Archive for February 2007
I was doing some thinking about an idea I’ve occasionally referenced in this blog — namely, the concept that history favors the Democrats, perhaps strongly so, in next year’s presidential election. The main justification usually given to back up this assertion is that the American people almost always decide to give the other party a shot at the executive branch after its opponent has enjoyed multiple terms in office. But is this idea valid?
Well, a little research revealed that one has to put this idea into context.
During the post World War II era (which I’ll define here as elections occurring after Harry Truman left office), there have been seven presidential elections (1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1988, 1992 and 2000) that gave voters the opportunity to keep one of the two parties in power for more than two terms. On only one of those seven occasions, in 1988, did the American people opt for a third term with the same party.
But if we look back further into history, we get a different picture. The modern two party era in U.S. politics can be defined as that period of time since the two, current ruling parties came to dominate the American polity — in other words, since the Civil War. And during this longer sampling of history, seventeen elections have been held when voters had the chance to allow one party to keep the White House for more than two terms: the seven contests mentioned above since Harry’s Truman’s day, in addition to the elections of 1876, 1880, 1884, 1904, 1908, 1920, 1928, 1940, 1944, and 1948.
Using the larger sample reveals that, in the modern era taken as whole, American voters have usually opted to retain the same party in the White House for three or more terms when given the opportunity to do so. Indeed, only twice in the long years between the Civil War and the departure of Truman — the elections of 1884 and 1920 — did Americans decide to “throw the bums out” after multiple presidential terms by one party. That contrasts with the eight elections during this period (1876, 1880, 1904, 1908, 1928, 1940, 1944, 1948) when voters decided to stick with the incumbent party.
So, in modern presidential politics, Americans have given the nod to the party already in the White House for mutiple terms in some 53% (9 out of 17) of the elections they’ve had the chance to do so, but in only 14% (1 out of 7) of the contests held since FDR’s wartime successor left office.
It would appear that Americans historically have not found it problematic to stick with one political party for longish stretches of time covering three or more presidential terms; but that they have also grown more ornery in their political inclinations in recent decades. Drawing conclusions about what historical trends predict for next year’s election depends on whether recent history outweighs merely modern history.
A piece in TNR by law professor Sanford Levison gets Ross Douthat thinking about the subject of ammending the constitution. Apparently the professor is of the opinion that the American form of constitutional government is insufficiently democratic, especially with respect to the presidency. Ross writes:
I actually agree with the larger point of his post (and book) – namely, that the American constitutional system has the unfortunate tendency to leave us stuck with failed chief executives long after other systems would shove them out the door. The question is whether this problem is bad enough to require us to rewrite those “basic structures of government,” or whether those structures have shown such impressive and unprecedented durability that we’re best living with their faults and leaving well enough alone. Generally speaking, I’m in the camp that’s in favor of more constitutional tinkering, not less, and I think it’s a bad sign for American government that we’ve only managed to ratify one new amendment in the past thirty-five years, and that politicians have become accustomed to opposing new ones less on substance than on the grounds that we shouldn’t touch the precious, precious Constitution.
This is a good opportunity to bring up one of my own hobbyhorses on the general topic of the constitution, and the American polity’s seeming imperviousness to reform. The way I see it, if what one really wants is an American system that more readily accommodates change and reform, what one really needs to do is eliminate one of the constitution’s most democratic features: House elections every other year. My observation is that it is this feature, more than any other, that is the roadblock to change. Unlike their British counterparts, who can wait up to a half-decade before facing the voters (thereby giving strong medicine time to yield beneficial results the voters can perceive), members of the U.S. House of Representatives are never more than twenty-four months away from an election. This breeds great resistance to doing anything that might upset this or that interest group, or challenge in even the most tepid manner John Q. Public’s penchant for looking out for number one (a penchant that is shared by me, I might add).
One could envision voters rewarding, four or fiver years after gaining power, an administration that, say, raised gasoline taxes. After four or five years the satisfactory results of such a policy might, perhaps, be widely agreed upon by the voters. What one cannot envision is gasoline taxes going up by very much under our current constitutional arrangement, wherein any representative likely to agree to such legislation will be required, in a very short while, to face the angry, gasoline-guzzling voters who control his fate.
In short, if reform is your goal, what you need to do is reduce the surfeit of democracy in America.
Michael Gove gives voice to thoughts quite similar to those I’ve often had:
The ability to leave well alone is probably the least admired, but most required, virtue of our time. Just as we’d be well advised to leave the essential of evening dress well alone, instead of pointlessly elaborating, so there is a host of other areas of British life that would be far better if only inertia were allowed to rule.
From pizzas (why do we need cheese-filled crusts? Since the first pineapple appeared on the innocent margherita it’s been all downhill) to the liturgy (the more elaboration, over time, the fewer in the congregation); from mobile telephones (if I want to watch streaming video footage I’ll go to the cinema, thank you) to razors (what was wrong with just one blade?), we’d all be better off if people had simply left well alone.
I’ve never been able to see why resting on one’s laurels was such a bad thing. Invent a decent idea, or product, then sit back to enjoy the benefits, would be my advice to anyone. Try to elaborate on the breakthrough and it will lead only to frustration. Or scorn.
From the atomic bomb (quite enough megatons really, all things considered) to the cappuccino (what was Mr Starbucks doing when he thought coffee could be improved by the creation of the eggnog latte?), the original really was the best.
What was wrong with just one blade indeed.
The Economist is developing a series of blogs and blog-like products. They’re quite good, in my opinion. Now the journal has even taken to posting all (or nearly) the letters to the editor it receives. Good stuff if you’re a fan of the venerable British “newspaper” — as I am.
Stephen Bainbridge questions why they insist on cloaking their bloggers in anonymity:
To be sure, the magazine has a long tradition of anonymity. As I understand the magazine’s policy, only reviews of books written by authors associated with The Economist are signed. This makes sense in the context of a heavily edited magazine. The logic, I suppose, is that the magazine speaks with one editorial voice…But The Economist.com’s blogs are different. The are expressly stated to be “lightly moderated blogs in which journalists from The Economist Newspaper, Economist.com and The Economist Intelligence Unit post their thoughts and observations.” In other words, they are not intended to be a group product nor to necessarily represent the magazine’s editorial voice. So why not identify the bloggers?…I want to know if the post was written by Megan McArdle or somebody else, because it’s relevant data to assessing the argument. I also want to know which blog post was written by which contributor, just so I can develop a sense of the poster’s personality and
Quite so. I believe The Economist mostly “gets it” when it comes to the internet. They certainly seem to “get it” a lot more than, say, The New York Times. But it seems to me they’d be better off just “adopting” Megan’s blog — or adopting several blogs — in a manner similar to what The Atlantic Monthly has done with Sullivan, or perhaps what Time has done with various bloggers.
The anonymity really doesn’t seem to quite work when it comes to blogging.
Ross Douthat ponders the ramifications of Rudy Giuliani’s moderate stances:
Giuliani’s numbers are going to take a dive once his social liberalism becomes common knowledge, no doubt, which makes him a weaker candidate than you’d think from reading John Podhoretz. But how much of a dive? Only 18 percent of the respondents said that they definitely wouldn’t vote for a pro-gay pro-choicer; if we assume for the sake of argument that Rudy is getting two-thirds of their votes now, then losing all of them in a two-way race would mean that he and McCain would flip-flop, from 52-40 for Giuliani to 52-40 the other way. That’s bad news for Giuliania’s chances, obviously – but then consider that right now, Rudy is getting the bulk of his support from conservatives and McCain is getting the bulk of his from moderates. If the whole conversation starts being about how McCain is pro-life and Rudy is socially liberal, isn’t McCain likely to bleed some moderate support, which Giuliani could then pick up?
I think Ross is on to something here, although one commenter chimes in:
Well, my bet is that Giuliani’s (or McCain’s) social apostasies will translate into a significant “enthusiasm gap” in 2008 — at least unless Hillary is the Democratic candidate.
Maybe. But Giuiliani at least (I personally think the very concept of a McCain candidacy is looking a bit tired and out-of-date) has a fair amount of star power, and a sufficiently compelling story to generate a good degree of enthusiasm. And remember, social conservatives aren’t the whole Republican party. I doubt they’re even a majority (though they are perhaps a plurality). So, nominating a social conservative likewise stands the risk of damping down enthusiasm — among moderate and centrist Republicans. After all, it’s arguable that a big turnout amongst the socialcons is likely not as critical to the success of a the party’s 2008 as is making sure you take the moderate and centrist vote. Alabama ain’t going for Hillary or Obama, even if fewer socialcons turn up at the polls next year. Of this you can be sure. But a Colorado or Ohio very likely will go over to the Democrats in 2008, unless the GOP serves up someone who can capture plenty of non right-wing votes. There is the possibility that socialcons will sit on their hands and not show up to vote for a Rudy (or indeed a McCain), but I think this possibility is overdone. After all, if your biggest goals in life were ending abortion and stopping gay marriage, would you be so relaxed about the prospects of a second Clinton administration?
Nominee Rudy — especially if he can ratchet up the rhetoric a bit on his “originalist judges” meme — may be the best suited of all the Republicans to gin up excitement and build a big tent. Moreover, if the Democrats do nominate Hillary Clinton, a lot of any Republican nominee’s lack of enthusiasm issues will be taken care of.
All this said, it’s surely still the Democrats’ race to lose next year.
Stephen Bainbridge wonders about the subject of charging for news online. How come some publishers can get away with it, while others cannot?
From a business perspective, the interesting question is why the WSJ Online seems to work and other on line subscription services don’t. There’s no obvious reason that the NYT, say, can’t replicate the success of the Online Journal.
I think the answer is that there’s simply so much free news content out there, it’s just difficult to provide something sufficiently unique that people are willing to pay for it. Not surprisingly, those few online publications that are able to get away with charging for their content (or at least for a good portion of it) — WSJ, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Financial Times — aren’t simply providers of mainstream news. They’re specialists. The New York Times isn’t a specialist. There are many thousands of places online you can obtain, at no cost, the Times’s core products, non-specialist news and analysis. Why pay for it when others are giving it away?
Of course, the New York Times does charge for a modest portion of its online content. But I’m skeptical about how successful it’s been, and I’d be surprised if they were able to keep the joys of Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd away from the general public indefinitely. Not that there don’t exist pirate sites where one can find the Times’s columnists for free, of course. But that’s one of the big problems for them. Keeping their top-shelf opinion behind pay walls risks making them irrelevant. I’ve usually found Krugman, for instance, to be an infuriating but highly interesting read, but he just doesn’t seem to be the same must read he was a few years back, because his influence has diminished. So, if one were in that category of persons who might actually contemplate paying to read Krugman, there’s less and less reason to do so. The Times has foolishly allowed one its principal calling cards — influence — to atrophy.