A pervasive public mood for change. Or not.

A pervasive public mood for change. Or not.


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

  • Brittanicus

    When the American taxpayer is feeding, housing and giving free health care, to anybody who slips across the border. When our administration and those before them, allow the export of billions of dollars to Mexico and other third world countries. No wonder our nation is on the edge of a wilting economic precipice?
    Even without the war in Iraq, President Bush would have devastated our wavering economy. Mr. Bush nearly forced an illegal immigration AMNESTY on the hurting US taxpayer. But the people screamed loud and clear. NO path to citizenship. No AMNESTY! If we must have GUEST WORKERS for any job’s that American supposedly ‘Won’t Do..? Then they must not expect or receive any path to citizenship.

    According to the (1986) Immigration Control act. Section 274 felonies under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, INA 274A(a)(1)(A): they broke Federal law. It states, “..a person (including a group of persons, business, organization, or local government) Then Mayor Newsom, Mayor Villigrossa who must be held accountable for the deaths of 3 Bolgna family members, Jamiel Shaw under the obnoxious ‘Sanctuary City’ laws by illegal gang member filth.

    Personally I don’t trust either Obama, McCain, Palin, Biden or any one of our elected politicians. All they want to do is get elected and it will be basically more of the same, as the corporate donors call the shots. Time will quickly tell, if there is any real change in Washington?

    The international globalists don’t live in the world regular Americans live in, so issues like illegal alien crime, pollution, energy shortages don’t bother their lifestyles.

    That’s why the US Chamber of Commerce will endow on us with a path to citizenship for millions of illegal alien families. AMNESTY!

    We will be expected to support them. Forcibly assigned mandates to us to feed, house and give free health care to, that Americans cannot afford themselves. Look around you! Diversity, multiculturalism and finally balkanization will cause OVERPOPULATION. Unless we make English a mandatory language, America will condemn itself to a third world catastrophe.

    We are just importing even more poverty, which we will be supporting. If anything we need THE CREAM of engineers, scientists and PhD like other nations. Our Own people need help, instead of underwriting the impoverished around the world. Only the uncensored truth will open your eyes at NUMBERSUSA, CAPSWEB Read Judicial Watch site about importing poverty into America, that taxpayers are forced to support.

    Copy, Paste and Distribute Freely.

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    Didn’t the dems control both the executive and legislative branches during much of FDR’s time in office? I’m just saying, I believe we are at a realignment pont and to achieve the needed progress we need a presdient with vision and a congress that will allow him to execute that vision

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    Sure. But there are also examples of single party government (four years of Carter, first two years of Clinton administration) that were completely ineffective, and there are many examples of divided government that were highly productive. Mayhew’s finding is that Congressional productivity is uncorrelated to united vs. divided government – that single party government is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a legislative surge.

    If you are correct that we are at a “realignment point”, then whatever is that “realignment point” means – i.e. if it means that there is a broad agreement that change is needed on specific political issues – it is likely they will happen regardless of whether there is united or divided government. Mayhew also speculates about other drivers for “legislative surges”, but you’ll just have to read the book.

    If what you mean by “realignment point” is broad acceptance of the same old partisan Democratic liberal laundry list “vision” that Obama was flogging in his acceptance speech – I doubt it.

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    While I agree that Legislative surges can happen without united government, there is little reason to believe that true shifts like the New Deal or the Great society would have happened without a unified government, there was a reason so many of Truman’s plans in the “fair deal” failed or were scaled down, and that was because of congressional opposition, we won’t get the change we need at this point in time under a divided government, McCain and the republicans won’t support the Dem majority in congress, just like Bush and the Republicans haven’t supported the current dem majority, you’ll see little progress on the domestic policies we need to implement.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    I have a post idea percolating that I think is pertinent to your comment, but it’ll probably be a week or two before I get around to writing it. I’ll throw it out here even though it is half-baked. When you consider issues that the country is roughly split on, it often seems the best chance to get those things passed, is having a President that is considered to be on the opposite side of the issue. That is because with hard fought divisive issues, the primary legislative impact a president can have (besides a veto), is to restrain opposition by his own party.

    Some examples:
    GWB strong armed the Prescription Benefit Entitlement program. No Dem President could have pushed that through Republican opposition.

    Bill Clinton pushed through Welfare Reform. No Rep President could have pushed that through Dem opposition.

    Bill Clinton and Al Gore pushed through NAFTA. No Rep President could have pushed that through Dem opposition.

    GHB supported a tax increase compromise (that may have cost him re-election) No Dem President could have pushed that through Rep opposition.

    Reagan and GHB fostered Perestroika and normalizing relations with the Soviet Union. A Dem President would not have been able to restrain Rep opposition. As it is, GHB and Reagan were accused of being a Chamberlain-esque appeaser.

    Carter deregulated the airline, trucking, rail, communications, oil and finance industries. No Rep president would have been able to restrain Dem opposition.

    Nixon actually imposed wage/price controls on the whole country! I still can’t get over that one. Plus, despite being a McCarthy-esque red baiter, he signed the peace treaty with Vietnam,opened Red China and negotiated SALT and ABM treaties with the USSR. Under his administration OSHA, the EPA, the Office of Minority Business Enterprises came into existence and the first federal Affirmative Action program was initiated.

    Of course it does not always work this way, but it is surpisng how many examples like this there are. I’m not completely sure what to make of all it all, but one could infer that under an Obama administration we are more likely to get more oil drilling, nukes built, and free-trade agreements signed. Under a McCain administration we may be more likely to get Universal Health Care and stronger environmental action on Global Warming pushed through.

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    Problem is all of the examples you cite were during the last realignment period, one of my poli sci professors referred to it as the culture wars realignment, which was a direct result of white backlash/vietnam in the 60’s, and has echoed until now, however if we are now entering a new period as I believe we are, will that theory continue to hold true, as we can see from the new deal coalition era, that preceded the culture wars era, there was a benefit to the ruling party controlling a unified government, who knows what will be the result of a new era. I can understand your argument, however I am skeptical as to whether it will continue to hold true.

  • J. Harden

    one of my poli sci professors

    that explains a lot…just so you know Avinash, my poli sci professors were catagorical F*^%ing idiots.

  • mike mcEachran

    mw – that was on my mind the whole time I listened to McCain’s acceptance speech – that maybe only a Republican can make the changes we need. It also makes sense that the first woman on a winning ticket would be Republican – they hate Hillary – and not just because of her policies. But Palin…okay, now we can think about a woman. I hate to admit it, but there is a lot to be said for your theory. I just wish it weren’t true.

  • http://itsthe21stcenturystupid.wordpress.com/ Jim S

    The problem, mw, is that the Bush administration and the current generation of Republicans have broken your model. They have shown the way for their successors to break government, to bring it to a complete halt whenever they decide it gives them a political advantage so long as they have a Republican president and the Democrats don’t have 60+ votes in the Senate. The leadership does not believe in reaching across the aisle in spite of what John McCain says and they have the ability to keep their people in line. It doesn’t matter what it means to the country so long as they can spin it for political purposes. Since McCain has shown that he has sold whatever integrity he had to the far right of the party I have no reason to believe that he won’t do as he has promised and continue the overwhelming majority of Bush policies given a chance. And the Democrats will not be able to do a thing without that 60+ number.

  • BBQ

    I am curious what new era you think we are heading in or is it just that you think the culture wars era, as you referred to it, is ending?

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    I have no idea what you are saying. Who is the “ruling party”?

    Yeah… but I cannot figure out if there is anything “actionable” – as they say – about this observation. I need to noodle on it some more. Somebody with a PHD must have written about the phenomena somewhere.

    I’ll repeat that McCain has more of a documented track record of reaching across the aisle than Obama in the Senate. Remember the “Gang of 14”? McCain was the ringleader. A big part of the reason why he was reviled and attacked by the ragged right up to the eve of clinching the nomination was because of McCain’s stand in the Senate on the judicial appointments. If McCain sold out to right to get the nomination, please explain to me exactly what happened with Obama on Public Financing and Telecom Immunity. Was he selling out then, or is he selling out now? Which is the real Obama?

  • steeve

    —to all of you—

    this is why John McCain cant bring about a change.

    John McCain did think for himself for a very long time, and what all of you have said about his record of bipartisanship is true. He was a good man for a very long time, whether i agreed with his views or not i will give him that. But look where it got him.. Every time he ran for president he got shot down by his OWN party. The Republicans dont want a free-thinker they want a puppet (it may not have always been that way but thats how it is now). And as his ambition to be president has become more important to him than his values. He has sold out, and now the Republican party is using his “Maverick” image that expired 2 years ago as a basis for their campaign so that they can stay in control. He wont be running the show and neither will Palin.. He doesnt have the backbone to stand up for himself anymore, and Palin is just a political tool to them.. they have no respect for her.

    the McCain with values and principles died 2 years ago. Now hes just an old man who wants to be president so bad that he has sold out on everything he fought for.

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    mw, well until two years ago it was the GOP, since they had control of both the congress and the White house, not to mention a strong hand in the supreme court.

    BBQ, yes I would say that the culture wars era is ending, now knowing what era we are heading into is a bit more tricky, as that can really only be known in hindsight, however we can get hints if we look at the current economic and poltiical situation, as it is we are moving away from a period where the US was the clearly dominant world power and moving more towards an era where power is more distributed, both militarily and economically, in addition it also seems like the nation is trending more left, politically speaking, the backlash against liberalism caused by the riots of the 60’s and the vietnam war are fading, both due to the fact that those who came of age in that era are now aging, and because we now have the Iraq war, which has resulted in its own backlash against the right.

  • http://itsthe21stcenturystupid.wordpress.com/ Jim S

    mw, that was then and this is now and McCain has sworn to nominate people like Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas. He has promised that he will continue the Bush tax policies. This is what you were discussing, how McCain in the White House and a Democratic Congress would be the best thing. Your attack on Obama has nothing to do with what I pointed out about how the Republicans of the last 8 years have come up with a strategy that destroys your claims about the virtues of divided government.