Host/interviewer: Terry Gross
Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson are the authors of the new book Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. In the book, Hacker and Pierson examine the tactics of far-right Republicans -- and how they've changed the system for years to come. They split their subject matter into two topics: "Abandoning the Middle" and "Broken Checks and Balances."
Hacker is an associate professor of political science at Yale University. Pierson is a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.
An excerpt from the book, Off Center, is available at the Fresh Air website.
Discussion relevant to this topic, sometimes including input from the authors, can be found in forums at Talking Points Memo Cafe listed and linked here.
Terry Gross: The accepted wisdom in American politics is that the moderate center prevents either party from moving too far to the extremes. In the new book, Off Center, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write that the Republican Party has managed to defy this accepted wisdom. They say that the Party has strayed from the moderate middle of public opinion, sided with extremes, and yet faced little public backlash. After making this case, Off Center analyzes the techniques the Republicans have used to move the political agenda further to the right. Jacob Jacker is an associate professor of Political Science at Yale and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He's written for the New Republic, the Nation, the New York Times and the LA Times. Paul Pierson is a professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley and a former professor of Government at Harvard. You write that the Republicans have defied the normal laws of political gravity. Which laws do you have in mind?
Jacob Hacker: Well, there are two laws that we have in mind. The conventional wisdom is that politicians almost always seek the center. That's because they need to capture swing voters, the people right in the middle of the electorate, to gain office. So politicians are expected generally to appeal to the moderate center of public opinion. The second law that we talk about is that we have a very convoluted political system with lots of checks and balances. It was designed to make action very difficult. So if you are trying to change politics and policy, you shouldn't be able to radically change them, at least not without really strong public support for your actions. But what Republicans have done, essentially, is govern quite far to the right of the center of public opinion and at the same time achieve and pursue many of their most conservative goals. To us that's very puzzling. It really is defying what we think of as the normal course of American politics.
TG: You argue in your books that Republicans have been able to win elections in spite of being further to the right than the majority of Americans in the mainstream... What evidence do you have that the Republican Party is further to the right in its agenda than the majority of Americans or the majority of Republicans who voted for them?
Paul Pierson: Well, in the book we run through a great deal of evidence that looks at Republican politicians and also the activist members of their party, sometimes referred to as "the base." Which show that, on a whole set of issues having to do with both the voting behavior of politicians and the positions that are staked out by activists, that they've moved way to the right in the past 20 or 25 years. The changes are really quite dramatic and can be demonstrated systematically. So one might think, based in part on what Jacob was just saying about how politicians try to stay close to where the voters are, that that must mean voters have moved well to the right as well. But in fact, if you look systematically at public polling evidence, and there are political scientists who measure every public opinion poll and look at the same questions that have been asked repeatedly over many many years, there are simply no signs that the opinions of the voters have shifted to the right at all on the major issues.
TG: One of the questions that you pose in the book is, if the Republican Party is further to the right than mainstream American , then how have they managed to win elections. What answers do you give to that?
JH: I think you really have to focus on both sides of the story, in terms of elections. One side is the electoral battlefield, or the geographic map. And as we point out in the book, Republicans just have a big edge on the electoral battlefield, right out of the starting block. For example, in the Senate, over the last three Senate elections, Democrats have actually picked up 2.5M more votes in the last three elections in total than Republicans. But right now, they're holding 44 seats in the Senate to Republicans' 55. So there's a really dramatic bias on the Senate side in favor of generally Republican-leaning smaller states. On the House side, we've heard a lot about redistricting and gerrymandering, and that's certainly part of the story. In fact, in the most recent election of 2004, Bush won about 52% of the vote. He won in about 59% of Congressional districts. So that suggests Republicans do have an edge there. But I think it's also important to note, on the House side, that money is important. And the Republicans have just a huge edge in terms of both the amount of money they have and their ability to distribute it to Republican incumbents. So the electoral battlefield is really important. It's very tilted in favor of Republicans. The other thing we talk about in the book is that not only is the battlefield tilted but Republicans have gotten very good at figuring out how to fight the battle on the terms that are most beneficial to them. That is, they use their very strong control of government and the political agenda to shift the terrain of conflict onto those issues which most help them, such as national security issues and the war on terrorism. You might say, Well, that's just part of politics. But as we point out in the book, the Republicans are just much more coordinated than previous parties have been. They've used government to essentially shut out the opposition party from any meaningful participation in public debate. So until recently, the game of politics was really like what the journalist, Ron Brown, described as a game of baseball in which only one team was at bat.
TG: Another point you make about elections is that in districts or in states where the Republican is pretty much a shoo-in to win, that the primaries become more important. In what sense do the primaries become more important in the situation and how do you think the Republicans have taken advantage of that?
PP: This is a crucial change in American politics. So many politicians are sitting in safe seats. There is less turnover in the House these days among sitting members than there was in the Soviet Politburo in the old days of the Soviet Union. 97 to 98% of incumbents are typically reelected. So if you're sitting in a safe seat like that, which most sitting politicans are, and your worried about keeping your job, the only place you're likely to face a threat is in the primaries where you could potentially be unseated by some kind of challenger. Of course, primary electorates are very small -- most people don't vote in primaries -- and they're limited to the most energized, most enthusiastic members of the political party that the sitting incumbent is part of. That means that those most intense elements of the base, which tend also to be the most politically extreme, really become important gatekeepers for politicians who are trying to develop their careers and stay in power. That's one of the reasons -- we don't think it's the only reason -- but it's a very important reason why the Republican Party has moved so far to the right. It's partly that they have just move that way ideologically, but it's also that they do face the incentive of really wanting to appeal to their base so they don't have to worry about being challenged in the primaries.
TG: Are there ways that you think Republicans are trying to control primaries in a way that are different from the way Democrats are?
JH: Well, I think that both side of the political spectrum, both Democrats and Republicans, have witnessed the same trends towards increasing numbers of safe seats. But in the Republican Party this transformation has resulted in a much greater pull towards the extremes. One piece of evidence for this is a University of Texas political science look at the changes in the Republican and Democratic parties that have caused partisan polarization. They looked at every race over the past 20 years or so. One of the striking things was that when Republicans were replaced by other Republicans -- that is, a Republican incumbent left office and another Republican replaced him, that Republican was always much more conservative than the one before him. The same wasn't true on the Democratic side of the aisle. That is, when Democrats replaced other Democrats, there was not a big shift of the left. So this is something... a much stronger pull to the extremes on the Republican side that's caused by primaries. In the book we talk about one possible cause of this. Which is that Republican activists are much more cohesive and conservative than Democratic activists are cohesive and liberal. For example, Republican activists have moved dramatically to the right over the last thirty years according to the well-respected opinion survey, the National Election Studies. They've moved so far to the right, in fact, that they are farther away from independent voters than they were in the mi-1960's when Barry Goldwater was nominated as the Republican standard bearer. And another thing we know about Republicans is that they are very well organized at the grass roots level. They're organized through churches and through local organizations and school boards. That kind of organization translates into getting out very intense, motivated, ideological voters in primaries.
TG: So one of your points about Republican primaries now is that you think Republicans who are further to the right in primary are in a safe seat, a seat that's likely to go Republican. That the candidate that's further to the right is likely to get the backing of the Party and the money from the Party and money from certain powerful rightwing groups.
PP: The groups become a key gatekeeper for people who want to be successful in the Party. We can see that in the conservatism that's evident among members of the House and Senate on the Republican side. And especially among their leaders who are also tightly connected to these key groups in the base. But of course the other crucial part of this story here is that politicians wouldn't be able to move so far to the right if they didn't feel like they were going to have some protection around election time. And some of that of course has to do with the geographical electoral advantages and the financial advantages we talked about before. But it also has to do with very sophisticated techniques they've developed to allow politicians to appear more moderate to a mainstream general election audience than in fact those politicians actually are with respect to the policies they're carrying out.
TG: Give us an example of what you mean.
PP: Well, we can see good examples in the news today where there are these big fights going on about the budget. Right now Congress is starting to pass a budget and there's a lot of discussion about how Republicans are actually less unified and there's more opposition than there has been in the recent past. But a lot of that opposition is really theatrical, rather than substantive. There are efforts being made to allow moderate, potentially vulnerable, Republicans who are facing reelection next year to -- as the lingo sometimes goes -- create a little daylight beween them and the Republican leadership. So they'll cast a vote in opposition to the leadership, but only in circumstances where it's going to make a very marginal change in the political agenda or where they know they're going to wind up being on the losing side. Or where they know that any kind of changes that are introduced at one stage in the legislative process can be taken out at a later stage of the legislative process. We talk at length in the book about the various ways in which moderation can be created, or at least an appearance of moderation can be created, without jeopardizing a more radical agenda that the GOP continues to pursue.
TG: So you're basically saying that some people who consider themselves Republican moderates and vote with the Democrat and against the Republican agenda are basically given permission to do so when Republicans know that the bill is going to pass anyway.
JH: This certainly happens. We have lots of evidence that this has happened on high-profile legislative drives in the House. And it helps account for the fact that we've had so many bills pass with just one or two extra votes. What happens is that the Republican leadership counts up the votes, figures that it has a few to spare, and then carefully doles them out to Republican moderates so that they can declare their "independence" from the Party to their constitutuents. So the point is that the Democrats have found it very difficult to get moderates to come on board when it really matters, when it's going to mean a key defeat for the Republicans. We've seen that again and again. Perhaps the most revealing statistic on this isn't what's happened in Congress but the fact that George W. Bush has yet to veto a single bill since he's been in office. You have to go back to our 6th president, John Quincy Adams, to find somewho who has a record of lasting an entire presidential term without vetoing a bill.
TG: I'm not sure whether you're challenging the sincerity of certain Republican moderates, or whether you're saying that certain Republican moderates can't afford to vote against party initiatives because they will lose their seat. And so they're too intimidated to vote their conscience and therefore will only vote their conscience when given the green light by their own party.
PP: Well, I think it's hard to get into the heads of individual politicians, and you would probably find that for different politicians there are different stories that would come closest to the truth. I think there are elements of both these things going on. In some cases you have politicians acting this way out of fear. They go along with the leadership because they're afraid of what the consequences will be. You know once consequence, as you said, Terry, could be a primary challenge, but another consequence could be losing access to those who, in a much more centralized Congressional apparatus, are the ones who are doling out benefits to various members. So there are a lot of potential costs to crossing the leadership in a meaningful way. But we do think that some of this stuff is so clearly staged, when you look at it closely...
TG: Give me an example of something that you thought was staged.
PP: Well, a dramatic example would be the struggles in the Senate back in 2003 over major tax cuts that were being proposed. One of the signature items on the Republican agenda has been very, very substantial tax cuts. As we document in the book, these tax cuts would not have been easy to pass if there hadn't been substantial efforts to suggest that they were going to be much more evenly distributed and much less expensive than of course turned out to be the case. In 2001, there was a surplus in the budget, so it was relatively easy to convince people that the tax cuts were a reasonable idea. But by 2003, you had the beginnings of the run-up to the war, and you also had large budget deficits. So there was a lot of concern about the scale of the tax cuts. And several ostensible moderates in the Senate announced very publicly that they would not vote for the tax cuts that the Bush administration was proposing unless they were reduced dramatically in size. Originally the Bush administration was asking for about $600B in tax cuts over ten years, and they said they wouldn't vote for more than $350B. So the Republican leadership in Congress dealt with this problem not by actually reducing the scale of the tax cuts but essentially by using budgetary tricks of phasing in the tax cuts gradually and announcing that they would miraculously sunset ten years later on. And by doing that they were able to introduce a new budget bill which, if it stays in effect, would cost a trillion dollars over 10 years. Having made their public statement about how they were going to stand up and not accept a budget-busting $600B bill, the Senate moderates then signed onto a bill which, if it stays in effect, would cost a trillion dollars.
TG: How do you think the Republican approach to what you describe as controlling the vote of Republican moderates compares to how Democrats try to control the votes so they have a chance of winning on certain bills -- or defeating bills?
PP: Well, there's no question but that Democrats used some of these techniques when they were in the majority. I was in a conversation with Norm Ornstein who's at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and who's been a long-time observer of Congress, very well respected observer of Congress, who made this point the other day. That of course these things are not a Republican invention. But, as he put it, they've ratcheted things up to an entirely different level. If you look again at facts, at scores for how much unity a party maintains, and again this very striking point that Jacob mentioned, that after now five years in office, Bush has yet to veto a single bill. Which is a sharp contrast with previous presidents who, by this point in office, would usually have vetoed a couple of dozen bills! That's a very strong example of how Republicans have really maintained a united front in a way that's without precedent in American politics.
TG: Do you think the Republican leadership has innovated new techniques for controlling the political agenda?
PP: We do. Then, again, a lot of these things are not unprecedented. In a lot of cases, what you're talking about is refinements. And also -- I think this is an important part of the puzzle too -- the fact is simply that their goals are more extreme. I think they're further from the center than has been true for previous leaderships. So there are refinements. But there are some things that are quite new. One, in addition to some of the things Jacob was talking about, is the way that the laws themselves are designed so that they appear more moderate than they are. Maybe the most important but also revealing example is the 2001 tax-cut legislation which was designed in ways, as I said earlier, to look both less expensive than it was and made to look like it was distributed in ways that would be more acceptable to average voters. One aspect of that design, I think, is particularly revealing, which is that people on average incomes -- what they got from the 2001 tax cut they got right away in a way that was made very visible for them. People received a check with a nice little letter from Congress and the White House within a matter of weeks after the bill was passed in 2001. The very substantial benefits for the most affluent Americans were phased in much more gradually so that they would receive less attention. And there was a striking example -- again, it's unfolding right now though without receiving any press attention at all. Beginning in January 2006, there's going to be a new round of cuts, passed in 2001, that are just going into effect in January 2006. 97% of the benefits from these tax cuts will go to people making over $200,000 a year. So that's an example of legislative design where the bill is very carefully structured in a way in which its more moderate or appealing elements for the average voters are presented right up front. It's less appealing elements are hidden.
TG: Another thing that you cite in terms of how you think the Republicans have managed to keep tight control over the political agenda is about changes in the way conference committees operate. What do you have to say about that?
PP: Conference committees are where the House and Senate have to come together to work out their differences if they've passed slightly different versions of legislation and then come back with a bill that can be agreed on by both the House and the Senate. Traditionally this used to be an area where, essentially, you were doing just that -- working out differences between the two versions. What Republicans have done is to use conference committees as a whole new tightly controlled environment in which they can rewrite legislation to pursue even more extreme goals. So it is now typical in these conference commitees for the leadership essentially to pick who is going to participate and to hold their meetings in private without any participation from Democrats, except occasionally one of these Democrats Jacob was mentioning who lives in a state Bush carried and who has agreed to negotiate on their terms. All other Democrats are excluded from these negotiations. The bills are then rewritten in ways which are typically much more conservative in many cases than the bills that came out of at least one of the two chambers. And often they include significant elements that were not part of the original legislation -- or at least not in anything like the form that they turn up out of the conference committee. These bills are then brought back to the floors of the House and Senate where they cannot be amended. They're simply presented for an up-or-down vote. And that's a really powerful form of agenda control. Because in many cases you'll get a bill that has a popular label on it -- like "tax cut" or "bill for a prescription drug benefit" -- that politicians are very reluctant to vote against even if they know that the details of the legislation have been rewritten in ways that are quite objectionable.
TG: Would you give us an example of a bill that was rewritten in conference committee in the way that you've just described?
PP: Well, the classic example, I think, is the prescription drug bill, which started out in some ways as a kind of old-Americain-politics-style agreement where you had a pretty conservative bill that came out of the House, and then a more moderate bill that came out of the Senate -- where you needed significant Democratic support in order to get it through without a filibuster. Ted Kennedy played a very prominent role in helping to fashion a compromise that wasn't anything like ideal, from his perspective, but he thought acceptable. A compromise bill that came out of the Senate. The bill then went into conference. Democrats, except, again, for the most conservative Democrats, were completely excluded from the conference. No House Democrats were allowed to participate in the conference meetings. And the bill was rewritten and pushed, in a number of important dimensions, way to the right And then when it came back to a vote -- and again when it comes up for a vote, you're not allowed to make any amendments -- Kennedy was livid and said, This is not at all what we agreed to before. But a lot of Senators who were put in a position where they were going to have to vote "no" on a prescription drug bill, they don't want to do that. They didn't want to be seen as casting a vote in that way. So this bill ends up passing even though it's radically different from the bill that originally passed the Senate.
TG: You write about the architects of what you call "the new power structure" of the Republican Party. You say "these are the people who sit at the intersection of money, mobilization, and authority." Examples you give of people in this position are Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist... I mean, doesn't it go without saying that people that people who have political power sit "at the intersection of money, mobilization, and authority." Is there any difference here?
JH: Yes, I think there is. There are two things that have really changed, and we call these people -- DeLay, Rove, Norquist and others who are this crucial juncture -- we call them power brokers. And what's changed is that the old power brokers were, in many ways, fairly pragmatic deal makers. These new power brokers, as we call them in the book, are very ideological. One thing that connects all three of the people we've just mentioned is that they are very hard-core conservatives with the possible exception of Rove who's a bit more pragmatic but who nonetheless has made his name by getting President Bush to appeal to his conservative base. The second difference -- and I think this is the more important difference in many ways -- is that these power brokers are working with a much stronger set of resources. They're at the intersection and brokering in a much more powerful way than political of a similar sort were in the past. They have huge amounts of resources at their disposal and they're able to link together those resources through interest groups and through high-profile donors up to politicians in a way they really control -- they're really the gatekeepers -- to entry into the halls of influence. We really haven't seen that to the same extent, at least not in the recent past. Each of these people, like Norquist and Rove, really gets to decide who gets access to whom. And there's a really revealing story that actually, when people wanted to meet with the leadership and with the President, the would talk with Grover Norquist, who's head of Americans for Tax Reform, who has no formal authority in the matter. Norquist would then talk with Rove. And the two of them would decide who got access to the inner sanctums of power. We see that all of the people who are in these positions -- their staff members -- have all worked for each other at various points in time. So this is a real social structure here that goes beyond the formal authority that these power brokers have. That represents a really dramatic shift in the structure of power since the 1960's and 70's.
TG: When talking about the people you describe as power brokers, people you just mentioned -- Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist -- the question comes up, What tense should we speak of them in as power brokers? Tom DeLay has been indicted; he's no longer majority leader. Karl Rove -- it appears that he's being investigated by the Special Prosecutor. Grover Norquist is implicated in the corrupt lobbying of Jack Abramoff. So do you think -- the people you describe as power brokers -- are losing or have lost their power? And if so, how do you think the Republican Party may be on the verge of changing?
JH: Well, there's no question that the Republicans are facing the biggest challenge to their majority status that they've faced since they originally took control of Congress in 1994. The scandals -- and, as you point out, there are multiple scandals and a new one is breaking almost every day! or an old one is extending into new circles! -- the scandals are a quite important part of that challenge that they're facing. The question, though, really is: in the end, how much difference is it going to make? And the core of our view would be that there is a system that connects these people. Grover Norquist said in an interview recently, If I were to be run over by a bus, there would be somebody else who could take my place and if Karl Rove were run over by a bus, there would be somebody to take his place. Over the last ten years or so, you've seen powerful figures in the Republican leadership take a fall before, for one reason or another. It's easy for us at a particular moment to think of a particular individual like Tom DeLay or Karl Rove as being indispensible, but back in the mid-'90's Newt Gingrich was seen as indispensible. Who remembers Newt Gingrich these days as the person who started it all. But when he fell as Speaker, it had no particularly noticeable or enduring affect on the Republican coalition. Trent Lott fell as the result of a scandal the same way. And so our view would be that it's the system these folks are a part of that's the central part of the story. It's a mistake to focus too much on the individuals.
TG: As the House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay was credited with figuring out many ways of arm-twisting, for keeping people in line. Is it fair to say that's one of the things that made him so strong? What did he innovate in terms of arm-twisting?
JH: Well, I think one thing that really should be recognized is that the leadership only twists arms when it has to. What it hopes to do is make sure that most of its members are on board most of the time. So one thing that's not much recognized about DeLay is that he was actually very good at looking out for Republican members if they were willing to stick with the party line. That's a big shift in Congress. It used to be that the Congressional commitees really were the center of power, and that the majority party was sort of a scheduler of the Congressional agenda and did a few other things. But most of the power to make policy, to decide what issues got considered, lay with the Congressional committees that had exclusive jurisdiction over certain areas. What Newt Gingrich did and Tom DeLay continued was basically a complete and total subordination of the Congressional committees and their leaders to the Republican Party leadership in the House. And as a result, Congressional committee chairs have to be auditioned to become head of their committees. One of the key things that they have to show is that they can raise a lot of money for the Republican Party. Really what DeLay has done has turned around Congress so that he has both the carrots and the sticks. He hopes to be able to use the carrots -- the money he's been able to raise, the fact that he can pursue redistricting initiatives in Texas that'll mean more Republicans will be in Congress for the next elections. So he hopes to use just the carrots. But, if he has to, he will use the sticks. DeLay has been very tough. He has used sticks. We tell the story of Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican from New Jersey, who was essentially shut out of a committee chair that she was seeking during her entire 20-year Congressional career. DeLay had apparently funded, indirectly, her primary opponent and made clear to her that she would never really have any effective power in the House. When she'd come into Congress, almost 20 years ago, she had said -- and really, it's quite poignant to think about today -- that this had been the greatest dream of her life and that the one thing she'd wanted to do was to move up in the hierarchy of Congress and become a committee chair. But she left Congress 20 years later not having achieved that goal and basically having been told by Tom DeLay that if she wasn't going to be a team player, she wasn't going to be part of the institution she loved.
TG: Do you think the Republican leadership has done anything that's illegal or unconstitutional in the way they've tried to control the agenda, or do think they've made very strong, creative, powerful use of the rules?
PP: Well, we certainly don't have any special insight as to whether laws have been broken. There are people investigating that right now. But we do think that the more profound thing and the more central thing that has happened is that they have, by creating this new level of unity and coordination, they have changed the character of the system in ways that have really undercut our traditional sense of checks and balances, or cross-cutting pressures that enforced diversity and moderation in the kinds of view that have been expressed in Washington. Whether or not laws were broken, that change in the system needs to be understood and people need to think about how to respond to it. Our deepest concern in writing the book was the sense that accountability and responsiveness to the concerns of ordinary Americans has really been undermined in the last 15 years.