What Difference Does It Make?

What Difference Does It Make?

Nov. 30 2004 4:54 PM

What Difference Does It Make?

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Alan Brinkley
8:23 a.m.  Thursday  10/31/96 

       Herb Stein mentions the "cycle theory" of American politics--associated with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but really the creation of his father, also an eminent historian, and of the political scientist V.O. Key. (President Clinton, I have heard, has told Schlesinger that he believes in the theory too, and expects to be the beneficiary of it.) It argues that American politics moves in regular and reasonably predictable cycles between periods of activism and periods of retrenchment. And it describes reasonably well the pattern of American politics for the first two-thirds of this century: the "progressive" era followed by the 1920s; the 1920s followed by the New Deal; the New Deal followed by the 1950s; the 1950s followed by the activist 1960s. You get the idea. But none of the scholars who have promoted this theory have, I believe, offered a satisfactory explanation of how and why these cycles occur, and why we should expect them to occur again.
       No political moment lasts forever, and I assume that there will come a time again when Americans look to government with more hope (or perhaps desperation) than they do today. But I don't believe there is any inexorable cycle that will enable us to predict when that might happen. All the previous periods of liberal strength in this century have emerged not because they were foreordained by a cycle, but because the circumstances of their times helped them to do so. I see no circumstances today that would lead me to predict a comparable resurgence of liberal activism in the near future--whatever the results of this election.

Thomas Mann
8:44 a.m.  Thursday  10/31/96 

       It is fascinating to reflect on the genuinely uncertain future for the Republican party only two short years after it appeared they were on the verge of assembling a dominant majority coalition in American politics. A strictly opposition-party mode may be the most politically promising, but this will not be possible if the Republicans hold on to the majority in one or both houses of Congress. They will be forced to deal with President Clinton and congressional Democrats to build a legislative record, much as they did at the end of the 104th Congress. In this sense, a continuation of divided party government with even more narrow Republican majorities is optimal. I suspect it is primarily President Clinton's concern about the possible overuse/abuse of the oversight authority of Congress by the Republicans that leads him to work aggressively for Democratic control.
       Schlesinger's theory of cycles does nothing to help me understand the forces now driving American politics. Policy-making and politics are increasingly shaped by policy inheritances, global economic forces, demographic shifts, and the communications revolution. I see no prospect for a resurgence of liberal activism; nor do I see any chance of a triumph of libertarianism. We will struggle to muddle through, with modest public initiatives, adjustments in our large entitlement programs, and neoprogressive spurts of political and administrative reform. It may well be that Clinton is better positioned to lead that effort than the remnants of the revolutionary band on Capitol Hill.

Nelson W. Polsby
9:11 a.m.  Thursday  10/31/96 

       Alan Brinkley very nicely puts his finger on why cycle "theory" isn't a theory at all. It merely is a restatement of the thing to be explained, namely that conditions change. They go up and down. Also back and forth. There is, no doubt, a celestial pendulum at work. Pendulum theory. I also like Herb Stein's variation: hiccup theory.
       The point is, none of these proposes a theory, i.e., causes that are supposed to account for changes in the popularity of government, or other phenomena allegedly part of the cycle, swing, or hiccup.
       I'm happy to see Mort Kondracke take up my Monday suggestion that we might like to talk about the Supreme Court and foreign affairs. But he also illustrates how difficult it is to talk about crises that haven't happened. How do we deal with a hypothetical crisis? Hypothetically. People who are interested in this sort of counterfactual speculation should consult James Thurber's 1930 short story "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox."

Norman Ornstein
9:42 a.m.  Thursday  10/31/96 

       My colleagues have disposed of the cycle theory nicely. One small caveat: Although we will see no activism in the foreseeable future in terms of spending for discretionary programs, we are likely to see a resurgence in federal regulatory activity. Regulation is the easiest means available for the government to do something without taxing or spending directly. Thus, I expect more policies like family leave and the minimum wage, which implement change by forcing the private sector to act, and more "new federalism," which will mean more impositions on the states, with less money to pay for them. In other words, forget the promise of no more unfunded mandates.
       I might note here one other cycle in American politics. The president's party almost invariably loses seats in the House in midterm elections, with the losses usually greater in the second midterm of two-term presidents. In other words, Democrats will be braced for a debacle in 1998, made much greater if they win the majority this year. They all know the trend, and will react to it in 1997, probably by getting some distance from the president and making his task more challenging.

Morton Kondracke
10:47 a.m.  Thursday  10/31/96 

       My impression of Schlesinger's cycles theory is that they are 20-year (or longer) phenomena, examples of which would be: the New Deal (government-activist), Eisenhower (consolidation), Great Society, Nixon consolidation, Reaganite conservative activism--and now, perhaps, Clinton consolidation. Clinton didn't intend this, of course. He came in with Rooseveltian thoughts in his head (Hillary and Stan Greenberg had even loftier thoughts). But Clinton has ended up accepting the basic dogmas of conservatism and tempering their implementation. The era of big government is not over, but the era of bigger government is (for the moment). Moreover, the era of reaction against the great cultural revolution of the 1960s is in full swing, with Clinton (a living example of the Playboy Philosophy) leading the way on school uniforms and v-chips. The 1994 election, by my theory, would have been the ouster of liberal resisters to the new conservatism, but the incoming Republicans mistook their victory as a mandate for more conservative activism, when the country really wanted consolidation. So, what's next? I think the answer depends on whether we can get worker incomes to rise again. If we can (through education and training), then we continue consolidating (and the social pendulum swings away from licentiousness and toward Victorianism). If we can't, we're in for activism again, possibly populist, possibly conservative, possibly liberal.

Nelson W. Polsby
12:07 p.m.  Thursday  10/31/96 

       Workload statistics for the 104th Congress have just been released, and they are fascinating. For the House they show 289 days in session, 1,322 recorded votes, and 574 bills passed. The least productive of the nine preceding Congresses passed 704 bills in 303 workdays with 906 recorded votes; the median for the nine Congresses is 968 bills passed. The Senate shows similar numbers: long days in session for the 104th Congress (most days at work of any of the last 10 Congresses), lots of recorded votes, and very few passed bills to show for it.
       These are a strikingly good illustration of what it means to live through stalemate. They put a quantitative face on the frustrations so many members of Congress report in their working conditions.
       Why do I bring this up? I think most of us have said that new presidential initiatives are bound to be constrained by Congress, and that most likely the next Congress will be narrowly balanced between the parties. It means that a grandiose appeal to the verdict of history that a second-term president may yearn for will be well out of Bill Clinton's reach should he be re-elected. Modest goals, e.g., fixing the immigrant-bashing in welfare, kiddie care in health legislation, might, however, be attainable with good management, and in my view are well worth doing. Such measures might produce only incremental changes in my life, but important changes in the lives of people Democrats traditionally care about.
       I am sure Norm is right in assuming everyone will expect a retreat in 1998 from whatever the Democratic numbers are in the next Congress. Therefore, good management means not only modest goals but also prompt attention to them. If Norm is also right that Democratic members will want to protect themselves in 1998 by distancing from Clinton in 1997, we will be hearing a lot more about gridlock.

Herb Stein
2:28 p.m.  Thursday  10/31/96 

       Our panel has paid little attention to the difference between Clinton and Dole, probably because Dole is given little chance of winning. But this may be a hasty judgment, and, anyway, our readers are entitled to your opinions. Is there something in the difference of age, experience, style, and character between the two men that can make a significant policy difference, especially in dealing with problems that we do not foresee? Suppose the stock market should fall by 2,000 points and the economy go into recession. Which candidate would be more likely to pursue a policy of "Steady as she goes!" and which to follow a policy of "Vigorous action to restore stability!"? Suppose that a number of American soldiers are killed in Bosnia. What differences would there be in the responses of the two men? I have written that Clinton has a propensity for "foolish mistakes"--that are not a reflection of an ideological bent. Is there anything to that?
       The question has been raised of how Clinton would try to assure his place in history, as second-term presidents are assumed to want to do. One obvious way would be to take the lead in what would have to be a bi-partisan program to rein in entitlements and prevent the emergence of huge deficits in the next generation. At least, that would earn him high marks in history if I were writing the history. But maybe the historians Clinton respects would not rate that achievement so highly, and he may not want to wait so long to see his place in history.
       It seems to me that students of politics are like economists. They generally forecast the continuation of existing conditions or existing trends, and rarely forecast turning points. That is prudent forecasting strategy, but there sometimes are turning points. In dismissing the theory of political cycles, the panelists may have overlooked two factors that may make for swings in the political situation that are not required by changes in objective conditions, like a recession. One is the boredom-fatigue factor. The public becomes bored with a government that doesn't do anything and yearns for more action. But then they become tired out by a government that is always getting into fights and nagging them to think about or try something new. The other factor is the entrepreneurship factor. Politicians and intellectuals have an interest in designing and selling new ideas on which they can take power away from those who have it--just as auto makers and dress designers create new models. So there is a force to destabilize the status quo that is independent of events in the real world. You can already see such activists mobilizing in the Republican party to find a cause they can sell to the American people in 2000.
       Tomorrow, Friday, is our last day on this stage. I hope our panelists, who have been so insightful all week, will think of the parting wisdom they want to leave four days before the election.