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.)