Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mannes in Politico on the Republican Future

Politico asked if Republicans need to cut their ties to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh? I answered the question, but not quite directly.
My regular fans (assuming I have any) know that I am quite taken with Steve Skowronek's schema of the presidency.
One of his observations is that dominant political orders arise when the previous order is beholden to its various constituencies and can no longer take the actions needed to govern. Reagan established a new political order when the Democrats, in great part because of their commitments to their primary constituencies, could not effectively address the nation's fundamental problems.

Now, decades later, the same is happening to the Republicans. Reagan's rhetoric of cutting taxes and shrinking government resonated when top tax rates were 70 percent and the Democratic party shaped by FDR and LBJ had a reflexive response to every social problem of enacting a giant government program.
Three decades later, with Republicans effectively shaping the national political discourse, they are trapped by the weight of their history. Reagan did thus and such, so key constituencies of the party expect to continue on that course. But those responses, so necessary in the 1980s are less salient today. Smart Republicans want more flexibility. In the 1980s Reagan articulated messages of morality and personal responsibility that many welcomed. (Important note: That Reagan articulated messages of morality is not to imply that Democrats were in any way personally immoral. Personal weakness knows no party. Rather Reagan was able to discuss these issues in a manner that reached many Americans.) Now, decades later this message has become shrill, preachy, and at times downright offensive - the American people seem to have had about enough of it and it offers little guidance to the real problems faced by the American people.
But important components of the Republican party will insist on this, their own constituencies and livelihoods depend on them - and they believe in these values. It will be hard to distance the party from their own stalwarts.
Skowronek observes that after a dominant political order collapses, the losing party slowly learns its lessons and becomes the party of flexibility and maneuver because without those attributes they will be shut out from power. In a world shaped by Reagan, Bill Clinton became a great Republican president who pushed for a major free trade treaty, balanced the budget, and initiated welfare reform. But that only happened after nearly a decade in the wilderness and a series of devastating defeats.

That is what I wrote, now a few additional thoughts. First, I don't think Obama is the transformational president, I believe he is in the category of Clinton, what Skowronek calls a pre-emotive President. The Republican order may have one last gasp. They still have control over the House and did manage to get 48% of the popular vote. But their next President will face impossible demands from his own constituencies and be, effectively a Republican Jimmy Carter. (This will be followed by an order establishing Democratic President - but I am far from ready to predict the details.)

Bigger then that is the question overshadowing Presidential studies: the man or the moment? So much of what we assert as Presidential leadership is a decision made that was incredibly constrained by political realities. Every President has a few specific programs that are "theirs.". Carter seized on the Panama Canal Treaty and Middle East Peace as the foreign policy centerpieces of his administration. But in 1981 nearly any Republican President would have cut taxes. In the 1990s, facing a hostile Congress any Democratic President would have played defense and focused on small initiatives rather then big government programs.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Christie as VP: The Fun We Missed

Rumor has it Romney’s first pick for VP was New Jersey Governor ChrisChristie.  Neat how stuff starts to come out as the election gets closer.  Reportedly, Christie didn’t show the discipline the Romney campaign likes to see – showing up late to campaign events.  One can see Christie’s electoral/political appeal.  His brashness and earthiness would have contrasted nicely with the polished and heavily scripted Romney.  A Biden-Christie debate would have been a blast!

It still probably wouldn’t have made much difference, VP choices usually don’t and Ryan was also a solid pick.  Although Ryan does look a lot like a Romney offspring...

It is interesting to think how Hurricane Sandy would have played in the campaign with Christie as vice presidential candidate.  Christie probably would have needed to drop campaigning to manage the disaster that struck his state.  Although this would have been mentioned constantly in the news so it might not have hurt the campaign’s exposure.  If he had appeared effective the storm response might have even helped the campaign.

One of the reasons the story about Christie’s almost being the VP pick came out is because Christie has praised Obama’s aid to NewJersey.  There are rumors of bad blood between Christie and Romney now.

But what if Christie were the VP candidate?  Would he have still praised the federal aid to the state – possibly appearing magnanimous, above politics, and pragmatic?  Would he have criticized it and insisted he and Romney would have done it much better?  The political analysis would have been so much fun (probably irrelevant, but fun.)

Christie as Governing Partner
Following the theme of my work on the vice presidency, I still argue that Christie would not have been a good VP choice.  First, looking at historical data the last two governors to be vice president were disasters – Rockefeller and Agnew.  The former was too big for the job; the latter was too small.  Granted this was four decades ago, but what has really changed?  Governors are captains of their own ship, within their state environment they are the 500 lb. gorilla.  They don’t have to ask someone else if they can travel, give a speech, or how to structure their time.  Given this experience, serving as someone else’s number two does not come easily.

From the President’s viewpoint a governor also is a problematic VP.  The VP slot is a chance to bring an extremely experienced advisor into the White House.  Presidents have no shortage of advisors of course – almost anyone in the world who is an expert on anything would be happy to drop whatever they are doing to brief the President.  But an experienced Senator or House member with high-level knowledge of some issues can not only bring policy background but also knowledge of the people and institutions that Presidents have to deal with - what I've called (stealing a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald) "the whole equation."  Several recent vice presidents were experienced Senators and their Presidents found their counsel on the Senate invaluable.  Some recent vice presidents have brought substantial knowledge of international affairs or military affairs.  On a key issue it isn’t just a matter of identifying the preferred policy, but how to get that policy through Congress or get the appropriate allied nations to buy in.

Chris Christie appears to be a talented politician, but there is little he could tell a President Romney about how to deal with the Senate or the leadership of NATO – he would face the same learning curve as his President and that learning curve is steep.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Should Hillary replace Joe?

There are other things to write about in the world, but when the Politico Arena asks about the vice president, I must answer the call (and enjoy the 10 days every four years that anyone actually cares about the vice president). The other day, in the wake of Biden's obnoxious comments, the Arena question of the day was about Hillary replacing Biden. A fun rumor, but it is not going to happen.

I wrote:
First, replacing the vice president is almost always a bad play.

The last president to pull it off and win re-election was FDR. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Senior (or at least some of their advisors) all toyed with doing it, but there were constituencies in the party that rallied behind the VP. The one president to actually remove his vice president and replace him in the past half-century was Gerald Ford. Replacing Rockefeller with Sen. Dole (who came off badly in the debates with Walter Mondale) probably wasn't what defeated the ticket but it certainly didn't help.

On the off-chance this could be engineered, Hillary would not be a good replacement. This is not due to any fault of her own. She has proven savvy and capable as secretary of state and her experience as an active first lady legitimately gives her insight into the unique pressure cooker that is the White House. However, she brings her husband and he is problematic baggage. Again, this is not through any fault of his own, but rather because ex-presidents need to be kept a healthy distance from the Oval Office. Bush Senior was rarely around when his son was president and Reagan stayed away from Bush Senior. These were sound precedents and should continue.

A few additional notes. First back in the nineties I was a bit of a Clinton-hater, I have come to respect the virtues (irony alert) of the Clinton Administration.  But I still think ex-Presidents need to stay off the main-stage.  That being said, nothing prepares one for the Presidency like serious time in the White House.

Biden's comments were pretty bad, and if it were a Republican probably would have far more blowback.  One of the difficult things about politics is how policy preferences and values began confused in the public debate.  Opposition to a specific policy intended to help a community or population does not mean those opposed hate that population.  It means they have legitimate questions about the efficacy of that policy or the whether that policy should be prioritized.  That is not to say that this opposition is not at times a cover for unacceptable views but one should not leap to that conclusion.  Being a Republican does not mean I don't care about the (fill in the blank here - poor, women, African-Americans.)  It means I have questions as to whether the policies Democrats prefer will help that population or whether the other costs of that policy will outweigh the benefits.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ryan as Governing Partner

So we have a VP candidate and the media have something to talk about.  The term game-changer will be used as punctuation in every comment about it.

VeepCritique will not be left out, however the focus here is on the vice president as governing partner.  So let’s dispense quickly with the politics of Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan and rush to how a Romney-Ryan team might work together.

The Politics of Picking Ryan
The impact of the vice presidential candidate is nearly always over-estimated (historic analysis is pretty consistent on this) and usually involves trade-offs.  The candidate that appeals to the unaffiliated voter will perturb the base and vice-versa.  There is no magic bullet in VP selection, the key is to do no harm and maybe get a bit of help.

This choice was over-shadowed by McCain’s unfortunate selection of Sarah Palin.  Romney wanted to avoid this at all costs and he did.  Ryan is young and telegenic (and really does look like he could be another member of the Romney brood.)  But he is not an amateur; Ryan has been in the House of Representatives for seven terms and has become the party’s leading spokesman on the budget.  One does not get that far in life merely by being cute.

Whether or not Ryan’s views will hurt or help Romney’s candidacy is tough to say.  His budget plan gives plenty of fodder for the Democrats to rally their base – just as it gives the Republicans plenty of fodder to rally theirs.  How it will impact the undecided voters is tough to say (presumably the ultra-analytical Romney team has done some pretty serious study of this question.)  But most voters don’t do in-depth studies of complex issues, they make their decisions based on general impressions.  Republicans mean less government and taxes – Democrats mean more government and taxes.  The rest is commentary.

Finally, over the next decade the budget will be THE ISSUE.  The United States is facing some pretty serious fiscal challenges – we can address them (we are the wealthiest society in history) but the sooner we do so the less difficult the adjustment.  Ideally we would have taken this stuff on in the 1990s.  One may not agree with Ryan’s plan – but at least he is in the game in a serious way.

Ryan as Governing Partner
The top determinant for the vice president’s role in an administration is whether or not the president is inclined to turn to his vice president for advice on critical decisions.  It is unknown if Ryan and Romney have this kind of relationship.  Often this friendship is forged in the heat of the campaign as the individuals and their staffs learn to work together.

One past indicator is that older Presidents do not tend to take advice from younger vice presidents.  The most influential vice presidents in recent years have been Mondale (four years younger then the President), Gore (two years younger then the President), Cheney (Cheney five years older then the President), and Biden (19 years older then the President.)  Quayle, by contrast, was 23 years younger then President Bush Sr. Another example is Eisenhower who was 23 years older then Nixon.  This is the age difference between Ryan and Romney – it is not destiny, the sample of President-Vice President relationships is extremely small.  But it could be a factor.

That being said, Ryan would almost certainly have a role in a Romney White House.  It is extremely difficult to block the vice president out of the policy process.  The West Wing office along with access to White House meetings and the President have become traditional perquisites of the vice president.  They are not enshrined in law, but it would be embarrassing to remove them.  It would be a public admission that the President did not have confidence in the Vice President.

Vice presidents strongly associated with a wing of their party are often expected to be their advocate within the White House.  They are usually disappointed.  The vice president can make the case, but ultimately the president decides and the vice president must publicly support the decision or risk alienating the commander-in-chief.  Most vice presidents have advocated forcefully for positions that were not in line with their previous political views (and which they may have privately opposed).

Vice presidents are probably at their most influential as a high-level sounding board that can compensate for a President’s analytical weaknesses.  President Carter, an engineer by training, labored over details in an effort to find perfect technical solutions.  Mondale sought to remind him of the political realities that had to be taken into consideration.  In contrast, Clinton had a fine-tuned political antenna and maneuvered according. Gore would counsel him to take stands on principle.

Whether Romney is open to having Ryan play this role is an open question.  Ryan will almost certainly play an active role as advisor, administration spokesperson, and point of contact with Congress.  Whether or not he will also be a source of influence in the administration is difficult to know, not only for outside observers, but probably for the candidates themselves.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Romney's VP Options: A Resume-based Analysis

The question of personal chemistry is unknown to outsiders. There are rumors that Romney and Pawlenty have a warm friendship, but these are rumors. All of the top choices are experienced politicians who have probably had to learn to get along with their colleagues. 
That leaves the issue of experience. The Presidency is a job like no other. Romney is a capable individual with a variety of experience, but there is little doubt that he will find very steep learning curves with many aspects of the Presidency. At a recent forum at the Brookings Institute, Ambassador Chase Untermeyer, who was an assistant to Vice President Bush and then head of Presidential Personnel in the George H. W. Bush White House, observed that Capitol Hill experience should be a pre-requisite for the vice presidency. The last two vice presidents who came from governorships to the vice presidency were Agnew and Rockefeller – both had difficult experiences in their new role. Congress is a unique institution and a new president who does not know it well himself will need counsel and will probably benefit from his VP’s personal contacts. 
In terms of Hill experience the leaders, by far, are Rep. Ryan and Sen. Portman. Both were elected to the House of Representatives seven times. But Portman was also elected to the Senate and has the additional virtues of substantial executive experience close to the White House as a staffer, OMB chief, and US Trade Representative. All of these positions are in areas where Romney may find that he needs an experienced hand to offer assistance and advice. 
On the one aspect of the VP selection process that is clear to outsiders (resume) Portman has a strong lead. But there are many other factors – including the all-important issue of personal chemistry.
It occurs to me, I did not address the question of Chris Christie.  He is a talented politician and interesting character.  But he has been governor of New Jersey for less then 3 years.  Prior to that he was US attorney for New Jersey for six years.  This is important experience, but not electoral experience.  Most importantly, Christie's background suggests little that substantially augments areas where Romney is weak - experience with Washington and international affairs.

Another candidate worth a bit more examination is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  He has a bit of Washington experience - 3 years in the House and 2 years as Asst. Secretary at HHS.  He is an extraordinarily capable politician and young enough to have multiple shots at the presidency himself.  But his Washington experience is slender and offers Romney little complementary experience.

Finally Rubio also has only two years of Washington experience, thus not bringing the right skill set to the table.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pawlenty as VP?

Today Politico asked about Tim Pawlenty as VP.  Naturally, this is bait I couldn't resist!  Here is my answer, complete with a reference to Garret Hobart:
Tim Pawlenty is, by all accounts, a capable politician and nice guy. He might help Romney electorally, although the impact of the vice presidential selection is usually over-estimated.
But Romney needs to seriously consider who will be his partner in governance and for all his virtues, Pawlenty does not have any Washington or national security experience.  Since Romney himself also doesn't have experience in these areas this is a factor to be considered.  The White House is a unique environment and under a far more intense public microscope then any governor's mansion.  A President Romney will want an experienced governing partner who can provide high-level advice.

Since 1977, vice presidents have been Senators or experienced DC-hands.  The last governors who served as vice presidents were Nelson Rockefeller (for Ford) and Spiro Agnew (for Nixon).  The last (and only) time a vice president with no DC experience played a significant policy role as a presidential advisor was Garret Hobart as McKinley's vice president from 1897 to 1900.
I remember a DC-insider telling me that Gore and Clinton were like peas in a pod, and on the surface at least the same would seem to apply to Romney-Pawlenty.  I have no information about their personal dynamics - which is critical - but as an experienced politician Pawlenty probably knows how to play nice with the other kids.  In the past 40 years, Senators have been the VP and getting along is a key skill.  Governors have been less able to adapt to the second-fiddle role of the VP.  But Pawlenty's career and behavior show little indication that he would be a loose cannon.

Just to reiterate, I have no problem whatsoever with Pawlenty, who seems like a responsible and realistic politician.  But Romney needs someone who can tell him about things with which he is unfamiliar - like the Senate.

This highlights Garret Hobart, who as McKinley's vice president played an important role.  Hobart had no national political experience, but he had been speaker of New Jersey's House and president of New Jersey's Senate.  He ingratiated himself to the US Senate and was generally praised for handling the Senate smoothly.  However, the gulf between the Senate of 1896 and the Senate of 2012 is vast.  Hobart's experience at the state level probably translated well to Washington.

But no longer, state legislatures are very different animals - for example each US Senator has a 50+ person staff, his or her own tiny bureaucracy.  Plus there are the well-staffed committees and agencies attached to Congress (like CBO, CRS, GAO etc.)  Also, foreign and military affairs are not areas where Romney is knowledgeable and Pawlenty will have little advice to share.  Minnesota does not have a CIA equivalent (as far as anyone knows) and he has not had to manage relationships with enemies and allies.

Returning to Clinton and Gore who enjoyed an excellent relationship, Gore was a Senator and well-regarded on arms control and other national security issues.  By all accounts the two men hit it off - but also, when push came to shove Gore had unique areas of expertise he could bring to the table.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On the VP in Politico & Portman's Complaint

Politico keeps asking VP questions, and like a moth to a flame, I can't resist answering. Here is my answer to the question of whether or not Biden is a PR disaster
Considering the amount politicians are required to speak, it is astounding that there aren't far more verbal missteps by politicians.
True, Biden appears more prone to these gaffes then others, but this is relative. In his 2008 debate with Palin, Biden handled himself masterfully - demonstrating that he was a seasoned, experienced figure - without appearing to bully Palin.
It is a guarantee that every candidate on both tickets will make verbal miscues. Sometimes these mistakes end up shaping a public image as in the unfortunate cases of Sen. Dole in 1976 or Quayle in 1988. Because Biden has a reputation for them, in a sense he is insulated from their fallout.
Chasing Biden this way may be a distraction when the Republicans should be making their case on the issues that will decide this election.
I've written on this before, but considering how much politicians have to speak and the extent to which they are observed it is incredible that there aren't many more gaffes. For that matter, several of Biden's mis-steps in the video in the link above are pretty minor things that could happen to anyone!
Besides, VPs are almost always used in the campaign to rally the base, which often appreciates the mis-steps, remember the Republican base loved Spiro Agnew (even though Nixon couldn't stand him.)
Portman's Complaint

As long as we are talking Veep, the Washington Post has a big article on VP potential of Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Based on resume, Portman is a great fit for Romney as governing partner. He has been a White House staffer, congressman, US Trade Representative, OMB chief, and now Senator. Romney will need someone who knows DC and Portman fits the bill. The article made him sound even better, noting that Portman played the opponent when Cheney and Bush prepped for their debates. He did a good job, studying hard and helping the candidates anticipate the other guy's tactics. Presidents don't necessarily need another strategist or policy advisor, they need someone who has a strong sense of exactly what they are dealing with and can help them deal with it. As mentioned above, a minor mistake can become media fodder for weeks and a real distraction. Another politician can help see things that a staffer or policy wonk might not.
The problem with Portman is that he is considered boring. This gets into how we grossly caricature our politicians (as discussed above). Politicians must be charming and likable to be effective at all. The ones who are described as boring might still be the most impressive people most of us would ever meet. Remember, the worst hitter in the major leagues was a star of his high school team and would lead a typical company softball team to victory after victory.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In Politico on Romney's Possible Running Mates

The Politico Arena today asked: Who should Romney tap for understudy?

Although I had many other things to do today, I couldn't resist responding. However, I suggest a few names, but only as meeting certain general qualifications - not as an endorsement or bet on the VP sweepstakes. Frankly, I don't know what choice would maximize Romney's electoral chances. Instead I talk about the characteristics Romney might seek in a VP as partner. Despite his background as scion of a prominent family, and his high recognition having spent the past six years campaigning nationally, Romney is a Washington DC outsider. Outsider Presidents (who have dominated since 1976) have often had trouble navigating the complex shoals of DC politics. State governorships are certainly challenging jobs - but they are not the Presidency. (Senators have their own problems in the White House.) Romney needs someone who can help him on that front. My answer follows:
There are two sides to the equation of vice presidential selection. The first of course is who can help the nominee win the election. The second question is who will be most helpful at governing I have little to add to the first point (not that this has ever stopped me before), but some knowledge of the second question (I am writing a PhD thesis on the Evolving National Security Role of the Vice Presidency.)

Years ago, at a computer science conference, I attended a lecture on entrepreneurship and one of the key points was that in choosing a partner, the entrepreneur should select someone that they won't mind being in trouble with for the next 5-10 years. The same advice goes for selecting the vice president. Unlike cabinet officers and White House staffers, vice presidents can't be fired. They can be ignored, but that is inefficient. The vice presidency is an excellent opportunity to bring a skilled high-level advisor into the White House.

The primary visible role of the vice president is as a messenger. This is not meant as a denigration of the vice presidency. Communicating the administration's position in public and in private to domestic and international audiences and constituencies is very important and will be a tremendous asset to the President. During the Iran hostage crisis, Vice President Mondale took on campaign tasks. Vice President Bush delivered a crucial message on human rights to El Salvador's leaders and on the Reagan administration's nuclear strategy to European publics and leaders. Vice President Gore played a critical role ensuring the passage of NAFTA by destroying Perot in a public debate and helped reassure Russia's leadership through the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.

But this is only the public role, and presumably any experienced politician should be able to fulfill this role capably.

Since the Carter administration, vice presidents have had an office in the West Wing, along with regular access to White House meetings, and the president. The vice president is thus well-positioned to be a leading advisor. While presidents have no shortage of advisors, these advisors are rarely experienced elected officials of national standing in their own right. Such an official is unlikely to take a White House staff position and when they take a cabinet position they become mired in the interests of their department. As Charles Dawes - a marginalized vice president - once observed, "Cabinet secretaries are vice presidents in charge of spending, and as such are the natural enemies of the president."

As a fellow senior elected official and decision-maker the vice president is position to provide a unique perspective to the President. With that in mind, the question becomes what kinds of skills and perspectives does Romney believe will best augment his own strengths and weaknesses?

Romney, has touted the importance of executive experience. But one area where Romney's own resume is lacking is Washington experience. Although inside-the-beltway has become a pejorative term, Washington is a unique environment that will prove challenging to a newcomer (even a president.) Jimmy Carter famously chose Walter Mondale precisely for his Washington experience. There is little to praise about the Carter presidency, but that administration's president-vice president relationship did establish a useful model. Carter, an engineer by training, sought the ideal solutions to problems without regard to the politics of the issue. Mondale attempted to act as the President's political radar and inject that perspective into the decision-making process.

Romney may look at the pool of individuals who have both executive, Washington, and electoral experience. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but a few possibilities include former Senator and current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, former OMB chief and current governor Mitch Daniels, and former OMB chief and current Sen. Rob Portman. Bobby Jindal, a governor and a former congressman also fits that description. One interesting caveat on that point is the age gap. In recent years, younger vice presidents have not been central advisors to older presidents. Nixon, while valued by Eisenhower was not a key advisor and Quayle was not a member of Bush Senior's inner circle of advisors (although he was generally believed to be a member of the outer circle of the top eight advisors.)

HBO's Veep is Completely Inaccurate

As an expert on the vice presidency I feel obligated to present my thoughts on the new HBO series Veep which premieres tomorrow night. Quite frankly, the show is profoundly inaccurate and misleading.
As a matter of full disclosure, I should note that I have not seen it yet – although I am thinking of breaking down and subscribing to HBO just so I can watch it (also, I really love the star – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I am a Seinfeld dork of the first order). And anyway, for a pundit offering an opinion without the slightest familiarity with the subject is not a problem.
By all accounts, the show is about a neurotic vice president who constantly gaffes, desperately seeks power and attention, and is utterly peripheral to the president. Fair enough (and I don’t doubt the show is a terrific character study and entertainment), but not realistic (at least not since Mondale.)
When Carter selected Mondale as his running mate, he asked Mondale what he would need to be an effective partner in governance. Mondale gave a list, including complete access to White House meetings and paper trail, regular private meetings with the President, and an office in the White House. Carter gave him all of these things. Vice Presidents since have also possessed these perquisites. They are not mandated, a President certainly can take them away. – but doing so would effectively make the President look kind of stupid. After all, in picking the VP the President effectively says that they would vote for this person to be President. To then never talk to the VP, keep them out of the White House etc. would raise questions about the initial decision. In short, it would be political prudent to keep the VP close and at least keep the appearance of their engagement rather then exiling them.

Further, Presidents have actually chosen their running mates fairly well. From Mondale on the VPs have been individuals of substantial capability and distinction (three Senators, and two former cabinet officers.) I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but while Quayle is generally regarded as the weakest of the batch he was not that bad. He performed poorly on TV, but he had been in the Senate for 8 years, winning a tough race to get the seat, and was well regarded by other Senators. Also, he was not a close advisor to Bush but he was not frozen out of the process. He kept all of Mondale’s perks.
The image of the inconsequential bumbling VP, limited to ceremonial tasks, ignored by all harks back to Throttlebottom. Interestingly, on the show’s mock VP website it says that Vice President Selina Meyer had been the Senator from Maryland (sidenote that Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ Elaine character was also from Maryland). In fact the only Maryland VP was Spiro Agnew who was very much the VP in that mold (Nixon despised him but found, found him politically useful, and had staffers sit on top of him to keep him in bounds.) But since then, VPs have been solid pros that have worked hard to serve their Presidents and generally done so successfully. It is tough to believe that an experienced Senator would prove so inept on the national stage (also, VPs have a sizable staff which should be capable of managing things pretty well.)
Palin Exception
But what if we had had a VP Palin, who became a real problem for the President? In a sense that is what the show is about?
Again, I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but Palin was in over her head and based on her relationship with the McCain campaign she would have become a political problem for the administration. At the same time, in fairness, she had undeniable talent. She had real achievements as governor of Alaska and even get elected to the position isn’t exactly chopped liver (what have you been elected to lately?)
But kicking her out of the West Wing and formally boxing her out of policy would have led to some nasty leaks and exacted a high political cost. McCain would have had to be creative figuring ways to muzzle her without it coming out in public – too much. But I think that would have been a much darker show the HBO’s creation.
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In Politico's Arena on the Romney Machine

Politico’s Arena asked:
Mitt Romney has won the Illinois primary by a considerable margin, the Associated Press projects. Does this win make the path to the Republican nomination any clearer? And does it provide a more obvious signal for either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich to exit the race?

I answered
The delegate math has long been in Romney's favor and the Illinois victory shrinks the possibilities for the other candidates from very difficult to nearly impossible.
Santorum has an interesting challenge. He has proved an able campaigner, if a polarizing figure. The Republican party traditionally nominates the runner-up from the previous contest (the next guy in line). Does Santorum seek to to set himself up for 2016 (Gingrich will be 73 then, making a serious run unlikely)? If so, Santorum needs to show his strengths as a campaigner, but not to hang on so long that he damages GOP prospects in the fall.
A few follow-up points – Santorum is only in his mid-fifties. He can wait till 2016, playing the game Romney played by lining up party elders and building his credentials where he is weak and burnishing his image. His problem is if Romney wins, then he must wait at least eight years (maybe longer if Romney chooses an able vice president and natural successor.) While anything is possible – as Santorum’s performance in the Republican primaries and emergence as a major candidate demonstrates – it is tough to see how ex-Senator Santorum can remain in the public eye for almost a decade.

This raises another interesting question that is close to my heart – could Santorum be the VP? (It is never to early to start speculating.) Santorum would provide Romney ideological balance, but not geographic balance (although Pennsylvania is an important swing state.) Santorum also had DC experience. Although Romney is running as a technocrat, he has not actually held a DC office. Technocrat types do not have terrific records as President (Carter and Hoover come to mind – although Customs House director Chester Allen Arthur proved to be surprisingly capable.) Romney, with his MBA background would want a capable VP to advise him on the ways of Washington. However, Santorum is not exactly a grand old man of the Senate like Biden, so Romney might seek a deeper resume.

Of course the most important factor is could Santorum help Romney win the election? This is an open question. Santorum has proved to be a compelling campaigner who speaks eloquently on a number of issues. Santorum would also shore up the base. But on the other side of the ledger, the base despises Obama and would go for Romney regardless. And Santorum turns off lots of moderate voters. Romney will have to do a very hard careful calculation of costs and benefits. This kind of analysis is an area where Romney excels.

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Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission Case Study & Retrospective

My case study on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (here are the slides for a quick overview) has finally been published in full by the Project for National Security Reform. It is in the second volume of PNSR case studies, which contains a number of other interesting case studies besides mine on topics as various as Eisenhower era policy-making in the Middle East, managing the Asian financial crisis, and the failed attempt to assassinate Ayatollah Fadlallah. In particular, I recommend Chapter 9 on U.S. Interagency Efforts to Combat International Terrorism through Foreign Capacity Building Program by my old CTBlog colleague Michael Kraft and Celina Realuyo. Capacity building is very expensive, hard to do, and takes a long time – but when it works it really does leave a nation with stronger institutions that will serve it will in areas far beyond counter-terror. Regardless, the price is right, this 1000+ volume can be downloaded for free.

Lessons Learned in Retrospect
I’ve learned a few things since I wrote on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. Not more details about how policies were made and implemented, but bigger picture issues.

Humility in Evaluating Decision-makers
First and foremost I went into this project prepared to excoriate Gore and Clinton for blowing it with Russia. If only they had adequately championed economic and political freedom we could have seen a Russia transformed. Having researched the issue, I know see that they played the hand that they were dealt about as well as could have been expected. There were many policies that had to be balanced and they made tough calls in balancing them. For example, the administration as unwilling to take Russia to the mat over its dealings with Iran because for all of his flaws Yeltsin really was seen as a least bad option and there were a number of other security issues on which Russia was cooperative.

This understanding has informed my research since and is shaping my attitude towards studying policy-making. Leaders usually have pretty good reasons for what they have done and are constrained by circumstances external and prior to their own efforts. In my research I am agnostic about the policy itself, and instead am focused on how it came to be.

The American Transformation Chimera
My initial criticism was off base. The idea of transforming Russia into a free market liberal ally was in fact the very ambition of Clinton and Gore. Clinton called Russia the “California of international politics.” There is something very American about this ambition – the following administration took a stab at it (at much greater expense) in Iraq. My favorite novelist Robertson Davies has observed that the United States is the most extraverted power in the world and (while he grants it has many virtues) suffers from the extraverted desire to re-shape the world to its liking. In short, culture matters. The Russia transformation experiment was far, far cheaper then the Iraq endeavor but in retrospect it looked awfully unlikely to succeed.

Unfortunately (as an extraverted American maybe) I cannot quite give up the transformation ideal. Re-shaping the world in the American image is not appropriate. But simply ignoring truly vicious regimes such as that of Iraq or what has prevailed in Russia for most of the 20th century does not seem moral. Davies is a Canadian (he argues that Canada and Russia are two terribly introverted powers), but the truth is that for all of Canada’s complaints about US influence – in fact the United States has not significantly sought to re-shape Canada.

Let’s step back – I am arguing IR with a dead Canadian novelist, that’s a bit ridiculous except that I love his writing so much. The point here is that wholesale re-shaping other nations either with a scalpel (as in Russia in the 1990s) or with a hammer (as in Iraq in the past decade) does not appear to be possible.

But there is an objective measure of good governance that needs to be observed. Unfortunately, finding ways to move nations (like my current obsession – Pakistan) along those lines remains a tremendous challenge. More modest and subtle tools are needed.

Financial Angles
Finally, when I wrote this case study I was essentially ignorant of international economics. I have since taken a class on the topic so my ignorance has only been ameliorated by the distinct knowledge of just how ignorant I am (the first step to wisdom?) But the physics of money mattered a great deal to Russia in the 1990s (actually it matters a lot all the time) and shaped the other issues.

As I wrote, many Russians saw the United States allied with corrupt oligarchs as part of a plan to keep Russia weak and impoverished. Some of this reflects on the paranoid mindset of many Russians. American observers viewed it as another deal with the devil to buy short-term stability. BUT – while there certainly was corruption in Russia in the 1990s – there was also a tough economic reality. Russia did not have a functional banking system, so anyone who had access to assets with any value had every incentive to get their money out of Russia. This was not good for the ruble. Unfortunately, it may have been pretty good for the US economy. Russia’s economy dollarizing kept demand for the dollar high and as a consequence, US interest rates could remain low. At the same time, Russia’s economic free-fall kept their energy demands low so that there was more to export on the international market – cheap energy prices are great for the US economy. I truly doubt that Clinton, Gore et al had a devious plan here (and the US economy probably would have prospered in the 1990s regardless because of many other factors). But for a weak paranoid Russia, one can see how this interpretation took hold.

Again, no conspiracy is suspected, but it is possible Gore did not play a consistently helpful role on economic policy. In 1993 Gore criticized the economic reforms for hurting the Russian people. This was echoed a few days later by the State Department’s Russia point-person Strobe Talbot who said the Russians needed “less shock and more therapy…” Treasury felt undermined by this comment. Of course, in fairness, Russia banking sector might have been beyond reform. But this incident may have effectively placed political concerns above economic ones on Russia policy.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Research at the Nixon and Reagan Libraries

For Presidents Day, I contributed a post to The Text Message, a blog of the National Archives, about my recent experience doing archival research. The original post is here.

As a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy I am researching the vice presidential role in national security affairs. While the vast majority of vice presidents played only a tiny role, this has changed dramatically in recent years. My particular area of interest is vice presidential influence – how and when does the vice president get to make policy? The relationship between the president and vice president is essential, as the vice president has no real independent authority.

On a recent family trip to LA, I thought it would be worthwhile to visit the archives at the Nixon and Reagan libraries.

Using the Archives
I know a great deal about vice presidents, but having never done archival research before, I put in calls to chat with the archivists and learn a little bit about what I was getting into. They were extremely helpful. There are extensive descriptions of the archival holdings online and the archivists urged me to identify what I was interested in, so that they could pull the boxes and have them waiting for me.

Picking what I wanted at the Nixon library was pretty easy. The vast majority of Nixon’s records are about his presidency. But I was interested in the Nixon vice presidency, so I identified a relatively small number of boxes relevant to my research.

The Reagan archives was a bit more of a challenge. Reagan was never the vice president and there were only a few boxes referring to his vice president George H. W. Bush. Fortunately – this is all still over the phone – Jennifer Mandel, my contact at the Reagan Library, came to my rescue.

First, she explained that if I wanted to see documents about Bush, I needed to visit his library. Then she gave me a short course on the nature of archival research. In essence, a researcher needs to come in with some fairly specific ideas of what they seek – otherwise they will simply wade through endless masses of paper. Since I am looking for instances in which vice presidents persuaded presidents to adopt policies, I needed to have a pretty good idea of what policies I was interested in and then start looking for the paper trail.

She was not discouraging me, only explaining the practicalities of my endeavor. It is further complicated because a great deal of modern interactions between the president and vice president are informal and not on paper.

However, I had previously written a paper about a working group on terrorism led by Vice President Bush (and studying terrorism is my day job, so I had an additional interest.) So we agreed that should be my focus.

A week later, at the archives, I settled down to actually do my research. It is most helpful to the archivists if the researcher has already submitted requests for particular boxes – but they will do their best to pull them in a timely manner. Facilitating public access to the documents is the critical mission for the archivists, and from what I saw they take it very seriously.

There was a form to fill out – no big deal – and some basic explanations. The archivist monitoring the research room must be able to see the researcher’s hands (documents have been tampered with and pilfered.) Also, documents should be handled carefully. In particular, the archivists need to do any staple removals. There are copy machines available, but through the miracle of technology, a celphone camera can serve as a scanner! There are plenty of smartphone apps that facilitate this – but a camera with just a few mega-pixels will provide a decent image.

Nixon as VP
At the Nixon Library, much of the correspondence was work-a-day material focusing on vice presidential appearances. Nixon is an interesting case, he played a more active role then previous vice presidents, serving as campaigner-in-chief so that Eisenhower could appear to be above the political fray. But this activity did not necessarily translate to influence for Nixon. Recent vice presidents have had offices in the White House. Nixon did not. Many letters from Eisenhower were requests for meetings. In more recent years, if the president wished to meet his vice president, he could just send an aide down the hall. But, at the same time, Nixon was not excluded from the process. He was a regular attendee at Cabinet and National Security Council meetings. In fact, during periods of illness, Eisenhower instructed Nixon to hold and chair these meetings in the President’s absence in order to reduce concerns about Eisenhower’s health and its impact on the functioning of the government.
There were also a number of letters in which Eisenhower warmly thanks Nixon for his efforts and contributions.
Still, it isn’t clear if this meant that Nixon had much influence. This particular memo seemed intriguing. I don’t know the back-story, but it looks like the kind of note a boss sends when he wants an issue dropped.
The picture that appears of Nixon’s vice presidency is that while he took on whatever tasks he was given ably, he was perhaps not in Eisenhower’s inner council of advisors.

VP Bush Combatting Terrorism
In contrast the documents for the George H. W. Bush Vice President’s Task Force on Combatting Terrorism were voluminous and making sense of them is a real challenge. Still, there are interesting places where the internal bureaucratic machinations are exposed. One of the purposes of the Task Force was to help get the various government agencies concerned with terrorism working together. The hand-written notes attached to copies or on copies of the report give a real sense as to how that process worked.
Presidential Libraries
While visiting the archives, I had the added pleasure of at least a little time at the Presidential Libraries. They are both lovely. One of the highlights of the Reagan Library is Air Force One.
Reagan’s library is also located high in the hills overlooking Simi Valley. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
I was told that the sunsets there are spectacular, but I couldn’t stay. However, when I stepped outside of the Nixon Library the sun was setting. I stood for a time and contemplated the great question of Presidential studies: Is it the man, or is it the moment, or is it perhaps a bit of each?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Biden on OBL Raid: Influence Denied?

In advising against the raid that successfully nabbed OBL, Biden may have given me a perfect case study of vice presidential influence. Or maybe not...

It is true that Biden advised against the raid and that the President did not take his advice and gave the “go” order. Some pundits have used this as an opportunity to argue (remind?) that Biden is always wrong. It isn’t clear if this interpretation is fair.

Reportedly, except for then DCI Panetta (who was strongly for) all of the other advisors were “51-49” on whether or not to do it. There were huge risks and huge benefits. Biden sees himself as a devil’s advocate or in-house truth teller who doesn’t have to curry favor. So he called it as he saw it. Reportedly Biden said, “We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.”

Those two things are not known – but the specificity of the advice suggests that Biden was trying to be useful. The fact that ultimately his advice was not taken, doesn’t mean he did not play a valuable role in the President’s decision-making process.

It is also worth noting, that the raid could easily have gone bad. If that had been the case, then Biden would have looked like a genius. But as a good vice president he would have had to keep quiet about it.

With Biden and Cheney the US has had two straight VPs who did not harbor presidential ambitions. Previous VPs did seek the presidency. While they were careful not to show any policy divisions between themselves and the president – they would also not have done what Biden just did. Biden admitted to being wrong and at odds with the President, but in a way that built up the President.

Just as Biden ran the opposition play in the Afghanistan strategy review – not necessarily to succeed but to ensure the pro-surge crowd didn’t run the table – Biden is making an interesting use of his role and his freedom from a political future.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wordling My Prospectus

In my endless quest to generate content here, without actually writing anything, here is a the Wordle for my prospectus. I could just post my prospectus... but no.
Wordle allows you to take words out. So I removed the words "vice" and every form of "president" (including "presidential" and "presidency") since seeing those words show up a lot does not reveal much.