Jonathan Bernstein

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

Recent Articles

Mission Affordabled: Why Obama’s Website Problems Aren’t “His Iraq”

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File Y es, the Affordable Care Act website rollout has been a fiasco. And, as always happens when political catastrophe strikes, the wave of bad analogies has rushed in its wake. One in particular is gaining ground: is for Barack Obama’s presidency what the invasion of Iraq was to George W. Bush’s administration, complete with outraged liberal reactions to it . Here’s the funny thing: it’s a bad analogy, which could turn out to be accurate … but probably won’t. To start with, the fact that people died in Iraq, as opposed to the inconvenience involved in a malfunctioning website, doesn’t make it a bad analogy. The analogy has to do with presidential decisions; it’s about process, not outcomes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. No, what makes it a bad analogy is that Iraq War was misconceived from the start, and the actual events of the war, to a large extent, made obvious what some saw from the beginning. With the exchanges, on the...

Four Reasons We Don’t Need to Count Down to a January Shutdown

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite T he government has re-opened, the debt limit disaster was avoided, and something resembling peace has broken out in Washington. The cynics, however, have been quick to note that all of this is only temporary, with the next shutdown deadline falling on January 15. This round of budget squabbling resolved basically … nothing, so another debacle is likely . Ted Cruz is already threatening a repeat of what he just put the nation through. Don’t count on a sequel to the 16-day hell we just witnessed, though. Barack Obama certainly doesn’t want a shutdown. And this time, Republicans probably won’t force one. Of course, government shutdown has always been a bad idea, as Republicans just spent three weeks proving. But the very fact that they did it despite knowing that it was a terrible plan (or at least most of them knowing it was a terrible plan) suggests it could happen a second time, at least unless something new has happened to change things. So why won’t it...

Why Madisonian Democracy Still Can't Have It All

AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Jonna Spelbring
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, FILE T his hasn’t been a good month for fans of Madisonian democracy. One thing that most parliamentary systems are exceptionally good at avoiding is the kind of deadlock over policy that stilled our democratic government’s heart and has left us two weeks deep in a shutdown. As a result, those who are skeptical of our separate institutions sharing powers are out in full force . It’s no surprise; liberal preference for the British system over what the Framers concocted goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson. Not all of the current anti-Madisonians agree on exactly what they would prefer, but there’s a general critique they share: not only does the U.S. system yield gridlock and risk collapse, but it doesn’t really have any advantages in terms of democracy to justify that inefficiency. I’ve argued against the efficacy claims recently—the problem is a broken Republican Party, not the structure of government—but I think the democracy claims are wrong as well...

Dancing with the Shutdown Spin that Brought You

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite S pin is overrated. Alas, it’s never going away. If there’s one thing that political scientists try, repeatedly, to convince the reporters and correspondents who cover politics of, it’s that fundamentals tend to matter a lot more than they think, and opinion manipulation matters less. Not none—but in many cases, not very much. That’s why, for example, it was easy to predict that Republicans would lose the polling battle over the shutdown. If spin mattered, then that wouldn’t be the case; we would have to wait to see how well each side developed and delivered their “messaging” and their “narratives.” Oh, they do that; it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as structural elements, such as the advantage that a president has over congressional leaders in these sorts of situations or the fact that going into this particular battle, Democrats were united while Republicans were split. When this is over and you read a behind-the-scenes story about how the White...

John Boehner Has Speaker Tenure for Life—If He Wants It

AP Photo/Cliff Owen
AP Photo/Molly Riley D on’t worry about John Boehner. Yes, there seem to be near-constant rumors and suspicions of a revolt against him, and Republican members of the House have been conspiring with Texas senator Ted Cruz. But it’s unlikely to actually cost him his job. He’s probably going to survive and remain as speaker of the House just as long as he wants to. At least, as long as divided government and the Republican House majority last. Over at The New Republic , Noam Scheiber argues that Boehner’s job will “ almost certainly ” be lost if he allows the debt limit to be raised with mostly Democratic votes. That’s probably wrong. To see why, however, we need to step back. See, the reasons that Boehner has seemingly been five minutes from getting ousted throughout his speakership have nothing to do with Boehner; they’re structural. Which means that any possible speaker—Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann, or Ronald Reagan risen from the dead—would have pretty much...