October 31, 2013 § 8 Comments
The all-powerful and nefarious Israel lobby is in the news again. On Tuesday, the White House briefed officials from the Israel lobby Legion of Doom – AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – on efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, with the real aim being to get pro-Israel groups on board with the effort not to impose new sanctions on Iran. In the administration’s view, the tough sanctions that have been imposed accomplished the task of getting Iran to the negotiating table, and now that Iran appears ready to talk, even more sanctions will be counterproductive by spurring Iran to make a reinforced push to go nuclear. On the other side is Congress, where the overwhelming view is that biting sanctions are the only reason that Iran agreed to negotiate at all, and now is the time to ramp up pressure in order to force Iran into a deal rather than allowing the Iranian government to use negotiations as a mechanism for running out the clock. So far, pro-Israel groups appear to be leaning toward Congress’s view of things, and Tuesday’s meeting was part of the White House’s strategy for getting Congress to hold off.
Naturally, the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel groups received a private NSC briefing on Iran has a bunch of people up in arms about the Israel lobby wielding inappropriately outsized power, and a bunch of more unreasonable people raging about Jews controlling U.S. foreign policy. For Mondoweiss, the meeting is the latest datapoint for the proposition that Jews and the Israel lobby are the groups that count the most in foreign policy and that pro-Israel rightwing hawks drive U.S. policy in the Middle East. There is little question that pro-Israel groups are influential and that AIPAC is extremely successful, but where the argument breaks down is when it gets taken to Walt and Mearsheimer proportions, i.e. that pro-Israel groups are able to push the U.S. government into doing things it would not otherwise do or that pro-Israel groups are able to control outcomes in Congress. Max Fisher yesterday compared the lobbying efforts to strike Syria and the lobbying efforts to capture African warlord Joseph Kony and noted that the “all-powerful lobby narrative” does not stand up to the evidence at hand. I’ll quote Fisher directly on the section on AIPAC:
If the conventional wisdom about lobbying and U.S. foreign policy were true, we would expect Obama to have received wide support for his Syria plan and basically zero support for the Central African hunt for Kony. But that’s the opposite of how it turned out.
In mid-September, as President Obama pushed to get Congress’s support for Syria strikes, his administration turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. If you’ve spent any time at all working on Israeli issues, Palestinian issues or MidEast issues generally, you’ve heard people on all ideological ends of the spectrum speak in hushed tones about the awesome power of AIPAC. Critics of the right-leaning, pro-Israel group often refer to it simply as “The Lobby,” as if it were so powerful that other lobbyist organizations hardly even mattered. It’s not considered especially controversial to suggest that the group plays a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
AIPAC’s influence is thought to be strongest in Congress, where support for pro-Israeli policies is indeed bipartisan and passionately held. Its membership is thought to include lots of Washington power-brokers and heavy-hitters, the types who, in the common telling, pull all the hidden levers of American governance and foreign policy. So when AIPAC began lobbying on behalf of Obama’s Syria strike plan, many assumed it was a done deal, particularly since the administration most needed help in Congress, turf AIPAC knows well.
There is every indication that AIPAC threw its full weight into generating support for Obama’s Syria plan, both in Congress and among its own constituency. But the group failed utterly to even move the needle on the policy: Congress only strengthened its opposition to Obama’s Syria strikes. It was a rare public test of AIPAC’s ability to shape U.S. foreign policy and it flunked.
As Fisher then goes on to explain, the lobbying campaign to go after Kony was carried out by underfunded, inexperienced, not well connected lobbyists who targeted high school and college students, a group not exactly known for its power and influence. Yet the Kony campaign succeeded to the point where the U.S. military is currently engaged in what has been a fruitless search to locate Kony, backed by Congressional support that has not wavered. How to explain this conundrum? Fisher suggests that public opinion may be the answer, but I’ll take it one step further: public opinion is absolutely the answer, particularly when it comes to AIPAC. Pro-Israel groups succeed when the cause they are championing is already popular, and they fail when it isn’t. Yes, AIPAC is very-well connected, pro-Israel groups get courted, and even get benefits – such as private briefings – that other groups do not get. But let’s take a look at why support for increased sanctions are running so high in Congress and why the White House campaign to keep them steady is going to fail (hint: it has nothing to do with what AIPAC does or does not want).
In mid-September, Gallup did a poll asking whether Americans consider Iran to be an ally, friendly, unfriendly, or an enemy. 45% of respondents categorized Iran as an enemy and 38% said Iran is unfriendly. In early June, a CBS/NYT poll found that 58% of respondents favored military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon while 37% opposed it. In March, Pew asked people which was more important: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action, or avoiding military conflict with Iran even if it means that Iran develops a nuclear weapon, and 64% favored military action vs. 25% who wanted to avoid military conflict. Finally, in the most recent poll that asked about sanctions, which was from March 2012 (after the first round of sanctions had already been put in place), 74% were in favor of increasing sanctions against Iran while 21% were not. (All of the polls can be found here). Given Iran’s recent outreach efforts following Rouhani’s election, it is very possible that a poll taken today would find that support for increasing sanctions is below that 74% number, but I doubt it’s down in a significant way given the current numbers viewing Iran as hostile. The point here is that AIPAC does not need to do much lobbying of Congress to get it to support increased sanctions, because this is a policy that is overwhelmingly popular. The idea that Congress would be marching in lockstep with the White House’s foreign policy preferences on this issue were it not for the covert whisperings of Howard Kohr and Abe Foxman is simply nonsense and intellectual laziness. When AIPAC’s preferences align with public opinion, it is successful; when its preferences go against public opinion, it’s not. It is really that simple, and if you want a lot more on this, go read my (unfortunately paywalled) peer-reviewed article in Security Studies on this very subject, complete with case studies and everything (link is here).
The irony of this is that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book and the loud insistence of Israel lobby truthers that AIPAC controls U.S. policy in the Middle East has, more than anything else, enhanced the power of pro-Israel groups by convincing a growing number of people that the mistaken perception is actually true. This in turn leads to government officials believing the hype, and thus you get the ADL and AJC invited to a private briefing at the White House out of a belief that these groups have far more power than they actually do. The bottom line is that Congress in this instance is going to do what public opinion tells it to do, and the Israel lobby’s preference that Iran sanctions be increased is not what is driving policy here in any real way.
May 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
Every so often I feel compelled to write something that has nothing to do with Israel or Turkey, the wider Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and today is one of those days. Instead of my usual fare, let me take a brief moment and use the current controversies engulfing the Obama administration to rant about how the silly debate over the size of government is entirely misplaced. Conservatives look at the IRS targeting Tea Party groups applying for non-profit status and quite naturally take away the lesson that big government is the problem and that the size of the public sector needs to be reduced. Similarly, big government is viewed as the culprit now that news has emerged that the Department of Justice secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and email and phone records from Fox News reporter James Rosen in the pursuit of leak investigations. The argument is that were the government not so big, such abuses, mistakes, scandals, or whatever one wants to term them would not take place because the government would not have the resources to go after its enemies or people whom it feels like targeting.
This is a nice theory, but not only is it entirely inapt in these particular cases, it threatens to divert attention from a far more serious problem that is literally a threat to our system of democracy (and no, I am not being hyperbolic). To begin with, reducing the size of government would have had no impact on these cases. In the IRS case, the evidence in the New York Times reporting suggests that the problem was a severely understaffed regional office populated by under-qualified employees who were not prepared for the flood of 501(c)(4) applications that came their way, and they thus came up with the highly problematic solution of coming up with a shortcut to isolate applications from groups that they suspected were not truly socially welfare oriented. There is no evidence to date that this was a result of political pressure from above, and in fact the IRS is made up career bureaucrats who work there for years, so it would be odd to suggest that somehow the IRS is populated with partisan liberal Democrats going on witch hunts. Rather than big government being the problem here, the truth is the opposite; were the IRS sufficiently funded and staffed, applications could actually be considered properly rather than be subjected to shortcuts designed to manage an unmanageable workload in a timely fashion. (Full disclaimer here: I work for an organization whose tax-exempt status is right now under consideration by the IRS, and I am furious that it will likely be delayed even further now due to the political uproar taking place.)
Let’s move on to the AP scandal, which is actually a much bigger deal. In this case, the DOJ went on a fishing expedition to determine who leaked information to the AP after the national security threat had passed. In other words, the White House was mad that the information was going to come out at all, and so it engaged in massive overreach in trying to find out who the leaker was in targeting phone records that were likely to be outside the narrow scope that the law permits. Furthermore, the government did not even ask the AP to comply with a request for the records before subpoenaing them, which to me says that it knew that its actions were way over the line of what is reasonable. Now, in this case as well, the problem is not a government that is too big. DOJ does not require massive amounts of funding or personnel to improperly subpoena phone records. The AP case does, however, illuminate the true problem, which is not how big the government is, but what power we allow it to acquire. The AP case is not the only one in the news involving government investigations of leaks. Fox News reporters James Rosen, who reported classified information that he was leaked about North Korea, had his work and personal phone records seized, his work and personal emails searched, his visits to the State Department tracked, and even his parents’ phone records were seized. Perhaps this is not overzealous behavior given that Rosen’s reporting may have put rare intelligence assets in North Korea at risk and so finding the leaker was of paramount importance. I am open to this argument despite having my doubts as to the necessity of casting such a wide net. But even granting that is the case, the government went one step further, and actually named Rosen in a court affidavit as a “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.” Placing a reporter who benefits from a leak in one of these categories is literally unprecedented in American history, and if you don’t think this is a big deal that leads to a very slippery slope, then all I can say is that you are simply not paying close enough attention.
For those keeping score at home, the Obama administration has now been the first to claim the right of the government to kill an American citizen without sufficient due process of law by any reasonable definition of the term, and also the first to identify a reporter doing his First Amendment-protected job as a criminal co-conspirator. Neither of these two things have anything at all to do with the size of the government, and everything to do with the powers that we accord the government – or, more accurately in this case, the powers that the government claims unopposed. I frequently take to Twitter, as I did last week, to make a variation of the following point, which is that I do not understand how more people are not up in arms about this, and particularly Democrats. Every single datapoint from political theory and history demonstrates that once the government gains the power to do something, it never gives it back. Are we supposed to trust the White House on these issues because Obama campaigned on maintaining civil liberties despite the national security challenges the country faces, or because he gave a nice speech in 2009 at the National Archives claiming that we did not have to make any trade-offs between security and freedom? While talking the talk, the government has claimed powers under his watch that not even Bush and Cheney asserted that they had. I shudder to think of what the next administration will do given the precedents set by this one, and if you don’t think that the White House knows what a problem this is, recall that a year ago they were frantically trying to set down written legal guidelines (which so far do not exist) for the drone war since they realized how out of control things might become with a potential Romney administration.
The idea that we should trust Obama on these issues because he is a Democrat is ridiculous, and in fact it should make people even more outraged and even more willing to scream and yell and pressure the administration. I keep on waiting and waiting for someone other than Rand Paul to start raising these issues, and it is high time that Democrats do so, because before you know it, the government is going to start claiming powers in the interest of national security that are even more expansive and wider in scope. That may be fine for some people while Obama is in the White House, although I don’t quite understand why, but remember that government powers once claimed live on forever no matter how big or small that government is, and pretty soon someone else is going to be sitting in the Oval Office. Please watch Obama’s speech tomorrow that is supposed to serve as a bookend to his 2009 speech and listen carefully to what he has to say, because anything short of a repudiation of what has gone on under his gaze should be considered unacceptable.
January 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
When leaders are reelected to a second term, it is not surprising that they turn over their top foreign policy, defense, and security officials in order to get fresh blood into the system. With top diplomats stepping down from their posts and defense secretaries retiring, one often needs to usher in an entire new team, as we see taking place right now. One particular future top official, however, should be particularly scrutinized over some questionable stances toward Israel, Iran, and the Palestinians, and of course we all know to whom I am referring. Pro-Israel groups should be rightly concerned at the prospect of this former legislator leaving political retirement and returning to a position of power.
Let’s start with the vitriol about the role of Israel in American politics. “I resent the idea that Israel is part of the political agenda in United States’ campaigns, really,” declares this future cabinet member. These are obviously the words of someone who harbors a resentment bordering on hatred toward Israel and does not want the U.S. to maintain a pro-Israel stance. Then there is the pride at the fact that President Obama does not always see eye to eye with Prime Minister Netanyahu and that this is an element that will be passed on to this surrogate as well. “He [Obama] has some differences between him and Mr. Netanyahu. But I have some differences between Mr. Netanyahu and myself, as well.” This is a person who clearly does not respect the fact that the Israeli prime minister must be heeded in all situations, and mistakenly believes that the wishes of the U.S. should be taken into account in any significant way at all.
Then there are the misguided views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This future cabinet official goes too far toward placing the burden of a peace deal on Israel while maintaining that Mahmoud Abbas is a moderate who wants nothing more than to work out an agreement with the Israelis. Despite the fact that Abbas will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state or unambiguously denounce attacks on Israelis, the blame is consistently placed on Netanyahu for not trying hard enough. This person has repeatedly stated that the Netanyahu government has spent four years telling Israelis they had no partner for peace when the reverse was true, and that Abbas cannot be blamed for not entering into new talks when the Israeli government was so overtly hostile to him. This is a stance that of course undermines Israel and is not one that a true friend of Israel would ever voice.
Finally, there is the contention that an Iranian nuclear weapon does not actually pose an existential threat to Israel, which demonstrates an unacceptable disregard for Israeli safety and security and a condescending attitude toward the real dangers that Israel faces. Even worse is the claim that Israeli prime ministers inflate the threat emanating from Iran and play on the public’s fears for political gain. Worst of all might be promoting the linkage theory that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help the situation with Iran because progress on creating a Palestinian state will help Israel broaden its coalition and remove an issue that Iran uses to its advantage.
The views and statements expressed above are beyond the pale for any true Israel supporter. That the person espousing them should be forced to explain and defend them is a given, and the pro-Israel community needs to gear up and make sure that this once-respected voice on foreign affairs does not get a chance to push these views in the highest echelons of government. Israel needs true friends in high posts rather than people who seek to undermine Israel at every turn under the guise of knowing what is best for her. So I fully expect every right-thinking supporter of Israel to do everything in their power to make sure that Tzipi Livni – former Likud member, past Mossad operative, and Ariel Sharon protege – does not join the Netanyahu coalition after the election and resume her position as Foreign Minister. Because anyone who does not accept Bibi’s view of the world and thinks that Abbas is actually someone who can be negotiated with rather than a diplomatic terrorist must be anti-Israel, whether they are a former U.S. senator or an Israeli politician who has served as opposition leader and as a cabinet minister in multiple posts. Right?
P.S. The quotes and views attributed to Livni in this post can be found at the following links (which I didn’t want to embed for fear of someone clicking on them in the course of reading and ruining the end):
December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments
I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.
I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.
The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding, and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.
Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.
None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least – is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.
November 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
The last seven days are making my blogging hobby a lot easier, since between the election and the ensuing nuttiness, I am getting to throw out stuff that I routinely use when teaching political science classes. Today’s post is prompted by the news that a growing number of citizens are seeking to secede from the United States following President Obama’s reelection. Leading the charge is Texas, which is not surprising given Governor Rick Perry’s previous threats to secede. The White House has a policy of issuing an official response to any petition on its website garnering over 25,000 signatures, and the secession petition from Texas is at 35,000 and counting, meaning that the Obama administration is actually going to have waste its time and respond to this ludicrous request.
The would-be secessionists claim that because Texas “maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world, it is practically feasible for Texas to withdraw from the union,” which is an interesting statement to make. It represents a peculiar strain of thought arguing that there is very little use for the federal government and that the states making up the U.S. somehow operate in a vacuum, as if Texas’s balanced budget and large economy are self-sustaining enterprises that are not enhanced by having a centralized national government. When I read this petition, I couldn’t help but think of an exercise that I do with students when lecturing about the role of the state, which is to ask them how many times a day they interact with the government. Most students get the obvious ones, like taxes that get taken out of paychecks or seeing police patrolling the streets, but when it comes to the federal government, it goes much deeper than that. This will be obvious to many people, but it bears thinking about since an alarming number of Americans seem to think that their individual states have the capacity to be completely autonomous entities.
Everyone in this country enjoys benefits conferred from the federal government literally hundreds of times each day. I’ll take my morning as an illustrative example. I wake up every day around 6:15, and the reason I know this to be a fact rather than a random guess is because the federal government sets and maintains the official time in this country according to an atomic clock run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. When I brush my teeth and shower with clean water rather than sludge, it is because the federal government has taken upon itself to ensure that Americans have clean water. I once spent a summer in rural Ukraine, and I assure you that clean water coming out of faucets is not something that just happens. When I get breakfast for my kids and they don’t get violently ill, it’s because the federal government is in charge of food safety regulations and inspections. If I lived in China I might not be so lucky, particularly given that my daughter and I both put milk into our morning cereal and my son occasionally drinks infant formula during the day. You know what the best part of my morning is though? The fact that I don’t have foreign soldiers parachuting down from the sky Red Dawn-style and that I don’t have to worry about a missile taking out my house, because the federal government has kindly assumed the task of national defense, which is a public good that would be prohibitively costly for individual states to provide. I could go on, but you get the point.
The secessionist malcontents bragging about Texas’s balanced budget and large economy would instantly be bankrupted if they had to raise their own army, patrol their own border, maintain their own fleet of tanks and fighter jets and naval vessels, and conduct their own diplomacy with foreign countries. Keeping time isn’t such a big deal, but clean water, food safety, and hundreds of other similar things would quickly bury Texas under the weight of its commitments. There is a reason that the federal government assumes responsibility for this stuff, and it’s not because it has a desire to snuff out liberty or enslaves its citizens. I get it – a lot of people thought Mitt Romney was going to win, and now that he didn’t they are kind of bummed. But guess what? In a democracy, when the candidate you supported loses an election, you go home and hope that the next election goes your way rather than trying to secede from the country.
This also gives me the opportunity to publicize one of my favorite crackpot theories of all time (h/t to Professor Charles King for this one). There is a prominent and well-respected Russian political scientist named Igor Panarin who has been predicting since 1998 that the U.S. is going to break up into six different parts following a civil war – which, by the way, was supposed to start in 2010 – that is provoked by a secessionist movement led by certain wealthy states. According to Panarin’s map, while the East Coast is going to join the European Union and the West Coast will be controlled by China, Texas and much of the American South is going to end up part of Mexico. Somehow, I don’t think the secessionists in Texas would be too pleased with that outcome.
November 8, 2012 § 4 Comments
I know this is very far afield from my usual area of focus, but Donald Trump’s twitter tirade against the Electoral College and exhorting people to start a revolution when he for some reason had it in his largely empty head that Mitt Romney was going to win the popular vote gave me a hankering to write today’s post. There is always a lot of hand-wringing this time of year about the Electoral College, which to many is the most mysterious and baffling aspect of American democracy. The problem that most people have with the Electoral College is that it can lead to a situation like we had in 2000, when a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the presidency, which seems like a blatantly anti-democratic outcome. This is an enormous concern, but it overlooks the fact that the Electoral College was created because the framers wanted to mitigate some of the problems they saw with direct popular election. The question then to be asked is not necessarily whether the Electoral College was a bad idea, but whether it is now anachronistic; in other words, do the reasons for which it was created still apply today?
The first concern the framers had with direct popular election was that the people would be easily influenced by small groups with ulterior motives. The framers’ concern on this issue turned out to be unwarranted, but perhaps not in the way that they had anticipated. While small groups have not had a large effect on voting trends, extremely large groups have – namely the Republican and Democratic parties. The Federalist Papers’ warning against faction is well known, as is the founders’ early revulsion of political parties, but it is the two major parties that have exerted the greatest influence on voters. So in this sense, the first of the major concerns was not historically borne out, although the decision to create a body that meets only once and then disbands, and whose eligibility requirements work to exclude elected federal officials, was quite prescient. The small groups of influential men that the framers were worried about can easily be construed as today’s various political lobbies, who unquestionably exert a great deal of influence on both the executive and legislative branches, but not on individual voters. While voters being easily swayed might have been a legitimate concern in 1787, it is not one anymore.
If anything, the Electoral College has allowed small groups of voters to wield disproportionate power in influencing the outcome of a state’s electoral votes. The framers were worried not about this, but about people being easily influenced by small groups that had their own best interests at heart. This unintended consequence is in a similar vein, however, since it allows narrowly focused special interests to punch above their weight. This sounds quite similar to what the framers were trying to guard against, yet this type of behavior is facilitated by the Electoral College and would be negated by popular election.
The second large apprehension about popular election, which was that the country was too large for the people to be sufficiently informed about the presidential candidates, is most definitely no longer in force. Despite the expansion of the country from the Eastern seaboard west to the Pacific Ocean, and despite the enormous population growth that has taken place since the country’s founding, there has never been greater availability of information about those running for office than exists today. We live in the Information Age, and with the advent of the Internet, 24 hour news channels, the constant news cycle, and presidential campaigns that begin two years before the actual vote, it is a given that voters are as sufficiently informed as they’d like to be about those who choose to run for president.
There is also evidence that points to the fact that voters are better informed in a presidential election year than they are during midterm elections for their state’s congressmen. In 2000, 82% of respondents surveyed watched at least one television program about the campaign, as compared to 62% in 2002. In 2000, 76% indicated that they care who wins the presidential election, whereas only 61% indicated that they care who wins the Congressional elections. It is a given that most people know more about the presidential candidates (and can actually name them) than they know about those running for the seat in their Congressional district. In 1787, this could not have been anticipated, due to the fact that information about candidates was not nearly as widely disseminated, so there was a better chance that the people would know something about local politicians than ones from out of state. In addition, the framers might not have anticipated the president becoming the public face of the country to the extent that he is today. It is clear, however, that the ill-informed electorate which so concerned the framers no longer exists, removing the second major impediment to popular election.
The third fear of the framers was that the president would always come from a large state and a Northern state if popularly elected. In fact, even with the Electoral College, only two presidents have made their primary residences in small states (Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire, and Bill Clinton in Arkansas). However, the fear that large states would only vote for candidates from their own state or from other large states was unfounded. It is clear that the framers did not anticipate the two party system that emerged, hence the fear was that each state would vote for a favorite son candidate. Under the two party system, it is impossible for states to only vote for local presidential candidates since only two states get this opportunity. Even when the opportunity arises, it is never certain that a candidate will carry his own state, as demonstrated by Al Gore’s inability to carry Tennessee.
In addition, large states do not necessarily have a tendency today to vote for a large state candidate. The most recent example is the presidential election of 1992, when Bill Clinton ran from a small state and George H.W. Bush ran from Texas. Despite his Arkansas roots, Clinton carried large states such as California (54 electoral votes), Illinois (22 electoral votes), Michigan (18 electoral votes), New York (33 electoral votes), Ohio (21 electoral votes), and Pennsylvania (23 electoral votes). In fact, Clinton carried seven out of the ten most populous states in 1992, so the most recent election in which a small state candidate ran against a large state candidate indicates that the fear of large states only voting for large state candidates is no longer warranted, if indeed it ever was.
The North versus South concern was due to the disparity in eligible voters caused by slavery, but since slavery and the 3/5 rule no longer exist, this particular rationale for the Electoral College also no longer exists. Furthermore, the notion that Northerners would not vote for a Southern candidate is also no longer a political reality, to which the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton can attest. In 1976, the original Northern states of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island voted for Carter, and in 1992, Clinton carried the original Northern states of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. If anything, today’s political reality is that Northern candidates have trouble getting votes in the South, and not the other way around.
In short, the most compelling reason to do away with the Electoral College is that its outcomes and its operation subvert the very rationales for which it was put into place. The great fear of popular election was that it would never produce a national figure, since the residents of each state would only vote for candidates with whom they were familiar. The Electoral College was supposed to encourage candidates who were national figures in that they would appeal to people from all the states, which would let all states have a say in who became president. The current incentive structure has, of course, created the opposite effect, in which the only states that truly matter are the small number of battleground states. Were the Electoral College to be abandoned in favor of popular vote, the focus would shift back to all of the states instead of just some of them, and the framers’ intentions of candidates appealing to everyone rather than to targeted groups would be realized.
November 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
As it became clear last night that President Obama was headed for an easy victory, a bunch of people on my twitter feed began speculating – or more accurately, making jokes – about what this would mean for Bibi Netanyahu. The joking actually turned into a serious conversation about whether Obama will somehow punish Netanyahu for his perceived support of Romney and clashes with the president, with some going so far as to speculate that he will tell Netanyahu that no help on Iran is forthcoming. It seems that Netanyahu is worried himself, as he is already clamping down on Likud members who are expressing negative reactions to Obama’s reelection out of fear that it will damage his standing with the White House even further.
Despite what is obviously not a great relationship between the two men, I don’t quite see how Obama’s reelection is going to have much of a negative effect on Netanyahu or the U.S.-Israel relationship at large. This is true for a few reasons. First, as Steven Cook persuasively argued last month, the relationship is institutionalized to the point that personal animosity between the countries’ leaders is not going to have much of an effect, if any. Let’s assume that Obama decides this morning that he wants to put the screws on Netanyahu – what precisely is he going to do? Aid to Israel is controlled by Congress, the joint military and intelligence cooperation is so deeply ingrained that it would take a long time to reverse, and there are deep ties between the two countries at all levels of government, business, and society. There are smaller things that Obama could do on the margins, but the immediate consequences are close to zero.
Second, and I cannot stress this enough, if you think that the myriad of ways in which Obama supported Israel during his first term was just a feint to win an election, then you are falling victim to the same delusion that said Nate Silver and all of the polls predicting an Obama win were deliberately skewing the evidence. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that all of a sudden funding for Iron Dome, joint military exercises, vetoing of anti-Israel UN resolutions, and other similar actions are going to stop now that Obama doesn’t have to worry about senior citizens’ votes in Florida. I will bet any amount of money that there is no drop-off in the administration’s support of Israel in the security and diplomatic spheres, and the folks who think otherwise have a large burden of proof to overcome that cannot be swept away merely by shouting “but he didn’t visit Israel” or “he left Netanyahu waiting while he ate dinner with his family.”
Third, Obama is not very popular among Israelis, and so even if he wanted to punish Netanyahu by trying to interfere in the Israeli election, it just wouldn’t work. Bill Clinton might have been able to sway Israelis when he was president, but Obama does not have the popularity, credibility, or familiarity with Israeli voters to pull of such a move. The fact that Obama was reelected is not going to factor into Israelis’ calculations when they go to the polls, as Brent Sasley helpfully pointed out previously. The idea that Netanyahu now has to be running scared because his hopes to have Romney elected did not pan out is a pretty flimsy one.
Finally, the suggestion that Obama is now going to tell Netanyahu that the U.S. has no interest in confronting Iran makes little sense to me based on previous U.S. actions and Obama’s long record of statements indicating that he views an Iranian nuclear bomb as a real problem. Aside from Stuxnet, crippling sanctions, and an increased carrier presence in the Gulf, Obama has made clear that preventing nuclear proliferation is perhaps the foreign policy issue that he holds most dear. The disagreement between he and Netanyahu over the red line of nuclear capability vs. nuclear weapons is still going to be there, but Obama has held firm to his own timeline so far and he is not going to now somehow make it even more firm because he has been reelected. The bottom line here is that Obama is worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon as well, and he is not going to drop his concerns just because he and Netanyahu do not get along very well.
P.S. For another argument on why the Obama revenge meme is an ill-informed one that focuses on different variables than mine, check out Peter Beinart this morning.
November 6, 2012 § 8 Comments
Whenever I teach intro to comparative politics (or Comparative Political Systems as we call it at Georgetown), I always start the class off with the following anecdote. There was a leader of a country who was in power for over a decade and was forced out of office before he was ready to step down. The leader’s bitter rival, who had spent months painstakingly turning elites and the general population against the country’s ruler, took over power and embarked on a crusade to cement his own hold over the country. After nearly a decade marked by scandal and recriminations, the current leader was retiring and the first leader’s son, who had a severe alcohol problem, a string of failed business ventures to his name, and was chased by allegations of drug use, decided that he wanted to run the country. He challenged the current president’s hand-picked successor, accusing him of being involved in scandals and misusing the military and vowing to avenge his father’s loss. A vote was held that was marked by all sorts of irregularities and accusations of fraud, and when the dust cleared it turned out that the current president’s successor had won the most votes.
The challenger was not willing to accept his loss though, and being stymied by the results of the election, he approached the country’s constitutional court, a majority of whose judges were appointed by his father when he had been in power, and convinced the judges declare him the winner through a technicality and order the current president’s government to step down and cede power. Knowing that there was a genuine sense of anger among the former president’s powerful supporters and that he was facing a crisis of legitimacy that would hamper his rule, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure that he had the army on his side, he then appointed popular military officials from his father’s government, including the former commanding general of the country’s army and the former defense minister, to high ministerial posts in his own government. He then proceeded to organize a parade through the streets of the capital that literally brought him to the steps of the presidential palace, where he placed the outgoing president on a military helicopter and sent him away.
I then always ask my students what they think will happen next. Is this country going to be stable, or is it likely to go through years of repression and civil war? They invariably answer that the country is going to experience an outbreak of violence and that authoritarian rule will prevail, and when I tell them that this series of events actually occurred somewhere, they guess Iraq, China, or Saudi Arabia. Only once has a student immediately realized what probably all of you have already, which is that the country I am describing is the United States under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush. Considered in a vacuum, the fact that the U.S. simply moved on in the aftermath of the 2000 election is mind-boggling, but it is not at all unusual when you stop to consider that this is the effect that democratic politics has on a state and a society. There was simply no question that once the Supreme Court ended the recount, effectively making Bush the president, there would be no violence or rioting, no military coup, no measures to prevent the new president from moving into the White House, and that the Clinton administration would stand aside for the Bush administration.
As Americans we take this for granted, because this is the way our country works and has always worked (save for that pesky Civil War), but in the grand sweep of history it is nothing short of remarkable. Not only do we get the opportunity every fourth year to decide who will be president, but when the incumbent is voted out or must step down after two terms, the most powerful person in the world and commander-in-chief of the most awesome fighting force in the history of mankind unfailingly vacates his post peacefully and makes no move to hang on to the trappings of absolute power. Just take a minute to reflect on how improbable this would be were it to happen once, let alone routinely as a matter of course for over two centuries. Take a minute to reflect on what an incredible country this is and how lucky we are to be living in it.
Something else to keep in mind on this Election Day is that as American citizens we get to select our leaders, but we are also voting in an election that for many countries is more consequential than their own election. The decisions taken by the president and the Congress directly impact the lives of billions of people across the globe and determine whether they will live in peace and security or whether they will live in an environment that is considerably worse. It is a solemn and awesome burden, and even if you are not thrilled with the choices that you are presented with on your ballot this year, please think about how those billions of people worldwide would jump at the chance that you have today, and make sure to vote. We talk about exercising our right to vote, and it is aptly described as a right, but it is also a privilege and a responsibility. The simple act of voting to elect our president and representatives reverberates around the entire world and such a thing should not be taken lightly or treated callously, and it is a right that under no circumstance should go discarded or unexercised. Go out and vote, reflect on how lucky we are to live in such an amazing place and time, and have a very happy Election Day.
A short Election Day programming note: I will be spending the evening at National Public Radio headquarters in DC, watching the returns and tweeting out my thoughts as we (hopefully) find out who our next president will be. I am really excited about it, so if you don’t already follow me on Twitter, my handle is @mkoplow and I’ll be tweeting all night.
October 23, 2012 § 2 Comments
So, how about that foreign policy debate last night? Among some of the international affairs topics discussed by our two august candidates for president was the auto industry bailout, economic opportunities for the middle class, how to balance the budget, bayonet manufacturing and horse husbandry…well, you get the point. I made a joke on Twitter before the debate started alluding to the fact that, unlike during the first two debates, nobody was going to be complaining about the lack of foreign policy in this debate, but turns out the joke was on me. Mitt Romney was all too happy to shift the debate away from foreign policy to the economy and President Obama for some reason followed. I’m still waiting for the promised foreign policy debate.
One topic that did come up early and often, however, was Israel. Obama was the first to break the seal, and both candidates spent a lot of time playing up their pro-Israel credentials. Curiously, Romney initially seemed to back off his early and often claim that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” and when he resurrected his usual line of attack later on, Obama hit back at him hard by comparing Romney’s fundraising trip to Israel to Obama’s own trip to Israel during the previous campaign when Obama visited Yad Vashem and the rocket-scarred border town of Sderot. So aside from the fact that the debate was held in Boca Raton and that Florida has a large Jewish population, why so much focus on Israel? As much as some people like to shout about the Israel lobby, Israel happens to be very popular with U.S. voters generally, and some important swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have a high percentage of Jewish voters. The race by each candidate to establish pro-Israel bonafides is caused by the electoral college, and not the Israel lobby. Were there a national popular vote rather than a state-by-state one, Israel would come up a lot less.
More interesting is not that Israel was mentioned so often (22 times vs. not one mention of Europe, which is a staggering fact to digest about a supposed foreign policy debate given everything going on in the Eurozone at the moment), but that Obama was the first one to do it. Israel is generally viewed as a weak spot for Obama given the uneasy relationship he has with Bibi Netanyahu and the constant GOP attacks on Obama’s record toward Israel, and I would have bet that Romney would bring up Israel and try to hammer Obama over the head with it and force him to play defense. That Obama preempted Romney and repeated again and again that Israel is America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, that Egypt breaking its peace treaty with Israel is a red line for the U.S., and that the U.S. will back Israel if it is attacked says to me that the Obama campaign has some internal polling that is scaring it to death. Obama had clearly also prepared a strong and challenging answer for Romney’s contention that Obama was not sufficiently pro-Israel and he hit him hard with it when the opportunity arose. Obama knows that beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and continuing through his own victory in 2008, only once has a Democrat been elected president without winning at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote (Jimmy Carter received 64 percent in 1976), and I think based on last night that he is legitimately worried about what will happen should he miss that threshold.
A few other quick and not so quick thoughts on non-Israel related topics:
There was much speculation a few months ago about which camp was winning the fight for Romney’s foreign policy soul, the neoconservative wing or the GOP establishment realist wing. It seems pretty clear after last night that John Bolton and Romney’s other neocon advisors appear to have lost the battle. Romney disavowed intervention in Syria and was not pushing too hard for a war with Iran, and in many ways agreed with much of what Obama has been trying to do.
For me, the most disheartening part of of the debate last night was the brief section on drones. The reason it was brief is because Obama and Romney apparently have the exact same position on the subject, which is that drones are a great tool that the U.S. employs and are entirely unproblematic. I know most people don’t think much about the drone war taking place in Pakistan and that the public is generally supportive of it, but this is something that desperately needs to be debated. As Justin Green succinctly put it, “This is the time partisanship should cause these questions to arise, but instead we have a consensus on the issue. Shameful.” Leaving aside the fact that the drone war may be radicalizing an entire new generation of people, or that it leaves large numbers of civilian casualties in its wake, or that the Obama administration has taken the unprecedented – and to my mind blatantly unconstitutional – step of claiming the right to kill American citizens extrajudicially via drones without any type of meaningful due process, there is another serious issue the drone war raises, which is that we are opening a dangerous Pandora’s box. At some point other states are going to ramp up their use of drones as well, and I don’t quite know what our response will be given our current behavior when China or Russia or Iran starts flying drones over U.S. territory. I desperately wish that if this issue were to unite both parties it would be in the other direction, but at the very least we need to have some debate on this, rather than Obama talking about how great the policy is and Romney nodding his head as vigorously as he can.
Finally, Romney’s call for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for advocating genocide was a bit curious given what I am sure is his position on international tribunals and universal jurisdiction. If Ahmadinejad were to be indicted, the indictment would be issued by the International Criminal Court, a body which nearly all Republicans are opposed to and to which the U.S. has not joined as a member (and with good reason, in my view). I am certain that Romney does not support the idea of international judicial organizations having the power to bring criminal cases across all national boundaries, and yet he forcefully advocated such a move for Ahmadinejad. Talk about head-spinning!