Monday, September 19, 2016

Mike Pence & the Cheney Model

Trump running-mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, stated that his model for the vice presidency is the Cheney model. There are many possible ways to interpret this statement.

The initial take is that it is ham-handed, since there are not tons of Cheney fans around (although the Cheney haters weren't going to be voting Trump anyway). But maybe, it is a secret message that really Pence would be running things.

That is also unlikely. Probably Pence is simply saying he would be an active and engaged vice president, like Cheney. Of course for a Vice President Pence to exercise any influence, Trump would have to listen to him. It is not clear if Trump listens to anyone.

For all of its political freight, the Cheney model is overstated. Cheney was a difference in degree not kind from his predecessor. He had a larger national security staff than Gore, but at the expense of his domestic policy and political staff. Cheney sat in on lots of meetings that VPs had not previously sat in on. But no specific case where he pushed a policy the president did not care for has emerged.

Perhaps that is the most significant point. Cheney did the president's bidding. He aired his thoughts, but there are innumerable instances of President Bush rejecting Cheney's preferred position.

Finally, Cheney was also, by all accounts, incredibly deferential to the president.

Decades earlier Cheney had been chief of staff to President Ford. In an odd way, Cheney was a sort of super-chief of staff to President Bush. Involved in everything, enforcing the president's will, sharing political and policy intelligence.

In that sense, because Trump will bring  a depth of inexperience unknown in the modern presidency, the Cheney model might be dead on for a VP Pence. He will need to get involved in everything, as the President will bobble the ball on issue after issue.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Robertson Davies... on Trump?

So I haven't written about Trump much. I swore off and am glad I did. It is bad for the soul. I am not exaggerating when I write that. When I turn to Robertson Davies (my favorite novelist!) it is for matters of the heart and the soul. He writes, as do most novelists I guess, about feeling. He does so unashamedly and unabashedly. You'll see what I mean.

So Trump is sounding off on foreign policy. There is really no point in discussing his comments. He promises to destroy ISIS with a secret plan. There are no secret plans. Destroying ISIS is a matter of resources and commitments. We could apply more resources, but the President has chosen not to. He has sound reasons for this although there are also arguments for applying greater resources. It is not an easy or obvious call. The American people are not screaming for a huge commitment of forces to the Middle East (been there, done that.) Destroying ISIS quickly would require aligning with various forces in the Middle East that um... do not have our best interests at heart. There is no secret plan. PERIOD!

It is mull Trump's policy pronouncements. Doing so elides the simple reality that, as Daniel Drezner so aptly puts it, "the Republican party willingly chose an ignorant bigot as its nominee."

Robertson Davies, as my regular readers (both of them - HI MOM, it's called a blog, not a computer circular...) surely
know, was a Canadian novelist and essayist. I have no idea if he knew of Trump. He died in 1995 and while alive was an inveterate newspaper reader, so perhaps he did. But he knew what Trump was about.

Davies was interested in money and the very wealthy. He did not hate them. He saw the ability to make money as a particular talent that did not necessarily imply the possession of other forms of intelligence. (His own father was born poor but became wealthy, possessing that talent.) Davies was interested in what people with great wealth did with it - he saw it as an expression of the soul.

Davies greatest work, The Deptford Trilogy, centered around the extraordinarily wealthy self-made Boy Staunton. Each book is the story of someone who's life was shaped by their contact with Staunton. I don't want to say too much. A fundamental theme of Davies is that each thing contains its opposite. Wealthy, worldly and handsome Staunton was at his core hollow and thus never fulfilled by his worldly success. This was his destruction.

 I am not the only one to have seen that - Garrison Keiller's brutal column says the same, imagining Trump's inner voice saying: when this is over, I will have nothing that I want.

Boy Staunton was prefigured by Rex Mottram, a wealthy, status-seeking Canadian, in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Mottram's estranged wife describes him thus:
He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed: something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole.
(Here again, I am not original, the much wiser George Weigel notes that Trump is Mottram come to life.)

But here is something, creepier and darker perhaps. Trump was famously an acolyte of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. Davies reviewed Peale's classic, The Power of Positive Thinking and found it repulsive. He describes Peale as debauching the English language, but more than style Davies was horrified by Peale's message of prayer as a technique, an instrumental tool to worldly success.

Get God on your side and success is yours. God is not the rewarder of virtue, but the Genie in the Bottle, who comes when you utter the magic formula. We must deny this is religion in any high sense.
Perhaps we may deny that it is religion at all. Mystics have often warned against powers which may be set at work by means of prayer and which are not related to God, but rather to the Devil. To speak of the Devil in our time is to invite mockery; he is not in fashion. Therefore let us say that there are powers which may be called to one's aid which are not the powers of the highest good, and that these powers can be cajoled or bullied into giving us our own way. 
Those regular readers of mine know I've been thinking a bit about magic. While in Ireland I heard tell of St. Patrick's duel with a Dark Druid. I have had a great desire to understand these things in modern terms - make them greater by making them real. I could easily imagine Trump as a sort of Dark Druid, with his words summoning forces he does not fully understand, building an all-encompassing self concealing a tiny soul.

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.