The Talking Dog

October 3, 2007, TD Blog Interview with Larry Sabato

Larry Sabato is the founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Professor Sabato has appeared on national television and radio programs including 60 Minutes, Today, Hardball, and Nightline. A Rhodes scholar, he received his doctorate in politics from Oxford, and has been at UVA since 1978. In 2002, the University of Virginia gave him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. Professor Sabato has written numerous articles and twenty books, most recently "A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country". On October 3, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Sabato by e-mail exchange.

The Talking Dog: My customary first question is "where were you on September 11, 2001"?

Larry Sabato: I was in my office preparing for my very first politics seminar of the new semester. It was one of the only classes I have ever canceled in my 29 years of college teaching.

The Talking Dog: Following on the 9-11 theme, let me jump right in with one of the key structural suggestions you make in your book, i.e., limiting the President's war making powers and requiring regular Congressional action to permit the continuation of such war making... Your book, of course, notes the natural tension between a deliberation oriented legislature and an action oriented executive in war powers... That said, do you have any doubt that in the national post 9-11 shock, helped by a surprisingly lazy media and weak willed opposition party-- do you have any doubt that the last 4 or 5 years re: our now widely-regarded-as-disastrous invasion of Iraq would not have gone down almost exactly the same way, even with the suggestions you make on war powers limitation (for example, Congress would have to face the same issue of "political courage" to continue such a war that the current one faces on funding votes right now... even under the current Constitution, Congress can stop paying for the war and end it that way)? In other words, would you not agree that while structure is important, ultimately, enough people can fall down on the job so that even the soundest structure can collapse?

Larry Sabato: Some have suggested that the better way to end a war like Vietnam or Iraq is simply to have Congress stop the funding of it. But both Vietnam and Iraq prove why this is very difficult to achieve. It becomes a question of “supporting the troops” rather than “supporting the war.” So many Congressmen and Senators who have doubts about a particular war nonetheless continue to vote for the appropriations, lest they be accused of not supplying troops with the best equipment, protection, etc. It was precisely this set of experiences that caused me to come up with a completely new and creative solution.

For those who haven’t read the book, A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country, or seen the website, the short version is this: both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts have illustrated a modern imbalance in the constitutional power to wage war. Once Congress consented to these wars, presidents were able to continue them for many years--long after popular support had drastically declined. A possible change is to limit the president’s war-making authority by creating a provision that requires Congress to vote affirmatively every six months to continue American military involvement. Debate in both houses would be limited so that the vote could not be delayed. If either house of Congress voted to end a war, the president would have one year to withdraw all combat troops.

By no means do I intend this as the end of the discussion. Each of my proposals is intended to be the beginning of the debate. There may well be better ways to accomplish the goals I am suggestions than with the proposal that I have outlined. I hope people will go to the website and make their own suggestions. You don’t rush into amending a constitution or holding a constitutional convention; it is a generational process, and indeed, it will be here, if anything actually happens. By the way, while I certainly support change myself, I will be pleased if this book does nothing more than encourage many thousands of Americans to go to their Constitution, read it, and think about it.

The Talking Dog: You note that among the most popular of the constitutional reform proposals you make is the elimination of lifetime tenure for the federal judiciary to be replaced with 15 year terms (presumably per level... i.e., one can serve as a circuit court judge for up to 15 years, and then a Supreme Court judge for up to 15 years) with a maximum retirement age. Let me ask you this... to what extent two particular cases-- Roe v. Wade, and Bush v. Gore-- have led to the popularity of this view? Given that the stakes of matters entrusted to the courts keep rising in our ever more litigious society-- how would you respond to my suggestion (made perhaps because I'm a lawyer), that of all your changes proposed, this court reform proposal alone may be the most critical-- as well as the most popular and probably least disruptive of the other branches?

Larry Sabato: Since you are a lawyer, you have clearly picked up on the support that this proposal has been gathering in the legal community. I actually wrote this independently several years ago, but since my first, similar proposals have been published by quite a number of others. I welcome this, obviously. I do agree with you that it could be quite a popular suggestion, and not terribly disruptive for either the executive or the legislature. I hope that people will take a look at the book to see the extended arguments that I make in support of these changes in the courts. A whole series of controversial decisions, including the two you have mentioned, have contributed to the public view of the Supreme Court and the inferior courts as being “super-legislative.” This is not a healthy development for the courts or for the country.

The Talking Dog: Two other critical reforms you discuss, besides expansion of the House, is the elimination of partisan gerrymandering for House seats (and I would suggest extending that and the Baker v. Carr one man one vote rule to prevent partisan gerrymandering for state legislative seats as well while we're at it), and a universal voter registration default (i.e., one would have to take affirmative steps not to be registered, and a generally available i.d. or other regular means to vote would be there and so forth). One thing you do not discuss strikes me as critical given, for example, Ohio's and Florida's moving along just this week to enact "voter fraud" rules that few doubt are designed to deter Democratic-leaning Blacks and low income minority members from voting, and that is a generalized federalized regiment for voting, counting and recounting procedures, at least for federal elections. How come you haven't proposed an amendment to unify voting requirements (including voting machine regulations, for example) throughout the 50-states (and over 4,000 voting municipal systems counted by GWU's Spencer Overton, for example) at least in general terms such as "Congress shall enact provisions for nationally uniform qualifications and verifications for voting, and methods of voting in national elections shall be transparent and verifiable (i.e. no "black box" electronic machines, recount provisions, etc.) Do you think such an amendment would be a good idea (I happen think it is second most critical, btw-- with ending partisan gerrymandering, of course--, only to ending lifetime judicial tenure)? Further, wouldn't this help ease one of the b ig problems with direct popular election of the President? Or, as you see it, does this present a problem as one party (we know who) would so strongly oppose this as to threaten the whole reform agenda?

Larry Sabato: Again, I want to encourage people to go to the website,, and make what we call “the 24th proposal” following on the 23 that I have made in the book. It may well be that people are ready for a detailed election methodology amendment to the Constitution, so that people can once again have confidence in the results of our elections. The Constitution should be a living, evolving document, just as the Founders and Framers intended. They could not have foreseen mass democracy, or the kind of situation that arose in 2000. They would have expected us to correct problems either with legislation or by means of a Constitutional amendment. We tried legislation and some do not believe it is adequate. If we have a constitutional convention, the delegates will decide whether this subject is important enough to include in new constitution, and then 38 states will have to agree that it is important enough, too.

We also need to remember, as you note, will have to end up being bi-partisan. Otherwise there is no chance that anything will improve in the end. Each change will be voted on separately at the convention and in the 50 states’ legislatures. But since a mere 13 states can stop any new constitutional reform, it is obvious that if the “Blue” Democratic states are opposed or the “Red” Republican states are opposed to a particular item, it will go down to defeat. Only reasonable compromises that stress structure and avoid ideology have a real opportunity to be added to the Constitution.

The Talking Dog: Just as reforming the courts is the most popular, reforming the Senate appears the least popular. Given your rather modest tinkerings (an expansion by 36--2 senators each to the 10 most populous states, 1 to the next 15 and one for D.C., plus a seat for each ex-President and Vice-President-- Wyoming would still be 35X or so overrepresented to Calif., compared to over 70X now!), would it not be better-- particularly given the Article V problem, as well as the unpopularity-- to just leave the Senate's structure alone, but perhaps to take away some of its unique privileges-- like giving the (more representative!) House co-equal treaty and appointment approval powers?

Larry Sabato: You raise a very good point. My changes do not eliminate the federalism in the Senate. That is, smaller states will still have disproportionate power, just not the over-leaning power that they have in enabling the small states with 17 percent of the population to govern all of the other states with 83 percent of the population. I think my proposal is a fair compromise, but again, your suggestion is a reasonable alternative that ought to be discussed in a constitutional convention. The call to convention would merely list the subjects to be discusses, and it would not precisely describe the reforms that might be adopted.

The Talking Dog: You are, of course, famous for your political "crystal ball", a web site (and other media) you publish from the University of Virginia, and I understand you are sometimes referred to as the most quoted professor in America for your political horse-race handicapping skills. On the subject of "crystal ball" prognostication, I understand you have criticized Dick Morris because you surmised that his predictions are frequently in error; Dick Morris, of course, was the very first interview subject on this blog. Let me ask you a forced and leading question... you are, of course, non-partisan (regardless of being credited or blamed vis a vis statements attributed to Senator Allen!)... Mr. Morris is frequently paid by campaigns as an advisor (albeit campaigns from both parties)... do you believe that such a role undermines his ability to be an accurate-- whether or not a fair-- prognosticator, and do you believe it would und ermine the ability of anyone to be a professional political handicapper-- i.e., are "independent" pollsters or consultants more reliable-- by your empirical or anecdotal observation-- than partisan ones?

Larry Sabato: Dick Morris is a very bright fellow and I certainly wish him well in his personal and professional life. But obviously, if one takes money from a political party, then one should expect reasonably that an accusation of bias will follow. I stay out of political campaigns except as an observer and commentator and I never, ever take money from partisan sources. Of course, I am an academic and this would be expected under normal circumstances anyway.

The Talking Dog: What kind of anecdotal reactions have you gotten to the universal national service (civilian or military) proposal for all Americans 18-26... anything beyond the polling, and where does your famous "crystal ball" anticipate that this particular aspect of the debate will go?

Larry Sabato: The universal national service proposal has already generated a major debate in many schools and colleges that use the Center for Politics’ Youth Leadership Initiative. Young people have very strong opinions of it---some in favor and some opposed. Older Americans are also divided, but less intensely. I am hopeful that over time, idealistic young people might be willing to consider this extension of John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. I make an extended case for national service in the book, and I probably enjoyed writing that chapter more than any other.

The Talking Dog: How would your crystal ball handicap the possibility of all, or at least some, of your suggestions resulting in an actual Constitutional Convention within the next, say 15 to 20 years? How about an actual enactment of at least one Constitutional Amendment (whether or not one you have proposed)?

Larry Sabato: As I say repeatedly in the book, any consideration of a constitutional convention is generational. It would take many years for this debate and discussion to play out. It’s entirely possible that a convention will not be held, but that individual constitutional amendments will be proposed and passed under the regular method most frequently used in American history. That is perfectly acceptable to me. As an educator, I am simply trying to help people focus on possible problems that exist in a text primarily written 220 years ago. Much of it has held up beautifully, but other parts are completely antiquated and any fair individual would admit as much.

The Talking Dog: One issue in the Bush Administration is that high officials seem literally above the law; Scooter Libby is a classic case-- the President's arguable abuse of the pardon power is frequently problematic (Ford and Nixon, Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, etc.) I personally would also make the Attorney General a Constitutionally independent non-renewable ten year term position, nominated by the President, confirmed by both Houses-- to remove some of the political mischief we have seen in that unique office. I would also require any pardon to at least be confirmed by one House of Congress-- or better yet-- to at least permit Congress the opportunity to veto it by majority vote, for example, within a reasonable time after the pardon (Gerald Ford would have thanked me for this, and might have been reelected in 1976!). Again, is your sense that constitutional proposals like this just wouldn't fly politically... or is this somehow structurally unsound as a suggestion on my part?

Larry Sabato: I have long argued that the Attorney General, and all of the U.S. Attorneys, should be independent from individual presidents, and the individuals chosen should be picked for their competency in the law. I like your proposals to have them nominated by the president and confirmed by both houses of Congress. This could be accomplished by law as well as constitutional amendment.

The Talking Dog: In the past you have been very critical of the media (notwithstanding that you are arguably now part of it, at least, with your web-site which has spawned at least one "Not Larry" website of which I'm aware!), and you frequently appear on it, at least insofar as the media is now one of the elitist entities competing at the trough with other elitist entities rather than a "representative of the people" as it would portray itself... do you see any means available to lock in civics education (such as, say, mandating quarterly "state of the unions" or some regular direct "education function" by a President that more people would have to pay attention to, so that fewer people, for example, think that Judge Wapner-- formerly of the People's Court), or Judge Judy were the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or more people knew about basic aspects of governance? And what would you think of either eliminating (my preference) broadcast polit ical ads, or at least Constitutionally embedding some kind of fairness doctrine and campaign finance limitations (or, perhaps, providing free "franked mail" to challengers as well as incumbents)?

Larry Sabato: I am delighted that you are thinking creatively about civic education. I will simply tell you that this is my prime objective for the remaining years of my professional career, and it was my purpose in founding the U.Va. Center for Politics. I hope that your readers will go to our website and see all of the programs that we have to strengthen civic education in the high schools, colleges and communities in all 50 states. I also have some proposals on campaign finance in the book. I especially like the idea of providing franked mail for challengers, and I have included that material in a series of published over the last couple of decades. You can see how much influence I have, since none of it has come to pass! Of course, the incumbents would have to agree to provide franked mail to challengers. Good luck!

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else that you believe I should have asked you but didn't, or is there anything else on the general subject raised in "A More Perfect Constitution" that you believe my readers and the public should be aware of?

Larry Sabato: The Constitution's brilliance and originality have inspired millions around the globe to seek a better society where they live. Much of the Constitution's superstructure needs no fundamental fix, including the separation of powers into three branches, the system of checks and balances (with a few exceptions), and the Bill of Rights. The fault is not with these basics, and it's important to stress one fundamental truth from the outset: the framers of the Constitution did not fail us. Our forefathers designed the best possible system that could be achieved at that moment in time.

Bit by bit, in response to student critiques as well as my own--and the public's--growing doubts, I began to construct an alternate universe for parts of the American system. The ideas comprising this universe are at the heart of this new book. By no means are my proposed reforms a repudiation of the founders' principles. I believe that Washington, Madison and Jefferson would be the first to insist that the words in the Constitution are not the final word, and they would encourage us to start thinking about constructive changes in the constitutional framework. At the very least, we'll be better off for having thought carefully about the Constitution!

The Talking Dog: I join all my readers in thanking Professor Sabato for that thought provoking interview. Interested readers should take a look at "A More Perfect Constitution".


Professor Sabato can't seriously believe anything will change for the better without a truly free press.

In fact, he knows perfectly well that's what caused many of the problems we're facing now - the goverment is out of control precisely because the main stream media is nothing more than a propaganda machine for corporations and special interests.

And the idea of changing the Constitution while Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the Fox News hacks are "watching out for the folks", scares the hell out of me.

Posted by rummy at October 4, 2007 4:08 AM