Wednesday, April 27, 2022

New Interview at The Signal on the Biden Presidency

I recently spoke with Graham Vyse of The Signal about the state of Joe Biden's presidency in the spring of its second year. We covered Biden's depressed approval ratings, the political implications of the continued COVID-related economic disruptions, what makes Biden different from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and why his presidency so far has disappointed some of the people who voted for him in 2020. You can read a summary of our conversation here.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Why Disney Couldn't Stay Out of the Culture War

In late March, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his fellow Republicans who control the state legislature enacted a law that prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity" in "kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students." The bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law by liberal opponents, has attracted substantial national attention over the past few weeks. Given both DeSantis's potential national political ambitions and the prospect of parallel legislation passing in other Republican-governed states, it's likely that this issue won't fade quickly.

Activists on the left have achieved increasing success in persuading major corporations headquartered in red states to publicly oppose conservative legislation in the areas of race, gender, and culture—such as the decision by Delta Air Lines and the Coca-Cola Company to criticize a Republican-enacted law changing voting practices in Georgia after Donald Trump's narrow defeat there in 2020 (the passage of which also resulted in the relocation of the 2021 Major League Baseball All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver). Since the Walt Disney Company is surely the major American corporation best identified with the state of Florida, Disney was destined to become a similar target of pressure once the anti-"Don't Say Gay" effort became a national liberal cause. As a result, the company has found itself in a partisan entanglement that it had very much wished to avoid.

Regardless of where one might personally stand on this issue or any other, it seems natural to expect major corporations to avoid taking sides on controversial political topics—especially those that don't directly affect the financial bottom line. Isn't it just smart business to avoid alienating even one potential customer? And yet the trend of companies weighing in on culture-war issues—and, crucially, on the left side of these issues—is on the rise, even though they have faced threats of reprisal from conservatives for doing so. Disney offers an illuminating case study that demonstrates why this is happening.

Since the locus of conflict here is a law passed in the state of Florida, we might be forgiven for thinking of Disney in this particular case mostly as a theme-park company—albeit a theme-park company that operates the largest single-site employer in the United States. But Disney is really an entertainment conglomerate that, in addition to its famous company-branded tradition of animated features, encompasses ABC and ESPN television, several major film studios (including Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel Studios), and the streaming services Disney+ and Hulu. It makes most of its money not by selling tickets to the Magic Kingdom but by producing and distributing "content," to use the unpoetic term of the age.

The generators of this necessary content reside in an artistic and creative community that is both overwhelmingly liberal on cultural issues and increasingly attuned to day-to-day political developments via social media platforms and other channels of information. Disney needs to care about its reputation among these people, or it risks losing talent—both direct company employees and the outside writers, actors, producers, and directors with which it does business—to its industry competitors. And so any market pressure to avoid publicly opposing measures like DeSantis's law, lest it alienate conservative consumers, inevitably bumps against a different kind of market pressure: to avoid being perceived as unsupportive of the culturally liberal ethos that enjoys general consensus in Hollywood and, increasingly, among well-educated professionals elsewhere.

It's not surprising that Disney has handled this issue with palpable uncertainty and lack of ease. The company initially stayed quiet as the bill advanced through the Florida legislature, declining to join an open letter of opposition signed by 150 other corporations. But when some of its own employees began to protest against Disney's official silence, its CEO responded with an apologetic company-wide email message that called the legislation a "challenge to basic human rights." After DeSantis signed the bill into law, an official Disney statement announced that "our goal as a company is for this bill to be repealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts."

Yet the furious ensuing response from some conservatives confirmed Disney's instinct that the issue presented political risk in both ideological directions. DeSantis mocked the company as "woke Disney" while suggesting that various state-level exemptions and tax breaks that favor its financial interests might be repealed in retaliation—a threat echoed by some of his legislative allies. Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute accused Disney of a "campaign to embed left-wing sexual politics into its children's programming" and even suggested that it was a haven for sex criminals. Disney is now a frequent target of criticism from conservative media outlets, which seem to be taking particular delight in ridiculing the company's well-guarded "family-friendly" brand reputation.

The Disney case is not unique. As the culture war continues to rage, corporations, like other major institutions led by well-educated professionals with progressive social sensibilities, will increasingly align with the values of the Democratic left. This development, in turn, is bound to introduce new tensions into the relationship between big business and its traditional political allies in the Republican Party—especially as Republican politicians continue to take a more populist tack in the era of Trump. While it may be good business sense to proclaim that "the customer is always right," corporate leaders are finding out that in politics, "you can't please everybody" is a much more fitting axiom.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

State of the Union Address Review: Biden Tries to Cheer Up the Country—and His Party

In the early weeks of Joe Biden's second year in the presidency, the nation he governs is by some important measures moving in the right direction. Job, wage, and economic growth are all positive; the prevalence and deadliness of COVID-19 is (at least for now) fading rapidly; and there are no ongoing domestic crises or major scandals. But the national mood has become increasingly sour over the past year, a pessimism reflected in Biden's declining job approval ratings and an emerging Republican advantage in midterm election polls.

Biden's State of the Union address contained a familiar sequence of policy proposals and details—the "laundry list" approach to speechmaking that is especially beloved of leaders in the Democratic Party, where many different constituencies all demand recognition. (And it won't be hard to find complaints that he didn't say enough about this or that pet liberal priority, as if these speeches are capable of exerting transformative effects on the policy agenda of the American public.) Biden's own communication instincts were reflected in his emphasis on economic issues over cultural matters; his aversion to overly abstract or metaphorical oratory; and his regular claims to stand for bipartisanship, pragmatism, and common sense. 

Biden's State of the Union address did not "make news" in the sense of revealing a major new initiative or governing approach; even the planted media hints from earlier in the day that he would be signaling a redoubled focus on deficit reduction or inflation-taming seemed to oversell the novelty of the speech. What the address seemed to represent, most of all, was something like a national halftime pep talk. "I want you to know that we are going to be okay," Biden said while discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though this sentiment seemed to apply to his message on the economy, COVID, and domestic policy as well. Rather than invoke the constitutional purpose of the annual address near the beginning of his remarks, as most presidents do, Biden saved his "report . . . that the State of the Union is strong because you, the American people, are strong" for his conclusion of his speech, adding, "we are stronger today than we were a year ago and we will be stronger a year from now than we are today."

While the White House would be happy to convince anyone of this view, there's little doubt that a particularly important audience for Biden's words are the members of his own party, who are less enthusiastic about the Biden presidency than they once were and whose energetic mobilization will be necessary to avoid a national Republican sweep in the fall midterm elections. Biden cannot count on the personal devotion or symbolic importance that his immediate predecessor enjoyed. His voters will not reward him for merely picking a fight on camera with a reporter or mocking an opponent at a rally; they expect much more tangible returns on their support. 

And so even the opening language in tonight's speech that detailed the Biden administration's efforts to assist Ukraine and punish Russia, for all its appeal to national and political unity, had a clear second meaning that extended to later passages on infrastructure and COVID. You can be proud of your president, they said; all things considered, he's doing okay. So cheer up a little, America—and cheer up a lot, Democrats.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

There Will Probably Be Presidential Debates in the Future...But It's OK If There Aren't

News broke on Thursday that the Republican National Committee was threatening to require its future presidential nominees to pledge to boycott general election debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has produced the debates every four years since it was formed by representatives of both major parties prior to the 1988 election. This threat, conveyed in a letter to the debate commission from RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, is being made amidst a set of demands for changes to the commission's membership and policies (the complete letter is available here). Republican dissatisfaction with the debate organizers has been apparent since at least 2016, and is in some ways a manifestation of the Trump-era party's larger suspicion of political institutions that are not under its direct control.

It's possible that this means there will be no fall debates in 2024 for the first time since the 1972 election. But we're still far from that point—despite some headlines suggesting otherwise—for a number of reasons.

First, the RNC is making demands that, in principle, the debate commission could find a way to satisfy, including an earlier start to the debate schedule, term limits on commission members, and public neutrality of commission members toward the candidates. The commission will be understandably reluctant to look like it's acquiescing to threats from one of the parties; on the other hand, in the end it would rather hold debates than not hold them. Nothing in McDaniel's letter looks like an ultimatum that would be impossible for the commission to address in some form.

Second, the parties lack control over the presidential nominees once they have been formally selected at the national conventions. Party organizations can require all kinds of signed pledges or commitments from candidates, but they lose the ability to enforce them once the nomination is granted. (If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination in 2024, and then decides he wants to attend the fall debates, would he let a previous pledge to the RNC stop him?) Responding to McDaniel, debate commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf—himself a former RNC chair—noted that the commission communicates and negotiates directly with the campaigns themselves, not the national parties: "we don't deal with the political parties [and] never have . . . we work only with those candidates for president and vice president who meet the criteria" for participation.

Finally, winning the presidency is the primary purpose of the national party committees, and has been since these committees were formed in the 1800s. Once the national ticket is selected, parties pursue this goal by becoming the loyal agents of their candidates. If participating in a debate boosts the campaign's chance of victory—perhaps the nominee is running behind in the polls and needs an opportunity to shake up the race—it would be entirely out of character, as well as an act of political malpractice, for the party to attempt to deny the candidate such a strategic option or to publicly criticize him or her for taking it.

This post is not intended to be an expression of reassurance. Honest Graft is a long-standing source of skepticism questioning the value of televised debates, swimming against an endless tide of debate-hyping voices in the news media who insist on treating as sacred civic rituals a series of events that have seldom proven edifying or substantively valuable in practice. If no debates occur in 2024 because the RNC, the debate commission, and the Republican nominee all choose inflexibility over compromise, American politics will not suffer. But—for better, or maybe for worse—we're still a long way from that point right now.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Voters Don't Often Reward What They Like...But They Do Punish What They Don't Like

Joe Biden finally signed the infrastructure bill into law this past Monday after a three-month delay separating its approval by the Senate from its passage in the House of Representatives—a delay insisted upon by House liberals who attempted to use it as leverage to guarantee the simultaneous enactment of the larger and more ambitious reconciliation bill. But the reconciliation bill, named the Build Back Better Act after a campaign slogan of Biden's, still remains in legislative limbo, as a few pivotal moderates in the Senate have remained coy about exactly what they will support and when they will support it. The House leadership plans to move forward on the bill as early as this week, but the Senate's timeline for action will remain unclear until the entire Democratic caucus signals that it's ready to proceed. At the moment, final passage of the bill shortly before the Christmas recess seems like the most optimistic plausible scenario for Democrats, and it's still possible that nothing will end up passing at all.

It might seem logical to draw a connection between the slowing momentum of the Biden legislative agenda and the simultaneous fade in the president's job approval ratings over the course of the late summer and fall. Perhaps, one could imagine, voters who are dissatisfied by the pace of national policy change are taking out their frustrations on the president. If this were true, both the recent enactment of the infrastructure bill and the potential forthcoming passage of Build Back Better—both popular measures according to opinion surveys—would hold the promise of giving Biden and his fellow Democrats a popularity boost heading into the midterm elections next year.

One problem with this assumption is that there are other, more convincing explanations for Biden's declining approval. The resurgence of COVID-19 infections caused by the delta variant, combined with the continued disruption of the job market and rising inflation, seems quite sufficient to account for increased public discontent since the spring. Even Biden's imposition of mandates for vaccination or frequent COVID testing as a condition of employment, though favored by a narrow majority of Americans, may have cost him some support among certain segments of the population.

But we also don't have many historical examples of voters rewarding presidents and governing parties for legislative productivity. Even when the bills being passed are popular or transformative, they don't seem to attract new supporters to the president's side or protect him from criticism on other grounds. The congressional sessions of 1965–66, 1981–82, and 2009–10 were all marked by unusually prolific policy-making innovation, enacting laws that continue even today to shape national politics and federal governance. In all three cases, the president's party suffered a significant loss of congressional seats in the subsequent midterm election.

Voters are tough to satisfy and have short memories, especially for success. (In May 1945, Winston Churchill and the other Allied leaders declared victory in the European theater of World War II; two months later, Churchill's party lost 189 seats and control of Parliament to the opposition.) Americans happily accepted the economic stimulus payments included in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, passed through Congress on a party-line vote, but did not respond to this provision of benefits by showering the ruling Democrats with their enduring affection. But when the party in power does something unpopular, or even fails to effectively ameliorate the day's crisis or economic hardship, we can almost always foresee a public backlash. In politics, grievance is a far more predictable response than gratitude.

Anyone who would wish electoral outcomes to serve as a reliable means of rewarding legislative achievement and punishing legislative inertia will find this pattern endlessly infuriating. But it's a good reason why the importance of new policy shouldn't be judged only through the lens of its potential short-term electoral consequences, which may be nonexistent or even negative. Democrats paid a heavy political cost for passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which contributed to their loss of the House for what turned out to be the following 8 years. But when Republicans sought to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with the ACA by attempting to repeal it in the first year of the Trump presidency, the direction of popular sentiment immediately swung in the other direction—and House Democrats soon found themselves back in the majority. A party expecting an electoral reward for enacting new laws may just need a lot of patience; the political payoff, if it comes at all, may not be realized until the opposition comes to power and tries to undo the accomplishments of its predecessors.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Biden's Declining Popularity: An Interview with The Signal

I spoke recently with Michael Bluhm of The Signal about the recent decline in Joe Biden's job approval ratings. We covered the likely causes of this trend, their political implications, and the contributing role of America's broader climate of partisan polarization. Excerpts of the interview are posted here, and a more complete version is available to subscribers.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Democrats Don't Appear Doomed, Unless Losing Half the Time Means Doom

Since Ronald Reagan's first victory in 1980, the United States has held 11 presidential elections and 10 congressional midterms. In total, over those 21 federal contests:

• Republicans have won the presidency 6 times and Democrats 5 times.

• Democrats have won a majority in the House of Representatives 11 times and Republicans 10 times.

• Republicans have won a majority in the Senate 11 times and Democrats 10 times. (This counts the post-2000 Senate as having a Democratic majority, though Republicans controlled it for several months in early 2001.)

• Democrats have achieved unified control of the presidency and Congress after 3 elections: 1992, 2008, and 2020. Republicans have also achieved unified control after 3 elections: 2002, 2004, and 2016 (plus those few months in 2001). The remaining 15 elections produced divided party government in one permutation or another.


These numbers form a picture of consistent, and fairly remarkable, long-term parity between the parties, reinforced by the narrow margins by which most recent presidential and congressional elections have been decided at the national level. The record of the past 40 years suggests that Democrats and Republicans can each expect to achieve unified control of the presidency and Congress in about one out of every seven elections, most likely holding a cross-branch governing majority for just two years at a stretch before the next election re-establishes the condition of divided government—which has been the norm of our age.

This might seem to be a boringly self-evident set of observations. And yet, those of us who have actually spent most of this period experiencing each election in sequence while immersed in associated debates and media coverage have been subjected to a constant series of arguments, theories, and analyses that claim the existence or imminent appearance of an enduring advantage for one party or the other. Promoting hypotheses of "electoral locks" over particular institutions and repeatedly proclaiming nascent realignments or even revolutions, some of the most distinguished political analysts of the era have repeatedly been tempted to assume that the short-term trends of the immediate past will extend into the long-term future. All the while, actual electoral outcomes have continue to rapidly and repetitively bounce back and forth between Democratic and Republican victories at equal rates over decades of history, even while the internal coalitions, policies, strategies, messages, and candidates of both parties have undergone substantial change.

On Friday, the New York Times published a column by liberal journalist Ezra Klein profiling the Democratic political strategist and data analyst David Shor. Shor has attracted a reputation as something of a renegade, though I'd guess that many of his conclusions are quietly shared by a substantial proportion of professional consultants in both parties. His contrarian image stems more from his willingness to publicly argue in front of social and online media's younger, well-educated, ideologically progressive audience that the left-wing cultural opinions now ascendant within that audience are likely to weaken Democratic mass appeal among working-class voters if they become popularly associated with the party and its candidates.

We are, of course, currently in what history tells us is a rare and temporary period of unified Democratic rule, likely to end as soon as 2022 given the narrow margins of control in Congress and the losses normally suffered by the president's party in midterm elections. But Klein and Shor are neither congratulating Democrats for achieving an uncommon success nor cheering on the leftward policy shifts that the victories of last November have made possible for their side. Instead, they are looking into the future with terror.

Invoking Shor's analysis, Klein's column repeatedly employs apocalyptic phrases to describe the Democrats' hypothetical fortunes in upcoming elections: "truly frightening," "without any hope," "sleepwalking into catastrophe," "on the edge of an electoral abyss." A "deeply pessimistic" view of the Democrats' position is not unique to Shor, Klein writes, but is widely shared among analysts (including, presumably, himself).

Given the urgency of such language, one might expect Klein and Shor to be forecasting the imminent end of our long era of partisan parity, to be succeeded by a new phase of American politics marked by unobstructed Republican rule. But they don't explicitly argue that Republicans will win national elections at a higher rate in the future than they have in the past, and they certainly don't claim to envision a durable GOP governing majority. Though the results of the statistical model Shor has built to predict every election from now until 2032 are not revealed in detail (ambition, at least, is not in short supply here), the likelihood of Democrats losing unified control next year and facing challenges in winning it back quickly thereafter appears to be a sufficiently dire prospect to provoke dramatic expressions of anticipatory lamentation—even if such an outcome is, by historical standards, tediously unexceptional.

Many of the specific points made by Klein and Shor are sound and even persuasive. The current geographic distribution of the parties' mass coalitions gives the Republicans a structural head start in winning a majority in the electoral college and especially the Senate, though (as the results of 2020 demonstrated) this advantage falls well short of guaranteed perpetual victory. But if lacking unified federal control is plunging into an "abyss," then the Democratic Party has been sunk in that abyss for all but three two-year periods since 1980. Defining the failure to achieve a cross-branch governing majority as a "catastrophe" would suggest that Democrats—and Republicans too, for that matter—are in an electorally catastrophic state 86 percent of the time.

I suspect that's not what Klein really means. Most likely, he simply views the post-Trump Republican Party as sufficiently dangerous to the values he prizes that any impending Republican victory, even just to restore divided government and block the Democrats' legislative progress, represents disaster. Thus, Democratic leaders and their supporters cannot afford to appreciate the rare achievement of their recent electoral success or the policy changes that flow from them, and certainly have no right to adopt a philosophical detachment about the inevitability of frequent alternations of power in an age of evenly-matched national parties. There's a five-alarm fire in the engine room of American democracy, he implies, and the Republicans are pouring fuel on it. Any setback for the Democratic side is ruinous.

Regardless of the validity of that argument, it engages questions that are distinct from merely estimating each party's probability of victory in upcoming electoral contests. And if the nation is indeed in such peril, it doesn't seem realistic to expect Democratic politicians and operatives to solve the problem by adopting a sufficiently powerful set of policies and messages to shut the Republicans out of power until they change their ways, whenever that might be. An age marked by persistently close elections means that the outcome in this or that specific contest can indeed hang on the calculated choices of candidates and campaigns, and Shor has a number of justifiable ideas about which strategies will maximize Democrats' chances of victory. But partisan parity also means that both sides are going to lose sometimes, no matter what they do. If that's catastrophic, than catastrophe is inevitable.

Given the disappointing record of previous attempts to identify nascent partisan trends in one direction or the other, I admit to holding a strong default assumption that this parity will continue until the evidence really starts to build over multiple elections that American politics has entered a different era. There are simply too many moving parts in the parties' coalitions and too many contingent factors influencing electoral outcomes to gain much confidence in foreseeing future developments, and even smart arguments made by smart people drawing on smart data sources can quickly fall apart when the political world changes. If predictions must be made, the safest bet remains that each party will narrowly win roughly half the time, and that divided government will continue to be more frequent than instances of single-party rule. For now, I leave to the judgment of others the question of whether that likely pattern indicates impending doom—for either party, or for the country itself.