Sunday, December 26, 2010

Embracing the process: Jonathan Bernstein's joyous cynicism

I am one of I'm sure many amateur political observers who's had his perspective widened in recent years by the entry of academic political scientists into the blogosphere.  Jonathan Bernstein is particularly bracing, as he refracts our elected officials' day-to-day  hand-to-hand combat through a lens that's a kind of PoliSci  equivalent of Everything Bad is Good for You

In A Plain Blog About Politics, Bernstein embraces the political process in all its ugly, necessary glory: the posturing, the pandering, the packaging, the parliamentary maneuvering, the horse-trading, the struggle for survival and the ambition that drives it.  His approach can alternately seem extremely cynical, in that it assumes that politicians are motivated almost entirely by the drive to amass and keep power, and the the opposite of cynical, since it embraces the process and its outcomes so cheerfully.

There's a problem, though, with this admittedly liberating enthusiasm for sausage-making. Sometimes Bernstein seems to suggest not that the ends justify the means, but that the means determine the ends, and rightly so.

There is something oddly reassuring in Bernstein's clinical admiration for the GOP's obstructionism of the past two years.  The underlying assumptions are that the game is eternal, there are no permanent winners, a rough policy balance emerges from the never-ending death match, and that  policy results, once manifest (a big open question embedded there), affect the players' political fortunes far more than the short-term spin battles. 

Not so reassuring, but often illuminating, is Bernstein's read on political calculations that may advance a party's (or individual's interest) whether or not it's at cross-purposes with the actor's own beliefs or with policy results viewed from any but the most extreme perspective. Here for example is his contrarian take on the Republican leadership's "defeat" over the New Start treaty:
However, Republicans did accomplish something by fighting on New START.  They chewed up quite a few hours of Senate floor time, a very valuable commodity in the lame duck session, and really throughout the 111th Congress.  Now, there's really no way of knowing what exactly they gained by doing that.  However, had they agreed to a quick vote on the treaty, there would have been more time for the Democrats to confirm judges and executive branch appointments; more time for appropriations bills, and perhaps to give a more sustained effort on the omnibus appropriations bill; and more time for any of the other unfinished business on the Democratic agenda.

So I wouldn't be quick to conclude that it was a mistake for Republicans to fight this one out, even if they took a (very minor) PR hit in losing.  Indeed, in understanding what the GOP was up to, I think one has to consider the possibility that treaty opposition was in part a deliberate -- and, I would say, perfectly legitimate -- part of trying to run out the clock.
No one, I'm sure, would quarrel with Bernstein for highlighting the possibility that a party leader in McConnell's position might enhance his party's interest by putting up resistance to ratification of  this treaty even if he personally believed the treaty to advance U.S. interests -- at least, if he knew that the resistance would ultimately fail.

Where Bernstein (judging from his blog's Comments section) does disturb many readers -- me included -- is in his suggestion that it is politicians' right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians' words and actions.

This working assumption gives Bernstein's blog much of its frisson. Here he is, for example, blowing off various observers' disgust over the latest Mitt Romney backflip: can anyone know what Romney will actually do it elected?  I think the answer is, basically, the same way you can know that about anyone.  He'll follow party incentives, and institutional incentives, and other such things that have little or nothing to do with what he "really" thinks.  And that's mostly a good thing!  As I've said many times, our presidents are experts on practically none of the issues about which they must make decisions.  If they fool themselves into thinking that they know more than anyone else about arms control, or the effects of economic stimulus, or farming, or 5th amendment jurisprudence, or what North Korea is up to, then there's a good chance they'll fail.  Even worse, if they convince themselves (as Woodrow Wilson, and probably George W. Bush, did) that as a result of being elected they share some mystical bond with the American people that allows them, and only them, to understand what the American people "really" want...well, that's a recipe for disaster. 

Now, might still oppose Romney for all sorts of other reasons.  But to me, flexibility of beliefs in pursuit of office is generally a good thing in a presidential candidate.
Something is seriously amiss here. For starters, the segue from the incentives impinging on the president to the president's lack of polymath expertise is a red herring.  The question is not whether the president can learn every fact germane to every decision he'll make but on what basis he will choose among options put forward by experts (how expertly he gathers and sifts expert input and how soundly he judges among options are separate questions).  The question that Bernstein refuses to address directly is this: when faced with a policy decision, should a politician be guided primarily by political calculation or assessment of the national interest? 

Bernstein's implicit answer is basically that there is no difference between these two questions. He argues in some places that policy smarts are their own reward -- or rather, that voters ultimately reward good policymaking. At other points, he suggests that acute political antennae will lead inevitably to good policymaking.  In an arresting critique of George W. Bush, he argues both at once.  Underpinning the argument is a deployment of Richard Neustadt:
What Neustadt means here is that presidents can aggressively use the information available to them, both inside information (such as staff briefings) and outside information (such as press reports) to sense and avoid policy disasters.  They'll do so, he believes, because policy disasters for the nation are political disasters for its president, and what presidents are really experts in is avoiding political disaster -- and the same thing goes, of course, about policy and political triumphs.
That last "of course" is a big one.  Policy triumphs are sometimes political triumphs -- and vice versa -- and sometimes not.  Assessing Bush, whose policies unraveled fast enough to turn public opinion decisively against him after five years but not soon enough to forestall his reelection, Bernstein can get away with suggesting a seamless continuity:
Presidents, and not generals or economists or other wonks, are likely to be good at sensing threats to their electoral coalitions or to their governing coalitions on the Hill and on K Street.  They're supposed to be able to read a newspaper story and realize which interest groups it threatens, and whether it's likely to be a major or a minor problem for those groups, and figure out what to do to avoid the problem, whether it's changing the policy or working with the group.  They're suppose to have excellent political antennae.  Presumably, they wouldn't have made it to the White House without them. 

Unless, that is, the president isn't an expert.  And so back to George W. Bush. 

We're still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here's my guess.  We'll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening.  He didn't act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster -- whether we're talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else.  We're going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him.  And my guess is we're going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years. 
I am grateful to be shown the extent to which policy judgment and political judgment are intertwined.  But intertwined does not mean identical. 

There is I suspect no living politician whom Bernstein admires more than Bill Clinton. But Clinton, by his own representation as relayed in Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes, often acted against his own political interests and those of his party, e.g., in  the Haiti intervention, and in the Mexican bailout. At other times, his medium-term interests were at variance with the short-term.  The 1993 budget-balancing bill arguably helped cost the Democrats the House and Senate in 1994 -- but equally arguably sealed Clinton's political success from 1995 forward, as the rapidly-diminishing deficit helped enable the economic boom of the late nineties. Sensitive response to political incentives does not fully explain Clinton's decision making or ultimate impact.

Bernstein's ideal elected official is not simply a sensitive but passive conduit of voters' collective will. Bernstein's view of the relationship between representative and electorate is more complex -- and in a way, more disturbing.  According to Bernstein, each elected official forms his own contract with voters, based on the promises he makes. One senator may promise to fill every pothole; another may promise to lead on national domestic foreign policy issues.  One may promise to always take full account of constituents' expressed will; another, to vote her conscience, the sign and seal of which may be an "agreement to disagree" on some high profile issue such as abortion. 

So far so good: again, the insight into how the process works is valuable.  But here again, Bernstein lets slip a kind of extreme privileging of process. The political process is self-justifying; those who succeed in getting reelected (especially repeatedly) are successful in every meaningful sense of the word:
And, again, my point is that as long as a politician fulfills her promises, and explains what she's doing in a way that strengthens her constituents' trust in her, then she's a good representative. That's as much as we can say, at least as far as evaluation is concerned. For Edmund Burke to be a good representative, he must do as he promised the electors of Bristol, and act as he thinks best. For a representative who promises to slavishly follow the whims of her constituents, well, she must do exactly that to be a good representative.* And I suppose what I'm saying is that for politicians, from their point of view, there is no "what's right" beyond good representation. Excepting, of course, the cases in which a representative has promised only to do what she thinks is right, and is elected to do so (in which case...ready?...doing "what's right" is right not because it's right but because she's fulfilling her promises by so doing). To get back to Saletan -- yes, sometimes good representatives will lose elections, because of course there's more to elections than how much constituents have come to trust their Members of Congress. But to the extent that voters do reward their politicians for fulfilling (all kinds of) promises, doing the right thing means doing just that. And in the long run, that should tend to be good politics.
The obvious rejoinder is: what if the electorate and elected official are in perfect concert about a policy that be judged by some credible outside standard (or all but unanimously after the passage of time) to be wrong?  Was the George Wallace of the 1960s a "good" governor?  Were secessionist leaders ideal democratic statesmen?  Was Mitch McConnell right to oppose New Start if a) he thought the treaty a good one and b) he thought Republicans had a reasonable chance of preventing ratification?  Does political calculation have no bottom?

I suspect that most politicians are driven by self-interest about as much as the rest of us: more than we'd like to admit, but not entirely -- and surprisingly often, when the crunch comes, not at all. Of course, the political decision-making process in the real world is messy and purblind: often, actors may have no clear read on what is right or what is expedient. Moreover, once a strong belief on one of those two questions takes shape, it may determine one's decision on the other.  But to embrace the Romney of popular imagination -- the most nakedly cynical flip-flopper of our time, the architect of Romneycare who denounces Romneycare National (a.k.a. Obamacare) as a betrayal of the Constitution -- seems too cynical by half.

1 comment:

  1. This is not an open question for any serious person. Or at least for anyone who has read Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. His picture of the cynical George and Clemenceau (and the befuddled Wilson) is devastating. World War II, anyone