy now) keeps the system honest. 

My preferred GOP candidate is Kasich. His experience is is much deeper than the other candidates (this was frankly true even when there was a much wider field of candidates.) He espouses conservative values without being dogmatic and offensive - although he is not conservative enough for many in the party. The essence of politics in a republic is compromise and taking the best deal you can get. Maximalist positions will marginalized you. The GOP seems to have forgotten this which takes them on a path to defeat. Kasich could also plausibly beat Hillary - it is difficult to imagine Trump or Cruz doing so (barring some sort of Hillary scandal meltdown - which given the Clintons is not impossible.) That being said, Kasich has been painfully awkward on the campaign trail and one can see why he is not generating much enthusiasm. (And yes, his recent missteps are making it worse and worse.)

So the likelihood gives us Cruz or Trump. A fine conundrum for the party of Lincoln in the world's greatest democracy. I despise Donald Trump - I've said it before many times, no need to go into it. Cruz is hardly a compelling alternative. He is not moderate and there is something fundamentally dislikable about him and his actions do little I've wondered about this interplay between surface appearance and people's hearts before. As for his actual positions... two words: gold standard.

Cruz is a smart guy, Princeton and Harvard. One expects politicians to say all kinds of BS. (They all promise that they will get better deals from other countries or make congress get things done. Most have some ludicrous stand on some policy issue or other. Fine, that's the business they've chosen.) But the gold standard is absolute lunacy. It would up-end the international financial system in all sorts of really bad, bad ways with no upside. If Cruz really believes it, then he's pretty nutty. If he doesn't and is just saying it because it makes some constituency happy, well - is that kind of worse?

But if it has to be Trump or Cruz, well, I guess Cruz.

A democratic republic relies on rules of the road. There are actions that players within our system do not take. Presidents always push for authority against Congress (and other institutions). But usually only so far. The epitome perhaps was President Andrew Jackson responding to a Supreme Court ruling by says, "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it."

What happens in a president simply refuses to do what Congress or the Supreme Court orders. There is a lot of push and pull in this, but it is rare to blatantly disregard Constitutional authorities. Presidents that start doing this will provoke crises - that will not be fun.

My fear with Trump is that if frustrated with Congress, he will summon a mob. I don't think he can upend our system, but I don't want to watch this process. It will be ugly. Assuming Trump plays the game more carefully, what he is likely to do is make lots of noise about key issues.

Now this is part of politics. Voltaire wrote that medicine is the art of humoring the patient while nature takes its course. So is politics, that's fine. But Trump will inject more bad feeling and anger into our system.

Do I believe that Cruz is a secret insider who will turn establishment where Trump will not? Hardly, rather I think he will suck at trying to upend the system. His appeals for action will be less effective. 

But yes, he will probably show a greater tendency to play within the rules. We are less likely to have mobs formed or impeachment hearing. I think politics over the next decade is going to be plenty nasty without any of that - so I'd rather skip it.

Let me be clear - this is not a full-throated endorsement - or any kind of endorsement. I think I'd vote for Sanders before either of these guys. Seriously (even though I have huge problems with him as well.)

Update: Dana Milbank in The Washington Post makes the exact same argument I make - better of course - but still the same.