Legislative realities and Senators as presidential candidates

February 23, 2012

People always say that it’s tough for Senators to run for President because they have all these roll call votes lying around from the past that opponents can pick on. But the actual mechanism that makes all these votes problematic usually goes unexplained; it’s not clear, on the surface, why having taken a ton of votes automatically makes you vulnerable as a candidate. I think it boils down to four issues, none of which are mutually exclusive:

1. You voted for something that turned out to be quite unpopular. This is pretty self-explanatory. If you voted for the Iraq war or the TARP bill or the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the national primary or general election electorate isn’t too keen on those things anymore, you will be questioned about your vote.

2. Your constituency in the legislature might not resemble your constituency for national office. This is more or less every candidate’s problem when running for president. There are very few districts or states that perfectly reflect the national constituency. And there are none once you factor in the number of state-specific provincial issues that you might vote on.

3. Legislating fundamentally requires compromise. This comes into play in two different ways. First, there are votes on bills that have multiple provisions in them. Voting against a bill simply because it has one thing in it that you don’t like means that, more or less, you will be voting no on pretty much everything. So legislators quite intuitively weigh the overall value of a bill. Second, the construction of any given bill usually involves compromises in order to secure passage. And therefore your choice often boils down to, on the one hand, a bill you like but don’t love or, on the other hand, no bill at all.

4. Maximizing your personal power and your constituency’s benefits means often trading your vote. I’ve written about this a few time before (see here, and here, and here), but the basic idea is that all legislators have three primary goals: re-election, increasing their own power within the legislature, and making good public policy. Sometimes — especially when the three goals align together — it’s easy. You think policy X is a great idea, your constituents love it, and your party leadership not only loves it too, but they want you to lead the political fight for it, and they will reward you down the road for your leadership on the issue. Couldn’t be any easier. When it becomes interesting, however, is is when the three goals come into conflict: when increasing your power in the chamber means casting votes that hurt your re-election chances; when making good public policy for your constituents goes against their own perception of their interests (and thus your re-election chances); and when increasing your power in the chamber necessitates accepting bad public policy. It’s even harder when you factor in the endogeneity — sacrificing your constituents’ wants for more internal power may ultimately benefit your constituents down the road.

I say all this because last night’s debate  illuminated this problem quite clearly, as Rick Santorum was forced to reconcile  his voting record in the Senate. Here he is defending his vote on NCLB:

I supported No Child Left Behind. I supported it. It was the principal priority of President Bush to try to take on a failing education system and try to impose some sort of testing regime that would be able to quantify how well we’re doing with respect to education. I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you’ve got to rally together and do something. And in this case, you know, I thought testing was — and finding out how bad the problem was wasn’t a bad idea.  What was a bad idea was all the money that was put out there, and that, in fact, was a huge problem. I admit the mistake and I will not make that mistake again. You have someone who is committed.

There’s the vote trade. And here he is defending his vote on an appropriations bill that had Title X funding in it:

As Congressman Paul knows, I opposed Title X funding. I’ve always opposed Title X funding, but it’s included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things, including the funding for the National Institutes of Health, the funding for Health and Human Services and a whole bunch of other departments. It’s a multi-billion-dollar bill … [s]o while, yes, I — I admit I voted for large appropriation bills and there were things in there I didn’t like, things in there I did.

There’s the compromise. Here he is discussing entitlement reform and the wishes of Pennsylvanians:

I was a leader, as you know, on taking on tough issues, which is the entitlement programs, not just welfare reform, but I also worked on Medicare reform and Medicaid reform and also was a leader on trying to deal with Social Security.  And I did that not representing one of the most conservative districts in the state of Texas but in the state of Pennsylvania, with the second largest per capita population of seniors in the country. And I can tell you those seniors really cared about Social Security. Why? Because all my rich seniors moved to Florida and Arizona. And what’s left — what’s left in Pennsylvania is folks who relied on Social Security … [I] had a strong record in a tough state to be a conservative.

There’s the different constituency. And here he is again explaining his NCLB vote:

Look, I think we’ve all had votes that I look back on I — I wish I wouldn’t have voted — No Child Left Behind, you’re right, it lead to education spending.

And there’s the mistake! Four for four, Senator.

Now, I’m not saying it was a good idea for Santorum to be this candid about his voting record; as Jon Bernstein said in his debate wrap, Santorum must have missed the day at candidate camp when they taught people how to duck tough questions. It’s abundantly clear, for whatever reason, that the electorate doesn’t usually like answers such as, “I made the best decision possible given the available information at the time,” or “You may not like the results, but it was the right thing to do and I make no apologies for my vote,” regardless of whether those answers are true or reasonable. And while it’s not unreasonable to cite the idea that you once represented constituency A and so you voted for X, but now you are seeking to represent constituency B so you are in favor of Y, voters aren’t too fond of that argument. And compromise is often disdained as well; it’s very difficult to explain to voters the sum value of a bill, if they instead want to know why you voted for the ACA even after the Stupak amendment was removed.

What’s more interesting to me is why voters don’t like hearing these explanations for legislative voting records — after all, none of them are unreasonable, and only the “I made a mistake” one fundamentally puts a candidate in a bad light. You’d think that being a “team player” might be a benefit to someone in a party primary, but it just doesn’t seem to wash like that. Same thing with being responsive to a constituency. I guess what I mean is that it’s not obvious that voters should be turned off by these sorts of explanations of voting record.

Three things intuitively come to mind: first, voters may simply prefer to be uninformed romantics about politics; perhaps they want to believe that sticking to the purest policy motivations can achieve legislative success or best represent a district. In other words, they don’t want to believe in strategic political behavior. At least not relatively speaking; perhaps they are willing to believe that if one candidate is telling them the dirty truth about the sausage-making and the other is singing as white as the pure driven snow, that somehow not everyone is making sausage.

Second, I suppose voters may care about conviction and depth of belief, especially when voting for President in a primary. Even if strategic voting and constant compromise is the way to maximize your  representation in a legislature, it makes you sound like you are a delegate-model automaton. If people believe that leadership (however defined) is required for the presidency, and that strategic legislative behavior is negatively associated with the conviction that may be required for executive leadership, then there’s certainly a connection there. This would go along with thinking that legislators have trouble winning the presidency because voters do not trust legislative experience or success as a good measure of executive potential. They are, after all, two very different jobs.

Finally, I think it’s possible that the information gap is to blame. Perhaps voters just don’t know that much about how a legislature works (probably true), don’t really care about taking the time to learn how it works for the purpose of voting in a presidential election (definitely true), and therefore see all defenses of a voting record as one large lump of equivocating. In other words, voters prefer a simple world, not for the romantic reasons outlined above, but because it’s too costly to get into a game of comparative evaluation of equivocations, and therefore anytime a politician starts explaining, they are going to evaluate the claim at a very basic level: is this bullshit or not. And, under this theory, the mechanisms of the legislature qualify as bullshit damn nearly all of the time.

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