Are you Receiving Me?

by Jonathan Bernstein | October 18, 2010

Speaking of the news that the Awakening in Iraq may not end the way that it started (see this NYT article, a good Matt Yglesias post, and my remarks about politicians and policy)...

One of the most interesting things about Iraq, to me, is how it demonstrates how the relationship between elections and public policy really work. I’m thinking about the 2006 election cycle. Of course, liberals were terribly disappointed in the immediate aftermath of those elections: Democrats in Congress, despite moving into the majority, were not only unable to end the war in Iraq, but found no way to prevent the surge. In other words, the immediate effects of the 2006 election appeared to be the exact opposite of what people wanted. Could that possibly be justified in a democracy?
Well, yes and no. Putting aside for a moment the question of justification, we can look a bit more at what messages were actually sent and received. As usual, it’s difficult to tell exactly what the electorate was “saying” in the 2006 elections. We can trace some things...the Iraq war was unpopular, and it hurt Bush’s approval ratings and, eventually, GOP candidates. It’s a lot harder, however, to conclude that the electorate was “saying” anything specific about Iraq policy. No doubt that most liberal Democrats wanted out of Iraq. But of course most liberal Democrats wanted out of Iraq in 2004, too. 

Beyond that, however, even when we have good survey or polling data, it’s hard -- in my view, impossible -- to draw specific conclusions about exactly what the electorate is saying. Many voters in 2006 weren’t even thinking of Iraq. They may have been concerned about various Congressional scandals having nothing to do with policy, or they may have just been reacting to a particularly good set of Democratic candidates (who were running and were well-funded, to be sure, because George W. Bush had become unpopular, which was in large part because of Iraq). And then we know that most voters know very little about public policy. That makes it hard, too; even good survey data are going to be dependent on what voters know about policy, and it’s very possible that voters may have vague preferences (Iraq is going badly! Make it better!) that lead them to one set of answers to one set of polling questions, but other (contradictory) answers to other questions.

That’s not because voters are stupid -- it’s just that most voters don’t take the time to carefully study all the various policy options available on all the issues of the day, and so they’ll often respond to polls with policies or positions that are internally inconsistent. One of the reasonable conclusions to draw from this is that detailed policy mandates from elections are fictions.

And yet...from the perspective of four years on, it seems pretty clear to me that the 2006 election has, in fact, ended (or, better, will soon end) American involvement in Iraq.

Two parts to this. On the Hill, Democrats who were responsive to antiwar voters pushed to end the war, while the remaining Republicans (seeing the results of the 2006 elections) probably were not eager to stand up for it. That wasn’t enough to have a direct effect, at least with a Republican in the White House determined to oppose those Democrats, but it did change the equation quite a bit. At the White House, it certainly seems to me (and I’ve only skimmed the insider accounts that are out so far, let alone those still to come) that the elections were taken as an immediate signal to Do Something!: thus dumping Donald Rumsfeld, thus the surge, and thus the eventual agreement to leave, an agreement that Barack Obama has so far carried out. 

Do Something! may not seem to be much, but in fact we can go back to Alexander Hamilton and think about “energy in the executive” compared to drift. What this means, to me, is very simple: a president who focuses on a problem is apt to solve it. That goes for smart presidents and foolish ones, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. The key variable isn’t whether they have good plans; the key variable is whether they aggressively attack the problem or not.

See, no matter who the president might be, you’re going to get a lot of drift, because there’s just so much that the government does or could do, and because it really does take presidential involvement to make sure that presidential policies are enacted. A good president can be judicious about what to delegate and when to get personally involved, and a president with a strong reputation for getting his way and a good White House staff may be able get results with relatively less of a personal commitment. Indeed, that’s one of the best ways, in my view, to judge presidents: how much “energy in the executive” (properly understood) did they create. To me, of all the criticisms of George W. Bush that are reasonable, the most devastating is that he put wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on autopilot for years.

Perhaps then whatever the merits or lack of merits of the surge, it would at least be better than drift. And that’s the way to see the 2006 election from the point of view of the White House; the instruction heard from the American people to Do Something! about Iraq ended drift. And, once the war was actively managed, and with few Republicans up for election (including presidential candidates) in 2008 eager to make Iraq a central issue in the campaign -- but with the president reluctant to accept “defeat” on his watch -- a strategy involving a show of force, a declaration of victory, and then a retreat begun before the 2008 election (in order to take it off the table) but scheduled for completion after the election (so the next crowd could be blamed if it went wrong) made a lot of sense. 

Is that “democratic”? 

I think we can say is that it was democracy as it actually is, whatever we might want democracy to be. Yes, it’s democracy in a Madisonian system of separated institutions, sharing powers; in a parliamentary system, it’s possible that elections in 2006 would have chucked the incumbent party and installed the antiwar Democrats. On the other hand, changing parties (at least in the White House) in 1968 didn’t end Vietnam for years...it’s never going to be easy for the current government to take ownership of losing a war, whether they were responsible for beginning it or not. And some of the things discussed here -- the difficultly of identifying a signal out of election returns -- are just as true in parliamentary elections. 

talked last week about the strong incentive for politicians who get elected to keep their constituents happy, and the 2006/Iraq example, to me, speaks to just how complex that can be. It’s strikes me as better than the alternatives, but anyone who tells you that democracy is simply a question of doing what the people want doesn’t really understand what’s involved.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/78478/are-you-receiving-me