McDonoughs adventures in politics and political theory

Experiencing Politics: A Legislator’s Stories of Government and Health Care
By John E. McDonough
University of California/Milbank Memorial Fund, Berkeley, 2000, 336 pages.

Several years ago, I worked in Congress on a fellowship that allowed political science professors to experience “life on the Hill” (the other Hill) for a year. On my first day at work in a senator’s office, the staff director showed me a welfare bill that was expected to be proposed that week, and asked me what I thought of it, given my research expertise in the subject. I took the proposal, and earnestly told him that I would read it, do a little research on other similar proposals, and have an answer to him by the end of the week. He looked at me incredulously, and said, “I meant right now.” Lesson one: The time frame in academics and politics is very different.

There are other contrasts between the study and practice of politics. Those who study politics have the advantages of objectivity, hindsight, and useful theoretical models. Those who practice politics deal with the rough and tumble of everyday life in the political arena. The practice of politics is immediate and pragmatic with uncertain outcomes and unintended consequences.

McDonough is enthusiastic about both politics and political science.
These are the very points that John E. McDonough makes in his new book, Experiencing Politics: A Legislator’s Stories of Government and Health Care. As a former legislator, with 13 years experience in the Massachusetts State House, and a current academic (associate professor at the Heller School at Brandeis University), McDonough brings a unique perspective to the study of politics. While I was an academic who became (briefly) a practitioner, McDonough took the opposite path, one he calls “learning backward” — doing something first, then studying it. While serving as a state representative from Boston, he pursued a PhD in health care policy from the University of Michigan. As he studied politics, he became fascinated by the theoretical models that political scientists use to describe legislative behavior. He turned that theoretical lens on himself and his political experiences, and the book was born.

McDonough is enthusiastic about both politics and political science. One of the purposes of his book is to encourage more mingling of the two.

I humbly suggest that the political science community needs to develop ways to connect more immediately and helpfully with those making policy and political decisions on the ground. The disconnect is unfortunate. Both sides, political scientists and public officials, could benefit from more robust and consistent exchange.

McDonough seems genuinely excited by the usefulness of the political science literature in analyzing politics (as a political scientist, my heart is warmed by this), and he also displays a love for the practice of politics.

The book is a series of examples from real-world politics which McDonough examines through the lens of political science literature — case “stories,” he calls them, rather than case “studies,” because he is telling of events he experienced personally rather than providing the more objective analysis of a neutral observer. He also uses what he calls “themes” — including conflict, self-interest, and representation — to illuminate the political battle between landlords and tenants over rent control, the struggle to manage the state’s fiscal crisis of the late 1980s, and efforts to reform campaign finance.

McDonough uses discourse theory — which, he explains, shows “how the ways we talk and the ways we tell our stories shape others’ understanding and ideas” — to dissect efforts to move a gang out of Egleston Square in the late 1980s. The gang, known as the “X-men” viewed themselves as guardians of the neighborhood. To them, the police were just another gang, a group trying to take control of their turf. McDonough and his allies made a deal with the X-men: If they would act as protectors of the local school, they could use its gym for basketball on Saturday mornings. The tenuous peace broke down one evening when a gang member opened fire on police, who fired back and mortally wounded him. Two stories emerged: one of police brutality, and the other of a gang out of control — and coddled by officials. McDonough demonstrates that the meaning of the event depended on who told the story.

One section of the book presents two models for explaining the public policy process. The first, which McDonough calls “punctuated equilibrium,” posits that most policy change happens in an incremental fashion — that is, new laws simply tinker with existing policies rather than striking out in bold new directions. On occasion, however, a major shift in conventional wisdom allows for dramatic breakthroughs in public policy. Thus, a period of equilibrium is “punctuated” by an upheaval that sets parameters for the next period of equilibrium. The example he uses is hospital rate-setting, in which McDonough admits he found himself on the losing side of a policy shift. In 1991, he fought hard for legislation to overhaul hospital regulation at a time when the mood had shifted toward deregulation, leaving legislator McDonough in the dust.

McDonough applies John Kingdon’s agenda-setting model to another issue in health care reform. Kingdon says that a “policy window” opens when three streams — problems, policies, and politics — converge, providing a limited opportunity for policy innovations to be adopted. McDonough argues that a policy window for health care reform opened nationally in 1993, though by the time the Clinton plan was released a year later, the window had closed. But it was open long enough for McDonough, in Massachusetts, to push through a bill to increase health care coverage for uninsured children — a bill whose time had come, according to McDonough’s application of Kingdon’s model. (McDonough was already enrolled in graduate school while he was working on the bill, and he says that he applied Kingdon’s model prospectively, to evaluate potential outcomes before they happened — a novel use of political science models — though he doesn’t say exactly how.)

McDonough also tells the story of 1997’s dramatic push for the death penalty, which was derailed by the switch of a single legislator’s vote at the last minute. He uses this story to illustrate the difference between two ways of looking at politics: as a conversation, and as a game. As a conversation, politics involves different actors talking to each other, to the public, and to the media; eventually, the conversation generates new ideas, and perhaps consensus. As a game, politics involves opponents, rules, strategies, winners and losers. McDonough explains how the horrific murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley precipitated a conversation in Massachusetts about the death penalty, and how McDonough himself played politics strategically to thwart its reinstatement. As McDonough demonstrates, politics can be both a conversation and a game.

As a collection of stories about major public-policy battles of the 1980s and ’90s, the book is both interesting and entertaining. But, as McDonough acknowledges, the book falls somewhere between political memoir and academic analysis, and that creates certain problems. For those looking for an insider’s account of life as a legislator, the book only partially succeeds. The use of political modeling detracts from the storytelling aspect of the book, and one is left to draw one’s own conclusions about the legislative life.

In addition, the use of a different model or theme for each case story makes for some confusion about which model applies and why. Kingdon’s model works in the rate-setting case, but what about the other cases? And how does Kingdon’s model differ from the punctuated equilibrium model? As political science, the book would have been more useful had it selected one or two models or themes, and then evaluated each case the same way.

While the title suggests that the stories will be primarily about health care, only two of the seven major cases (hospital rate-setting and children’s health) are about health issues.In addition, it isn’t made clear why the cases were selected, except that they illustrate the various models. Are they representative of all the issues McDonough dealt with as a legislator? Or are they outliers — cases that are useful because they are different from the norm?

Finally, case study research generally attempts to be objective by including interviews with individuals representing all sides of the issues and analysis of press coverage at the time. McDonough’s book is short on both. To his credit, he goes out of his way to explain viewpoints that differ from his own and to be fair in presenting the motivations of his opponents. Nonetheless, it’s hard to analyze events in which you are intimately involved objectively, and such analysis falls short of academic standards. McDonough tries to get around this by calling the cases “stories,” but in the end, the result is neither political science nor political memoir.

Meet the Author
None of these shortcomings undermines the book’s great virtues, however. The author’s enthusiasm for politics and political science both shines through, and the absence of cynicism is refreshing. His delight in showing how political science can relate to real-world politics also serves as a reminder that we political scientists could do a great deal more to educate the public. And for those engaged — then or now — in the issues he covers, his stories offer new insight into who won, who lost, and why. For students of Massachusetts politics, this should be reason enough to give McDonough’s book a place on the bookshelf.

Anne Marie Cammisa is associate professor of government at Suffolk University.