Nelson Polsby, professor of political science, University of California, Berkeley and Hoover Fellow David Brady discuss the implications of Republican houses of Congress and a Democratic president.
ROBINSON: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Our show today, the forces shaping American politics, beginning with what happened last election day when voters reelected a democratic president, making Bill Clinton the two first two term Democratic president since FDR and returned republicans to control of Congress, making Newt Gingrich the first two term republican speaker of the house in almost seven decades. Let me give you a taste of the discussion you'll be hearing. For years the democratic party controlled Congress by maintaining a coalition of quite different groups. There were southern conservatives represented by this Texas stake, there were north-eastern liberals represented by this New England lobster. Come here little fellow. There is was a mid-west contingency including Wisconsin, a goodly hunk of cheese, and the liberal bastion of Northern California represented by a bottle of California Chardonnay. Surf and turf, wine and cheese, appealing combination and for the Democrats, combinations that remained together for decades. But as the years wore on, there was a demographic upheaval. Big parts of the south, including Texas became less and less democratic forcing the democratic party to combine its liberal base in the northeast, lobster, with ethnic populations in inner cities, Chicago sausage, with remaining southern conservatives in such places as Louisiana and Georgia. Grits. Lobster, sausage, grits. It all created an opening for the GOP to take control of Congress and administer the country a dose of republican medicine. With us today, two guests: Nelson Polsby, a professor of political science at Berkeley, and David Brady, a professor of political science at Stanford and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
DRAWLS AND Y'ALSS
ROBINSON: The Republicans were the party of the White House. Between 1952 and 1992 they won seven out of ten presidential elections whereas the democrats had control of the House of Representatives for all forty years and for thirty-four out of forty years the democrats held control of the Senate. Now, we have a switchero; Republicans in control of Congress and a Democrat in his second term, the first Democrat to win a second term in the White House since FDR. What accounts for the switcheroo? Nelson?
POLSBY: We did have one very important change over that period and it was a change in the south. The south became competitive between the parties. Republicans got strong in the south. That introduced a lot of new republican southern seats that had always been Dixiecrats seats. Not much ideological change by the way, but different party change.
ROBINSON: The conservative democrats flipping to conservative republicans.
POLSBY: Conservative democrat seats flipping to conservative republicans. That had a lot to do with migration. People coming down from the north settling. A lot of them republicans, conservative democrats seeing for the first time that they could be republicans and get somewhere. So some of them converted. Between those two things you got some dixiecrats disappearing and republicans taking their place. That made Congress over the medium run more competitive and you get an election in which republicans do pretty well anyhow in the other three quarters of the country and the addition of the south is enough to make it all happen.
BRADY: Beginning in about 1952, American voters began to split their ticket. I think Eisenhower was the first one that was around twenty percent or the electorate would vote for a president at one level and Congress at the other party. So the facts are, it seems to me, that one of the things that happened is that if you're the majority party, then there's a certain sense in which there's a cacophony of interest out there. And for the democrats that set of interest contain what Nelson just said the south which was incompatible with the northern liberal wing. Yet it was good enough to win congressional elections because in the level of Congress you can run at your own level. You run at the district level and the problem doesn't aggregate up. So if you think of, you can run as a pro-life democrat in Alabama and that's fine because it works in Alabama because the voters are pro-life, but at the presidential level it becomes much harder because you have to aggregate across the northern liberal districts for the democrats and the southern conservative districts. So democratic presidential candidates always had harder fights to get the nomination. Now that's flipped. I think the republican, Bob Dole was in trouble in the 1996 election for the presidency precisely because he had the old mid-west that favors balanced budget. He had the supply siders led by Steve Forbes that wanted tax cuts. He had the Christian pro-life movement in there and somehow to try and come out all of that cacophony with a coherent policy plan is difficult. So my points in the majority party in Congress is by definition in a diverse country and you're going to have a hard time nominating presidents.
POLSBY: Here's a figure, here's the thing. It's the most important thing really you can learn to understand about our two party system. It isn't really a two party system, that's the real problem. It's, because, we got two big labels, but in California the republicans are different from Vermont and Wisconsin. We got a one hundred party system. And two big labels. And once you understand that then you stop expecting the kind of coherence that drives everybody crazy. Why aren't things more coherent. Well, the answer is because actually, of federalism. Because we've got fifty different states, fifty different state parties and cultures and...
BRADY: They only aggregate every once in awhile
ROBINSON: A one hundred party system and two big labels that applies to the parties. Let's turn now to one dominant politician.
ROBINSON: The big thing that's happened in recent years has been the south going republican and that's largely owing to demographic changes, right?
ROBINSON: So, are there any policy changes as well.
BRADY: Demographic changes over fifty years.
ROBINSON: Fifty years, over a long time, half a century. Newt Gingrich arriving on the scene and upsetting the exquisite equilibrium of American politics.
POLSBY: Newt was a particular phenomenon which happened.. Well I'm talking about his arrival which happened for a particular reason. The particular reason was this, the republicans had lost hope in Congress that they would ever again have any influence on public policy. For a very long time, over most of these fifty years, republicans had influence on public policy because they were in coalition with the majority democrats, committee by committee. And serious people who are interested in affecting public policy on the committees who are republican had a shot at it because these coalitions existed.
ROBINSON: Conservative democrats with republicans?
POLSBY: No, no, no. Serious minded people who are interested in legislation right across the spectrum could have some impact on legislation because of cross party coalitions within congressional committees. Now, why did that stop. It stopped because the Democrats needed stuff. Why did the Democrats make it stop? It was because of the rise of the Democratic caucus. Which became a...
The Democratic caucus in Congress which is the assembly of all Democrats and it used to never meet and the reason it never met was because one-third of them were Dixiecrats and they couldn't agree. Alright, now the disappearance of the Dixiecrats meant that the Democratic caucus began to have mainstream sentiment that they wanted to enforce on everybody and so they told the Committee Chairman and in effect, we will vote you out as Committee Chairman unless you stop having coalitions with Republicans and start paying attention to the Democrats on your Committee, the junior democrats, everybody. Alright, so what happens. The Republicans get shut out. They become quite despondent.
ROBINSON: This is happening when, in the eighties?
POLSBY: It starts in seventies, yes. Alright, Jim Wright runs a tight ship. He's a strong speaker, very strong speaker. The Republicans are completely out of it, they are despondent as hell. Alright now, something happens. A bunch of people in Congress led by mute, say in effect, we are never going to get anywhere. Let's throw some bombs and see if we can loosen the place up a little bit. And one of the things they did was they figured out a way to make scandals out of nothing and they got rid of Jim Wright. Big win!! They're feeling good. They got a scalp on the wall. Now, within a couple of months of that something very interesting happens. George Bush loses his nominee for Secretary of Defense. The day is getting confirmed. John Power. So he pulled Dick Chaney out of the leadership of the house. That makes an opening just a few months after Newt's gang has gotten Jim Wright. Newt runs, he wins by a whisker! And he is on the leadership now and he is gunning for Bob Michael's job. Alright, now -- Bob Michael was the Republican leader and Newt was number two. And riding on that euforia because he was responsible for knocking off Jim Wright. Alright, but the reason that euforia existed and they the reason that they were able to knock Jim Wright off was because of a prior condition. The prior condition was that the Democrats locked the Republicans out of policy making in the committees.
ROBINSON: So the Democrats moved first. We read now about all this increased partisanship and ideology in-house as a result of Newt and his brand of tough policy. As a matter of fact it was the Democrats, when they ran Congress who became partisan..
POLSBY: But if the newspapers got it right, guys like David may be out of business. However we are in business and that's the story. That's why Newt is in fact understandable within the context of a broader history.
ROBINSON: Now to the issue of the day--Politics and Money.
HERE COMES THE BRIBE
ROBINSON: I pulled it up on the Internet, Pepsico, last year I was able to find was 1995. Their advertising budget was 1.6 billion dollars. There is an argument to be made that we ought to spend about as much about deciding public policy issues as PepsiCo has done.
POLSBY: No, but that's wrong you see because it should be aggregated with the amount of money Coke spent because of the competition involved. So, so the actual number for PepsiCo plus Coke would be close to 4 million would be like this well in excess.
BRADY: Well the arguments in the press seems to be quite confusing because you want to distinguish between access and influence or in the harsher sense, bribery versus extortion. The question is that somehow money buys influence. It's not necessarily true. Most of these-- if you were to take a survey of the let's take Business Facts. If you were to take a survey of the Fortune 500, and remember, the 1974 reforms common cause and other groups now crying for reform were the ones that said, "Let's create PACS so that the little guy can put their money together."
ROBINSON: Stop action--What was the state of fund-raising up until 1974. Anybody could write a check to anybody? They could write a check for any amount they wanted. Is that roughly correct?
BRADY: Yea, the point is that there is plenty of money around, Nelson's point, and it had nothing to do with the left, because when George McGovern was furthest left candidate probably in the twentieth century was funded by the guy who inherited the General Motors money. And he funded the entire campaign. So the problem is it would be unthinkable today.
POLSBY: The relationships between the people of money and politicians fall at the fall of the three categories and the fact that there is a transaction doesn't tell you right away what that category is. Category one is bribery where the guy with the money is essentially taking the money and telling the politician what to do and the politician is doing it. Alright, there is a second thing. The other end of the spectrum--Extortion. We have coffee here, it reminds me. Alright politicians are asking people with money do a worse example out of that, I suppose, or a fellow went to jail for it was the Nixon presidential campaign, 1972. But that's where the politicians essentially go to the people and said, "Hand it over." and you won't get anything for it and what you will get is I will smile upon you and that's it. Alright, now there's a third territory. It's called alliances. That is to say people with money seeing people in the public arena with whom they agree, whom they wish to support. Alright, now whether it's bribery or an alliance or extortion. It seems to me has to be figured out and you can't figure it out just by saying, "Well, there's money involved because it just doesn't discriminate between those three.
BRADY: If the power of business. One of the claims is always seeing these business packs really dominate things - big corporations. You hear that all the time. And the notion is suppose you took the CEOs of the Fortune 500 and took all the money they gave to Congress and then said, "Let's take a survey here. Listen, men and women, you CEOs, how do you like the product that Congress is delivering for all that money. What the hell do you suppose the response would be? They would not be happy, they would be all negative, they would say, oh no!! Then why are you giving all that money for a product. It seems a little strange to send all that money to a group who is passing stuff you don't like. That seems to be extortion.
ROBINSON: If the current system is tantamount to extortion then how do we change it?
WHEN HARD CASH IS SOFT MONEY
ROBINSON: So an individual like me can write a thousand dollar check candidate. A political action committee can write a five thousand dollar check to a candidate. What is soft money?
POLSBY: Soft money is money that you may give an unlimited amount to political parties for the purpose of building parties. That's the thing they are really after now. They want to stop that because it is unlimited. So there's big numbers involved.
ROBINSON: You mean the common cause is that the world wanted to stop it. The political parties involved--
POLSBY: Well, virtually all reformers and what they are focusing on is soft money. Money that goes to political parties. My view is of course that's exactly the wrong thing to do. Why it is the wrong thing to do is because political parties are institutions which have the potentiality of insulating candidates from import-tuning interest groups. It means candidates can select among the interest groups they wish to gratify on the basis of merit and alliance rather than on the basis of bribery. Therefore, soft money is a good thing.
ROBINSON:: The current system is good, as it stands.
POLSBY: The soft money part of the system is a good thing.
BRADY: Alright, the soft money part of the system doesn't bother me too much. The point is that the following so if you can give a thousand dollars to a candidate, you can give five million to a candidate. Then it becomes important if you are the sort of person who knows a thousand people who will come to a dinner and pay a thousand dollars. And the answer is where is that. There is money like that in Hollywood, and most importantly there is money like that on Wall Street. So if you get somebody's Wall Street investment banker they can invite five hundred people to give, a thousand dollars each and so all you have changed is the elite from individuals to --
POLSBY: Robin Ruben did that--Now there are some people in the world who think that Robin Rubin, the Secretary of Treasury not on his merits but because he bundled money. And you know, I suppose they believe in the Easter Bunny, too.
ROBINSON: Let me give you a proposal. We both discussed that the wars between Coke and Pepsi, billions of dollars, much more than it cost to establish public policy in this huge democracy of ours. Suppose we say we go back to the pre-1974 regime under which anybody gets to write a check for any amount any candidate or political party we want with one new twist which is that it gets published on the Internet within twenty-four hours. Would you go for that?
ROBINSON: Would you go for it?
POLSBY: Sure--There is a problem, I will go for it but I can tell you there is a problem. Which is -- and I can tell you what the problem is -- there are unpopular causes in third parties in this country who will suffer a chilling effect from people who might give them the money if it were not well known that they were doing so.
A famous example is the Klu Klux Klan would be interested in knowing who is giving money to support civil rights suits in the South.
ROBINSON: I see, bad news.
POLSBY: Alright now that's serious stuff. I believe in the current climate, it's a risk worth taking that such chilling effect will not be too damaging to the system. But there is a non-negligible problem that people have to understand we are overcoming.
ROBINSON: Money isn't everything though. Bob Dole spent several million dollars more than Bill Clinton and lost.
BOB, BOB BLACK SHEEP
ROBINSON: Why didn't Bob Dole get elected?
POLSBY: Why should he? We're moving that way without him.
ROBINSON: Did Clinton co-op enough of the Republican agenda?
POLSBY: I think that would certainly--
BRADY: He could not have won without Newt Gingrich.
POLSBY: Sure, I would say there were two architects of Clinton's victory. One of them was Bob Ruben who was the main voice in convincing Clinton to go for fiscal ..
ROBINSON: Bob Rubin the treasury secretary and wealthy money bundler.
POLSBY: That's right, and liberal. And liberal, and liberal, who said the first priority is not spending but economic stabilization. Grow the economy.
ROBINSON: That's liberal these days?
POLSBY: That was his view. Alright, alright, and he sold it to Clinton. Second architect was Clinton's victory. Newt Gingrich. How? Well, he closed down the government and basically gave everybody the impression that things were out of control under his leadership.
BRADY: President Clinton went too far left in 1993, health care, gays in the military, etc. etc. and that's my opinion is what I believe about him but irrespective of what happened. The 1994 elections were a huge slap in the face and then the Republicans on that dimension either didn't explain themselves properly on what it meant or went too far right and I am not willing to concede exactly on that point but where it got perceived is too right, so President Clinton by staying where he was, right, was the beneficiary of not being Newt Gingrich and the combination of being convinced to go for fiscal stability meant that there was no great spine that was grown. He was vetoing stuff that the average American was in favor of. So he didn't do anything to stay where he was, and Bob Dole could not have won. The same reason Walter Mondale couldn't have won in 1984. The economy was in great shape. The Republicans had a divisive primary. Nobody when it came out, it was very hard for people to believe that they were going to cut taxes to satisfy the supply siders, balance the budget and so on and so forth and I thought Bob Dole actually ran. I thought he ran a pretty good campaign, a very good campaign, getting to what he had to work with.
POLSBY: I happened to agree with that. He played the cards, he was dubbed. They were lousy cards. Dole has taken a lot of nonsense from a bunch of Republicans who couldn't possibly have done better. Just as Mondale did from the Democrats. They are both very much the same situation.
BRADY: It is like criticize. It is like they put me in a Chicago Bull's uniform and say go out and play and he is not Michael Jordan--woo-what a surprise but you might say, gee, for a really slow guy, low guy, he might have played really well.
ROBINSON: But didn't goal miss at least one big obvious opportunity right here in California?
PUT A FEATHER IN HIS CAP...AND CALLED IT MACARENA.
ROBINSON: The California Civil Rights initiative won in this state on the California ballot last election. It won by 54 to 46 percent. There wasn't a politician in the State of California or in the country on the Republican or the Democratic side who got close to it. Only an independent businessman, Ward Connerly.
POLSBY: Dole endorsed it,
ROBINSON: Dole endorsed it, and then backpeddled and then they were doing the whole mac-arena --
POLSBY: He endorsed it. In the San Diego debate, Clinton didn't say what side he was on and Dole endorsed it.
ROBINSON: But the point is isn't --
And the polls show that the public is opposed to affirmative action by large margins and virtually in every area of the country. So why is it that now in Congress you don't get the Republican. Nobody is hugging this issue, you don't stay away from it.
BRADY: The first and foremost, it's an issue that on the sensitive issue of race, you can be made to look bad on that issue and its gonna pass without your doing it and it's unclear that that translation. It is like in a sense, think of the Vietnam, an old article that Nelson and some of his colleagues did on the Vietnam War. The interesting point was that that didn't cut across the parties very well and I don't think the affirmative action cuts across the parties very well. That is if it was an eighty percent of Republicans and because Bob Dole says, I'm for affirmative action, when the Democratic party identifiers who were on Dole's side of that question didn't suddenly flock to both points.
ROBINSON: Why is this issue different?
POLSBY: Race is a tough issue in this country and it is something that people don't want to get on the wrong side of it and they want to make absolutely certain that they are not taking a position which will be in fact be harmful to African Americans and their interests. So it's a cautious, they don't want to be mean. They don't want to be mean and they certainly don't want to look mean.
ROBINSON: You have almost a certain ability to the political system's reticence in picking up this issue.
POLSBY: I think that reticence is a sign of good politicians and the more politicians we have were willing to be reticent about tough issues and who are not eager to inflame issues are the better off we are in the kind of system that we've got. Which is to say a system where there are a lot of people we have to make happy in order to make the system work.
ROBINSON: Dr. Nelson Polsby, Dr. David Brady, thank you very much.
ROBINSON: It's a big diverse country and in the words of Nelson Polsby, there are lots and lots of people American politicians need to keep happy. Lobster, sausage and grits. It's in the nature of American democracy. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.