Poli Sci 101: Presidential speeches don't matter, and lobbyists don't run D.C.

By Ezra Klein
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Most conventions in Washington are able to attract at least a bit of the city's star power. Obscure trade associations get House members. Larger groups get senators, or maybe, if they're lucky, a member of the White House's senior staff. A glimpse of David Axelrod's mustache, an obscenity from Rahm Emanuel -- these are the brushes with fame that power D.C.'s convention industry.

There were no political luminaries in attendance at the American Political Science Association's convention last week, however. The fact that the country's brightest political scholars had all gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park barely seemed to register on the rest of the town. Worse, you got the feeling that the political scientists knew it. One of the conference's highlights, according to its Web site, was a panel titled "Is Political Science Relevant?"

I, for one, believe that it is and that this town could benefit from a good dose of it. So as I made my way through the conference, I asked the assembled political scientists what they wished politicians knew about politics. Here are some of their best answers.

Presidential speeches don't make a big difference.

Washington is obsessed with oratory and persuasion. Lawmakers are constantly begging the White House to take the rhetorical lead on this or that. Pundits and reporters talk incessantly about message and narrative. In the movies and on TV, governing always culminates with a dramatic speech. The only problem? Speeches don't matter.

George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M and the author of the book "On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit," has studied the major speeches of every recent presidency. His conclusion: "When we actually looked at what happened to virtually all presidents, the public almost never moves in their direction. That was true with Ronald Reagan, with Bill Clinton. It was even true with Franklin Roosevelt before World War II. The country moved when Hitler did things, rather than when FDR made a speech. And we're seeing the same thing with Barack Obama." If the point of presidential speeches is to move public opinion -- and that's certainly what most of us think -- they simply don't work.

So, what does? Well, Edwards says, the public actually has beliefs of its own. Or as he puts it: "The public supports what the president wants to do when they support what the president wants to do."

'Citizen- legislators' empower the very special interests they're meant to fight.

In this year of "tea partiers" and political insurgents, we keep hearing the same refrain: The founders envisioned not career politicians but citizen-legislators -- decent folk who'd leave the farm to serve the public, then return home before they became corrupt fat cats. It's this idea that lends term limits such perennial appeal.

And yet, says David Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of "Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts: Political Amateurs in the United States Congress," term limits would actually have the opposite effect. He explains: "If you have a bunch of rookies in there who don't have much experience, you're basically turning power over to the permanent government in that town: the staffers and the lobbyists the newcomers end up relying on."

Lobbyists don't run the show.

That's the conclusion of the new book "Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why," which is easily the most comprehensive study of lobbying ever published. The authors randomly chose 98 legislative fights and then sifted through more than 20,000 lobbying reports and 300 interviews with key players to come up with a surprising result: Usually, the lobbyists lost.

In fact, the best predictor of action wasn't the money spent or the lobbyists involved. It was the politicians. Action became more likely when major players decided they wanted to act (think Barack Obama winning the White House and deciding to pursue health-care reform) or suddenly were given the power to act (recall how the embarrassment of the Abramoff scandal empowered ethics legislation that had long been stalled in Congress).

"Our research indicates that members of Congress don't listen to lobbyists unless they want to," says Beth Leech, a political scientist at Rutgers and one of the co-authors.

Politicians should talk to political scientists.

This one may not be so surprising, but it is convincing: As the 24-hour news cycle accelerates into the 1,440-minute news cycle, distracting us with an incessant stream of meaningless one-liners and manufactured outrages, the considered, rigorous, historical examinations favored by political scientists offer an increasingly valuable antidote.

"The 24-hour news cycle is really focused on little, tiny swells and waves on the surface of the ocean," says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. "But in fact, most of the big things affecting the ocean are these currents underneath. They're what's moving the water." And that's what political science studies.

So political science is often accused of a sort of nihilism: Lobbyists don't much matter, it says. Speeches are ineffective. Voters are driven by the economy, and campaigns barely move the needle. Most of the stuff that obsesses us during election season has no effect on the eventual outcome.

But if politicians took these findings to heart, it would free them to do their jobs better. "The fact that much of what cable news is talking about on any given day is not important probably is empowering," Sides says. Particularly combined with the finding that what does matter, both for elections and for people's lives, is how well the country is doing. Worrying less about tomorrow's polls and news releases and more about the effect of today's policies could make for better bills -- and happier, more successful politicians.

Ezra Klein blogs on domestic and economic policy for The Washington Post at washingtonpost.com/ezraklein.

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