Home > Uncategorized > Friendships, Constrains, and Incentives in Politics: What to Cover?

Friendships, Constrains, and Incentives in Politics: What to Cover?

Friendships, Constraints, and Incentives in Politics: What to Cover?


You can get a pretty good Sharks/Jets scrap going between journalists and social scientists by claiming that either 1) the president needs to spend more time befriending members of his own party and the opposite party to govern effectively because personal relationships matter in politics or 2) presidential schmoozing is a bigger waste of time, resources, and effort than buying a laserdisc player.

I was reminded of this during a morning Twitter conversation with Politico’s Alexander Burns. Our downright cordial disagreement started with Burns’ tweet about Dylan Byers’ story describing President Obama’s off the record meetings with opinion columnists and journalists like David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, and Ezra Klein. The article made the point that presidents might be able to affect news coverage, or at least columnists’ treatment of key issues, by cultivating relationships with the columnists so that they better understand the president’s thinking.  Burns tweeted, “And yet it’s somehow a laughable idea that it would be good to have personal relationships with members of Congress?”

I replied that it wasn’t laughable, but that it wasn’t “likely to change much” because reporters and politicians have different incentives and constraints.  We went back and forth a bit and ultimately generally seemed to agree that there is fodder for interesting and important journalism here, but that pinning the hopes of democracy on White House Schmoozefest 2013 is not a great idea.

I think that journalists and political scientists could learn from each other on this issue.  Personal relationships have not been convincingly shown to “matter” systematically, but I also think that those of us in the academy are too quick to dismiss the possibility and could spend more time considering the conditions that might need to be present to make personal relationships more likely to play a role in governing.

I think there are two reasons this back-and-forth between serious journalists (those who aren’t claiming that a round of golf and some extra leadery leadership is going to save democracy) who claim that meaningful relationships within the ranks of a party and across the aisle can make real differences in governing and scholars who think that looking for causal effects in such endeavors is quixotic.

The first reason is journalists’ fault: I think they overestimate the importance of personal relationships because personal relationships are incredibly important to the job they do.  Even with major advances in coding, digital journalism, and big data journalism, journalists rely on the cultivation of sources to do their jobs. They work hard to earn the trust of sources and cannot do much of their work without having earned this trust – trust in an adversarial context no less.  For journalists, relationships are paramount.  For politicians, relationships among their own are important, yes, but I have not seen evidence that makes me think they are more important – when it comes time to make a decision about voting on a bill, for example – than the general ideology of a lawmaker’s district or state, the presidential electoral map, the degree of homogeneity within a party in the government, the ideological distance between the two major parties in the house and senate, lawmakers’ own popularity, and so forth. The second reason is scholars’ fault. It is really hard to study personal relationships among lawmakers, so we don’t. I am overstating a bit here, but not by much.

Bah Humbug: Relationships Aren’t That Important

Political scientists regularly poo-poo the idea that the cultivating of relationships between the president and members of the opposing party is worth very much when it comes to forging legislative compromises. After all, both Barack Obama and John Boehner profess to like each other and yet there are not many people making the argument that the president and the congress are breaking any records for government competence, effectiveness, or even effort. The fact is, Democrats and Republicans have deep substantive disagreements across a wide range of important political issues and claims that “if only they were better friends, or if only Obama would “lead” things would be better” do not stand up to reason or the evidence.

From reason’s perspective, why would we expect party leaders, and then a majority of that party’s rank-and-file to abandon their core principles because they like the president? Perhaps, one could argue, they wouldn’t have to abandon their principles, but compromise. After all, governance in our system requires compromise and lawmakers don’t seem to be willing to do much of it. But why compromise if you prefer the status quo? For example, if you would rather have the government shut down than spend more money, you’d still rather have it shut down than agree to a smaller increase that you negotiated down a few billion dollars.

Moreover, each party has to manage its own coalition. Liking President Obama was doing Speaker Boehner no favors with the Tea Party wing of the GOP. On the other side of the aisle, and as Burns pointed out to me, Democrats are not always with the president and there is some reporting suggesting that many in his own party don’t particularly like him. That said, when the president has needed his party to stay unified – in passing the Affordable Care Act and in the government shutdown fight – he has had them.

Put another way, sports reporters often wonder about whether offensive linemen won’t block for a running back they don’t like. Maybe not, but not blocking for that jerk running back makes it more likely that they will lose and suggests that the linemen are not good enough to keep around and pay to play football anymore. It just isn’t clear that we should expect personal relationships to affect policy making in the way they affect who gets a tip from a source and who does not. I know that when I was a reporter, a source my colleagues (who did not know her or his identity) called “Mike’s sieve,” really liked me while a similarly placed lawmaker leaked exactly nothing to me in 18 months. I tried, successfully, to cultivate a good relationship with the first source but was never able to do so with the latter. It affected my work as a journalist.

When I worked on a political campaign for congress in the 2000 election cycle, however, I had a great relationship with my contacts at the congressional campaign committee; they loved the work I was doing, they professed excitement about my candidate, and talked to me all the time. . .but never gave us a dime because we could not prove that we had a chance to win.

Of course, that’s just one case, but even old standby examples that relationships matter, such as the vaunted and much-chronicled relationship between President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, don’t pass the evidence test – at least not with flying colors. For instance, the government shut down plenty under their governance. Moreover, and while there are other metrics to measure governance, the warm and friendly Reagan vetoed 78 bills and had his vetoes overridden nine times. The chilly and aloof Obama has vetoed two bills and never had any overridden.

But Wait. . .

That said, it is curious why even though scads of evidence in political science suggest personal networks affect preferences and behaviors and that party networks affect nominations and polarize legislatures political scientists are not all that willing to accept the premise the personal relationships might be more important in governing situations than we think.

First of all, politicians tell us that this matters.  All the time.

When I was on the faculty at the University of Delaware, moderate Democratic Senator Tom Carper came to speak to the intro to American politics class.  He made the interesting argument that the clamp down on lobbying gifts made it harder to get to know people on the other side of the aisle and that relationships across party lines were crucial to getting things done. He noted that these “golf junkets and such” forced folks to spend time together and that time often led to the development of friendships that were useful come compromise time.  That’s why he helped start an informal meeting across party lines of newly elected lawmakers in Washington – to help begin to institutionalize cross-party contact. I remember thinking to myself, “this is a really interesting potential research question to take a hack at part of the question surrounding personal relationships in politics: did lobbying laws cut down on bipartisan lawmaking?” Did I do anything about it? Nope. I still think someone (far more versed in the legislative politics literature than I) should.

Second, journalists clearly believe these relationships are important too. They spend far more time with lawmakers than political scientists do and are often incredulous at the self-assured, dismissive, “it doesn’t matter” commentary from the ivory tower when it comes to personal relationships and politics. They see odd marriages like the one between Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch as examples of how friendships help to forge compromise and good governing while political scientists see the one or two issues those folks agreed on as being examples of the times they quite rightly decided to work together even though their voting records in general could not be more different.

Ultimately, just because politicians and journalists believe something to be true does not make it so; in my view, this debate is more about how journalists and scholars might best spend their time. Scholars have been increasingly willing to give this advice. As I’ve mentioned before, John Sides and Brendan Nyhan have done both professions a service with these suggestions as has Hans Noel with his useful and fun review of ten things political scientists know that you don’t.  I would love it if a similar list might come from a journalist with respect to questions we should be asking in the academy (see here for a first cut at this ). Panels including scholars and reporters are now becoming commonplace at major political science conferences. I sat on one myself (with scholars like Matthew Hindman and excellent journalists Molly Ball and Jamelle Bouie) at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Washington, D.C. this past August and got as many ideas for my own work from the journalists as anyone else I met during the meeting.

This progress is promising. As a former journalist and current journalism professor, it would be nice to hear what journalists think we should be studying. I think that many reporters would like to see more research examining, or in some cases, like to see political scientists better publicize their research about:

  • Political Friendships and Lawmaking – I still think that it is not likely that major divides between the two parties can be breached after 18, 36, or even 204 holes on the golf course, but I do think that the amount of effort lawmakers expend on legislation, what happens to proposed bills in committee, and the willingness to take a public position against one’s own party can be influenced by personal relationships between lawmakers. Scholars have not, as far as I am aware, done a great job investigating these issues. Historians have done better, but haven’t tried to make a case of systematic effects of relationship under particular circumstances; something political scientists are more interested in doing.
  • Political Leadership – which is hard to study at the presidential level because the N is so small. On the other hand, the first major, enduring bit of research on the presidency argued that presidential power was about the power to persuade; the power to bargain and make adversaries see that your interests and their interests are aligned. Perhaps personal relationships make that process easier.  What is leadership and how would we know it when we see it? How might the talents of particular leaders be enhanced or constrained by unified/divided government, popularity, a growing economy, international crises, etc.?
  • Gerrymandering – political scientists generally argue that gerrymandering is not a major cause of polarization, but there is evidence that redistricting affects other important matters like whether voters are aware of who is representing them in Congress and how term limits produce systematically different districts at the state level.
  • Third Party Candidates – some columnists trot out the “this year is the year for the third party” column as if they are contractually obligated to do so, but political scientists could do a better job explaining how the ideological diversity in the electorate and the rules the parties have developed to make things hard on third parties make it very difficult for any such party to gain much traction, especially over more than one election cycle.

There are many more topics of course, such as interest group’s roles in legislating and electioneering, inter and intra-party negotiations, public opinion, and so forth – but the point here is that what Sides and Nyhan call “known unknowns” – things that political scientists comparatively don’t know much about are the precise things journalists can really add value to in their coverage given their cultivation of sources and investigative prowess – might also be the kinds of things that we scholars should try harder to start studying in creative ways.

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