For several years, I have kept a running list of rules of thumb for U.S. politics, rules that I developed to help explain to outside observers how Washington works. Until now, it has always felt like the wrong time to publish them, as doing so might be misconstrued as taking one side or the other in whatever the political controversy of the moment. I offer them now with the caveat that they were not developed in response to any current subject of partisan dispute, but are rather evergreen principles of American politics that will likely remain applicable for the indefinite future, as they have for the recent past.
1st Law: The strongest concerns about the federal deficit are expressed by the political party opposing the president.
This law is typically expressed as an accusation against the other side: that the other party only professes to care about the deficit when they can use such positioning to undercut a president, after which they quickly forget such concerns as soon as a president of their own party enters office. Certainly, there is no shortage of hypocrisy in politics, exhibited by the countless partisans whose alarm about federal deficits rises and falls and rises again, purely as a function of who is in office at the time.
Two important aspects of this phenomenon warrant particular attention. One is that both major parties do it, even though awareness of the other side’s inconsistencies naturally exceeds awareness of one’s own. The second point is that it’s not driven solely by opportunism. Rather, it reflects the realities that a) presidents tend to be judged (fairly or unfairly) on short-term economic performance, and b) the parties genuinely disagree about optimal economic policy.
The president’s party tends to prioritize short-term economic performance over long-term fiscal prudence, and is usually more willing to deficit-spend to fuel it. The opposition party’s priorities, by contrast, incorporate more emphasis on the long term—the time when they hope to reclaim the executive branch. Moreover, each party is skeptical of the other’s policy prescriptions, with Democrats more willing to add to the deficit by increasing spending, and Republicans more willing to add to the deficit by reducing taxes. Each party doubts that the other’s preferred form of deficit increase will do enough economic good to justify increasing federal debt. Accordingly, a president usually faces resistance from the opposing party in Congress to both the amount and form of deficit spending he proposes.
The fluctuations in the parties’ relative concern about federal deficits is one of the most reliably recurring rhythms in American politics. Democrats worried aloud about deficits in the 2000s when they positioned themselves against President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. In 2009, it was Republicans who fretted about deficits because they disagreed with President Obama’s stimulus spending plan, while at the same time Democrats shifted back to worrying about “mindless austerity.” These positional fluctuations aren’t mere hypocrisy—they do, in fact, represent a genuine shifting of perspective whenever power and responsibility shift.
2nd Law: The political party opposing the president is more skeptical of military intervention.
When a president concludes that U.S. national interests require either direct participation in military operations abroad or providing material support to one side of an overseas conflict, vocal opposition to such intervention tends to be concentrated in the opposing political party.
This trend is unsurprising and has obvious origins. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and is in charge of foreign policy, diplomacy, intelligence gathering and many other national security functions. Trust in the president will nearly always be higher in his own party than in the opposing party. It is thus to be expected that the sharpest criticisms of U.S. military involvements will come from the party that doesn’t hold the White House.
Democrats were the loudest critics of President Reagan’s prosecution of the Cold War and of both Bushes’ interventions in Iraq. Republicans criticized President Clinton’s management of military operations from Somalia to Kosovo, and what criticism there is of President Biden’s assistance to Ukraine today is concentrated on the Republican side.
A corollary to this law is that the opposition party will be the first to turn against a military action after difficulties are encountered. Congressional support for the October 2002 resolution in favor of military action in Iraq was strongly bipartisan before U.S. forces became mired in ongoing hostilities, after which Democrats rapidly turned against it. Similarly, congressional Republicans rallied around efforts to require President Clinton to withdraw forces from Somalia after the disastrous Black Hawk Down operation.
The trend has been pronounced and persistent during presidential administrations of both parties throughout the post-Vietnam era, although it was somewhat muted during the Trump presidency. This was because Trump was exceptionally isolationist among American presidents, skeptical of providing material support even to longstanding U.S. allies. Regardless, it is rare for Congress to call for military intervention where a president is disinclined to go, whereas it frequently happens that a president must sell a military intervention to or around a reluctant Congress.
For this reason, it is especially noteworthy whenever there is public agreement between a president and opposition party leaders on the need for Americans to sacrifice blood and treasure in a military intervention abroad. This only happens when the national security imperative is felt so strongly that it supersedes natural partisan rivalries over the conduct of foreign policy.
3rd Law: Presidents tend to favor free trade more than members of Congress do.
The president is elected to represent the interests of the whole nation. Collectively, Congress also represents the whole of the nation, but individual senators represent only individual states, and individual representatives represent only individual districts. Conflicts can and do arise between the national interest and the sum of local interests, sometimes causing the president and members of Congress to end up on opposite sides—even when they are of the same party.
There are several policy areas in which these conflicting perspectives come into play, but one particularly prominent one is trade policy. Presidents have tended to favor free trade agreements, which (1) reduce costs for U.S. consumers, (2) open markets overseas for U.S. businesses and (3) generally improve the national economic performance by which presidents are judged. However, trade flows can also cause disruptions of employment and wages that are often concentrated locally, resulting in opposition from members of Congress representing the affected districts.
While there are typically differences between the parties over trade, these dynamics also tend to result in differences between presidents and their party allies in Congress. For example, both President Clinton and President Obama promoted free trade agreements during their administrations, though they often had to make policy concessions to win the support of Congress. National support for free trade rises and falls with the political winds, but amid these fluctuations there has usually been less support in Congress than in the White House.
It remains to be seen whether this law will function in the future as it has for the past few decades. President Trump was a notable exception to the usual rule that presidents promote trade. More broadly, American politics today exhibit stronger left and right wings (which tend to be more skeptical of trade’s benefits) and a weakened political center (which historically has favored free trade). While this law is consistent with most recent political history, the future could certainly be different.
4th Law: Expertise and honesty do not confer objectivity.
Political exchanges are often rife with charges of dishonesty. But what often appears to us as someone else’s dishonesty is frequently just a difference in perspective. The other person has reached a different conclusion from you not because they are less honest or less informed, but because they are focusing on a different part of the picture and making a different value judgment.
Honesty is easy; it’s objectivity that’s hard. Most people are honest or try to be. But we are all biased in ways that are hard for us to recognize in ourselves. Furthermore, bias is not eroded by expertise. It’s quite the opposite: The more expert in something we become, the less receptive we can become to information that contradicts our beliefs, or to prioritization that conflicts with our own.
Perhaps nowhere was this dynamic on more vivid display than in the early months of the COVID pandemic. Fierce debates raged over forced closures of businesses and schools. These difficult decisions involved tradeoffs between highly uncertain considerations, such as the risk of contagion if schools were open and the developmental damage to children if schools were closed. Your view of what was most important was likely to be very different if you were an epidemiologist, an economist, a teachers union representative, a restaurant owner, the mayor of a large city, or a parent of a special-needs child dependent on critical in-person therapies. In this environment, charges of bad faith were rampant—of either being reckless and scientifically ignorant on the one hand or of being repressive and power-hungry on the other. The reality was that most people wanted the very best for everyone but simply had different subjective takes on what that meant.
Anyone who has ever co-authored a report with someone of a substantially different policy viewpoint understands the challenge of agreeing on fair, neutral language even when there is complete agreement over the underlying facts. One person wants to write, “While A is certainly true, we must remember B,” while the other person wants to write, “While B is certainly true, we must remember A.” The two statements are equally correct but convey opposite impressions.
This is one reason why ideological diversity is so important—in government, in newsrooms, in academia and in any seat of power. When we only associate with others who share our own priorities and value judgments, we lose sight of how biased our own views actually are. The only way to avoid such bias is to welcome and incorporate emphases and value judgments counter to our own. This goes double for “experts.” The bottom line is that an expert can offer us information but not objectivity. Indeed, no one person can do so.
5th Law: The more sympathetic the constituency, the worse the policy.
This is one of the most powerful forces operating in politics—one that warrants understanding by any analyst or voter. As a general rule, the more sympathetic a cause or a constituency, the less we are inclined to apply critical thinking to any action described as supporting it. No one wants to be seen as opposing help to disabled veterans, child victims of sexual abuse, individuals battling breast cancer, 9/11 first responders or any other sympathetic group. We are eager to declare ourselves as being on the side of the vulnerable and against the oppressor. It is not generally safe, politically, for an elected official to be depicted as opposing support for any group that garners widespread sympathy.
The result is that a much lower level of scrutiny is applied to spending on sympathetic groups and causes than to other federal legislation. When Americans are asked whether we should spend more or less on a sympathetic cause or group, they will generally respond with “more” before even knowing how much is currently being spent. The other side of the coin is that when a politician is seemingly allying with a group for which virtually no one feels sympathy (as a hypothetical example, “corporate billionaire tax-evading polluters”), chances are much better that they’re actually standing up for an important policy principle, because there is no political gain in their doing so.
These dynamics cause some parts of the budget to persistently grow far faster than other parts, often completely disconnected from what a thorough analysis would reasonably conclude is optimal policy. For example, Social Security and Medicare are allowed to grow far faster than budget experts agree is sustainable, largely because seniors remain a sympathetic constituency despite having higher incomes than most Americans. No politician wants to get crosswise with that sentiment.
Recent Medicaid expansion has resulted in dramatic increases in improper payments and even reduced spending on children’s health, but has continued largely unquestioned because it is synonymous with healthcare for the sympathetic poor. Federal environmental regulation is notoriously costly and inefficient, largely because government officials cannot bear to be thought of as being in bed with polluters, and thus, they overcompensate to avoid that taint.
A useful rule of thumb when reading of any political controversy is to check yourself for the degree of sympathy you feel for the constituencies involved. If you feel a strong identification with one constituency and a strong aversion to another, this suggests the necessity of applying a much higher level of skeptical scrutiny to your reflexive policy instincts.
6th Law: What initially appears as venality is usually incompetence. (Also known as Blahous’ Political Corollary to Hanlon’s Razor, which reads, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”)
This law is widely applicable both in and outside of politics. When bad things occur, we tend to assume there is a malevolent will behind the act. This instinct is as old as civilization itself: Even the most rational of ancient Greek scholars were willing to ascribe countless phenomena, for which we now have scientific explanations, to the whimsical actions of an array of invisible actors. Whenever something inexplicable happens, we often assume that someone made it happen, on purpose.
Government, however, is not typically characterized by omniscience, omnipotence or its ability to accurately foretell the future. It is staffed by human beings with the same limitations and shortcomings as the rest of us, amplified by the inefficiencies and internal conflicts embedded in government work. Yes, sometimes bad people in government deliberately do bad things, but far more often, they simply screw up. President Biden wasn’t deliberately trying to fuel inflation with the American Rescue Plan, President George W. Bush didn’t know that the CIA’s assessment of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was incorrect, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t know that Imperial Japan was about to bomb Pearl Harbor. Mistakes not only happen, but in government, they are extremely normal.
This principle applies with even greater force to allegations of vast conspiracies. One thing people in Washington are not good at is keeping their mouths shut. For every instance in which it is actually true that a cabal of people inside the government has conspired to do something illegal or unethical, there are hundreds of instances in which those in government have simply messed up.
7th Law: Political attacks often reveal more about the attacker than the attacked.
Sometimes, politicians are deservedly on the receiving end of fierce criticism. No one has a right to public office, and those who do wrong—however unintentionally—are appropriately subject to questions regarding their fitness to serve.
Nevertheless, it is not the attacked who chooses whether a political attack takes place, but rather the attacker. The critic chooses both whether and how to criticize, a decision that usually reflects how the attacker wishes to position themselves relative to their target. Thus, as a general rule, whenever you read of how one political actor has castigated another one, you are usually learning more about the attacker than you are about the target.
The applications of this principle are so myriad that any selection of examples seems preferential. Republican attacks on President Biden over lax border security reflect the political emphasis that Republicans, not Democrats, wish to place on illegal immigration. Democratic attacks on Republicans over environmental policy reflect the higher priority that Democratic voters assign to climate change and other environmental concerns. The list goes on ad infinitum. Citizens should always bear in mind that attackers choose the subject of attacks, and that these choices generally promote the attackers’ political or policy agendas.
A corollary to this principle is that whenever you set out to grossly caricature a political opponent, you more often caricature yourself. The more extreme your descriptions of people on the other side of the aisle, the more extreme you reveal yourself to be.
8th Law: Political advice nearly always tracks the adviser’s policy preferences.
I first realized this principle back in 2009-2010 when, at the same time that survey after survey indicated that Americans opposed the passage of the Affordable Care Act as introduced, Democratic political consultants were telling members that the most beneficial thing they could do politically was to pass the bill swiftly into law. There seemed to be virtually no evidence supporting this advice, and indeed, passage of the ACA ultimately led Democrats to one of the worst election performances in modern history in 2010. These signals were loudly communicated in advance by voters in multiple surveys long before the ACA was passed. I couldn’t help but wonder how it could be that professional political strategists were urging Congress to do something that was obviously bad politics and would later cost many of them their seats.
The truth only became clear after subsequent observation of the behavior of political strategists on all sides: Political strategists aren’t actually in the business of giving objective, accurate political advice. Instead, they represent a particular political vantage point, and they work to advance it. The strategists who urged passage of the ACA did so not because survey data really said this would be politically advantageous, but because they believed the law would do good things and that voters would come to appreciate that once it was passed. In short, their strategic advice followed from their policy views and their political loyalties.
The story of the ACA is just one example. Democratic strategists will usually argue that enacting Democratic legislation is good politics; Republican strategists will argue that advancing Republican priorities is good politics. And both sides might well be correct because in modern politics politicians benefit primarily from pleasing their own party base.
But the self-promoting behavior goes further than that. There are populist analysts on the right who persistently argue that America First populism is good politics; pro-traditional-family activists who argue that family-friendly policies make good politics; market conservative analysts who argue that Republicans should back away from culture wars and focus on economic freedom; progressive analysts who argue that enacting sweeping progressive legislation is the best political strategy; and moderate Democratic analysts who argue that their party should turn away from identity politics to focus on kitchen-table economic concerns. In short, pretty much every commentator you see on TV is arguing that the policies he or she personally supports are politically beneficial.
The rule of thumb is: Only pay serious attention to a political analyst when they acknowledge that the position they personally favor is not a political winner. It’s rare for any of them to say this, but if one ever says: “I personally favor X, but voters do not,” that’s when you should take note. Otherwise, their analysis should be heavily discounted.
9th Law: When Americans express opposition to a policy, those in government will reconsider their messaging strategy before reconsidering the policy.
Whenever a survey reveals that Americans oppose the position of an elected official or a party, the first response is usually not to accept that criticism and reconsider the policy. The first response is to blame inadequate messaging. It will be asserted that Americans do in fact support the policies when fully and properly understood.
This reflexive response is not merely for public consumption. Even behind the scenes, elected officials are always much slower to grasp the need to modify the substance of their policies than they are to believe that they merely need to retool their communications strategy. Sometimes their hand is eventually forced by reality, and they must back away from a previously announced position. But in the meantime, they will try virtually everything else first.
Examples of this dynamic are legion. In 2010, Democrats lost badly in midterm elections after passing the Affordable Care Act, due to repeatedly expressed voter opposition to the law, and widespread public anger over having been misled with the false claim that those who liked their previous health coverage would be able to keep it. Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of the criticism, many advocates for the law denied there was any basis for public concern and blamed voters for their want of understanding. Similarly, Republicans’ role in a government shutdown helped President Clinton win re-election in 1996, yet Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led House Republican strategy at that time, perceived no fault in Republicans’ substantive positioning. Even decades afterward, he continued to assert that the strategy had merely been inaccurately portrayed in the media.
An amusing corollary of this principle is that each side of the aisle always believes that, while their own policies are substantively superior, they are forever outmatched by the communications brilliance of the opposing side. It is an article of faith on MSNBC that Americans are forever being duped by conservative propaganda spewed from Fox News, and equally an article of faith on Fox News that the opposite is happening through the left’s control over mainstream media.
There have even been bestselling books written on the conviction that Americans are too dim to understand the policies that are best for them, a cognitive problem addressed only by matching the other side’s stirring appeals to mindless emotion. Of course, good policy can indeed be undermined by poor communication, but the policy is the problem far more often than politicians like to acknowledge, even to themselves.
10th Law: When politicians justify their positions in terms of their popularity, they are probably embracing bad policy.
When a policy is a good one, politicians can explain why. They can explain who will benefit and why the benefits outweigh the costs. But when politicians instead emphasize the popularity of the policy in response to skeptical questioning, that usually means it’s a bad policy. It’s a “tell”—a tell that they’re pursuing the policy for political reasons first and foremost, as well as a tell that the substantive justification for a policy isn’t so easily summoned to mind.
There are many examples, but a classic one is the stimulus checks of $1,400 sent out as part of the American Rescue Plan in early 2021. There was no substantive justification for sending checks of this magnitude to nearly everyone, only the political justification that sponsors had campaigned on the promise to send each person $2,000 from the U.S. Treasury (the $1,400 payments enacted in early 2021 followed payments of $600 the previous December). The desires of those receiving the payments became the leading rationale for the policy.
As a result, the policy was enacted as part of a massive spending package despite warnings from leading economists that flooding an economy with nearly $2 trillion in additional spending, right when inflationary pressures were building, was irresponsible. The spending spree wasn’t the sole cause of the soaring inflation that followed, but it was an incredibly poor policy decision at that moment, driven by politics rather than economics. It bears mention that the irresponsibility on this issue was bipartisan: Though the last part of the payments was enacted by a Democratic Congress at the start of the Biden administration, the first part was enacted in a lame duck Congress under split party control during the Trump administration, with President Trump calling for bigger payments.
Another recent example of this phenomenon is student debt relief pursued by President Biden. There is hardly a policy initiative under debate that receives more thorough condemnation by expert economists of both parties: It would be massively expensive, inflationary and regressive (a giveaway to the better-off), and few were surprised when the Supreme Court recently declared it illegal. But it’s naturally popular with those who would reap the financial benefit of receiving an expensive education without paying for it, and this popularity is often one of the first things cited in response to those who criticize it.
The 10 laws of U.S. politics cited above are applicable across party lines, and they operate both before and after elective office changes hands. A grasp of these laws would help voters to better understand how and why politicians act as they do.