Paul Pierson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Transformation of American Politics: Conversation with Paul Pierson, Avice Saint Chair in Public Policy, Department of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; December 1, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Long-Term Strategy of the Extreme Right

This is a very sophisticated strategy for achieving goals to the extent that they're even building in to the long term a future coalition to keep these major tax cuts going, even though there's a sunset provision.

Exactly. Legislative design is central to the way that this political coalition works. There's a strong tendency among political analysts, and here I don't just mean journalists but people who follow politics for a living, to not pay much attention to these kinds of details of legislation. People find it boring for the most part. But it's profoundly important, and it's not just because it allows you to steer goodies towards the people you want to steer goodies to without other people noticing it. It can also be a mechanism, as you say, for building up your coalition and for setting the agenda for the future. These tax cuts are scheduled to expire at a certain point. Well, that gives you an opportunity to rally your troops and also to accuse your opponents of voting in favor of tax increases, even though you're the ones who wrote the legislation that produces that tax increase.

There's also a very sophisticated use of the rules of the institution, in this case the Congress, to make things happen that is an important element of this. Talk a little about that, conference committees and the time allowed on the legislative floor to debate a bill.

We spend a fair amount of time talking about legislative procedure, and again, it's one of the challenges in this book, but it captures an important political reality, which is that the devil is in the details. That's one of the elements of political genius in this new majority coalition that's been constructed, because they recognize that most peoples' eyes are going to glaze over when they start hearing about things like this, and that creates an opportunity.

I've been saying to people, when you feel your eyes starting to glaze over because somebody is talking about the alternative minimum tax or a conference committee, you should cover your wallet, because that's when somebody is reaching in there and trying to get at it.

These elements of procedure are very powerful, and they've allowed Republicans to do two things that are important. One is they provide opportunities to push legislation well to the right without that getting a lot of attention.

Conference committees are set up when the House and Senate both pass a bill but there's disagreement about the precise content of it. Traditionally, this has been a venue for essentially just working out the differences between the House and the Senate. Typically, whichever chamber has less support for change is likely to get their way, because they're more likely to block the bill. That's how that traditionally would have worked out, but it's not the way that it works out now.

A colleague of mine here, Rob Van Houweling, has done excellent research on this which we rely on, which shows that Republicans are using conference committees to rewrite legislation in a fundamental way and typically push it well to the right, because they know that then when they bring it back to the House and the Senate there are no amendments allowed. It's simply an up or down vote on that legislation. Very conservative elements are being added in conference committees, and Democrats are completely excluded from the actual meetings where these decisions are being made, or occasionally one or two Democrats who are willing to play ball will be brought in, but everybody else is excluded. Then they bring bills with an attractive label like tax cuts or prescription drug benefit but that are packaged with all sorts of red meat for the Republican base. They bring those back to the floor where you can make no amendments and they use that as a way to push policy off center.

You're suggesting here, as we move now to talk a little about this, what you call backlash insurance. What you're saying is that the Republicans, or this sub-group of Republicans, have managed to create a nationalized structure of power that allows them not to worry about the middle-of-the-road voter, or the swing voters, that kept the ship of state on a middle course. Talk a little about how these things come together in backlash insurance, which leads to a situation where they don't worry about losing elections.

There are two big points there. Maybe I'll talk first about this unity, and then we can talk a little bit about the backlash insurance, which is essentially a product. You can't produce the backlash insurance unless you get this kind of unity.

This is a new phenomenon in American politics that we have an ideologically committed but quite unified -- not totally unified but unprecedentedly unified -- national party. It's more like a European parliamentary party, where people march in lock-step, than what Americans are used to, which is parties being soft coalitions that are constantly shifting and where lots of things that are bipartisan or where some faction within the party joins with the other party over something. That just doesn't happen in American politics the same way [it used to], and it is because the party has become so much more unified, so much more coordinated, and you can see that in a whole range of behaviors. A lot of it is driven by the fact that most of these people don't have to worry about re-election. They're very conservative, and yet they're either in safe seats or they can draw on these techniques that have been developed to protect them from potential backlash.

You talk a little about a moderate Republican congresswoman from New Jersey, and how she faced the threat -- talk a little about it, because it shows what is the process here that is making this happen, and that it's really control within the Republican Party that we're talking about.

We think moderates in the Republican Party are in quite a weak position, quite a weak position, and that even when they seem to be playing a more powerful role it's often a matter of theater, where the leadership has found an opportunity to give them a place where they can stake out some independence -- you know, put a little daylight between them and the leadership -- which plays well in their own district. It's mostly for show, or else on something that's quite marginal to the core agenda of the leadership. So, moderates are playing this weak role.

We tracked the career of Marge Roukema who is a moderate Republican from New Jersey, both the way in which she was pushed out of opportunities to have access and influence within the Republican majority because she was too moderate, wasn't raising enough money from the big interests for the party, and faced primary challenges from the right. Eventually, the critical part of that story for us is that she's replaced, when she finally quits after having just barely beaten back a couple of primary challenges, by Scott Garrett, who was one of the people who had been challenging her, who is way to the right, even though her district is a pretty moderate district. Garrett is a very, very conservative figure, much more in keeping with this new Republican Party.

At one point you suggest that the notion out there is that the lobbyists are controlling the agenda. You argue that what has developed with this control by the national Republican Party, which in turn is controlled by this very radical right faction within the party, is a situation where the terms are being dictated by the political leadership. The lobbyists are not calling the tune; they are paying protection money which helps get people elected, who then implement agendas where they will get some goodies. Is that fair?

Yes. You may be putting it a little bit more strongly than I would, but it certainly captures the essence of it. Access to power, to authority, is what politicians can offer interest groups. Access has become much more centralized in the new political system. We're seeing some of this in the scandals that are emerging right now. It's interesting, when you start connecting the dots, to see how many of them connect to very powerful people. Some of the more obscure members are being targeted at the moment but it's clear that right behind them are strong connections to the leadership. Because the system has become much more [about] networking, you have to get access to these leaders in order to have influence, because they do control the agenda so effectively, and they can get the members to go along with most of the things that they want to do.

Now, the reason I say that it doesn't quite turn things on its head, that it isn't just that Tom DeLay (or whoever replaces Tom DeLay) can call the shots and the interest groups do whatever they want, is because it's an arrangement that works pretty well for both sides of the bargain ...

Both sides meaning the ... ?

The groups who are providing resources and the politicians. So, I would say -- and again, this is putting a little too simplistically but it captures the kind of shift -- the deal that is being offered is, "You be loyal to us, don't hold out for the best deal, don't try to cut a separate deal with some subcommittee chairperson or somebody in the other chamber, you work with us and you be loyal to us, and we'll make sure that you'll be taken care of." So: provide support up front, don't argue with us about details, and we'll make sure that your interests are protected in the legislation.

If you look at the way the prescription drug bill worked, for example, you had lots of powerful interests who signed on at the very beginning. It was totally different than what happened when the Clinton administration tried to advance healthcare initiatives where almost all the interest groups played hard to get because that was the way that you got some kind of a benefit. The system now has become much more centralized, much more coordinated, and much more with a lot of the powerful interests, at least the ones that are close to the GOP, working hand in hand with the leadership.

What is the goal? Is this about power, the consolidation of power, or it is about power and money?

That's another good question. We try to resist the effort to get inside people's heads and figure out what is ultimately motivating them. I think in many cases multiple motivations reinforce each other. Some of these [public] figures want power. They want a particular conservative agenda to be advanced, to an extent that maybe we didn't fully realize when we were writing [the book]. Personal enrichment is also a goal for many of the participants. But it's very difficult to figure out exactly what the mix is for any individual, much less for the coalition as a whole.

Again, one of the beauties of the system, from their point of view, is that they've been able to get these things to all work together so that the figures involved don't face a trade-off all the time. This used to be the old view, that politicians face a trade-off between pursuing their policy goals and protecting their careers. Because if you were too aggressive -- if your policy goals didn't match up with voters and you were too aggressive about doing that -- you'd lose your career. The genius of the new arrangement is to say you can have your cake and eat it too, you can pursue those aggressive policy goals, even off-center ones (not all of them: they weren't able to privatize Social Security, but they've been able to do a lot), and your career will be just fine.

Does your analysis offer us insight into how we can reform things?

Jacob and I tried to break that down into two pieces. It's the obvious question that leaps out at you by the time you get to the end of what for many people is a discouraging, disillusioning book. We break it down into two pieces. We say we need to think about what kinds of reforms would make the system work in a way that was more responsive, more accountable, and that we need to think about what kinds of circumstances might bring those reforms into being. There are a lot of interesting issues that one could talk about there, but it's not that hard to come up with a list of reforms that would make a difference. And we talk about changes that would make elections more competitive, changes that would increase voter turnout and therefore empower average voters, make them a more important part of the process -- changes that would increase transparency in the political system, make it easier for people to see what's going on.

It's not a problem of political engineering. It's not that we don't have ideas about what could create a system that was more empowering for ordinary voters and increased transparency within the political process. There are lots of interesting questions about the best way to achieve that. The bigger challenge is the political challenge that precedes that, how you create a context in which these kinds of reforms are possible.

One other question that comes to mind, after having looked at Politics in Time, is what is going on in the greater world. book cover How does 9/11 fit into this? You do not discuss this in the book, but it would seem that if we focus in this snapshot on this moment in time, there was some leverage that came from the events that related to terrorism and the events of 9/11.

That's unquestionably true, and we talk about it briefly in the book but we don't focus on it. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is, we didn't feel like we had the qualifications to talk about it in a way that we were comfortable with. We didn't feel we had knowledge in that realm. But we also thought that there were a lot of other things going on beyond 9/11 that deserved attention. There's no question that the events of 9/11 and the events that followed from 9/11 greatly strengthened the political hand of the Bush administration in particular, and that those political resources have given them a cushion, if you will, that allows them to do some things that would not have been so easy to do otherwise.

One could argue -- we'll never know, but if one asked -- I talk in the Time book about the importance of asking counter-factuals and doing historical analysis. What would have happened to the Bush administration if there had been no 9/11? He wasn't very popular at that point in his term, and one could argue that maybe he would have been a one-term president. But there are several reasons that we outline at the beginning of the book for why we don't think 9/11 provides anything like a full explanation for what's been going on. The first is that a lot of these things preceded 9/11. The tax cuts preceded 9/11. The impeachment saga [was also] quite an important example of off-center politics.

The impeachment of President Clinton?

The impeachment of President Clinton, which it's very clear public opinion did not favor. Public opinion had settled strongly on a way to resolve that clash, which was a vote of censure. Republicans were quite aggressive on the issue and simply refused to allow -- this is an example of agenda control -- they refused to allow a vote of censure to come to the floor of the House. They instead pursued a different course which every poll showed was not what the American public wanted. So, there are lots of examples that predate 9/11, and we do think that the roots of this don't just start in the White House, and they begin well before 2001.

The other important thing to say about 2001 is that there had been lots of foreign policy crises and wars in American political history, but there are fewer that actually provide huge, enduring benefits for a political party, and that extend beyond the president to Congress, and extend beyond foreign policy to domestic policy. If you think about the Vietnam War, or Korea, or World War II, chief executives benefited in some ways from the rally-around-the-flag effect, but it didn't seem to carry over very much to Congress or to domestic politics. So, I think it would be too simple to say it's 9/11 that has facilitated all this.

One final question, requiring a brief answer: How would you advise students to prepare for the future, to get a handle on problems like this, whether as an analyst, say as a political scientist, or as an activist, somebody who wants to change the system?

It's a big question, but obviously the Time book suggests that trying to put things into broader historical context is quite important, and gaining comparative perspective on things is important. book coverA core argument in the more recent book is that knowledge is incredibly valuable, that information is a crucial resource in politics, and that if people can hide information, or distort the presentation of information or the flow of information about what they're up to, especially in the modern world, which is just unbelievably complicated -- the world has become more interdependent, more complex, the role of government has become larger and more complex -- there is simply no substitute for informing one's self about the inner workings of that system, including things which might at first light seem pretty boring.

Paul, on that note I want to thank you very much for taking the time to come and be on our program. And thank you very much for writing the book with your co-author, Jacob S. Hacker, and I will show the book one more time and recommend it. You said at one point that you wanted to write it for a public audience, and I think you've done that. It's very clear and lucid and compelling in argument. So, thanks very much.

Thanks very much, Harry.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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