If You Whip Me, The Voters Will Whup Me

Quoting Politico …

“[House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi said Wednesday at an event in San Francisco she does not plan to whip a Syria resolution when it comes to the House floor…”

Leaving aside the moral and strategic questions about the advisability of striking Syria (far beyond my competence), the dynamic unfolding here is intriguig from a Math of Politics standpoint.  Why would Pelosi not whip Democrats to support a president of their party to support an item of the highest profile that he has requested?

There are plenty of ready-made (and randomly-ordered) solutions: (a) Pelosi doesn’t have “the juice” to deliver and wants to cover for the potential of failure, (b) a win for the authorization measure would be at best a wash in terms of political gain for Democrats, given the divided control of Congress, (c) Pelosi is more dove than hawk, or even (d) Obama might prefer to “blame shift” nonaction onto Congress (slash potentially accentuate his own foreseen presidential unilateral action in Syria).

These are all quite viable, but—with the exception of (d)—fairly first-order.  That is, they don’t look at the bigger picture.  Very quickly, let me introduce a fifth option, (e).

(e) Democrats who vote in favor of authorizing military action in Syria would prefer—for reelection purposes—to be seen as doing so sans party pressure as far as possible.

Here’s the quick model: a moderate voter in 2014 is considering whether to vote D or R.  They have a D incumbent and are essentially choosing whether to take the “known” commodity or vote for a relatively unknown replacement from the other party.  Regardless of the voter’s position vis-a-vis military intervention in Syria, this voter (by the presumption that he or she is moderate) would prefer to reelect an incumbent whose preferences are aligned with her own and would be capable of acting on them in times of (electoral) uncertainty.

It seems, at this point, that Americans are not clearly for or against military intervention in Syria. Timing and question wording each make survey responses mover “too much” for anyone to be sure about how a vote in favor of any resolution that authorizes military action will be ultimately interpreted by “the decisive voter” in 2014 in most districts.  (Think Iraq and Afghanistan, and then think Egypt and then think Libya, and then think Rwanda.  And then, seriously, take a moment to both hug those you love and pray for everyone in Syria and elsewhere.)

So, back to the First World Problems of Congressmen (this piece from The Onion is, as usual, apropos and adroit), let’s consider the inference that a voter would make about his or her representative upon seeing a vote for military action after observing/believing that there was party pressure (“whipping”) to conjure/cajole such votes:

“My incumbent might or might not support military action.  Conversely he or she might be predisposed to follow the party line, because his or her vote might be the result of party pressure.”

On the other hand, if there is no party pressure, [1] the voter would infer

“My incumbent was subject to no party pressure.  Accordingly, I treat his or her vote as a relatively uncontaminated signal of his or her position on [whatever the voter thinks the Syria vote represents].”

The second scenario is obviously more transparent and, accordingly, (perhaps naively) normatively appealing.  But it is strategically riskier for the incumbents.  Why would Pelosi do it, rather than providing cover for the incumbents, as is the normal presumption about the optimal approach for electorally secure leaders with respect to tough votes?

Well, I think a key point here is that many Democrats in the House are in “safe districts,” where their greatest “net electoral threat” based on their vote(s) on Syria comes from the left (i.e., in the primary).  Accordingly, voting in favor of military action in Syria is actually easier for incumbents if there is no party pressure: self-described “liberals” distrust Obama (and presumably, Pelosi if she trotted out a whip to support Obama) on Syria. In a somewhat surprising sense, Pelosi applying no party pressure to Democrats may make it easier/more likely for Obama to secure votes from House Democrats than if she went public (or didn’t deny) that the party apparatus was whipping votes to support the President.

I thought this would be short: in my mind, the model is quite stripped down…sparse even. But context matters…and with that, I leave you with this.


[1] I will not go into the signaling/auditing game that follows from thinking about Pelosi’s incentives with respect to whether to truthfully announce her intention to whip.  That’s also very interesting, but much more complicated.  And, hey, this is just a blog.  At some point, we all have to be sincere or at least presume that everybody else is. #Godel

4 thoughts on “If You Whip Me, The Voters Will Whup Me

  1. A simpler explanation is that House Democrats remember the last time Pelosi “whipped” them on a presidential request (Obamacare) and that this time they feel no pressure to follow his lead.

    • Sure, but that explanation doesn’t also explain why Obama would request Congressional authorization for military intervention. This, on the other hand, does suggest an incentive to do so (i.e., provide a high-profile position-taking opportunity leading into the 2014 midterm elections).

      • Compare Speaker Pelosi’s dilemma to Speaker Gephardt’s in 1982 when he whipped House Democrats because Bush was riding high and he did not want his members to be on the wrong side in the war on terror just before the mid terms. Ironically, Obama does not have anything like the same influence over House Democrats that Bush did in 2002. But I think you are right that it is best for Pelosi and the President not to whip the members. She needs to ensure that Democratic voters see their member’s vote as a vote of conscience or sound policy and not a vote for the president or the party. He, on the other hand, has to persuade them (thru his speech to the voters) that they need to vote for conscience or the national interest not for him. What do you think?

        • Gephardt in 2002 is a useful comparison. There’s (thankfully) no 9/11 in the backdrop of this scene. Furthermore, Pelosi is presiding over a caucus that is full of the President’s copartisans, he is a second term president, and he was elected under the shadow of the wars that the Gephardt/Pelosi Dems “authorized.” So, it’s useful to consider how Pelosi’s (similarly end-of-career) incentives along with those of Gephardt.

          Simply put, I think Pelosi is much better at the same job than was Gephardt.

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