Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Who's Conservative? Who's Moderate? Who's Liberal?

This week on the Campbell Conversations I conclude the pre-election candidate interviews, with Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle.  In contrast with Sandy, Buerkle has been at the center of a campaign storm that squarely hit Syracuse—the rematch in the 24th district between her and former Congressman Dan Maffei.  It’s been long, intense, and very sharply edged.  Adding to the mix is a spirited Green Party effort by Ursula Rozum. 
In this interview, Congresswoman Buerkle discusses the growing level of nastiness in politics, issues regarding the budget and health care, and the political dysfunction in Washington (for which she blames the Senate more than the House).  She also shares some personal reflections on her own conservatism—and it was that topic that got me thinking after the interview.
When asked where she would place herself on a scale of liberalism to conservatism, she gave a predictable answer for an elected official—that she doesn’t see herself as rooted in one particular position, and that she considers each issue on its own.  This is similar to what Richard Hanna told me regarding whether, in general, he would define himself as a moderate.
But she also embraced the conservative label—as she has from the beginning, and she provided some interesting self-reflections on why she developed conservative views.
What makes for a liberal or conservative?  What defines a moderate?  Dan Maffei, for example, has branded himself as a moderate in his effort to win back the seat, and in a recent feature piece in the Post-Standard, the paper seemed to agree in part, citing that during his term, his voting with party leadership 96 percent of the time made him more “moderate” than most other Democratic congressmen and congresswomen in New York, who had even higher loyalty ratings.  The paper also noted that Congresswoman Buerkle voted with her party leadership 95 percent of the time, making her the most loyal of the New York Republicans.
Is that the right measure, however?  A long-time and widely-used benchmark for liberalism in Congress, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) voting ratings, suggests a different story, particularly if the attention is focused on the Central New York region.  Rather than looking at every single vote, the ADA selects what it considers to be the 20 most significant votes in a year, in which important liberal viewpoints are at stake, and creates a percent-based score.  In 2010, Dan Maffei earned a 90 percent rating, 20 points higher than nearby Democrats Michael Arcuri and Bill Owens.  In 2009, Maffei earned a perfect 100 percent rating, 15 points higher than Arcuri (Owens was not yet in office).  You can find those ratings here.
Alas, the ADA has not published ratings from the last two years, so we cannot see its take on Buerkle (at least I could not find those ratings on its website).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two Ways To Be a Legislator

My interview this week with Don Miller, the Republican incumbent in New York’s 127th State Assembly District seat, makes a very interesting pair with my interview from a few weeks ago of his Democratic challenger, Al Stirpe.  This race is a rematch—Miller defeated Stirpe by a slim margin the last time around, despite being heavily outspent. 

If you listen to both interviews, you’ll find very clearly articulated differences between the candidates, not just in their policy positions, but also in their core notions of what the job of a legislator is all about, and the personal style that best brings the results they are aiming for.  After the Miller interview airs this Friday, you can find them both here.

The softer spoken Stirpe emphasizes cooperation, working within the system, and a focus on specific economic development projects that produce tangible benefits for the district and the surrounding region.  This message is very similar to his pitch for re-election in 2010—and indeed, his campaign literature this fall looks a lot like it did before, except perhaps for a more sustained repetition of the word “jobs.”  But in 2010, the mood of the country—and this area—was not as receptive to the “look what your government did for you” kind of political approach. 

The more animated Miller protests the state’s “addiction” to spending and taxes, and is something of a crusader on the topic.  The issue permeates his responses to almost every question, and even informs his conception of constituency service.  His fight is a state-wide bout, and he takes it pretty far.  In a year when most people think that all things considered, Albany did fairly well, he remained deeply critical of its workings, and opposed budget measures that his own party supported and that would have brought state money in to the local area.

The differences between the two candidates remind me in a way of Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay on the fox and the hedgehog—with the fox knowing a lot of little things and the hedgehog knowing one big thing.  At the very least, these guys are two different animals.  I’m also reminded of the difference between retail and wholesale politics, with Stirpe being much more the retail operator of projects, and Miller the wholesale dealer in ideas. 

It will be very interesting to see what business model the 127th district opts for this November.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Outsourcing Wisdom

As we move into our third year of the Campbell Conversations—and it’s hard to believe that it’s been that long—it’s interesting for me to note that my favorite interviews so far have all been with people who were born outside of this country, talking about themes that relate to American ideals. 

First was Jan Carnogursky, the former dissident in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.  He was jailed prior to the Velvet Revolution, co-founded the Christian Democratic Movement of Slovakia, and then went on to become the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic and the Justice Minister of independent Slovakia.  In my interview, he spoke with passion—and humor—about his country’s struggle for freedom, and his own trials and tribulations.  (You can find that interview here.)

Then came Hazim Hamed, Chief of Staff in the Office of Vice President of Iraq from 2008 to 2011, and former advisor to Iraq’s President Talabani.  In an interview that obviously touched on sensitive professional and political issues for him, he mourned the lost promise of democracy in the American invasion of Iraq, especially in its aftermath. (I'm working on making that interview available.)

And now, in this week’s broadcast, is my conversation with Lopez Lomong.  He’s the former Lost Boy of Sudan who became the American Olympic distance runner, and the author of the new book, Running for my Life.  His story was so powerful and inspiring that it was very difficult for me to focus on the mechanics of the interview.  He spoke about his love and gratitude for the U.S., his personal faith, and the efforts he’s making in South Sudan through his charity, 4 South Sudan.  Would that the political candidates I’ve been interviewing had as good an answer as he regarding the one thing he would change about America.  It’s definitely worth a listen.  After the 9/14 broadcast, you can find it here.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What's in a Record?

My interview this week is with Dan Lamb, the Democrat who’s challenging Republican Richard Hanna in New York’s 22nd district (formerly the 24th).  You can find it here. 

The conversation brings up an interesting question for citizens:  How do you judge an incumbent’s record?  The incumbent Congressman Richard Hanna has established for himself a political identity as a moderate—as The Post-Standard once called him, in a feature piece, “Central New York’s man in the middle.”  Lamb’s campaign, however, has tried to portray Hanna as far more to the Right. 

Is Lamb’s characterization fair, and how well will it stick, given the apparent consensus that Hanna is willing to buck the Republican establishment on a number of issues?  I pushed Lamb on this question, and read to him a list of Hanna’s positions and actions which suggest he differs from the Republican mainstream in Congress—for example, he refused to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge, and was one of only seven House Republicans to vote against defunding Planned Parenthood.  Lamb countered that Hanna’s image has been skillfully crafted by positions taken at the margins.  But on the big spending and tax issues, and the big votes, Hanna has been a reliable foot soldier for the Right. 

One of the votes—two votes in fact—that Lamb focused on in my interview to prove his point was Hanna’s support for the Ryan budget, which included a voucher plan for Medicare. 

In a Utica Observer-Dispatch piece on the race, Hanna noted that he had problems with the budget bill, but that “You have to start someplace.”  And this is the difficult part in considering an incumbent’s record.  Hanna did vote for the bills, but votes also have contexts.  In this case, it was known that the plan would fail in the Senate.  Perhaps his vote was driven by a desire to get something started (though the current Congress doesn’t give much hope of progress beyond a start).  Lamb wants us to focus on the yes votes as a definitive statement of where the Congressman’s true preferences lie—and true, a vote is a vote.  But as I suggested last week in a post on the Al Stirpe-Don Miller State Assembly race, the way a legislature works is complicated, and just as it’s difficult to assess a legislator’s effectiveness, it can be almost equally difficult to get a good read on the kind of influence a legislator is trying to have on the chamber by a simple tally of votes.

No doubt, candidates can spin the interviews they give, and they do, but I think if you listen to the interview with Dan Lamb, and then listen to the forthcoming interview with Richard Hanna (still being scheduled, but I’m reasonably confident it will happen), you’ll have a pretty good handle on where each candidate is coming from.  Listen and decide.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Al Stirpe and the Puzzle of Legislative Effectiveness

The Buerkle-Maffei-Rozum congressional race is not the only election rematch in town this fall.  Democrat Al Stirpe is trying to recapture the State Assembly seat he lost to Republican Don Miller in 2010.  This is in the new 127th district, a slightly modified version of the current 121st.  The district’s towns run in a crescent around the East side of Syracuse—Clay, Cicero, Manlius, Pompey, Fabius, and Tully. 

Miller, a staunch conservative, won an upset victory over Stirpe despite being outspent by a large margin.  In my WRVO Campbell Conversations interview with Stirpe (which you can find here after Friday), he explains why he thinks being an effective legislator requires more compromise and nuance than he sees in Miller, and defends the criticisms he has made about Miller's constituency service.  He also discusses the state's role in economic development and education, the conflicts over hydrofracking, and the financial challenges facing Syracuse, including some of the issues involved in various consolidation ideas.

The interview brings up some interesting questions about legislative effectiveness—in Albany and more generally.  When trying to figure out which members in a legislature are making a difference, media observers and political scientists tend to look for either the splashy piece of legislation, or other things that can be easily measured.  Who’s passed the big new social program? (This, despite a drumbeat from some of the same observers that government must tighten its belt.)  Who chairs a committee?  Who’s introduced the most bills?  How many have passed?  Who speaks on the floor?  Who never misses votes? (In a chamber where all bills brought to the floor pass, being there for every single one of them is immediately suspect as a measure of meaningful involvement in the process.) 

Al Stirpe makes the case for a more subtle notion of making a difference—working behind the scenes, often sotto voce, changing larger measures at the margins and redirecting funds.  It’s a tougher sell for voters, because you can’t hang your campaign hat on a high-profile measure or a rousing set of remarks delivered publicly (even to a chamber with its mind made up).

It’s up to the listeners to decide whether Stirpe is convincing on the claim that he really had that kind of influence in the chamber the last time he was there, and that he knows how to work those levers were he to return. 

But my own experience of spending the better part of two years watching two different legislatures demonstrated to me that the concept has merit.  During that time, I was let in pretty deeply, into private meetings in the speaker’s and minority leader’s offices, to otherwise closed-door caucuses, and was allowed to shadow individual legislators for days at a time.  I went in to that process looking for the traditional measures that my political science training had prepared me to look for.  From the inside, however, it soon became clear that influence within the chamber was a more complicated affair.  There was a sub-set of legislators who constituted the active core of the body in terms of thinking about policy issues and trying to craft government responses to challenges—including creative ways to scale-back and redirect government initiatives.  But they weren’t always the ones at the press conference afterward.  Fellow legislators recognized them and could talk openly about them as a group—often they were experts on particular issues—but they were not the same folks who would stand out when using the more traditional ways of measuring effectiveness.  I asked several of these legislators about the usefulness of counting things like bill introductions and speeches on the floor, and they were in agreement that such an approach picked up more of the noise than anything else. 

All that leaves voters trying to figure out how effective their legislator is in a bit of a quandary, as it’s the other legislators who know best whether a colleague is exercising due diligence, and whether he or she is actually moving the dial.  You can often glean hints by the way legislators talk about their service, but it’s a murky enterprise trying to fathom this from the outside.  When it comes to how well the legislator fits with a voter’s views and values, there are voting records to examine, and public speeches can often tell you where they’re coming from.  But effectiveness is a somewhat different animal.

In the coming weeks, I plan to interview the incumbent Don Miller, and his case brings up another interesting facet of this effectiveness puzzle—the trade-offs between staunchly standing for a set of ideas, when you have one big idea that you believe is crucial, and using compromise to get some of what you want.  I’ll be exploring that with him, among other issues.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Barack and Bob

A juxtaposition just too good to pass up. Think of it as a Rorschach Test in prose.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
      --President Barack Obama, July 13, 2012

Hopefully we can continue to increase what we do in this community. It's always up to government and it's their choice.
      --Developer Robert Congel, August 2, 2012

Maybe I'm Back...

This space has been dormant for several months--so long in fact that a whole new process greeted me when I opened up the page.  Like so much in life, other demands pushed out the time to feed this.  To the one or two readers still left and checking in occasionally, thank you.  I'll try to get something going again.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Taxing the Wealthy Debate To Be Broadcast on WRVO Next Week

The first Campbell Debate on taxing the wealthy will be broadcast on WRVO this Sunday at 3 p.m., and then again on Monday at 10 p.m.  Tune in to hear former governor Eliot Spitzer, State Senator John DeFrancisco, Maxwell Professor Len Burman, American Enterprise Institute economist and former Bush and McCain advisor Kevin Hassett, business advocate Deb Warner, and religion minister Jennifer Hamlin-Navias wrestle with this complicated issue.  Narrated and moderated by yours truly.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Presidents on a Roll?

It's hard to make generalizations about presidential administrations because there are relatively few cases in any given era, but they are on the verge of doing something that hasn't been done since the Monroe administration, and it has left me wondering what it might mean (if anything).

If the economy continues to turn around--which it is beginning to show signs of doing--and if presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney continues to offer a solid but uninspiring challenge to President Obama, it's likely that the president will be re-elected. 

And if that happens, it will be the first time since Jefferson-Madison-Monroe that three presidents in a row have sought and been re-elected to a second term.  The trio of Roosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower is the closest second, with FDR himself being re-elected three times and Truman serving most of Roosevelt's fourth term before being elected in his own right, but he did not stand for re-election in 1952, and probably would not have survived a challenge from IKE. 

It's even more interesting to note that Jefferson-Madison-Monroe were all in the same "Democratic-Republican" Party, while our recent three are far more diverse.  Clinton and Obama can each stake a claim to be centrists or moderates in their party--especially Clinton--but they are clearly cut from a different cloth than Bush. 

What does this mean?  Is it just coincidence?  Is it now harder somehow to beat an incumbent president?  Bush certainly seemed beatable in 2003, but in the end he was tough to dislodge.  Does it reflect something about our polarized politics?  Hypotheses welcome.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Should We Increase Taxes on the Wealthy?

We had our first Campbell Debate on February 1 and it was great--a lively and smart exchange among six panelists on a pressing public policy question.  The house was packed and there was a buzz before, during, and after the event. 

The proposition:  This Assembly Would Increase Taxes on the Wealthy. 

The audience was heavily tilted toward agreement going in, and that didn't change much going out--we did a pre and post-debate poll.  But nonetheless it was good, substantive political theater, in the best sense of that phrase.  The debaters really lit into the issues, argued well and passionately, and at all times remained civil.  Even though minds may not have changed, the basis for differing views was clearly enriched and a model for spirited interaction was put on display.  What personally struck me the most was how, particularly in response to the audience questions and comments, the issue became more complex as time went on.  It's a complicated question.

The panelists were: 
In the Affirmative--Len Burman (Maxwell School, Syracuse University), Jennifer Hamlin-Navias (May Memorial Unitarian-Universalist Church), and Eliot Spitzer (former New York governor, attorney general and CNN host)
In the Negative--Senator John DeFrancisco (New York State Senate), Kevin Hassett (American Enterprise Institute), and Deborah Warner (CenterState CEO)

WRVO will broadcast the debate on Sunday February 19 at 3 p.m., and Monday February 20 at 10 p.m.  Check it out.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More Pension Myths?

The bashing of public employee salaries, pensions, collective bargaining rights, and competencies shows no signs of slowing.

Consider this more subtle example from today's Post-Standard lead editorial, "Pension Plutocrats," which you can find here.  The problem is in the following sentences:  "One problem with pension reform is that not everyone in the pension system is getting big bucks.  The average public pension in New York state is just $19,000 per year.  The federal average is $31,633.  But nearly 15,000 federal retirees receive six-figure pensions.  The most well-compensated federal retiree...."

And then the piece goes on to name several individuals with some justifiably unsettling pension payments.  These examples are in addition to the individual pension figures cited at the beginning of the piece, enjoyed by Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, and Tom Daschle. 

Here's the problem:  The listed examples are Members of Congress, a vice president, and two executives from federally funded institutions outside of the mainstream federal workforce.  They are not typical federal employees.  But many--and I'm guessing most--of those 15,000 in the paragraph above are former executives in the federal workforce--the "bureaucracy."  The clear implication is that no one who worked in the federal government deserves a six-figure pension.  That's what's debatable.

Let's look at two factors.  It's generally accepted that a pension (or the payouts from a 401k) should bear some relationship to one's earning history.  Rounded to the nearest hundred dollars, salaries in the management levels of the federal government--GS-14, GS-15, and the Senior Executive Service (SES)--have the following ranges:  GS-14, $84,700 to $110,100; GS-15, $99,600 to $129,500; SES, $119,600 to $179,700.  Many career federal employees spend a lot of their career life at these levels; I've met many GS-14s who are in their 30s and 40s, for example. 

The frequent reaction to the figures I've just noted--that federal employees are simply overpaid--introduces the second factor.  It's also generally accepted that rates of pay should bear some relationship to the level of responsibility and accountability of the employee.  But when you consider the amount of money, resources, and extensiveness of operations that these executives are responsible for, their salaries seem low in comparison with the private sector.  Again, I've met many GS-14s and GS-15s whose units they manage are responsible for hundreds of millions and often billions of dollars.  It's important, professional, managerial work. 

The real problem with public pensions is not their rates, per se--absent the kinds of outliers that the paper's editorial called out by name.  The real problem is the comparatively shorter amounts of time that career workers have to spend at a given earning level in order to earn the highest pensions.  But that, I think, is more a problem for certain state and local-level public employees.

I admit that it may seem like I'm banging on about a small wrinkle, but the level of toxicity surrounding public service as a profession is eroding the esprit de corps of the public workforce, such that performance and efficiency, not to mention quality of life, must be suffering.  We're not going to get to better government by beating up on government.