Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.23.13

Memo: The Aaron Sorkin Model of Political Discourse Doesn't Actually Work

The West Wing is not real, and other political insights.

Last week I wrote that many political commentators seem to have internalized the movie version of negotation as an actual model of how the world works, rather than a dramatic convenience.  That is, they think that the way you get what you want is to make an extreme demand so that you can be "bargained down" to what you actually want.  In real life, this tactic frequently misfires--not least because if it worked, your counterparty would start making equally outrageous demands, and you'd be right back where you started.  Nonetheless, it's an extremely common delusion among activists, and arguably, the president himself fell prey to it during the gun control debate.

This weekend, Maureen Dowd proved that the armchair activists are not the only ones who have begun confusing entertaining fictions with real life.    

The White House had a defeatist mantra: This is tough. We need to do it. But we’re probably going to lose.

When you go into a fight saying you’re probably going to lose, you’re probably going to lose.

The president once more delegated to the vice president. Couldn’t he have come to the Hill himself to lobby with the families and Joe Biden?

The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in “The American President.” Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.

Instead of the pit-bull legislative aides in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, Obama has Miguel Rodriguez, an arm-twister so genteel that The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker wrote recently that no one in Congress even knows who he is.

The president was oblivious to red-state Democrats facing tough elections. Bring the Alaskan Democrat Mark Begich to the White House residence, hand him a drink, and say, “How can we make this a bill you can vote for and defend?”

Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles. Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: “Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”

Obama had to persuade some Republican senators in states that he won in 2012. He should have gone out to Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada and had big rallies to get the public riled up to put pressure on Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller, giving notice that they would pay a price if they spurned him on this.

Tom Coburn, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, is one of the few people on the Hill that the president actually considers a friend. Obama wrote a paean to Coburn in the new Time 100 issue, which came out just as Coburn sabotaged his own initial effort to help the bill.

Obama should have pressed his buddy: “Hey, Tom, just this once, why don’t you do more than just talk about making an agreement with the Democrats? You’re not running again. Do something big.”

Couldn’t the president have given his Rose Garden speech about the “shameful” actions in Washington before the vote rather than after?

There were ways to get to 60 votes. The White House just had to scratch it out with a real strategy and a never-let-go attitude.

It's hard to catalogue all the ways in which this is wrong.  The American President and The West Wing are not searing portrayals of effective political management.  They're drama.  The first question a dramatist asks is not "Is this how it really works?" but "Is it entertaining?"  And the second is "Can the audience understand this in less than thirty seconds?"  Veracity is way, way down the list.  If you want a clue to how realistic it all is, consider that Aaron Sorkin awarded Jed Bartlett the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Then go interview some Nobel Prizewinning Economists and ask yourself whether a single one of them would have the desire, or the ability, to run for president.  

Jed Bartlett doesn't win policy debates because of his amazing tactical skills, his overpowering arguments, or the sheer persuasiveness of his granite-faced brand of urbane folksomeness.  He wins them because Aaron Sorkin is a liberal and he wants Republicans to lose on the major issues.  Unfortunately for liberals, Tom Coburn and John Boehner don't have their lines faxed over from Hollywood every morning.  

Walter Russell Mead had an even harsher reaction.  You have to read the whole thing to get the full effect, but here's the nut graf:  

This is a politician getting down to what the New York Times editorial page seems to think is a particularly fetching set of brass knuckles: reciting liberal talking points one after another in rapid fire sequence. That’s hardball, that’s brass tacks at least in the mind of Maureen Dowd, a woman who on the evidence of this column could and would teach her own grandmother to suck eggs.

If you want to actually understand why gun control failed, let's try a simple exercise.  Raise your hand if you had a strong opinion about the background check bill that was in front of Congress.  

Keep your hand raised if you know how your own Senator voted on it.  Otherwise put your hand down.

Keep your hand raised if you actually live in a state that might plausibly elect a Republican to congress.   

Okay, now keep your hand raised if that bill was in the top one or two issues that you'll be voting on in 2014 or 2016.  By which I mean, if your Senator votes the wrong way on that bill, you will vote for anyone who opposes them.  Anyone--even someone with the wrong opinions on gay marriage, social security reform, transportation subsidies, the Keystone XL pipeline, carbon taxes, marginal tax rates on people who make more than $250k per annum, the deficit, and student loan repayment programs.  

Now look around.  Aside from those three guys in the back from Handgun Control Inc., do you know who still has their hand raised?  NRA members.  

Support for new gun control laws was high in the immediate post-Newtown period.  But that support was evanescent; it's already back below 50%, and probably still falling.  Gun owners care year in and year out.  And they vote on the issue.  

This had little to do with the fearsome power of "the NRA", or their fundraising efforts.  It had to do with gun owners who will do their best to unelect any politician who votes to deprive them of what they view as constitutional rights.  Those gun owners are more likely to live in swing states than the most avid gun controllers: progressives who cram themselves into a handful of cities.  And they vote on the issue, unlike progressives, who, for all their furor at the outcome, put a large number of issues--taxes, abortion, welfare programs, and so forth--much higher on their list of priorities.  By 2014, the odds of any "No" vote losing their job over it are pretty slim.  

And this matters in a way that it didn't for LBJ or FDR, to cite two liberal icons that Obama has been unfavorably compared to by his progressive supporters.  In the 1970s, the House of Representatives changed--changed in a way that made it unlikely that any such similarly sweeping agendas will ever be enacted again.  I outsource that story to my colleague David Frum, whose brilliant book on the 1970s cannot be recommended highly enough.  It remains one of my very favorite nonfiction books of all time for both the quality of the prose, and the quality of the insights.  Here is David on the overthrow of the Ancien Regime in the House of Representatives:

The congressional system of mid-century gets a bad press nowadays. The racial attitudes of its barons were unappetizing and they (lid not always worry quite as hard as they ought about ethics. Congress cared more about paying down the country's World War II and Korean war debts than about creating anything new. Its leadership was dismayingly unrepresentative of the country: all white, all male, mostly southern, mostly elderly, mostly rural. But the old unrepresentative Congress was also capable of surprisingly decisive action. When a president wanted something from the House, there were usually only about three or four men he needed to discuss it with-and they were almost invariably men for whom deference to the president, especially on national security and foreign affairs, was a central doctrine of their creed. It was the old unrepresentative barons who delivered the votes for the Marshall Plan, who agreed to dismantle century-old American tariffs to promote European and Japanese recovery, who stuck by John Kennedy without a whisper of doubt as he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war first over Berlin and then over Cuba. In other words, the system had its points-so long as Americans were willing to trade representativeness for effectiveness. By the mid-1960s that willingness was running out.

Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide-he swept 295 Democrats into the House with him, the most smashing Democratic congressional victory since 1936--freed him from dependency on the southern Democrats. For two magic years, Johnson led the liberal coalition that FDR had dreamt of. It was this new coalition that passed the mighty Voting Rights Act of 1965, which pressed the plunger on the dynamite charges that would destroy the Bourbon Democracy of the South. There had been only five black members of the US House of Representatives in 1965, all from the North. There were already ten in 1970, and by 1975 there would be eighteen. Between 1965 and 1973, the number of black elected officials in the eleven southern states jumped by a factor of ten, culminating in the election of Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta, the most important city of the South, on October 16, 1973. The northern liberals, white and black, now greased their guns, filled their ammo boxes, and readied themselves to hunt clown the last of the great white chairmen.

The hunting party was led by Phillip Burton, a labor-backed congressman from San Francisco and the real leader of the House in the middle and late 1970s. Burton's premature death in 1983 crimped his fame. He is now remembered, when he is remembered, as the name over the door of the federal building in downtown San Francisco. It seems a paltry acknowledgment of the man who created the modem Congress. If only he had not been so abrasive, difficult, tyrannical, ruthless-or possibly if that modern Congress were a more attractive and appealing thing-then perhaps the Capitol dome would have been named after him. Burton set to work to make himself speaker and to break the chairmen, and he steadily made converts among the ever-more liberal Democrats sent to Congress in 1970, 1972, and 1974. The old bulls sensed the cnunbling of their position and vainly tried to placate the reformers. In February 1973, Mills agreed "as an experiment" to let a tax bill go to the floor unprotected by a closed rule-the first time that had occurred since the 1920s.

Mills's "experiment" triggered an explosion in the number of lobbyists employed in Washington. Although statistics on lobbying are hard to come by, one of the few solid ones shows that some 3,000 people were registered as lobbyists of the Senate in 1976, the first year that body kept count. By 1987, that figure had tripled to 9,000. Before 1973, a corporation seeking a tax favor need worry only about, convincing a single man or, at most, a few party leaders. After 1973, any one of the 435 members of the House or the one hundred members of the Senate could write an amendment containing the favor and have a fair change of negotiating it into law.

Burton seized on the disgrace of Mills as an opportunity to break the power of the old southern congressional barons, but he really needed no excuse. Within (lays of the November 1974 election, which sent a huge class of reform-minded liberals to Washington, Burton transferred the power to name committee members from Ways and Means to a new steering committee. The Democratic caucus had already voted to put an end to committee secrecy. All committee meetings would be open unless the committee affirmatively voted to close it. Burton and the 1974 freshmen next pressured the party's old leadership to permit a secret ballot on any chairmanship if half the members of the Democratic caucus would sign their names to a request for a vote. The leaders acceded. They felt the ground shifting under their feet, and the Burton request seemed relatively moderate. After all, the old leaders figured, unless a chairman was glaringly past-it, what caucus member would dare risk his retaliation by publicly coming out in opposition to him? Burton, however, had outsmarted them. He immediately rallied the liberals in the Democratic caucus to sign papers calling for secret ballots on all committee chairmen. By calling for a vote on every chairman, Burton enabled his liberal followers to explain to the sputtering Old Bulls that his signature was nothing personal-"I wasn't voting against you; I like you. I was voting against the system." And because the actual selection ballot would be secret, Burton freed his followers to promise their support to the existing committee chairmen that they would support them on the final vote. Burton showed up at the end of December with his signatures. As soon as the Christmas holidays ended, the aged grandees of the party were hauled before the baying liberals of the caucus and quizzed for hours about their worthiness to retain their posts. Not all took kindly to the interrogation. F. Edward Herbert, the 74-year-old Louisiana chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a member of the House for thirty-four years, sarcastically addressed his questioners as "boys and girls." Herbert was one of the three chairmen and two subcommittee chairmen deposed that January.

True, the great majority of the old bulls survived the post, revolutionary guillotine. Their power, however, had been stripped. Nothing humbles an autocrat quite like the need to grub for votes. The old chairmen used to ascend to their gavels by longevity. They did not have to be nice to anybody. Suddenly, they had to be nice to the Democratic caucus. So, like the skilled politicians they were, they went to work to ascertain what their new constituents wanted-and to deliver it.. Did Democratic caucus members want chairmanships of their own? And without waiting thirty or forty years? No problem. Like owners of grand Edwardian homes in an age of shrinking families, the grandees promptly set about chopping up their draughty committees into dozens of subcommittees, dozens of them, each surmounted by a happy new subcommittee chairman. Burton's reforms leveled power within Congress. Instead of a mighty few surrounded by the obedient many, Congress was now made up of a somewhat mighty many able to compel no obedience at all.

Burton had promised that weakening the big shots would heighten the accountability and responsiveness of Congress. No question, Congress became more responsive. But it simultaneously became dramatically less effective and accountable. Under the old system, only a comparative handful of members had any power. If they abused that power, it would be noticed-if not by the press, then by their colleagues, and if noticed, then punished. But now dozens, maybe even hundreds, of congressmen controlled the fates of fines, industries, whole nations. Hundreds of special interests soon buzzed round those dozens, pressing money into their hands, lobbying, cajoling, persuading. The ambitious new subcommittee chairmen, hungry for campaign contributions to stave off the electorate's post-1978 Republican trend, all too eagerly responded to their donors' concerns. But since their most active constituents simultaneously expected them to flay those donors in the name of anticorporate liberalism, ghat responsiveness had to be disguised and concealed. The chairmen coped with their dilemma by evasion: by voting one way on procedural votes and then another on the merits of the hill, or voting "no" on laws they really favored after first establishing that the thing had the support to pass even without their vote. In this deliberately created muddle, nobody-often not even the congressmen themselves-could ever quite discern why things happened, who had made things happen, or even frequently what had happened. It was hopeless to imagine that an ordinary citizen could force his way through the buzzing cloud, much less exert any real influence. Very much to the surprise of the reform members, this new, more responsive, less hierarchical Congress got less done than the old oligarchy had. "The day is gone," said new Ways and Means chairman Al Ullman of Washington State, "when a chairman can wrap a neat little package in his back room. The open hearings and open markups, in which all members, not just a few, have a say, is the way this committee must work." The old unreformed Congress had enacted the Supplemental Security Income program in 1971. The new reformed Congress could never quite organize itself to enact anything on such a large scale ever again.

Lyndon Johnson could win with a little armtwisting because that's all he needed to do--a little armtwisting.  Obama needed to armtwist half the house, and a substantial number in the Senate, thanks to the rise of the filibuster . . . which is arguably itself a result of the 1970s revolution that heightened partisanship and congressional responsiveness, at the expense of collegiality and party discipline.

Today, if progressives want gun control, a large number of them need to make it their top issue, and then move to states where they might plausibly change the makeup of Congress.  Until then, they'll keep losing.