Monday, August 14, 2017

The Real Republican Fear about Trump's Charlottesville Response

Last week, I described how the tensions between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans had become increasingly visible, and explained why this conflict was likely to get even worse in the weeks to come. But that was before this weekend's events in Charlottesville, which seem to have further widened the divide between the two. Trump's initial refusal to specifically denounce racist groups and hold them responsible for the disorder and violence that occurred in Virginia—he briefly gave a more forceful condemnation Monday afternoon after two days of pressure—not only contrasted strikingly with the public statements made by other Republican elected officials, but also provoked obliquely critical comments from some of them.

"Mr. President — we must call evil by its name," wrote Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida agreed that it was "very important for the nation to hear [the president] describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists." Republicans were described as "privately wincing" and complaining that Trump had "botched" his response.

Aside from being sincerely horrified that the president of the United States did not view organized bigotry as an appropriate target for his otherwise sharp tongue, Trump's critics have focused on what they see as the political malpractice of passing up a chance to immediately and vehemently reject the belief system of a small and widely-loathed group of extremists. Fellow Republican politicians indeed have good reason to be seriously concerned about the flawed instincts of the president, and to wonder if their party has become hitched to the whims of a uniquely stubborn and tone-deaf figure.

But Trump's defective political antennae do not represent the biggest danger to the GOP. If the worst Republican nightmare comes true, Charlottesville is just the beginning of an emboldened white supremacist movement descending on one part of America after another. It can be difficult to predict how the typical voter will respond to the rise of civil unrest, but these are not Black Lives Matter activists scuffling with police; these are not liberals with rainbow flags and feline hats blocking traffic or protesting at airports. The pictures from Virginia are of gun-toting crackpots with torches, swastika tattoos, and ugly frog logos invading a town to beat up and run over the sons and daughters of the American middle class—and many who are far from the political left have nonetheless reacted to these developments with a reflexive sense of utter revulsion.

Republicans desperately want Trump to tell the white-power goons to get lost forever. Extremists and violent actors are a political fact of life, but it's tougher to escape association with them when many are wearing red baseball caps openly proclaiming their identification with the leader of one's own party. Worryingly, even Trump's more strongly-worded, and more positively-reviewed, statement today did not specifically reject the support he has personally received and continues to receive from the racist fringe. The president's manner also strongly suggests that he makes such public pronouncements reluctantly out of political necessity rather than enthusiastically out of personal conviction—which may do little to convince the leaders of these movements that he really wants them to cease their efforts.

If Charlottesville becomes a model replicated elsewhere rather than a single tragic departure, true panic will set in among Republican ranks. Trump has already given his party a lot of trouble during his brief time in office. But if the next two elections become a national referendum on whether it's a good thing that the Nazis and the Klan are back in the picture, few Republicans will be optimistic about their chances.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Trump's War with Congress Is Just Getting Started

How many Republican members of Congress are still wearing their Donald Trump socks?

When House and Senate Republicans held a policy retreat in Philadelphia during Trump's first week in office, one of the items in each member's gift bag was a pair of socks decorated with the new president's face. The socks, reported Politico, were claimed to be "a huge hit."

The retreat itself occurred amidst an atmosphere of palpable partisan optimism. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled ambitious plans for the coming session of Congress. Legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act would be on the president's desk by March, according to the leaders' proposed calendar, with a tax reform agreement following by the August recess—at which point the first phase of funding for Trump's promised southern border wall would be in place and a major infrastructure package would be "moving along." Trump himself made an appearance at the retreat, promising his fellow Republicans that "we're actually going to sign the [bills] that you're writing; you're not wasting your time" and vowing that "this Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we've had in decades, maybe ever."

We have now reached the August recess, and the only major piece of legislation that Congress has enacted this year is a bipartisan bill tightening the sanctions on Russia (as punishment for its record of meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Republican presidential ticket) that Trump grumpily signed rather than risk the embarrassment of having his veto overridden.

That Republican hopes for a historically prolific congressional session have gone unfulfilled is hardly shocking in itself. It's common for presidents and other party leaders to entertain visions of legislative productivity that dissipate upon exposure to the political and procedural obstacles to achieving major policy change within the American system of government. Though there's little chance of the entire Republican wish list ultimately becoming law, plenty of time remains in the next 18 months for selected elements of the party platform to make their way through the House and Senate.

But salvaging what's left of the GOP's legislative agenda will still require extensive collaboration and cooperation between Congress and the White House. Unfortunately for Republicans, this relationship has been deteriorating rapidly over the past few weeks. The failure of health care reform in the Senate prompted a series of critical remarks from Trump, who also unsuccessfully demanded the abolition of the legislative filibuster. During the Senate health care debate, a member of Trump's cabinet threatened Senator Lisa Murkowski with retribution against her home state of Alaska if she did not support the ACA repeal plan backed by the White House. (She cast a decisive vote against it.)

Republican members of Congress have likewise become more open in distancing themselves from the president. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley publicly warned Trump not to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch rejected Trump's demands that Republicans continue to work on hammering out a health care bill, and Senator Jeff Flake published a book containing sharp criticism of Trump. On Monday, Mitch McConnell blamed Trump for creating unrealistic expectations about the ability of Congress to quickly deliver significant legislative achievements ahead of "artificial deadlines"—even though McConnell himself had promised swift action on the party agenda during the Republican retreat in January. McConnell's remarks, in turn, provoked sharp counterattacks from White House aide Dan Scavino and Trump loyalist Sean Hannity.

Though Trump critics wish for an even less deferential Congress, this is still a very unusual degree of tension between two branches under control of the same party—especially since the Trump presidency is barely six months old. And it's about to get worse.

Before Congress can even think about making major progress on issues like tax reform, it needs to raise the federal debt ceiling and pass at least a temporary resolution funding the government past the end of the current fiscal year (September 30) while it works out a longer-term appropriations plan. Both tasks will require bipartisan agreement. Democratic support will be necessary in the Senate to avert a filibuster, and may well be needed in the House as well to compensate for what may be plentiful nay votes from the Republican side of the aisle on one or both measures.

There will be no "big wins" for Trump in the near future. The best-case scenario for resolving these responsibilities simply keeps the federal buildings open and the debt serviced with a minimum amount of legislative disarray; Democrats have considerable leverage and no reason to support legislation that contains a major rightward policy shift on any issue. In the worst-case outcome, the process falls apart and the government shuts down or defaults on its obligations—both with potentially disastrous consequences for both the president and the ruling party in Congress.

This is also very treacherous ground for Paul Ryan. His predecessor John Boehner was deposed from the speakership by rebellious conservative purists in large part because he regularly found it necessary to push must-pass legislation through the House with more Democratic than Republican votes. Ryan is similarly at risk of sustaining considerable damage in the upcoming debt ceiling fight, with one anonymous Republican House member telling the Huffington Post that legislation raising the debt ceiling without delivering on other conservative priorities would mark "the beginning of the end of the Ryan speakership," even though such a proposal might be the only bill that could pass the Senate and avert a governing catastrophe.

At least Boehner, for all his problems, didn't have Trump to deal with. About the best that Ryan and McConnell can hope for is that they can guide bipartisan bills through Congress before the clock runs out and that Trump will sign them while merely making a few snide remarks. But what if Trump sides with the hard-liners demanding large spending cuts, or regulatory repeal, or funding for his border wall? What if he fails to come to the defense of party leaders facing a mutiny from within their ranks? What if he vetoes a bill sent to his desk, plunging the nation into a crisis?

Normally, there is a perception of mutual linked fate that prevents a president and his congressional party from letting their differences become too vast or too public. But Trump is an inexperienced and impatient president who is incapable of taking responsibility for setbacks. He is getting to a point in his presidency where he's going to need an answer for the question of why he hasn't delivered on all of his big, beautiful promises. Congress will be an irresistible scapegoat for his failures; the only uncertainty is whether the smooth functioning of the federal government is a casualty of the resulting crossfire.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

So Donald Trump Turned Out to Be a Conservative After All

Whatever happened to the idea that Donald Trump wasn't really a conservative? Matt Grossmann and I explain how Trump is turning out to be the most conservative president in modern history today over at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A New Chief of Staff, But Don't Expect Any Improvement

The firing of Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff late Friday afternoon (and that's what it was, though Priebus at least briefly pretended that he had "secretly" resigned the day before) was perhaps one of the least surprising developments of the summer. Priebus had lost, or never seemed to have, Donald Trump's confidence and respect. He had also alienated other top members of the administration who have Trump's ear, and had committed the cardinal sin of too openly caring about his own press coverage rather than that of the boss. Priebus could claim a personal friendship with House Speaker Paul Ryan and close ties with many other powerful Republicans in Washington, but after six months on the job he could point to no major legislative or policy victories that his relationships had facilitated.

Yet a president who has made many more bad than good decisions has long since lost the benefit of the doubt in the business of hiring and firing. While the choice of John Kelly to replace Priebus seems superficially promising—Kelly has the government experience and organizational capabilities that his predecessor lacked, and Trump appears to trust generals more than Republican Party operatives—it's more likely that Kelly will fail to solve any of this administration's existing flaws while potentially creating new ones.

The three biggest problems that the Trump presidency currently faces are: (1) the president's lack of knowledge and judgment; (2) a prevalence of mediocre (and worse) people in key positions without a functional decision-making process; and (3) a Congress that is ill-equipped to be a productive governing partner.

The optimistic response to the Kelly hiring is that he might be at least able to address problems (1) and (2). Perhaps, the thinking goes, Kelly can use his experience and gravitas to impose "order" and "discipline" on a chaotic White House by, for example, cutting down on the number of people who have direct access to the president and sidelining some of the most egregiously unqualified. Maybe he can even convince Trump to take it easy with the tweets, at least when it comes to sensitive national security matters.

But there's no reason to believe that Trump views problems (1) and (2) as problems at all, let alone to think that he brought Kelly in to solve them. Even if Kelly dedicated himself to the task, he has little chance of reining in Trump's personality or limiting the many routes to the Oval Office—especially since one of the main centers of power within the White House is controlled by Trump's own daughter and son-in-law.

From Trump's point of view, the real problems with his presidency so far (besides Congress, which I'll discuss in a moment) have been insufficient loyalty within his administration and a hostile media outside it. These difficulties are related in his mind, as leaks from anonymous staffers have fueled many of the damaging stories in the press; hence the recent introduction of hot-headed superloyalist Anthony Scaramucci in a comic-relief role to reboot the White House Plumbers program forty-odd years after its first scene-stealing appearance. But the supposed treachery in the ranks also extends to James Comey's pursuit of the Russia investigation, Jeff Sessions's recusal from it, and Rod Rosenstein's appointment of Bob Mueller as special counsel. What is more likely: that Trump replaced Priebus with Kelly because he viewed the latter as more personally loyal and more likely to impose that loyalty across the rest of the executive branch, or that he suddenly developed a thirst for meritocratic personnel decisions and effective management skills?

The failure of Congress to advance Trump's legislative agenda was no doubt fatal to Priebus, whose connections to top Republicans on Capitol Hill were more or less his only qualification for the chief of staff position. But just because Paul Ryan's friend couldn't push health care reform through the House and Senate doesn't mean that somebody else could have done much better. (With his usual perverse logic, Trump appeared to hold Priebus's existing relationships within the party against him, viewing them as signs of disloyalty rather than as advantages to be exploited.) This White House is in desperate need of basic political intelligence and avenues for coalition-building—and, as miscast as Priebus was in his former position, he takes a supply of those precious commodities with him as he leaves. There's little chance that Kelly—who reportedly "hates politics"—will be in his element negotiating a deal to raise the debt ceiling or flattering a key committee chair to move along some sub-Cabinet nominations, and no particular reason to think that he can successfully orchestrate bicameral agreements on major policy priorities.

Much of official Washington looks at someone like Kelly and sees substantive competence and emotional maturity. But Trump is more likely to see a tough-guy enforcer whom he will expect to bark orders and threats at staff, Cabinet officials, reporters, and members of Congress. To the extent that such tactics are effective, Trump will have succeeded in better working his personal will within the government; to the (more probable) extent that they are ineffectual or even counterproductive, the rampant dysfunctionality within the current leadership regime will only continue to grow.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Night to Remember in the Senate

The election of 2016 was an unexpected and smashing Republican victory—but it also represented the calling of an awfully big bluff. For seven years, Republicans had pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a superior, but always unspecified, alternative. Donald Trump famously claimed that he could cover "everybody" at a fraction of the cost of the ACA, but he was hardly the only Republican politician to promise the American people that they could keep everything they liked about Obamacare while painlessly jettisoning the parts they didn't like—the taxes, the mandates, the high premiums.

Once Trump was elected, repeal was no longer merely a symbolic position useful for rallying the Republican base against Obama and the Democrats, but represented a well-established policy commitment to which the party had unavoidably staked itself even though health care reform is predictably treacherous for the party attempting to pass it. Congressional Republicans—first in the House, and then in the Senate—took to developing actual repeal legislation with all the enthusiasm of a teenager who had promised to mow the lawn in exchange for being allowed to go out with his friends the night before, and now had to make good on his end of the bargain.

For in fact there is no magic policy formula that preserves the popular aspects of the ACA while abolishing the unpopular provisions—especially while also remaining true to conservative ideological principles. Many people would have to pay more for their health insurance and many others would lose their coverage entirely. As public opinion polls showed, support for various versions of the Republican health care plan among the electorate was consistently dismal.

What followed over the succeeding few months—right up until the moment that John McCain became the 51st vote in the Senate against repeal early Friday morning—was an attempt by a significant proportion of the Republican conference in both houses of Congress to maneuver so as to avoid blame from the party base if repeal failed while also avoiding responsibility for the consequences of its passage. The result of this mentality was some of the strangest and most confusing legislative behavior that veteran Congress-watchers had ever seen. Bills with wide-ranging policy implications were written in a single afternoon. Individual members made public demands that they then abandoned without explanation days, or sometimes even hours, later. Party leaders kept the process alive by promising that collective agreement around a single set of policies, though never realized, was merely sitting just beyond the next procedural vote.

Even the final Senate bill, the so-called skinny repeal, was sold to Republican senators as merely a vehicle to enter a conference committee with the House that would at long last produce that ever-elusive consensus bill. One Republican called skinny repeal a "fraud" and "disaster" (but voted for it anyway), others warned that while the Senate might pass it the House was strictly forbidden from doing so, and hardly anybody bothered to show up to defend it on the Senate floor—leaving Budget Committee chairman Mike Enzi to filibuster interminably in the face of critical remarks from the Democratic side of the aisle.

As unprecedented—and somewhat ridiculous—as all this was, there was a certain logic to keeping repeal alive, or at least trying to leave its corpse in the lawn on the other side of the Capitol. And nobody wants to be the disloyal teammate. It took a dramatic late-night defection by John McCain, in collaboration with previous dissenters Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, to administer the apparent kill shot while onlookers literally gasped in surprise.

Undoubtedly, the three nay-voting Republicans are not the most popular members of their party at the moment—a stunned and furious Mitch McConnell didn't bother to hide his resentment of their actions after the vote on the Senate floor—but they may have merely spared their colleagues more wasted time in the weeks ahead as the party continued to search fruitlessly for consensus. Or, alternatively, agreement might have been achieved, and a bill sent to the president—but then Republicans would have been forced to defend an extremely unpopular piece of legislation in the 2018 and even 2020 elections, confronted with tearful or enraged constituents who had lost insurance and other benefits. McCain, Collins, and Murkowski may never get the recognition from fellow Republicans for doing so, but it's quite possible that they just saved their party's majority.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Who's Really Winning the Culture War?

As most of the political world continues to watch with fascination and impatience to see if the Senate can desperately pull something together on health care before the end of the week, President Trump unexpectedly diverted attention on Wednesday by suddenly announcing via Twitter that transgender people would be prohibited from serving in the military. Trump's decision seemed to take his own administration by as much surprise as anyone else; the White House was unprepared to supply answers to basic questions about how the new policy would be administered, and the Pentagon—which was apparently worried at first that Trump's tweetstorm might be revealing a hostile military action—tersely referred all inquiries back to the White House.

The impetus for Trump's announcement became clear as the day wore on: congressional conservatives, who had just lost a vote in the House of Representatives to legislatively prohibit service-members from receiving taxpayer-funded medical treatments related to gender identity, had appealed to Trump for support—but Trump instead decided on a much larger service ban without any consultation with Congress.

One might expect Democrats on Capitol Hill to receive the new policy with distaste—and they did—but the more interesting development was the critical response among many Republicans. Even older and socially conservative members of Congress like Orrin Hatch, Richard Shelby, and John McCain released statements that were at the least implicitly critical of Trump's actions.

For those Americans old enough to remember the national controversies that led to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s, it is remarkable that the political climate has shifted so dramatically that even Republican elected officials now seek to distance themselves from the traditional conservative position on LGBT rights. Last fall, an incumbent governor lost re-election in a southern state in part because he had supported an anti-transgender "bathroom bill," and there's every reason to expect that public opinion will continue to move in a liberal direction on this and similar issues.

It is often argued that Trump and his fellow Republicans have ascended to political power on the crest of a mass cultural backlash. While there is some truth to this, it's hard to see how Trump—or any president—would be able to slow, much less reverse, the rapid social change that we have experienced over the past generation. Trump is fond of promising that he will make people "say Merry Christmas again" and in other ways turn the clock back on liberal cultural trends, but as he can't even get his own party in Congress to support him on military personnel policy, such ambitious goals are probably beyond the powers of his office. One of the most disorienting aspects of our current historical moment is the frequent sense that partisan politics and the broader American society are not only out of sync but are actually moving in opposite directions.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Demise of the Health Care Bill Shows That Policy Still Matters

Over the past few years, it's become fashionable among many political experts to deny that policy substance plays much of a role in motivating the electoral choices of the American public. The dominant picture of citizen behavior in contemporary accounts is that of a crude tribalism, in which individuals' salient social or cultural identities motivate them to develop a simplistic but powerful affinity for a favored party—and an even stronger antipathy for the opposition—that subsequently determines their normative, and even factual, political beliefs. A number of my fellow political scientists are fond of quipping on Twitter that "all politics are identity politics" and that "negative partisanship rules everything" whenever evidence arises of such phenomena at work.

Like any pithy aphorism, these observations contain substantial, but not total, truth. Today's electorate is indeed strongly partisan in its candidate preferences, and much of this party loyalty is driven by an increasingly bitter feeling toward the other side (rather than a more positive view of one's own party). Many Americans do perceive political conflict as involving competition among social groups, and their own group identity often plays a powerful role in determining which partisan team they join and which they scorn.

But a theory of voting behavior that stops there cannot account for every important development in politics today, and the apparent demise of Mitch McConnell's health care bill in the Senate late Monday is one key example. There will no doubt be numerous inside-baseball reports and analyses about how and why the legislation has failed (at least so far) to attract the necessary support. But it's also worth stepping back and looking at the big picture. The largest single obstacle that the Republican Party has faced in repealing the Affordable Care Act has been the policy preferences of the American people.

While the ACA itself proved to be a divisive measure, most of its specific provisions have consistently enjoyed strong popular support. Moreover, repeal faced the same problem any other attempt at welfare state retrenchment creates: how does a political party revoke benefits from sympathetic current beneficiaries without provoking a serious popular backlash? Prior to Trump's election, Republicans—including Trump himself—could sidestep these dilemmas by keeping their alternative health care proposals vague and implausibly attractive. Once the GOP was compelled to write an actual bill, however, it unenthusiastically produced a set of policies that were almost historic in their unpopularity. Even Republican voters reported lukewarm-at-best attitudes towards the positions of their own party leaders—demonstrating that tribal loyalty still has its limits despite our unusually polarized climate.

If Republican members of Congress thought that mere group solidarity ruled the electorate, they would have resurrected the repeal bill that passed the House and Senate in 2015 (only to be vetoed, as expected, by Obama), quickly enacted it on a party-line vote last January, and moved on to other business—secure in the belief that any supporters who subsequently lost health insurance access could be easily convinced that their favored party was not to blame. Instead, the GOP embarked on a protracted, and so far unfulfilled, struggle to reconcile its ideological predispositions with the substantive demands and anticipated responses of the broader electorate. Donald Trump's bully pulpit and Mitch McConnell's tactical acumen have not yet proven able to overcome the suspicion among a critical mass of officeholders that politicians who defy the will of the public on important national policy issues risk popular retribution at the next round of balloting, regardless of the party label next to their name.