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 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 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
For years, Mario Cuomo was the great hope of the Democratic Party. He was a smart, high profile governor with the golden gift of eloquence, and every four years there was a clamor for him to run for president. He was seen as such an impressive figure that George Stephanopolous recounted in his memoir how Bill Clinton seriously considered Cuomo for the Supreme Court. The reason that Cuomo never ran for president and is not now a member of The Nine is the same – Cuomo famously was the Great Waffler, never able to make a decision or pull the trigger despite legions urging him to do so. Whether Cuomo was simply indecisive or had an acute sense of his own limitations is impossible to say for sure, but I always think of him as the prototypical politician who was constantly touted as a party savior yet was destined to disappoint.
For months now since his acquittal, people have been holding up Ehud Olmert as the only person with the ability to dethrone Bibi Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel. Early polls showed some combination of Olmert and Tzipi Livni as siphoning off enough support from Likud to make a center-left coalition a possibility. I never bought into this because Olmert is a deeply flawed figure who makes for a weak politician, yet the rumors of his resurrection persisted as politician after politician came to pay Olmert homage and the anti-Netanyahu forces worked themselves into a frenzy. But hey, guess what? Turns out that Olmert is probably not going to reenter politics after all. This should not be a surprise, and I intended to write a long screed explaining why, and then I remembered that I already did this the day that Olmert was acquitted last July. It bears repeating though given the constant voices imploring that Olmert is Israel’s only hope of avoiding another Bibi term, so here is a refresher from the summer:
I wouldn’t be so quick though to count on Olmert rising from the political graveyard. First, there is the question of his political constituency. Let’s not forget that Olmert was massively unpopular due his presiding over some enormous catastrophes, starting with the 2006 war against Hizballah. The Winograd Commission eviscerated Olmert’s leadership, judgment, and decisionmaking, and stressed his lack of military experience, all of which led to Olmert’s approval rating falling to a jaw-dropping 3% at one point. His efforts to negotiate an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas were widely viewed as a political stunt engineered to save his career. Even before the indictments against him, Olmert was seen as being overly corrupt in a political system legendary for its corruption. In short, this was an unpopular prime minister with no military record to fall back on whose primary accomplishment was negotiating an agreement that was never accepted or even countered. Which segment of the public is going to be clamoring for his return? What in his track record makes him a foe that Bibi should fear? Plenty of Israeli politicians have had second lives in politics after being cast aside, with Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu being the two most prominent recent examples (and Tzipi Livni perhaps poised to be another), but they all had large cadres of backers and took advantage of new political developments to reassert themselves.
Which brings me to point number two. Given his efforts at the end of his time in office and his public comments since he stepped down, Olmert’s presumed constituency would be the Israeli center that wants to see a renewed push for a deal with the Palestinians. The problem is, this center is pretty much non-existent at this point. It is no accident that we hear very little from Labor leader (and opposition head) Shelley Yachimovich about the peace process, or that Tzipi Livni barely harped on it when she was opposition leader, or that Shaul Mofaz focused almost exclusively on social issues when he ran to replace Livni as Kadima head. There are a combination of factors that have contributed to the death of the Israeli peace camp (and this deserves a long blog post, which I plan on getting to soon), but suffice it to say that a deal with the Palestinians is not a winning issue in Israeli politics these days. Given that this has become what Olmert is best known for (aside from royally screwing up in Lebanon), I don’t envision a huge grassroots movement to draft Olmert back into politics.
The one place where he does appear to have a constituency is within the ranks of Kadima. The Kadima MKs who called for him to return yesterday are pretty clearly unhappy with Mofaz, who went from stating that he would never join forces with Netanyahu (whom he dubbed a liar) to joining the coalition to then making empty threats about leaving and is now seen as an incompetent as he endlessly dithers over whether to stay or go following the Plesner Committee fiasco. The problem is that Mofaz is not going to just step down and hand over the reins of his party to Olmert, despite the nonsensical assertion in Time that Mofaz’s congratulatory message to Olmert yesterday means that he would do exactly that. Let’s say that Olmert’s supporters within Kadima, who are disenchanted with Mofaz, decide to revolt. Either they manage to break off and form a rump party with Olmert at its head, which is not going to scare anybody, or they force another divisive leadership battle within Kadima, which weakens it even further and leads to its virtual disappearance. Either way, I don’t see how this provides a successful vehicle for Olmert to rise back up to political relevance.
I can understand why there are those who look at Bibi and miss the days when Olmert was prime minister, but my hunch is that this group of people, however large, mainly resides outside of Israel. Within Israel, I just don’t see how Olmert at this point reenters politics with any real support behind him. There doesn’t seem to be a contingent of Israelis that would naturally support him, and some disenchanted MKs being led by a former PM whose popularity at one point was almost literally zero does not a political dynamo make. It would be great if Olmert’s return to the political scene sparked a renewed interest in the peace process and a reexamination of what Israel needs to do to separate from the Palestinians and create a Palestinian state once and for all, but I think that Netanyahu can rest easy when it comes to Olmert presenting a challenge to his political dominance.
July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
With Mitt Romney visiting Israel this weekend and giving speeches and making statements about his policy toward Israel, it seems like a good time to think about how his approach as president would be different from what we have seen under President Obama. Romney’s Jewish supporters, noting that a significant number of American Jews appear to be uncomfortable or disappointed with the way that Obama has interacted with Israel, have been pushing the notion that there will be a sea change if Romney is in office, and Romney himself has played up this idea as well. So, if Romney is sitting in the Oval Office come January 20, what can we expect to change?
The first big issue is military and intelligence cooperation and assistance, and almost nobody disputes the fact that these are at an all time high under Obama. Whether it be funding for Iron Dome, coordination on Stuxnet and other measures meant to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, or the sale of advanced weaponry, Israel and the U.S. enjoy a closer relationship now than at any other time in the last 60 years. Indeed, last year Ehud Barak remarked, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.” This type of cooperation is sure to continue should Romney win in November.
Another big policy area is the peace process. Despite concerns over whether Romney supports a two state solution, which largely stem from the backing he is receiving from Palestinian state opponent Sheldon Adelson, I find it difficult to imagine that Romney will buck the strong bipartisan consensus and actually come out in favor of the rightwing one state solution favored by Joe Walsh and Danny Danon. Bibi Netanyahu himself is on record as being in favor of a Palestinian state, and even if you think this is mere lip service, it demonstrates just how far outside the mainstream abandoning the two state solution would place Romney. On the issue of whether he would push the Israelis on settlements and making concessions to the Palestinians, my guess is that Romney will occupy the same position as George W. Bush, which is to have an official policy against continued Israeli settlement expansion but to do nothing about it in practice. Obama famously pushed the Israelis on the issue of settlements earlier in his term, but has since backed off either due to a realization that his initial strategy was a bad one or in order to calm Jewish voters who were uncomfortable with his pressuring Israel but not the Palestinians, or perhaps a little bit of both. Whatever the case, Romney will likely not make the peace process a priority, but it is an open question as to whether a second term Obama would make a strong effort to force the two parties into a peace deal, and my own view is that he is going to let it drop. Between getting burned once and announcing a pivot toward Asia, I think that Obama’s heavy involvement in the peace process is a thing of the past.
Romney’s visit to Israel raised two other issues of American policy after he issued statements addressing each, and these are American support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On the Iran issue, there was initially some confusion as to whether Romney would commit U.S. troops after the fact were Israel to strike Iran, but Romney himself made clear in an interview in Ha’aretz that he and Obama hold the same position on Iran, saying, “President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.” While Romney has criticized Obama over his Iran policy and suggested that he would be more forceful with the Iranian regime, his actual policy is identical when it comes to tactics – namely, increased sanctions and keeping the military option on the table. Where the two men differ is over what constitutes the precise red line; for Obama it is Iran developing a nuclear weapon, while for Romney it is the attainment of nuclear capability.
Another place where Romney drew a clear distinction with Obama over the past two days was on the embassy question, but it is the emptiest of distinctions. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Romney pledged to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and like Bush and Clinton before him, it is a virtual guarantee that should Romney be elected the embassy will remain right where it is. Since Jerusalem’s status is an issue to be negotiated under an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, no American government will actually move the embassy to Jerusalem so as to not act in a prejudicial way. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply knows very little about the politics of Israel in the U.S., and Romney himself knows full well that calling for the embassy to be moved is low hanging political fruit that will never see the light of day once he is in office.
Romney famously said earlier this year that he would do the opposite of what Obama has done on Israel, but this will plainly not be the case. When it comes to hard policy, the differences between the two men are negligible at best. The one place where Romney may differ from Obama is that, as pointed out in this excellent Aaron David Miller column, Obama does not seem to connect with Israel on an emotional level and this impacts the way he speaks about it and the way American Jews perceive Obama on the issue. Romney will not have this same problem, and while I think that looking at actual policies is the best way to judge the two on the Israel question, I understand the concerns that some Jewish voters have when it comes to Obama’s rhetoric. This divide on how one views Obama on Israel was captured in an instructive Twitter exchange yesterday between CFR’s Steven Cook (who is a friend and recent co-author) and Emergency Committee For Israel executive director Noah Pollak. After Pollak referenced “Obama’s abuse of Israel,” Steven queried how Iron Dome, Stuxnet, sanctions on Iran, and ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge could be considered abuse. Pollak’s response was, “Diplomatic ambushes, tirade @ UNSC, joining HRC, WH snubs, going nuclear on settlements, isolating Isr to please Erdogan.” The bottom line here is that Obama supporters are convinced that he could not possibly be any more pro-Israel, and Romney supporters are convinced that Obama is anything but and that a President Romney would usher in a massive shift in Israel policy. From where I am standing, it seems pretty clear that, rhetoric aside, there is little daylight between the two when it comes to actual policies on Israel with the limited exception of what threshold will trigger military action against Iran, and that no matter who our next president is, we are bound to have almost complete continuity on policy toward Israel.