Mitchell’s Musings 9-11-17: More Thoughts of the Week

07 Sep 2017 3:09 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 9-11-17: More Thoughts of the Week

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

In a recent musing, I reflected on that week’s prior events.[1] Here is another such weekly reflection.

The Median Voter

Recently, California’s Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was booed by members of her own party for essentially saying that she hoped Trump would improve as a president. She has to make a decision soon on whether to run for another term in the U.S. Senate. At age 84, she may very well decide not to run, regardless of boos or praise. However, the folks who booed her seemed to have little sense of what a senator does. Here is one critic:

“We don’t need to work across the aisle. We don’t need bipartisanship. We don’t need compromise. What we need to do is fight,” said Pat Harris, a Studio City attorney and one of five little-known Democratic challengers who have opened committees to run against her.[2]

I trust that most LERA readers, with their backgrounds in negotiations and in working things out (if possible), will find such a sentiment anomalous. The problem is that California has all kinds of “interests” in Washington and with the federal government. It gets disaster aid when bad things happen. It gets a lot of Medicaid (Medi-Cal) funding. Etc., etc. (Do I really need to point these facts out?) So, yes, if you want to be a senator, you had better learn to compromise and to deal with folks with whom you disagree. It can’t just be fighting and nothing else.

“It’s time for Dianne Feinstein to go,” said Ben Becker, co-founder of San Francisco Berniecrats. “She’s not looking out for people of color and poor people, those who don’t have equal footing in Donald Trump’s America. Her argument for civility and bipartisanship will lead us down a very, very dark path with this current administration.”[3]

There is a major problem with the view above. It’s a simple example of Groupthink. Everyone Mr. Becker knows agrees with him, but he apparently doesn’t know a representative sample of the California electorate. Academic analysts like to look at the numbers, and we had an empirical test quite recently of where the median voter is in California. In the Democratic primary in June 2016, Hillary Clinton got 53.1%. Bernie Sanders got 46%. And, of course, these numbers don’t include Republicans who are roughly one fourth of registered voters, and who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary.[4] So the median California voter is not a “progressive” Berniecrat. In November 2016, for example, California voters rejected ending the death penalty in one ballot initiative. In fact voters supported another initiative that limited death penalty appeals. They liked the death penalty and thought it should be sped up.

So, yes, California as a state is generally more liberal than the rest of the U.S. But it is not where some folks think it is, politically. What has happened in California is that the Republican Party – as a party - has marginalized itself to the point that at a statewide level (which is what matters for U.S. Senate races), it is no longer competitive. (See the chart below.) And in the legislature, where local districts matter, it has too few seats to matter for most purposes.



But all state primaries (except presidential) in California are non-partisan. Local primaries also are non-partisan. Everyone runs in the same primary regardless of party. Ultimately, candidates have to appeal to a wide audience. None of this proves that Dianne Feinstein should run again. But it does suggest that what California voters want (as opposed to what party “activists” want) is someone who knows the value of civility and compromise – as well as the ability to negotiate with those currently in authority on behalf of the state.

Madman Theory Once Again

In my earlier musing on the week’s events, I noted the North Korean nuclear problem and criticized an op ed that suggested that President Trump might be using the “madman” theory of negotiations in dealing with the threat. Under the madman theory, which some commentators have said President Nixon used in Vietnam, you try to convince the other side that you are crazy enough to do terrible things. I pointed out that in any theory of negotiations, credibility has to be an important element. If you want to play the madman game in a negotiation, you at least have to be a credible madman. It’s a simple point, and surely one that LERA members will understand.

But what the North Koreans (and Chinese) have learned is that the American president is at best a rhetorical madman. He threatens. But he doesn’t do anything tangibly that suggests he will carry through on his threats. Nonexistent armadas are said to be heading toward Korea. Fire and fury are threatened, but no troops are moved. More recently, the president threatened to block all trade with countries that have commerce with North Korea. The problem is that the president doesn’t unilaterally determine U.S. trade policy. And there is no way he is going to block all trade with China or any important country. Moreover, there is no evident strategy. Different officials in the administration say different things.[5]

The result, as suggested in the earlier musing, is to make things worse, short term and long term. If you convince the other side that in the end you will always acquiesce – despite what you say – it will proceed on its current path. And if at some point, you actually do change your behavior and decide to act for real, the chances of both parties blundering into a conflict have been increased.

American international diplomacy needs a version of the Hippocratic Oath:

First, do no harm.

The President’s DACA Decision

Let’s go back to that chart on Republican Party membership in California. What caused the slide? The usual explanation is that it was kicked off by Proposition 187 of 1994. At the time, California was in the midst of a multiyear budget crisis that accompanied the end of the Cold War and the (mild) recession of the early 1990s. While the rest of the country quickly recovered, the drop in military expenditures in California had a major negative effect in the state.

Republican Governor Pete Wilson, elected first in 1990, spent his first term wrestling with a budget crisis caused by the downturn. A budget crisis is not a good platform to run on for re-election. But in 1994, that’s what Wilson had to do. He linked his campaign to Prop 187, which would have denied state services to undocumented immigrants.[6] And he won re-election (against current Governor Jerry Brown’s sister, Kathleen Brown). Prop 187 also passed, although it was largely voided subsequently by litigation.

The short-run victories of Wilson and Prop 187, however, produced a long-run alienation of the growing Latino population in California from the Republican Party. The Party’s “base” became nativist at a time when Californians more generally went in the opposite direction. Wilson himself would today be considered a “moderate” in the GOP. But he seemed to set in motion a process in which his Party was seen as more and more retrograde, and it has never been able to get off that track.

Sometimes a momentary success can produce a longer term failure. When you think of President Trump’s recent DACA decision, you might want to think about Wilson and 187.


     Great for the “base,” but bad for the Party





[3] Ibid.

[4] Independent voters can vote in Democratic presidential primaries in California, but not in Republican presidential primaries. (The parties make the rules.)

[5] If anyone is using the madman theory, it is the North Koreans. And, if so, they are much better at it than the U.S.


Employment Policy Research Network (A member-driven project of the Labor and Employment Relations Association)

121 Labor and Employment Relations Bldg.


121 LER Building

504 East Armory Ave.

Champaign, IL 61820


The EPRN began with generous grants from the Rockefeller, Russell Sage, and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundations


Powered by Wild Apricot. Try our all-in-one platform for easy membership management