Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Notes: Brookings Institution Visit

Speaker: Dr. Pietro Nivola, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies program
October 24, 2007

On the Brookings Institution
-Independent organization designed to influence government policy and inform the public debate through (somewhat biased) research.
-In terms of slant, Brookings is just left of center overall, but is one of the most centrist think tanks
-Oldest institution of its kind in the world, one of the biggest and most renowned
-Founded by St. Louis businessman Robert Brookings in 1916 or 1917 (about the time the U.S. entered WWI) because he and others saw that the government needed to develop a better planning and administration apparatus for management and budget especially
-Oldest department is Governance Studies; since then, it has branched out and formed different departments and centers for study
-Unlike university centers, Brookings exists not just to do academic studies, but to impact governmental policy. The amount of impact they have depends on the issue and on who is in power at the time.
-More right-of-center sister institute: American Enterprise Institute
-Brookings studies have impacted tax reform bills, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act, and the Intelligence Reform Act, among others.

About Dr. Nivola
-Has worked at the Brookings Institute for 20 years
-Has worked on energy policy, trade policy, urban policy, and federalism
-Currently is working on a project about partisan polarization with the Hoover Institution at Stanford

Questions and Answers
-What impact does polarization have on foreign policy?
-Polarization is not always bad, but in conducting foreign policy (which is more long-term strategic concerns) it can have very negative effects.
-Without bipartisanship, foreign policy gets very messy
-Regarding the UN: John Bolton was your typical partisan posterboy, but there is precedent for having similarly U.S.-sovereignty-focused ambassadors from both parties (Daniel Patrick Moynihan would be an example)
-In what ways is partisanship not so bad?
-Without ideological differences, there is little to no debate, which makes politics very boring. This leads to low voter turnout and interest in the system, because differences inspire interest.
-People used to complain that the parties were too "mushy." No one knew what the platforms of the party were, because people shifted around their positions too much. Discipline in a party (voting along party lines) gets stuff done, for better or worse. This would be a majoritarian parliamentary-esque system.
-Do candidates utilize the Brookings Institute for their campaigns?
Brookings is not allowed to line up as an institute with any one campaign. Certain individuals will work on an individual level with campaigns, but they are not representing Brookings.
-Opportunity '08 project- attempt to engage candidates in policy dialogues. Most candidates stay pretty vague on policy throughout the campaign, but once they get elected, they want to know what next, and that's where think tanks like Brookings can step in.
-If partisanship is so prevalent, how come the frontrunners in the 2008 presidential campaign are the moderates?
The problem with primaries:
-Graham: Candidates need to cater to their specific parties, then reposition themselves for the general election to appeal to centrists
-Jenny: Yes- primaries are all about fundraising, and the money comes from the passionate people who are usually more fringe- the frontrunner is usually the best fundraiser
-When the party bosses picked candidates, they were looking for someone electable, close to the bulk of the voters. Today, only the committed passionate voters are the ones who vote in primaries, and they pick different kinds of candidates: either ones who are more extremists or virtual unknowns (like Jimmy Carter) with no paper trail and lots of time to campaign
-Hillary Clinton had to run a more centrist campaign to compensate for the ultra-liberal stigma that the conservatives are painting her with. She also has a big Rolodex of supporters thanks to her husband, so she doesn't need to pander to the Democratic base as much. Additionally, the Democratic party as a whole simply wants to win the election, so they'll probably bite their lips and vote for the person who has the best chance of winning.
-Rudy Giuliani may or may not prove to be the real Republican frontrunner. He's hard to characterize, a "weird duck," a social liberal trying to offset that image with a very hard line on foreign policy
-Don't write off Mitt Romney, although he could be easily painted as a flip-flopper- governed MA in a very moderate way but running now as a stern conservative- again, you have to paint yourself in one certain way to win the primary and then another way to win the general election.
-On federalism
-currently, the federal government will always override the states in disagreements, no matter which party is in power
-Abortion: could let the states decide- laws would vary state to state based on the opinions of the citizens of that state- would depolarize the issue
-Abortion and gay marriage- should one, both, or neither be left up to the states?
-Moving one state to another, gays could become unmarried but the abortion would still have happened
-Some issues can't be left to the states-- slavery was left up to the states, and that led to the Civil War.
-Advantage of federalism: responsibility for a lot of things is given to the states, leaving a more manageable agenda and costs for the federal government
-People think the federal government should be helping them. How do you reconcile having a manageable federal agenda with what the people expect?
People do have a notion that the feds should take care of everything. Concurrently, the politicians view their role as doing something (of a local importance) for their constituents.
-Huge momentum towards centralization
-What are some smaller-issue examples of returning powers to state governments?
Welfare reform- has been in some cases successfully given back to the states
-Transportation infrastructure- federal Highway Act- has created a tight web of highways, but now it's created and therer are other priorities. Local governments can take care of improvements- for instance, Boston should have taken care of the Big Dig instead of having the federal government pay for it.
-Has political polarization manifested itself in think tanks like Brookings?
Yes- parties listen to their echo chambers. The Republican party listens to right-leaning think tanks, and Democrats listen to left-leaning think tanks.
-Although there's a considerable amount of partisan alignment in think tanks, the opinions in think tanks are not totally along party lines- for instance, two left-leaning Brookings scholars went to Iraq at Gen. Petraeus' invitation, toured, came back, and reported that we can't write off the surge just yet. The right-leaning Cato Institute has criticized the Bush administration for many of its policies. There is a certain amount of independence and internal splits within think tanks.
-What are some of the thoughts within Brookings about pulling out of Iraq?
very divided thoughts person-to-person within the institute
-Some align closely with the Democrats, saying that we need to withdraw from Iraq immediately and let the Iraqi government take control of their policies.
-Some are more inclined toward a different point of view, saying that if we withdraw too fast Iran will come in and fill the military vacuum, leading to genocide on a huge scale.
-Kenneth Pollock (Brookings scholar)- have to be careful about how we withdraw, because creating a vacuum would be a bad idea.
-It's hard to know in politics if when a candidate is elected they will hold on to their campaign promises-- when they get hit with the reality of the situation in Iraq, they may not be as apt to run away from the situation.
-There are even dangers in drawing back the number of troops, because having too few troops would again create a vacuum that Iran would fill, posing a real threat
-If Clinton wasn't so far ahead in the polls already, she'd have to be running her campaign differently regarding Iraq, perhaps even having apologized for her war vote
-Iowa runs a different sort of primary- it's a much more ideologue-oriented state
-What is the relationship between Brookings policy makers in helping them make educated decisions?
It's harder for House members to risk doing the right thing- while most have very safe seats, their terms are very short so they have to listen to their base
-Brookings tends to appeal to independents and moderates
-Members of Congress from swing states and districts might be more interested (i.e. Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Congressman Davis, Joe Lieberman) - non-extremists
-Some issues with bipartisan appeal (NCLB) will be more inclined to listen to think tanks
-Issues with more splits (tax reductions) - the GOP will not pay attention to what Brookings has to say (and Brookings won't pay attention to the GOP)
-How does polarization affect and blur the three branches of government and the checks and balances system?
Polarization can upset the checks and balances. For instance, when the GOP was in charge of both the White House and the Congress, they were disciplined enough that there were virtually no checks-- oversight and vetoes just didn't happen.
-In the judiciary: polarization can result in radical appointees because the president needs to appeal to his base > pitched battles with opposition
-Still some checks, with respect to appointments-- Senate confirmation process-- filibusters cannot be stopped without 60-vote cloture.

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