Saturday, October 31, 2009

Politicians, Voters, and Sticking to Principle

Voters often tell their elected officials that they want them to "just get things done."  Voters want these politicians to solve the problems facing the country and fix the problems in government.  Also, voters want their elected officials to be principled.  Politicians should not compromise their beliefs.  Tension lies in these two desires.  We want our politicians to work together without compromising, to stand on principle while passing legislation.  In the US, legislation does not get passed without compromise.  This is by design.  Our Founders intentionally designed a system where action (especially in the legislative branch) requires a large consensus.  So, we have a situation in the US where politicians are often found having to explain to their voters why they seek a compromise with members of the other party.  Here are two examples:

During the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary season, candidates often faced questions from angry Democrats who didn't understand why we still had troops in Iraq, or did not have health care reform, even though the Democrats controlled Congress.  Joe Biden was the most outspoken in trying to educate voters on this matter.  He had to explained that you still needed Republican support to pass legislation.  Here is a clip from one of the debates:

More recently, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) co-wrote an editorial with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in the New York Times about a bi-partisan compromise on energy policy.  The bill would increase offshore drilling and nuclear power to decrease our dependence on foreign oil (something Republicans want), and it would decrease carbon emissions through a cap and trade system (something Democrats want).  At a town hall meeting after the editorial, Graham was confronted by angry voters who wanted to know "why do you think it is necessary to get in bed with John Kerry?"  These voters wanted Graham to stand on principle and not go along with any compromise bill, but Graham recognized that this would mean not doing anything.  In his reply, he states, "what I’ve tried to do is find a way to move the ball forward as our nation is beginning to lag. And unless you make all the Democrats go away, somebody’s got to fix this country’s problems in a bipartisan manner.”  Here is the full clip:

Neither Biden or Graham are compromising their principles.  In fact, they are using compromise to advance their principles.  They realize that it is better to gain something than nothing.  So, do you want politicians that will be uncompromising and and not vote for any bill that includes something they don't like, or do you want politicians to work together to solve our nations problems and "get things done"?  Because, you can't have both.

Related Posts:

Change and Bipartisanship

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Top 5: Reasons Obama Should Not Wage War with Fox News

1.  It diminishes Obama's efforts to rise above partisanship.

As a candidate, Obama spoke often about putting aside partisan differences to do what is right for the country. He was going to listen to all points of view. This approach heightened his appeal, and helped him win the election. When he criticizes Fox News for having a conservative bias, while hosting Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow in the White House, he is pushing partisanship, not rising above it. Olbermann and Maddow have shows on MSNBC with a style similar to Fox's prime time shows hosted by Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. The only difference is they present a liberal, rather than conservative, point of view. All four of these shows are sensationalistic and divisive. If Obama really wanted to show that he is a president that seeks to bring the country together, he could have criticized all four, rather than singling out O'Reilly and Beck while acting chummy with Olbermann and Maddow.

2.  Obama has more important things to do.

Obama wants to pass major reforms in health care, climate change, and immigration. Iran and North Korea could be developing nuclear weapons. Afghanistan and Pakistan have radical Muslims threatening to take over their countries. Many Americans must be wondering why Obama is bothering with Fox News when he has so much else on his plate. This battle with Fox News makes Obama appear to have lost his focus on what is really important.

3.  Obama needs Fox News viewer's help to accomplish his goals.

To pass a health care reform package, one of Obama's biggest obstacles are blue-dog, or conservative, Democrats in the Senate. Plus, Obama will need Republican support for some issues where he will meet resistance in his own party, such as Afghanistan and education reform.  These Congressmembers represent states and districts with a lot of conservative voters. Chances are, a lot of these voters watch Fox News. He should be doing more interviews with Fox News, in order to speak to these voters, rather than boycotting Fox News. Instead of getting a chance to hear Obama defend his positions, these voters are getting news about Obama boycotting Fox News on Fox News.  It is unlikely that they will hear this story presented in a way that is friendly to the White House's point of view. Indeed, even the liberal networks have been highly critical of the White House's moves (see reason 5).

4.  It is a battle Obama cannot win.

Presidents usually enter office with the belief that they can control press coverage, but after fruitless efforts, discover they cannot. As Lawrence R. Jacobs (2010) points out, this overconfidence is common with new presidents and results in two “surprises.”  First, they fail to recognize that battling the press will only increase coverage of critics and "the unattractive business of strategizing."  "Presidents who choose to become communications warriors invariably inflict political damage on themselves" (Jacobs 2010, 258).

Second, presidential overconfidence in their ability to control press coverage leads them to reach for policies that are out of the mainstream. “White House hubris in its ability to control information encourages the executive to embrace policy initiatives that reach well beyond what the public and legislators are willing to accept” (Jacobs 2010, 258). This may explain why Obama is having difficulties with health care reform.

Taking on Fox News has only served to stimulate news about taking on Fox News. Obama should want the other news organizations to be reporting on his policy initiatives, rather than a petty fight with a news organization. White House attacks will not discourage anyone from watching Fox News. If anything, his attacks will stimulate interest among those who want to see what all the fuss is about and increase viewership of Fox News.

5.  When Obama goes too far, the media will defend their own.

If Obama thought that the other news networks would defend, or even aid, his efforts to marginalize Fox News simply because they have a liberal bias, he was wrong. Reporters cherish their access to government and freedom to report the news more than their ideological bias. When the Treasury Department tried to exclude Fox News from being able to interview the White House “pay czar,” all the other networks refused to conduct an interview unless Fox News was included. It did not matter at that point that all the other networks have a liberal bias and Fox News has a conservative bias. What was most important to these networks was that if this White House could exclude Fox News, a future White House could exclude them. News organizations will show solidarity when their professional interests are under siege. An ABC News reporter even referred to Fox News as a “sister organization” after this incident. This was all bad news for Obama, because now he appears authoritarian and disrespectful of freedom of the press, and no one likes to see that in a president.

Work Cited:

Jacobs, Lawrence R. 2010. “The Presidency and the Press: The Paradox of the White House Communications War.” In Michael Nelson (Ed.), The Presidency and the Political System, 9th Ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Nelson, Michael. 2010. The Presidency and the Political System, 9th Ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Senator Coburn, the NSF, and the Nobel Prize in Economics

I have frequently been a fan of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). He has been a strong proponent of earmark reform, and opposed much of the pork-barrel spending in Congress. He correctly points out that these spending projects are a source of much corruption in Congress. He has also been principled in this fight by not seeking earmarks for his own state. Recently, however, he has set his sights on an unworthy cause. Last week, Coburn introduced an appropriations bill amendment that would cut all funding for political science research from the National Science Foundation.

In a statement on his proposed amendment he writes,
When Americans think of the National Science Foundation, they think of cross-cutting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most would be surprised to hear that the agency spent $91.3 million over the last 10 years on political “science” and $325 million last year alone on social studies and economics.

By putting science in quotes, Coburn is indicating that he doesn't think political science is real science. Only the physical sciences are real science and worthy of funding, he suggests.  Physical science funding, “can yield real improvements in the lives of everyone.” Political science research cannot do that, apparently, because political scientists research, “citizenship, government, and politics.” Imagine, for a moment, a world that did not have citizenship, government, and politics and you should grasp the absurdity of this statement. The people who devote research to such an important part of our lives are certainly as worthy of government funding as the physical sciences.  The fact that this statement comes from someone devoted to public service in government and politics makes it even more confounding. Why would Coburn devote his life to citizenship, government, and politics if he thought they did not “yield real improvements in the lives of everyone”?  As I noted with his devotion to earmark reform, Coburn wants to improve how government functions.  He should want to increase funding, therefore, for research that helps us understand how to make government better.

Ironically, this week brought news that a political scientist has won a Nobel Prize in economics for research that was partially funded by...(drum roll)...the National Science Foundation! Dr. Elinor Ostrom won the prize for research that shows how the tragedy of the commons (a common political science problem) is important for understanding economics. Here is a clip of her explaining some of the basis of her research.

The Coburn amendment will be voted on sometime later this week. You can watch a clip of him introducing the amendment on the Senate floor (where he compares the funding to waterboarding our kids), with a rebuttal by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), here.  Just fast forward to the 131 minute mark.  You can sign a petition asking your Senators to oppose the amendment here.

I don't think the amendment has much chance of passage. Coburn's amendments rarely pass. But, I think political scientists should consider this a wake-up call.  We need to do a better job of explaining the importance of our research to the general public. For my part, I will try to use this blog more often for that purpose.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More Thoughts on Obama's Nobel Peace Prize

I was interviewed recently about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize by WTAP and the Marietta Times. Since those interviews were edited, I wanted to share a more thorough account of my thoughts on the event, and some other reactions from the media and blogosphere.

As many have already noted, the choice of Obama by the Nobel Committee was a big surprise. This reaction is fairly universal. Even many of Obama's supporters, and Obama himself, seemed perplexed at the decision. For instance, Ruth Marcus, a liberal Obama supporter, said on the News Hour, "the Nobel Peace Prize isn't like peewee soccer, where everybody gets a nice trophy for trying hard and being part of the team." Plus, Saturday Night Live had lampooned Obama less than a week prior to the announcement for not having any major accomplishments.

The choice seems especially odd in light of the fact that Obama is a war time president. He has sent more troops to Afghanistan, as he promised he would in the campaign, and if he accepts his general's recommendations, will send another 40,000 troops.

Much like the Olympic Committee's decision to pass on Chicago, I don't place any blame on Obama for this happening, but it makes Obama look bad, nonetheless. While the Nobel Committee said they were showing support for Obama's goals, it ironically made those goals more difficult to achieve. Many commentators have agreed with my earlier assessment that this will hurt more than help Obama. This Week in Race argues, for instance, that being honored by "foreigners" may perpetuate a stereotype of Obama as "other," un-American, or unpatriotic.

Some, such as David Brooks on the Newshour or Ross Douthat in the New York Times, have suggested that Obama should have turned down the committee's offer. In his speech accepting the prize, Obama made of point of saying, "I WILL accept this offer," with emphasis on the word "will". This suggests to me that he had considered saying "no thanks" to the committee. If my instincts are correct, this would be an astonishing recognition of the dubious nature of the Committee's choice. I agree with Douthat that turning down the committee would have been a boon for his popularity on the domestic front.

The Nobel Committee continues to erode their own credibility in their choices. If committee members want to use the prize to influence global opinion, as they say they do, they should make choices that most agree are well deserved, and that brings attention to those who really need it. To help Obama achieve his goals, for example, the Nobel Committee could have chosen the Iranian protesters. This may have helped Obama and the world community to stop the Iranians from enriching uranium--an accomplishment certainly worthy of a peace prize.