Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties and elections.

Recent Articles

What Does "Balance the Budget" Even Mean?

This is a story about the deficit scolds who substitute attitude for argument and how they use the public’s ignorance about the federal budget to their advantage. It comes from sparring over the House Republican budget, which Republicans claim will achieve a balanced budget within ten years, and Barack Obama’s budget, which he will be submitting to Congress this week. Neither gets us to a zero deficit. The White House spin has been that balancing the budget isn’t an important goal by itself—deficits, surpluses, or balance are only means to the end of a growing economy or creating jobs. In line with that thinking, last week White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, “You don’t want to balance the budget for the purposes of just balancing the budget.” As Slate’s Matt Yglesias points out , the White House is correct: There's no magic economic reason to run a balanced budget every year. Reducing the debt really is only a good idea if it is done in the service of some other goal. Less debt...

Should 16-Year-Olds Vote?

flickr/Barack Obama campaign
flickr/Barack Obama campaign The very first people to be protected by the 26th Amendment, which guaranteed 18-year-olds the right to vote, will be 62 by the next presidential election. It’s time to extend the franchise again. Takoma Park, Maryland, may just be on the frontier of that expanded democracy. The Washington, D.C., suburb is apparently considering lowering the voting age to 16. That proposal would only apply to local elections, but there’s no constitutional prohibition stopping any state from lowering the voting age for state or federal elections as well (the Constitution prohibits raising the age, but not lowering it). A handful of similar efforts have been floated in recent years, although the only successes have been allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 the next November to vote in primary elections occurring before their birthdays. The case for teenage voting can be boiled down to three points: It’s consistent with other ways the law and politics treat teenagers; teens...

The Boehner Rule

flickr/Talk Radio News Service
flickr/Talk Radio News Service A fter months of Republican resistance, the House of Representative finally renewed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) late last month. What many casual political observers may not know is that there were always enough votes in the House for the bill to pass, but it couldn’t get a vote because of something called the “Hastert Rule”—an informal practice in the House by which only legislation supported by a majority of the majority party (in this case, Republicans) is allowed to come to a vote. How Speaker John Boehner got VAWA passed tells us a lot about what the next two years is going to be like in Washington. The Hastert Rule was coined during the speakership of Republican Denny Hastert, who said he would bring nothing to the floor of the House of Representatives unless a majority of the Republican conference supported it. As University of Miami political scientist Greg Koger explains, the logic behind such a rule is basically one of "an...

Show Me the Policy!

Flickr/Talk Radio News Service
Republicans have been scrambling since the election to figure out what they need to improve their standing with the public and appeal to the electorate of the future. Despite trumpeting Marco Rubio and his immigration platform in a shallow attempt to appeal to Hispanic voters, things have only gotten more dire since November. In part because of the sequester fight, the GOP’s approval ratings have plummeted . According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, even a majority of registered Republicans disapprove of their congressional counterparts and Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s disapproval rating sits at a record high. I think the problem is pretty straightforward: The GOP has become a party that’s almost allergic to holding specific, real, policy positions; instead, it’s substituted a blanket knee-jerk opposition to anything Barack Obama does, along with a series of symbolic “issues,” such as American exceptionalism or a rhetorical commitment to a balanced budget (without, for most of...

What We'll Be Talking about in 2016

AP Photo/Mark Hirsch
Yes, pundits of all stripes are already starting to handicap the presidential fields for 2016. Yes, that’s a long time from now … although we are under three years to the Iowa Caucuses, and probably just about two years from the first debates, so it’s not all that long. More to the point: as long as the candidates are running—and they are—there’s no reason to pretend the contest hasn’t started yet. While the identity of the next Democratic and Republican nominees is important, what’s even more important is what they intend to do if elected. Indeed: the nomination process is important because it’s how parties sort out their differences and make decisions about who they are, and what kinds of public policy they support. Moreover, the nomination process is the best chance for groups and individuals within the party to have a chance of affecting what the party will do if it wins. In general elections with huge electorates, there’s not much one person can do that makes any difference. In...