Friday, October 5, 2018

Fun History Lesson: Impeachment, the Supreme Court, and the Balance of Powers

Since everyone is talking about impeaching Supreme Court Justices, let me tell you a story about how Aaron Burr saved America.

In general Burr appears as a blackguard and scoundrel. And some of it is true (he did shoot Hamilton - but maybe it was an accident, who knows.) Burr's correspondence was lost, so there's a lot we don't know about him.

Aaron Burr: Scoundrel, hero, or both?
As VP, Burr presided over the Senate, which tries the impeached. In March 1803 the House impeached Judge Pickering, a federal district judge. Pickering was senile and needed to be removed. Burr conducted the Senate's proceedings admirably.Thomas Jefferson was intrigued by the possibilities. He had routed the Federalists in 1800 so the only real opposition was the Federalist dominated judiciary, and particularly his distant cousin Chief Justice John Marshall.

Jefferson did not care for or trust Burr, but he mentioned the possibility of impeaching Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. There have been a fair number of federal judges impeached, but it was always linked to criminal activity. Removing Chase would have been a purely political move. On March 26, 1804 the House voted to impeach. On July 11, 1804 Burr shot Hamilton. Charged with crimes in New Jersey and New York, Burr fled to DC - where dueling was not illegal - and resumed his duties as Vice President.

In early 1805, the Senate began its trial of Chase. Burr, by all accounts, presided in a fair, even-handed, and decorous manner. Chase was acquitted, by large margins on all charges on March 1, 1805. The failure to impeach Chase played a critical role in establishing an independent judiciary.

Did Aaron Burr do this for the good of the nation? Or did he do it to get Jefferson, who had dropped him from the ticket in 1804. Who knows? He did the right thing at a crucial early moment in our nation's history.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Reckoning & Revelation in the 2020s Director's Cut I: The Ex-Presidents

As my regular readers (hi mom!) know, I am pretty convinced the 2020s are going to be huge, a real political earthquake. I'm pitching papers to conferences to force myself to write this up. In less than two weeks I'll be presenting one paper at the American Political Science Association. In November at ISSS-IS on the national security/foreign affairs implications. I have further papers planned on political violence in the United States (unfortunately there will probably be some) and technology policy. If each of these papers is five to ten thousand words, I'll have the better part of a book in no time.

But I have stray thoughts related to my core thesis, probably not worth a book, but that I cannot just let alone. So this is the first installment of the director's cut.

The President's Club is a fun, interesting book that describes the relationships between the present and former presidents. During my dissertation it had some neat details about vice presidents, but it was also about relationships between top politicians, which was certainly relevant to my dissertation. Occupants of the White House found their predecessors useful as sources of advice, political cover, and as emissaries. Of course there was usually something problematic in the relationship as well. Immediate past presidents wo

uld tend to move to the background and let their successors make their own way. (If there was an electoral defeat, that often left some lingering hostility - although Carter and Ford and Clinton and Bush 41 all overcame this to become good friends.) Nixon, clawing his way back to respectability, was happy to help his successors and he was very capable. But of course, he was Nixon, a close association was not always smart politics. Carter tended to do his own thing, when he was good (as head of election monitoring in Panama in 1989) he was very good. And when he was bad (negotiating with North Korea in 1994), he was real pain in the ass.

Probably the ideal relationship was Truman-Hoover. FDR of course wanted nothing to do with Hoover, who was political poison. But when Truman took office in 1945, time had passed. Most importantly, Truman needed Hoover's organizational skills to oversee post-war relief efforts in Europe (Hoover had become famous overseeing relief efforts after WW1). Hoover welcomed the opportunity to serve and he and Truman became friends.

Come the 2020s
So what does this have to do with the 2020s? If, as I expect and predict, a Democrat wins big in 2020, they will have two energetic, capable, and generally popular Democratic predecessors to help them. With a big electoral victory, the next will hardly feel in the shadow of Obama or Clinton and thus feel freer to work with them. There is no significant personal or political baggage to deep collaboration. Clinton will be an energetic 75 and Obama will only be 60. They will both have lots to contribute. Further, the current president guts and filets the Republican party, Bush 43 (who personally likes Clinton and Obama) may be willing to play a role. He could be an extremely valuable emissary to traditional GOP constituencies who choose to adapt to the new era.

The traditional roles of the ex-President have been relatively low-key, but extremely useful. The ex-Presidency however is now increasingly institutionalized. Ex-Presidents sit on top of a personal network of think tanks, foundations, and communications operations. An ex-president is more than just a prominent person who can go out on the campaign trail or meet a foreign leader (although that will remain important.) They are now in a position to generate deep policy analysis, mobilize public interest, and support causes and efforts.

(Carter and Bush 41 will of course be very old, and their public activity will probably decline - but you never know!)

Basically an popular and allied ex-president is a huge force-multiplier for a sitting president.

And the VP?
My take would be incomplete without mentioning the vice president. Two notes, one is that under Clinton, VP Gore was the key interlocutor with President Carter (with whom Clinton had a strained relationship.) This might be an excellent emerging role for the vice president, managing relations with the former presidents. You cannot pawn an ex-president off on a staffer - it just is not appropriate. But the vice president has sufficient standing and the ex-president will understand.

But what about the still very active VPs on the national scene? Increasingly the ex-VP is also acquiring institutional trappings and in many cases they are generally well regarded. Could a president give the former VPs a "seat at the table" at the President's Club? Gore could certainly be seen as an honorary member, and why not Biden? (Cheney will probably not find himself in accord with the Democratic president of the 2020s).

More force multipliers...

Social Media
There are libraries about who social media has changed everything. The long and short is that it enables many-to-many communications. The interactive nature creates a much more engaging experience and a stronger relationship. FDR let Americans into the White House with his fireside chats. An effective social media endeavor can create a feeling of personal connection.

At campaign events, Clinton would work the rope line furiously, knowing that every hand he shook would be converted to him - forever! With social media, politicians can now do that - at scale!

The current president has used social media in new ways, but not necessarily strategically. But imagine the president along with several former presidents and vice presidents, backed by some serious analytics, reaching out to influencers at various micro and macro levels all over the globe.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

July 4th Special Post - The Reckoning: American Politics in the 2020s

I have hinted that I am at work on a secret project. But, secret no more. This idea about what is going on in U.S. politics was accepted to the American Political Science Association conference and I need to start writing. With all the political ferment, on this day, in which we re-affirm our great national creed, I thought sharing was timely.

The current upheaval in American politics is generally interpreted through the lens of personalities and headlines, but it is actually the manifestation of two deep historical cycles that have shaped American history since the nation’s founding. The coming decade will probably bring both a president with an expansive public warrant to remake political institutions combined with a broad public sentiment to reform institutions to better reflect American ideals. Understanding how these independent cycles interact will be critical to grasping the huge changes the United States will face in the coming decade.

The Cycles Meet
Stephen Skowronek’s ThePolitics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush and later in Presidential Leadership inPolitical Time: Reprise and Reappraisal and Samuel Huntington’s American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony each propose cycles in which American political institutions come under severe pressure. These cycles, which are independent of one another, have critical points in which vast institutional changes occur. These dynamic periods of change are converging in today’s America.  The last time that the two cycles met in this fashion was during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. In looking back to Jacksonian America, we can, perhaps, look forward as well.

Top-Down: Presidential Time
Skowronek’s framework of “Presidential Time” argues that the effectiveness of the president relies on the president’s warrant to make changes. The warrant for change is defined by the strength of the dominant political regime and the president’s links to this regime. Skowronek defines four types of presidencies. Periods of disjunction occur when the president is beholden to a weak dominant political regime. These presidents, such as Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, seek to reorient their party to face new national challenges, but are unable to obtain the needed warrant from their supporters who remain committed to policies that served the party well in the past. These periods are followed by periods of reconstruction in which the president, not beholden to the weakened and no longer dominant party, is free to repudiate the existing political order and establish a new political one. These presidents include Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan. There are also presidencies of articulation in which the party is strong and the president is expected to follow through on the promises of the regime founder. Kennedy and Johnson, for example, were charged with building on FDR’s achievements, as the Bushes sought for complete the Reagan Revolution. Finally there are the politics of pre-emption when the non-dominant party elects a president, who co-opts the policies of the dominant party. Recent examples include Nixon, Clinton, and Obama.

In many ways the present administration is unique, but Skowronek himself has described President Trump as being a disjunctive president, trapped between the demands of the party stalwart and the needs of the present. One of the notable characteristics of a disjunctive presidency, which Trump continues, is that the party often elects a president with only a nominal affiliation with the party establishment. Trump was elected to chart a new course and break from party orthodoxy, but has increasingly become beholden to it. When the president sought to make good on his central promise to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act and replace it with something better, he was stymied by an inability to satisfy party hardliners who adhered to small government orthodoxy and more centrist members of the party who recognized the need to improve upon rather than eliminate the popular program. The president’s primary legislative achievement is a tax cut that, while strongly aligned with party ideology, is generally unpopular with the public and undercuts any claim to being a different type of Republican. 

What is most notable about the politics of disjunction however is that they are followed by the politics of reconstruction, in which the next administration has a vast warrant to repudiate the last president and establish new institutions and pursue new policies. Just like the Reagan Revolution and the New Deal before that, policy entrepreneurs with ideas congruent with the repudiating the last administration may find enormous scope to enact new responses under the administration of a president with a vast public warrant.

Bottom-Up: Creedal Passion
Skowronek’s framework can be understood as a top-down explanation of institutional change in which the president remakes institutions that no longer adequately respond to pressing political problems. Huntington’s framework, in contrast, is a bottom-up explanation of institutional change, as the American people demand changes that bring the nation’s institutions in accord with the central ideals of the American Creed. Huntington argues that the United States is shaped, not by a national identity, but by a Creed that consists of a range of shared values including commitments to equality, liberty, and individualism. The United States cannot live up to its ideals – no nation could, both because of their ambition and because of internal contradictions. Americans address this cognitive dissonance through a number of strategies, passing through periods of cynicism, complacency, and hypocrisy about their ideals. Every 60-70 years the United States enters a period of Creedal Passion, gripped by moralism in which there is vast public sentiment to remake the United States in line with these ideals. These periods, such as the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century, and the Sixties and Seventies, are characterized by enormous political, social, and cultural change.

These periods of creedal passion share a number of characteristics, including a broad questioning of authority and hierarchy, exposure of and moral indignation at social injustice, leveling concentrations of wealth and power, and flourishing of new communications media. Huntington predicted that the second and third decades of the 21st century would be a period of Creedal passion. The well-documented decline in public trust of traditional sources of authority and the massive public activism (on all points of the political spectrum from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter) characterized by moral indignation are strong indications that we are in the midst of a period of Creedal Passion.

The contrast between the two Roosevelt presidencies illustrates the differences between the two cycles. Theodore Roosevelt, while undoubtedly a vigorous individual, was not a president who established a new political order. He built on and expanded the existing one. The Creedal Passion of the Progressive Era, with its outrage against high levels of poverty and the increasing concentration of wealth and power, was the engine driving the tremendous works of his administration. Franklin Roosevelt, in contrast, was able to reshape the relationship between the U.S. government and the American people, not because of a sui generis outrage, but because of a massive economic crisis, which existing political arrangements were not able to address. Skowronek’s new political orders occur when the old order is no longer able to address the challenges facing the nation and a new president is given a vast warrant to re-shape institutions. Huntington’s periods of creedal passion occur, not necessarily due to a secular political crisis, but rather to an increased awareness of long-standing injustices that are not in accord with American values.

The Age of Jackson
While both of these frameworks are independently robust, little work has been done to examine how they interact with one another. To understand the effect of these cycles in tandem it is critical to study the one previous period in American history when the institution reforming parts of cycles met, under Andrew Jackson. Although little considered now (Jackson is primarily remembered for his enormous cruelties to Native Americans), the Jacksonian erawas a period of tremendous social, political, and cultural change. Jackson, using the expansive warrant for change granted by the American people, established the presidency as the tribunal of the people and destroyed concentrations of power such as the Bank of the United States and the patrician class that had previously dominated the presidency. During Jackson’s presidency public sentiment also re-shaped politics and culture. Organized political parties were established. A powerful militant abolitionist movement emerged.  Transcendentalism, a new and uniquely American, school of thought flowered. Many of these reforms and changes occurred, not because of any particular action on the part of Jackson and his administration (as a slaveholder, he was not a supporter of abolition).
The past is an imperfect guide to the present or future. But reviewing the previous eras of presidents practicing the politics of reconstruction and periods of Creedal passion may give perspective on the coming decade. Examining Jackson’s America, when these two cycles dove-tailed may provide particular insight into how public outrage at the gap between American ideals and institutions will manifest itself and what concentrations of power will be subject to limitations and government action, and finally what new institutions may emerge.

The Cycles Meet
The public policy implications of the dynamic segments of the Skowronek and Huntington cycles meeting are profound. There will be vast opportunities not only to implement new policies, but also to eliminate old policies and the institutions that drive them. This analysis will provide insight into the types of policies that are likely to be enacted or repudiated by a powerful president establishing a new political order in a period of Creedal passion as well as to the types of issues that will resonate with a public desirous of remaking the United States.

Reform will have its limits. One of the characteristics of the American Creed is a distrust of complex institutions. It is impossible, however, to have a modern society without such institutions. Deploying the president’s power to destroy and create institutions in a manner that balances the public’s demand for greater transparency and reduced concentrations of power with the practical needs of a modern society will be an epic quest to navigate Scylla and Charybdis. This will require understanding the deep currents of American politics in order to tack wisely.

Even in periods of vast social and political change, politics remains the art of the possible. This work is not intended as a roadmap for a new policy. Rather it is a travelers guide to the coming decade and its complex political and social terrain.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Lobbying Pence: On the VP's Role in Trump White House

What a great Father's Day gift, some reports on the doings of Vice President Pence!

This White House leaks, that is an understatement. This White House gushes. Yet, monitoring reports on the internecine warfare of the West Wing, Pence remains in the shadows. His public appearances are of course covered and interesting. (The limited love the VP received at the Southern Baptist Convention was certainly interesting - they should have been the friendliest of crowds.)

But public appearances are basically carrying the President's water (or whatever POTUS wants done with his water...) 

Pence has been pretty effective as a presidential surrogate, smoothing our POTUS' rough edges (as much as possible, at least) on Capitol Hill, domestically, and abroad. This has had its costs of course, it does for every VP, but particularly in this administration. 

From what I've seen Pence's biggest contribution has actually been in personnel. Trump had a very limited rolodex of DC-types who feel administration jobs. That has hurt him (although in fairness, the very capable John Kelly can't run a Trump White House, so probably no one can.)

None of this is influence (which is what my dissertation was about). My core contention is that areas where VPs play are a role are areas where Presidents face vacuums in experience or are particular priorities. Following where a VP exercises influence can tell us something about how decisions are being made in the White House.

The problem was, that for all of the White House leaks, there was only very limited information on the doings of the VP! But that, quite suddenly, has changed...

Pence in the News: Finally!
First, there is a new book on vice presidents (how's my own book on the VPs coming... don't ask.)

Reporting on the book, Kate Andersen Brower's First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power has this fascinating tidbit:

The author tried to persuade Pence’s staff to let her sit down with the former governor of Indiana. She’d already talked to the other six men who had held the title of VPOTUS. “I don’t want to leave you guys out,” Brower recalled telling Pence’s gatekeepers. But they wouldn’t budge. The narrative was too tricky, especially after reports that Pence was looking to position himself for a 2020 bid for the office down the hall.
“They are very tight-lipped, and they’re smart about it,” Brower said, adding that Pence’s staff has assumed a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stance on profiles and one-on-one interviews. “If it seems like he’s doing a lot, then the president won’t like that,” she said.
So, that's why there aren't many leaks about the VP. He is being very careful not to leak or have too large a public profile. And if you do that, no one has much reason to leak about you. 

Then there is this terrific bit of reporting from The Washington Post, Pence turns VP's office into gateway for lobbyists to influence the Trump administration. So far twice as many organizations have registered to lobby of Office of the Vice President in Pence's first year as in any of the years in which Biden or Cheney served as VP (the number of lobbying clients trying to influence the President directly has remained essentially flat.) Here's a key quote:

“The vice president’s policy staff regularly takes meetings with representatives from the private sector — including registered lobbyists, whose activity is publicly disclosed and regulated — to discuss policy,” said Alyssa Farah, Pence’s press secretary. “Hearing the real-world impacts, positive or negative, to individuals or businesses is a key input to the deliberative process behind President Trump’s agenda and making the federal government more accountable to the American people.”
In some cases, Pence has served as a kind of second White House chief of staff on regulatory issues, given his extensive knowledge of how the government works and the president’s relative lack of interest in policy details, according to current and former Trump administration officials.
Pence was also responsible for staffing many of the federal agencies that lobbyists seek to influence. One other lobbyist who interacts with Pence described the vice president’s office as a key entryway to reach officials such as Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who worked for Pence when he was governor of Indiana. A spokesman for Verma said the agency gets requests for meetings “in many different ways.”
“His staff is very accessible,” said the lobbyist, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing future access to the Trump administration. “If you can’t get high up in the West Wing, they are your best bet.”
The actions taken by Pence and his staff as a result of lobbying are not disclosed in federal filings, and more than a dozen companies that have hired people to contact his office declined to comment on the role of the vice president or what their lobbying spending accomplished. 
Then there's this report from today's Post (I check lots of sources for VP doings, but it just so happens that The Washington Post is breaking the news on this particular front.)  The vice president has pressed USAID to direct funds to aid Iraqi Christian and Yazidis.

But Pence was unhappy with the progress in the field. He recently “directed” Green to go to Iraq before the end of this month and report back to him on plans to get assistance there quickly, according to a statement from the vice president’s office.
In a sharp-edged statement on Friday, Pence’s office said the vice president “will not tolerate bureaucratic delays.”
According to a U.S. official familiar with Pence’s concern that, as he saw it, USAID had failed to prioritize the issue, the vice president told Green that he would support any personnel changes the USAID administrator chose to make.
Before the end of the day, the head of USAID’s Middle East bureau, a career Foreign Service officer, was replaced by a political appointee who had worked on development projects under Green at the International Republican Institute.
What both of these stories have in common is the VP (and his staff) putting pressure on the bureaucracy to change policy. There is nothing wrong with this in principle.

This is what politicians do. They cannot control the vast bureaucracies directly (the famous principle-agent problem on a massive scale). They can intervene at times and places or structure bureaucracies in a way to help ensure preferred outcomes. This is agnostic to the actual policies. I don't know if having USAID put more of its limited resources towards towards Yazidis and Christians is actually smart development policy. But this is the kind of thing politicians do.

Something Old
Many of the things the OVP is up to are not that different from their predecessors. Other VPs have been a path to reaching the White House for groups that did not have relationships with the president. Mondale was the go-to person for traditional Democratic supporters like African-Americans, labor, and the Jewish community, because Carter did not have strong links with them. The hard right reached out to Quayle, in order to make sure their preferences reached the more moderate President Bush 43. Al Gore was the environmentalist voice in the White House.

Vice presidents have also pressed bureaucracies on a huge range of issues. Cheney famously found a workaround for the Endangered Species Act that allowed the government to open damns and provide water to drought-stricken farmers (which also led to a massive fish die-off.)

Gore was a go-to for Clinton on innumerable bureaucratic issues, from coordinating security for the 1996 Olympics to Reinventing Government. All vice presidents do this stuff, either on issues of personal concern or on behalf of the president. And in the process, of course they make new friends and take care of old ones.

Is this corruption? Maybe, certainly it can be. Lobbyists and organizations make donation to politicians who help them out. Sometimes it is all pretty mercenary, sometimes it is well-intended gratitude. If the OVP is now a den of corruption, well so is the rest of this town. (This leaves aside the administration's promise to drain the swamp, which clearly was not going to happen.)

So far this fits with the paradigm that Pence, as a Washington insider who knows how things work (and just as importantly who makes them work), takes care of things for the president.

Something New
But, something is off in seeing the doings of Pence's office as just more of the same. The USAID issue might be classic vice presidential influence. This does not seem like something the president would oppose. Pence takes care of his base, the evangelicals. This works in two ways, first his base cares about the fate of Christians in the Middle East. Also, USAID grants to help the Christians and Yazidis are apparently going through faith-based organizations - that is, at least in some cases, be groups that will generally be aligned with the VP's world view and institutional supporters. That's just good politics.

The lobbying however, while not new, is occurring on a much larger scale. The obvious conclusion is that in a poorly run White House, the OVP can get stuff done. Plus there are Pence people all over the administration. People in the bowels of the bureaucracy tend to sit up and respond to a call from the OVP, and even more so if the OVP got them their job. That's all standard. But doing so on such a large scale for paid lobbyists that work for businesses is new.

Anything the VP does, a critical question is: what does the president think?

Normally a president might be a little concerned that so many people were approaching OVP for favors. First, why aren't they coming to President? Second, the more people reaching out to the VP, the more likely that the VP gets into something that will embarrass the President.

That is in a normal administration. This administration does not seem to have a big problem with the influence peddling business. Second, the President does not grasp standard political inputs and outputs, thus is not monitoring the VP and does not really care. Finally, the President may trust the VP not to do anything that will be a problem. This final point is entirely plausible. Pence has been loyal to a fault and has maintained access.

Or not. According to a story from The New York Times about Pence's burgeoning political operation, which could be seen as filling a vacuum (because the president is not terribly interested the mechanics of the running a campaign.) Some White House staffers however, see it more as empire building, but grant that if no one else will do it, Pence might as well run the 2018 mid-term efforts.

Presidents may delegate a great deal to the VP, especially in the mid-term elections. There's a cold logic to this by they way, since mid-terms often go badly for the president, so if the VP is on point, who takes the blame?

Taken as whole, this much scope over political operations is pretty astounding. In my article in War on the Rocks I observed that given Trump's inexperience, Pence would be effectively a back-up chief of staff helping the president with everything. But the president's disengagement from the standard policy process and lack of interest in advice, has instead left Pence a great deal of room to do low-key stuff. He does not have much influence on big issues (I can't imagine Pence wants to get into trade wars for example). But on lesser issues it appears he has a free hand as long as - in this classic description of his great predecessor as VP Martin Van Buren, "he rows to his object with muffled oars."

Hidden Hand of the Hidden Hand
By most accounts, Pence's chief of staff Nick Ayers is a critical player in all of this. He is extraordinarily savvy and he is good at threading the needle - going just far enough. This is, precisely what Pence needs in this environment. One other thing about Ayers, he is extraordinary at turning political activity into money. Pence is certainly willing to help his friends (who have now all become lobbyists.) But it is probably Ayers who saw the opportunities to put out an open for business sign at the OVP.

In general VPs are loyal, painfully so, and avoid even the appearance of a conflict with the president. VPs who get too big for the job have poor political fates. (See John C. Calhoun, Nelson Rockefeller, and most recently Cheney.) Can Pence continue to thread the needle, build power without attracting attention from the president?

Given the unique nature of this administration, does it even matter? The president cannot fire the vice president and if the president becomes radioactive, being politically cast out will be a blessing, not a curse.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The VP and the Ronny Jackson VA nomination

I know the big news is more Mueller, but that's not my thing. I'm about the Veep, and there is some fascinating news on that front.

CNN reports that the vice president's physician had written memos to the White House chief of staff John Kelly that he had some problems with White House physician and erstwhile nominee to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs Ronny Jackson. Those memos were shared with CNN.

You can read the details in the report, but apparently on September 8, 2017 Karen Pence had a medical situation at Camp David and had to be taken to Walter Reed. Jackson got involved and revealed personal medical information about the vice president's wife. When Ms. Pence learned of this she was displeased and told her doctor (who is not identified in the story) to take the issue to the Vice President's Chief of Staff Nick Ayers, who in turn would inform Kelly. This led to charged meetings between the vice president's physician and Jackson, which were detailed in the memos was described Jackson as "unprofessional" and "intimidating."

Forget all the infighting, the VA needs leadership!
The fact that the White House had this information (had had it for months) and yet Jackson was still nominated is just a reminder of how impulsive and utterly unprofessional the president's process of selecting key appointees can be. But we already knew that really?

That's the story.

But what's the story behind this story? Why release this information now, with Jackson's nomination and probably his career dead? What is the vice president up to here?

First, Pence probably had a big problem with Jackson personally, while also recognizing that he would be a big problem politically if he got the nomination. Taking this information to the president would have been useless, since the president was besotted with the handsome doctor who said such nice things about him on the TV box.

But then why didn't these memos about Jackson leak to derail his nomination?

The Vice President must "row to his object with muffled oars." Vice presidents that hope to remain close to the president cannot publicly or semi-publicly oppose or contradict the president. By semi-publicly that means disagreeing with the president in a situation in which it could become public - i.e. a meeting with a large number of attendees. If there are lots of attendees someone can leak it and get away with it. In a small meeting the leaker can be identified and held accountable.

If the memos had come out, the vice president and his office would be the first suspect and then Pence's so far impressive record of absolute loyalty would be lost.

So why leak these memos now? Why kick the dead horse that is Ronny Jackson's career?

Now I'm just theorizing. Leaking the memos is a brilliant move to have it both ways. Pence is now associated with the defeat of the politically radioactive Jackson (cool superhero, no?) He is disassociated with the terrible White House decision-making, and the memos will probably be seen as a signal that it was in fact Pence and his team that provided the information that sank Admiral Jackson (which is probably true.)

Yet, in no way did Pence publicly come out against the President's choice. A neat trick. But, Pence did it before. The one clear issue that Pence can be tied to is firing Flynn.

This seems like a pretty elaborate scheme.

That's not a question, but I think I know what I'm trying to say. First, I don't believe in conspiracies in general. But we are in such a dysfunctional White House that my normal instinct to blame chaos instead of conspiracy may not hold. Also, have you met Nick Ayers?

Pence's chief of staff is a wunderkind and quite a piece of work. He's a genial, charming guy, who has an amazing killer instinct and an knack for walking the line. He's got a knack for ingratiating himself with Trump (probably one of the reasons Pence hired him), but also can keep his distance. If anyone could pull this off, it's Nick Ayers.

There's a follow-up question. 

Pence allies are all over the administration, with a particularly strong presence in health care related positions at HHS, including Secretary Azar (former executive with Indiana based pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co.) as well as Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma.

Does Pence have someone in mind for Secretary for Veterans Affairs?

Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents Day Special: Interpreting Presidential Rankings

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics released the results of a poll (conducted with Ipsos) of American ratings of past presidents. Rating presidents is a time honored historical game. There are some generally accepted conclusions – Lincoln was the best, Nixon the worst. There are always fun re-interpretations. Ulysses S Grant has his fans, as does McKinley and Martin Van Buren. Everyone loves Teddy Roosevelt (except H.L. Mencken of course.)

I of course have deep sympathy for all (or almost all) of those who have held our highest office. As Damon Runyon wrote of FDR, “He only did the best he could, no man could have done more.”

Sabato’s poll shows what regular Americans think of the last dozen holders of the office.

Table from Sabato's Silver Ball at UVA Center for Politics
My first thought on reviewing this list is a frightening one – and true. The list is a ranking based on looks. That is why JFK always comes out on top, followed by movie star Reagan, cool hand Barack, and Bill Clinton who was sort of a deep-fried JFK. At the bottom we have our baldest and most bloated president in recent history, followed by LBJ with his outsized facial features, and of course Nixon.

But really, what is the deal with JFK? Not just Democrats, Republicans also love him, rating him ahead of Eisenhower (to say nothing of Ford and Nixon.) He was an immensely attractive man, exemplar of a new generation, who – besides his looks – was witty and appeared to dispatch his office with aplomb. He was blessed with a beautiful and graceful wife and he died tragically and young.

With JFK’s assassination, it seemed America broke. We had the turmoil of the 1960s, the terrible war in Vietnam, and Watergate. In a college science fiction writing class about alternative histories, two stories in a class of a dozen, featured LBJ and the war in Vietnam (one by me.) We had been children when that war ended, but it cast a long shadow.

Watergate, the outgrowth of JFK’s GOP foil, may make another Kennedyesque Camelot impossible. JFK was a deeply flawed man. Besides the compulsive womanizing, he had severe health problems that left him in great pain and were controlled with significant pharmaceuticals. The press knew, but allowed the president’s private life to remain private. After Nixon, that was no longer possible. The presidency was brought out of the shadows.

We mourn the man, but we also mourn the moment.

Somehow in our collective memory JFK sits alongside Lincoln in our imaginary Mount Rushmore, while other figures – truly giant – have begun to fade.

Splitting Differences
It is interesting to compare the splits between the ratings by party. The average partisan difference is 2.07. The largest splits are over Obama and Trump, both over 5. Somehow this is not a surprise. The Democrats' rating of Obama is the highest rating of any president by any partisan group and their rating of Trump is the lowest. The Republican rating of Trump is the third highest of any president by partisan group (after Obama by Democrats and Reagan by Republicans). The Republican rating of Obama is the third lowest rating of any president by a partisan group (beating out only Nixon and Trump among Democrats.)

I made this Table, using the UVA/Ipsos poll.
The second largest partisan splits are over Reagan and Clinton at 2.88. The smallest partisan split is over LBJ, only .31 (more on him below.)

The Democrats appear to be easier on rating Republicans than vice-versa. The Democrats rate LBJ as the worst president from their party, and rate four Republicans ahead of him. Besides Reagan, the Bushes and Eisenhower are all rated just a bit below average.

The GOP only rates JFK ahead of Nixon (the Republican they rate lowest). Interestingly, Republican respondents go somewhat easy on LBJ, rating him middle of the pack as far as Democrats go – only a little worse than Democrats rate him. LBJ is interesting because (like Ford) Independents rate both of them significantly lower than the opposing party. This highlights the observation above, that for many people Johnson is where things started to go wrong for the United States.

It was Reagan who said the 11th commandment was, “Thou shalt not speak ill of they fellow Republican.” Perhaps a bit of that party discipline shows here the lockstep Republican preference for Republicans.

Gender and Generations
The poll also broke down ratings of presidents by gender and generation. On the gender side, there were several cases of men distinctly rating certain presidents higher than women did. Eisenhower has the strongest split, possibly men think – well he was a general so he must be ok. The male preference for Trump is hardly unknown, but there are comparable male preferences for LBJ and Nixon. Lest one think it is because women blanched at their homeliness, men also preferred JFK and Reagan. I have no idea why men rated these presidents higher than women.
Table from Sabato's Silver Ball at the UVA Center for Politics

The only president women rated higher than men did was Obama. Perhaps his model, modern marriage in which his wife was clearly outspoken and engaged (after the demure Laura Bush) was appealing.

The breakdowns of different generations’ presidential ratings is particularly interesting and may be the most significant of the survey. The survey notes that actually remembering presidents may play a significant role in rating them. The 55+ bracket overall rates presidents at 5.67, their lowest rating is Nixon at 4.36 (not bad considering they remember Watergate!) Except for Obama and Clinton, the 55+ cohort rates presidents from both parties higher than the other cohorts. And their ratings of Obama and Clinton, while the lowest, are not that low at about 5.5.

The 18-34 cohort has at best blah ratings for presidents outside their living memory except for JFK (that magic really has lived.) They are huge outliers on Reagan, seeing him as a bit below average.

Can I just say that it kills me that fully formed adults with jobs and advanced degrees were born after Reagan left office – time is inexorable!

Overall the farther back you go, the more my generation (35-54, caught in the middle) converges with the 18-34 cohort. On more recent presidents they are closer to the elders. In overall ratings, my generation’s average ratings are 5.07 while the 18-34s is 4.64. The only recent presidents they rate as above average are Clinton and Obama (who comes in at a whopping 6.96 – they really liked him.)

The obvious interpretation is, as I mentioned, that simply remembering who presidents were. But it is also possible, that having entered the workforce in the face of a huge recession and watching their nation struggle with a pair of endless wars, they maybe younger generations are more skeptical of authority and their national leadership. But their tremendous affection for Obama and their continuing to carry the Kennedy flame suggests that they are not so cynical that they cannot be inspired.