Career politicians are just what we need

March 26, 2014

The vice presidential debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on October 11, 2012. (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossmann.  He will be guest-blogging this week about his new book, “Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change Since 1945.”  His earlier posts are here and here.

Last year, President Obama and Republican senators sought to reset their frayed relationships by sharing dinner, exchanging kind words, and stating an earnest desire for grand bargains. Political scientists were unimpressed: ideological polarization and Republican intransigence make policy gains impossible, with or without close social ties. Agreeing with the doubters, Matt Yglesias summarized: “Political scientists are going to have a lot of egg on their faces when a single dinner party ends all this polarization.” One year later, skepticism of the charm offensive seems justified: little has changed in terms of policy or personal ties.

As the jockeying for the 2016 presidential race begins, party leaders will likely end up choosing between inexperienced fresh faces and veteran insiders who have already built relationships and reputations for deal making. For anyone interested in serious policymaking, the choice is clear: they should root for insiders. Mourners of the Washington dinner party scene have oversold the importance of relationships, but political science has undersold them.

In Artists of the Possible, I argue that policy change results from long-standing productive ties among central policymakers. Institutionalized entrepreneurs, actors with a political and policy skill set as well as an institutional position and ties, are responsible for the bulk of domestic policy change.

Below, I list the most central policymakers of the last 70 years and graph their productive periods from the first time that policy historians credited them with a significant achievement to the last time. (Kennedy was posthumously credited with changes passed under Johnson.) Democratic and liberal actors are marked in black; Republican and conservative actors in gray. Only a small subset of policymakers was active for longer than a decade (out of the 1,306 total actors that historians credited with policy change). This subset includes people like Edward M. Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who were associated with initiatives they led for many years and were also known for stepping in at the end to broker compromises.


In this list, a few patterns stand out: (1) these central policymakers are mostly liberal coalition-builders or moderate Republicans (because policy changes tend to expand government), (2) they prize getting something done for its own sake (especially the presidents), and (3) they establish reputations as workhorses interested in the details, building connections over long periods. Only a few contemporary politicians meet these standards.

That brings me to my policy wonk’s 2016 voter guide: each party has a likely serial policymaker currently in contention. Paul Ryan struck the latest budget deal and continues to propose new policies, finding coalition partners and pushing Republicans to formulate new alternatives. Joe Biden, due to his longstanding relationship with Mitch McConnell, was instrumental in agreements over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff—even as deal-averse Harry Reid demanded his removal from the latest standoff. Biden or Ryan would be well prepared to lead a productive White House.

Given partisan feelings, I doubt many will endorse both candidates. We concentrate on the ideological direction of policy and expect to find a candidate who shares our views, even if we are a little fuzzy about how those views will translate into policy results. But history offers important lessons: ideological direction and policy productivity are closely related, most periods yield little new policy, and experience and relationships help produce policy change. The parties and ideologies of our leaders matter less than their willingness and ability to build coalitions and make deals. The policy legacy of a Paul or a Ted Cruz might look surprisingly like one of Martin O’Malley or Deval Patrick: nothing much would be achieved.

Political scientists are justifiably skeptical of demands that Obama single-handedly heal the rifts in Washington, but we may be too quick to reject the broader premise that the relationships among central policymakers help them succeed. If you hope for change, a career politician may be just what you need.

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