A pervasive public mood for change. Or not.

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The conventions have certainly got the partisan juices flowing. How about a change of pace?

I read David Mayhew’sDivided we Govern” during a recent sea-faring holiday, a book I had intended to read for some time. It is one of the cornerstone works of scholarship on which I have built the divided government voting heuristic promoted in my blog.

The book can be a tough slog for a casual reader like myself. Working through the extensive footnotes and supporting material that some would consider dry, perhaps arid, maybe even Sahara desert-like, requires some perseverance. But Mayhew has a clean, approachable style, writes with clarity, and if you bring a curiosity of why things really get done (or don’t) in Washington – it is a fascinating read.

There is a pervasive belief – a nugget of “conventional wisdom” – that if you want to “get things done” in Congress, whether legislation, investigations to clean up governmental abuses, or just promote “change“, a single party must control the Presidency and both legislative branches to avoid gridlock. It certainly seems intuitively obvious that the federal government would be more productive if all branches are run by one party. In this book David Mayhew proved the conventional wisdom flat wrong, at least in the modern era. He put the proposition to the test by rigorously quantifying and analyzing all legislation and investigations (the two primary functions of Congress) from 1946-2002. First published in 1991, the book was updated with a second edition in 2005. It is the seminal reference work that debunked the notion that the federal government functions more effectively with unified single party control.

But if unified vs. divided government does not correlate to congressional productivity, what are the factors that prompts congress to “get things done”? Mahew analyzes some of the possibilities in the book. Watching the ubiquitous blue “Change” signs waving at the Democratic convention and listening to McCain’s born-again “Change” message at the Republican convention, I was reminded of one such Mayhew hypothesis. In his data, he documents periods spanning many years, where Congress becomes very productive in what Mayhew calls a legislative and/or investigatory “surge”. Having eliminated any consideration that single party government is correlated with these productive congressional eras, he speculates on other factors that might drive these legislative surges.

This portion of the book is considerably less rigorous statistically, but it is interesting and potentially directly relevant to what we are seeing in this 2008 election season. Specifically, Mayhew explores the notion that a primary pre-requisite for these periodic legislative “surges” is a pervasive “public mood” demanding “change”. He wrote this more than a decade before the Obama candidacy, but his analysis may be the key to unlocking one of the great puzzles of this election. What does “change” really mean to the public in this context?

[WARNING: Long post continues after the fold]


“… causes of legislative surges can be found in extended expressions of “public purpose” or creedal passion.” To put it another way, they can be located in a certain kind of “public mood” that favors change via government action (Some “moods” have that aim; others, as in the private- oriented 1920s, discourage government action). A “mood” seems to be one of those phenomena that drive political scientists to despair by being at once important and elusive. But perhaps something useful can be said. In principle, a “public mood” probably has the following features. First, much of at least the politically aware public, inside and outside Washington, shares a certain outlook about what can and should be done right now on a wide range of political issues. Second, a large number of people who possess that outlook bring considerable intensity to it; they are not lukewarm. Third, to the extent that the outlook calls for it, an appreciable number of people go on to engage in, to use a term that is probably as serviceable as any, citizen action. They actually do things: They may form organizations, persuade others, go to meetings, give money, write letters, join protests, approach members of Congress, in general make themselves heard and felt. Fourth, the outlook in question is in some sense dominant: Non- sharers of it have a hard time wholly resisting its intellectual or political appeal or mustering intensity or action against it… Fifth, a “public mood” has a beginning and an end. The outlook, the intensity, and the citizen action emerge or balloon at some detectable juncture, and then several years later, at another juncture, they deflate or disappear… An anti-government mood may not call for much citizen action, but a mood favoring change through government action requires -or at least seems to be associated with- a great deal. Levers need to be moved.” – David Mahew – Divided we Govern

Examples offered by Mayhew of documented decade-long legislative surges that were driven by a palpable “public mood favoring change” include: reconstruction in the 1860’s; the “progressive”movement in the 1910’s; Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the thirties; and the civil rights/ womens’ rights/environmental and social programs of the LBJ/Nixon era (yes, you read that right – Mayhew documents that the generally liberal legislative surge of that era equally bracket both the LBJ and Nixon presidencies.) The question on the table, is whether the much heralded public appetite for “change” that has been promoted by the Obama candidacy and adopted by the McCain candidacy, is in the category of a “public mood favoring change” as described by Mayhew.

If you look at Mayhew’s five criteria for a “palpable public mood”, it is easy to conclude all the conditions have been met. Certainly, if the Obama campaign is used as a proxy for that public mood, we can check off criteria 2 through 5:

  • #2 – Observable supporter intensity? – Check.
  • #3 – Large numbers engaging, joining and doing things? – Check.
  • #4 – Difficult for opposing views to resist? – Well the Clintons will agree, and since McCain adopted rather than fight the mantra – Check.
  • #5 – The mood has a beginning and an end? – Certainly the beginning is in evidence. – Check.

But then we have criteria #1: A common outlook about what can and should be done right now on a wide range of political issues.

So exactly WTF is it? What specifically is this public political appetite that Obama and McCain are trying to feed? What are the specific political issues that both Obama and McCain supporters broadly agree must be changed right now? The phenomena is real, but do we know what it is really about?

We can ask the candidates. In their acceptance speeches both candidates endeavored to define and promote the “change” they represent. Obama offered an unremarkable litany of liberal Democratic policy positions. McCain offered an unremarkable litany of conservative Republican policy positions. So each candidate, acutely aware of a “palpable public mood for change“, wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of change, then explicitly pitched the proposition that the same partisan bromides that Republicans and Democrats have been flogging for decades represent the change that the public seeks. Tough sell.

Here is the rub – Mayhew’s criteria specifies that the kind of pervasive public mood for change that results in a real legislative surge, that results in real change, must include broad agreement on what can and should be done across the partisan divide. Where do we have that now? Do we have broad agreement on environmental policy? global warming? education policy? taxing policy? deficits and spending policy? judicial appointments? abortion? religious participation in governmental policy? same sex marriage? right to work? Equal pay? Immigration policy? homeland security? social security? I don’t think so. So they are all off the list. Moreover, both presidential campaigns are useless at articulating what exactly this “change” means. So we are left to our own devices.

Here is my take on what this inchoate public impulse for “change” really means, and by extension, what this election is really about. Your mileage may vary.

(In reverse order)

“Change” 2nd Runner Up – Health Care / Energy Policy (tie)

These are both a close call for me, I profess no certitude about either, but I am saying that they both make the cut. Barely. In both cases, there seems to be a hue and cry in the electorate that “something must be done.” For both issues, strong sentiment is generated on both sides of the partisan divide. While there are obvious policy disagreements between Republicans and Democrats on these issues, it is possible to craft a general solution statement with which most Americans will agree. Not an overwhelming majority, but a majority. On health care – most Americans want a solution where people do not fall between the cracks, and are not risking financial ruin to get the care they need. On energy policy, most Americans will agree we need to drill and develop more in America, conserve more, build nukes, and work aggressively to invest in and develop alternative energy sources. Both candidates are missing the boat to some degree on these two issues. McCain and the Republicans are misreading the degree to which Americans are willing to socialize medical care. Obama and the Dems are misreading the degree to which Americans are willing to drill for fossil fuels here and develop nuclear energy as part of the solution.

“Change” First Runner-up – The War in Iraq.
12-24 months ago, this was the number one issue that was driving the “change” mantra and the fuel that propelled the Obama candidacy. The “change” that people wanted was quite explicit and easily articulated. A large majority of Americans wanted us out of the quagmire that Iraq had become. If the status of the war in Iraq was the same now as it was then, there would be no contest. Obama would be 20 points ahead in the polls. But events on the ground have overtaken the campaign rhetoric and morphed the meaning of “change” in the process.

Violence in Iraq is down, and the Iraqi government has effectively removed the issue from the campaign. Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki set a time “horizon” for us to be mostly out by 2011, so – that is going to happen regardless of who is elected president. It is not a presidential campaign issue anymore.

Yes, looking back, Obama was right and McCain was wrong about the war in 2002. But McCain was right and Obama was wrong about the surge in 2006. It is a political wash. The war was the “Change” issue, but now it has been rendered effectively moot. Getting out is still part of the “change” people want, but, looking forward, there is simply no practical difference in the rate at which we can and will redeploy out of Iraq regardless of whether McCain or Obama are elected president. It is even reasonable to postulate that we will be able to reduce our military footprint faster with a McCain presidency. The only difference between the candidates on Iraq, is the rhetoric they use to posture for their respective base.

“Change” Champion – Exorcise the Bush administration, and punish incumbent Republicans.
That is it. That is what is left of the “pervasive public mood for change” mandate once the issue of the War in Iraq was rendered moot by Maliki. There is broad agreement among Americans that the occupation of Iraq was a mistake, that the strategic execution of the war was flawed, and the Bush administration was largely incompetent (see – he was a uniter not a divider!) Blame for the war falls squarely on the Bush administration, enabled by a gutless, ethics challenged, majority Republican Congress. Even many (most?) conservatives (neocons excluded) will agree that GWB has been a disaster for the country, the Republican party, and has betrayed conservative principles. The punishment for the Republicans began in 2006 and will be meted out again in the 2008 congressional elections. It is very possible that the Democrats will finish with a 100 seat majority in the House of Representatives, and secure close to a filibuster-proof 60/40 majority in the Senate. The Republican party may well be rendered impotent as an opposition party in Congress. Punishment complete. So that leaves the presidency.

The issue that is now determinative in that contest, is whether the electorate believes that McCain/Palin is an extension of the Bush administration. If the Obama campaign succeeds in painting that picture (hence the oft-repeated “McCain is 90% Bush” canard), Obama wins. If McCain succeeds in separating himself from Bush and painting himself as a maverick, the “pervasive public mood for change” does not hurt him, and may even help his candidacy. Early indications are that his acceptance speech and the Palin pick went a long way to accomplishing exactly that.

Net net – We may still have a change election, but it may be John McCain that wins it.

x-posted from “Divided We Stand – United We Fall