Michael's Poor Almanac

The Almanac of American Politics is not the only brick-heavy biennial profile of members of Congress, their districts, and their voting records. Congressional Quarterly's competing volume, Politics in America, has its merits, but the Almanac has always been what reporters scan before interviewing a member of Congress. The reason is simple: Any such book is written by committee, but the Almanac reads like it's not. Its distinctive selling point is an attitude and voice.

Since the very first Almanac, published in 1971 on the cusp of an ideological and generational shift in Congress, its preeminent voice has been that of Michael Barone, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In credits that suggest a Hollywood agent's negotiation, Barone is the "Author" of the new 2008 edition, although he is also credited with the introduction and several other short sections, while a single "Co-Author" (Richard E. Cohen), an "Editor" (Charles Mahtesian), and various writers and researchers are credited as well.

In a series of retrospective comments on previous Almanacs, published online in 2003, Barone admits that the readers he first had in mind were "teenage boys, the kind who are often dismissed as nerds." (The author's note in the 1974 Almanac, when Barone was a long-haired 29-year-old, declares that "for almost twenty years he has been a close student of political and demographic data.") Much like that other feast for adolescent monomaniacs that came out of the 1970s, Bill James Baseball Abstract, behind the reams of data in the Almanac lies both a theory of the game and an ideal player. The original theory was that, to quote the 1974 preface, "much can hinge on the politics, the beliefs, and the idiosyncrasies of 535 people." The ground truths of American politics would be found in the complicated, pluralistic zone where congressional districts and states -- seen through their ethnic makeup, economic circumstances, and local political traditions -- intersected with individual political actors, who would then bring those roots, along with their own personalities and skills, into the grand institutional theaters of Congress.

How much is omitted from such a definition of "American Politics"! The presidency gets five pages out of 1,800 in the current edition. State legislatures get no notice except to the extent that their partisan breakdown affects congressional redistricting. Interest groups and organized constituencies serve only the purpose of the perennial chart showing each member's vote score. Even Congress' committees and caucuses get little attention.

But this narrow angle has one great advantage: By assuming that the most relevant fact about a member of Congress is the place he or she comes from, it allows for a profile of politics that it is about the nation, not Washington. The Almanac's beautifully crafted descriptions of dying Rust Belt cities and new suburbs are not for political junkies or teenagers alone. At their best, they are reminiscent of John Gunther's 1947 masterwork, Inside U.S.A.

The Almanac's focus on 535 individuals marks it as a product, much like C-SPAN, of the transformation of Congress in the early 1970s. Before 1970, most members of Congress were irrelevant as individuals, dutiful pawns in a game run by a few elderly committee chairs. But with the growth of government (enabling members to acquire clout by becoming experts or public advocates on technical subjects), the breakdown of the seniority system, and the challenge to executive power prompted by Vietnam and Watergate, the opportunity emerged for members of Congress to operate as legislative entrepreneurs, using political skill and brainpower to push their own ideas.

The early Almanac chronicled this opening up of the legislative branch, and its ideal type in the early years was a workhorse Democratic reformer from the Class of 1974 or thereabouts who mastered an issue and made the most of that opening: members like Les Aspin of Wisconsin, Tom Downey of Long Island, or Mike Synar of Oklahoma. Through skill and diligence, all were able to hold on to conservative districts without compromising their commitment to controversial national policies. Members who seemed to play more to the cameras or to liberal interest groups earned unadulterated scorn: An early 1980s Almanac profile of Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts charged that he was "more a direct mail entrepreneur than a legislator."

Over the later 1970s and into the 1980s, the Almanac reflected the new appreciation that political scientists were showing to old-style political machines, lavishly praising Tip O'Neill, Dan Rostenkowski, and others who came out of such machines to achieve work of national significance. The Almanac compared Rep. Peter Rodino of Newark, New Jersey, for example, to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt for his work as chair of the Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment.

The Almanac's profiles of the early Republican revolutionaries -- Newt Gingrich, Bob Walker, Vin Weber -- were admiring and enlightening. At a time when many dismissed them as irrelevant hotheads, Barone treated them correctly as the equals in skill of Downey or Rostenkowski. In 1987, Barone described Gingrich as "something of an American Gaullist," a prescient insight given that Gingrich has spent 2007 encouraging Republicans to emulate the neo-Gaullist French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Barone's recognition of Gingrich's skills, and his own abrupt move to the political right, culminated in the most extravagant of all his introductions, bearing a title and crazy wrong brilliance worthy of Gingrich himself: "The Restoration of the Constitutional Order and the Return to Tocquevillian America." In 23 dense pages, Barone argued that the 1994 election had "settled the argument" between New Deal historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who believed that politics turned on economic questions, and those who believed it was a high-stakes "cultural war ... in which propagators of liberal values have used government to impose them in every segment of American life." Not only was the interpretive argument settled but so was the culture war itself: Americans had rejected once and for all the "educated elite" and their weak "culture of caregiving." Barone in 2003 admitted that his post-1994 introduction had failed to foresee President Clinton's electoral recovery, but said it was still "in some ways my favorite." And mine as well, because just as the early Almanacs reflected the temper of that first great turn in the modern Congress, this one is very much a document of the second turn, with all its vicious hubris.

Since the mid-1990s, three developments have challenged the Almanac's relevance. First, much of the information that was once available nowhere else is now a Google search away. The challenge for the Almanac is now to prioritize information rather than gather it. Second, politics in many respects is less granular than it used to be. In an era of strong and ideological political parties and the restoration of the imperial presidency, the "beliefs and idiosyncrasies" of 535 people don't seem quite as important as they once did. Tom DeLay reinstated within his party the rule of "go along to get along," attributed to an earlier Texan, Sam Rayburn. There is remarkably little payoff in learning the precise differences in temperament and background among Jeb Hensarling, Thelma Drake, Louie Gohmert, and Phil Gingrey -- all Republicans with carbon-copy voting records. And the districts they represent are less likely to embody distinct communities than they once did. As in past volumes, many write-ups in the current Almanac begin with a vivid rendering of, say, Jacksonville or Austin, only to admit a few sentences later that the actual district contains only parts of that city, plus a narrow strip of counties extending hundreds of miles out. Sophisticated redistricting schemes have surely reduced the significance of place in congressional politics.

Third, Barone's political evolution didn't stop at Gingrich -- he just kept going, so that he now occupies the rightmost corner even in his current haunts at AEI and Fox News. It's a strange kind of conservatism, which seems based largely on the conviction that liberals are soft and stupid. Barone also seems to be consciously rejecting everything about his younger self. A year ago he wrote that critical press coverage of Vietnam and Watergate had led to "defeats for America -- and for millions of freedom-loving people in the world. They ushered in an era when the political opposition and much of the press have sought not just to defeat administrations but to delegitimize them." In another column he wrote that "this project has been ongoing for more than 30 years. Richard Nixon, by obstructing investigation of the Watergate burglary, unwittingly colluded in the successful attempt to besmirch his administration."

Thus the man who in the 1974 Almanac called Nixon "the politician who presided over the most lawless presidential campaign in American history," now sees Nixon simply as a victim, like Bush, of liberal vitriol and a long campaign to delegitimize conservative rule and the presidency itself.

More significant for the Almanac, Barone has come to embrace a strict dualist view of the world. Starting in the early 1990s, his introductions have been built around either/or paradigms: the culture war between educated elites and "Tocquevillian America" in the 1996 book, and an incoherent distinction between "crunchy" and "soggy" policies and politicians in 2000. In 2004, he authored an entire book, Hard and Soft America, in which various books, ideas, policies, and politicians are classified as either "Hard" (good) or "Soft" (bad). The world of Theodore Dreiser's novels is admirably Hard, John Dewey's theories of education are Soft. Social Security: Soft. Rudy Giuliani: Hard. Intellectuals: Soft. Most baby boomers: Soft. But George W. Bush: "a consistent advocate of Hardness." And the ultimate in Hardness: "our amazing victories in Afghanistan and Iraq."

The early Almanacs were a celebration of America's pluralism, its 535 idiosyncratic legislators and 50 governors, and the magnificent fluidity of a democracy in which the products of narrow political machines could settle a constitutional crisis. But what place is there for such pluralism in a world of Hard and Soft, Crunchy and Soggy? If everything is darkness or light, what's the use of an Almanac of American Politics? What do you really need besides an up-to-date Enemies List?

For the most part, though, these Manichean views do not poison the individual profiles that make up the bulk of the current Almanac -- perhaps a hint that Barone should be considered the "author" of only the sections on which he is specifically credited. The profiles are mostly respectful. Gone is the straight-talking contempt of, say, the old Markey profile, but gone also is the unalloyed hero-worship of certain smart and effective legislators. There are occasional hints of Barone's hand in the odd use of a passive, victimized voice to describe certain Republicans embroiled in scandal: A defeated Rep. Richard Pombo's troubles are attributed only to "a withering assault" from environmental groups rather than his own shameless corruption. The self-immolation of Tom DeLay's machine, the most transformative rise and fall in recent congressional history, is passed over lightly. Perhaps, like Nixon, DeLay unwittingly colluded with his enemies!

And what about Barone's own part of the book? His ideological journey made him an appropriate and sympathetic guide to the turns of both 1974 and 1994, so how has he handled the third great turn, the Democratic takeover of 2006? He doesn't even try. We are entering "a period of open-field politics," he predicts, "when there are no permanent alliances ... when voters wander about the field, attaching themselves to one band, then another, with no clear lines of battle and no landmarks." In 11 diffident pages -- less than half his usual length -- he posits several vaguely plausible scenarios for the years ahead and offers a rambling meditation on Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I won't try to argue with his prediction that "there may be surprises to come," but is that an insight worth the Almanac's $75 price tag?

We are surely at a hinge point in American politics, much like that of 1974. The airtight Republican system has self-destructed; what sort of Republican Party survives Bush is an open question. As in the 1970s, there is likely to again be an opportunity for individual members of Congress to transcend the institution and make change, but the system is also open in all sorts of new ways. The new activists of the Internet will make a difference, as will stronger political parties. States and their legislators may be the prime movers of the new politics. In this context, a view of American politics focused entirely on 535 individuals seems out of place. With Barone having spent, by my calculation, 53 years as "a close student of political and demographic data," perhaps it's time for the editors of the Almanac to think from scratch: What sort of guide would most help the nerdy boys and girls of 2009 understand and appreciate American politics? It is likely to be something altogether different from The Almanac of American Politics.

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