Thursday, February 15, 2018

The GOP Made Trump More Conservative—But Trump's Also Making the GOP More Conservative

The single biggest pearl of Beltway conventional wisdom to suffer irreversible tarnish in 2017 was the notion that Donald Trump stood for an iconoclastic "populism" poised to redefine the dominant governing ideology of the Republican Party. Trump's past support for Democratic candidates and policies, his weak ties to conservative elites in Washington, and his infrequent rhetorical devotion to the American right's familiar themes of limited government, constitutional fealty, individual liberty, and traditionalist sexual ethics convinced many political analysts during the 2016 campaign that he represented a dramatic break from his adopted party's existing ideological legacy. Critics ranging across the political spectrum from National Review to Barack Obama reinforced the dominant news media judgment that Trump was not a regular conservative—and voters ultimately agreed, perceiving Trump as significantly closer to the ideological center than previous Republican presidential nominees.

But the existing Republican Party has exerted a strong gravitational pull on Trump, who seems to lack many personal substantive commitments and who does not command a larger faction of allies within the GOP dedicated to shifting its platform away from standard conservative positions. Indeed, Trump's record in office so far can be fairly described as the most consistently conservative of any president in modern history, as he has proven to be much less inclined than Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, either George Bush, or even Ronald Reagan to pursue centrist or bipartisan initiatives in select policy domains.

And in at least one major area, it's Trump who's pushing other Republicans in a conservative direction rather than vice versa. The extensive attention devoted by the mainstream media to Trump's verbal departures from conservative doctrine on topics like trade, Medicare, and the Iraq War in 2016 somewhat obscured the fact that on his signature issue—immigration—Trump quite conspicuously ran to the ideological right of the rest of the Republican presidential field, to say nothing of the Democratic opposition.

While Candidate Trump's invocations of economic populism and military non-intervention have not often guided the policy positions of President Trump's administration, his commitment to reducing the number of immigrants residing in the United States has only deepened once in office. The Trump campaign mostly emphasized combating illegal immigration via more aggressive internal enforcement and a "big, beautiful wall" across the Mexican border, but the Trump presidency is also pursuing a significant cut in legal immigration rates and proposing reforms to the criteria governing the process of granting authorization to would-be residents. Attempts by congressional Democrats and a few breakaway Republicans to provide "DREAMers" with legal status in exchange for increased border security funds have now foundered in Congress due in large part to newfound presidential demands over the past few weeks that major reductions to lawful immigration also be included in the deal.

To be sure, the Republican Party as a whole has not yet openly embraced Trump's call for slashing legal immigration rates. Even some supporters of the Senate legislation endorsed by Trump are not publicly defending the very provisions in the bill that would implement such a policy, and business interests within the Republican Party network are unlikely to be satisfied (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already expressed its opposition). But the bulk of congressional Republicans, including top leaders in both chambers, have backed the Trump administration's proposal to resolve the DACA issue by rolling it into a larger reform bill that would otherwise shift immigration policy in a more restrictive direction on the legal and illegal fronts alike, while opposing the narrower DREAMers-for-security-dollars swap negotiated by a bipartisan Senate group.

There are political risks to the Trump approach. Previous Republican presidents departed from ideological purity because they also prized racking up legislative achievements and appealing to voters beyond their party base. Trump is making a very different bet—though not necessarily an incorrect one—that holding to a tough line on immigration will either compel Democrats to make further concessions or keep an issue alive that works to his electoral advantage even if he can't (accurately) claim progress in constructing his famous border wall. The pragmatic, deal-making, I-can-fix-it Trump we heard so much about during the 2016 campaign still makes occasional appearances for the benefit of the cameras; only last month this Trump publicly told Congress he'd sign any bipartisan agreement on DACA and "take the heat" from his supporters for doing so. But the Trump who actually governs, the Trump who shot down the bipartisan agreement with which he was then presented in a fusillade of anger, is best understood as the increasingly ideological leader of an increasingly ideological party.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Don't Expect Much Legislation From Congress in 2018

Even during normal political times, the internal operation of Congress gets much less than its rightful share of attention from the news media and public. With Donald Trump as president? Forget it. But amidst all the other drama of this eventful week, a few important clues emerged about the road ahead for Congress in 2018. They all seem to point in the same direction: to a relatively unproductive legislative year.

First, it's important to note that Congress has some major unfinished business left over from 2017, due to its failure to pass annual appropriations legislation by the end of the previous fiscal year on September 30. Instead, the government has been funded via a series of short-term continuing resolutions that periodically expire and require extension (allowing the Senate Democrats to engineer last week's temporary government shutdown simply by filibustering the latest iteration). Congressional leaders have signaled that they don't expect to reach a final agreement on domestic and military spending levels before March at the earliest, which means that another resolution will need to be passed next week to keep the government open until then.

When combined with an impending need to raise the federal debt ceiling in order to prevent default on the national debt, this means that a fair amount of legislative energy over the next two months will be devoted to what would normally be considered the basic necessities of government. Even next week's vote on a new continuing resolution is not free from complication; dissatisfied conservative purists threatened this week to join with Democrats to vote it down on the floor of the House and thus force another shutdown. Past experience suggests that Republican leaders will ultimately strike a deal with a sufficient number of party holdouts to push the bill through, but every day spent on negotiations over appropriations is a day lost to other priorities.

The decreasing probability that Congress approves a budget resolution this year also indicates that Republicans will not be able to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a major item on the party's legislative agenda by a simple majority in the Senate (as they did last year to enact tax reform). While some members of Congress express enthusiasm for taking another crack at repealing the Affordable Care Act, doing so would require not only passage of a budget resolution but also persuading two of last summer's three opposing Republican senators to change their minds (since the December election of Doug Jones in Alabama has narrowed the partisan margin in the chamber to 51–49).

President Trump's unusually policy-free State of the Union address also seemed to signal a lack of imminent congressional action. Trump's speech included a brief advance promotion of his infrastructure plan (the public release of which is, according to his aides, perpetually just around the corner) but did not leave the impression that he or his administration would devote much energy in the near future to pressuring reluctant conservatives or persuading opposition Democrats on the subject.

It's also an election year in which the current partisan majority, at least in the House, is vulnerable to defeat—which means that Republicans will be in no mood this summer or fall to spend long weeks legislating in Washington rather than attending to their home constituencies. Other leaders might have acted to build a longer list of legislative accomplishments prior to the midterms by finding topics with popular appeal that were well-situated for bipartisan dealmaking—anti-sexual harassment and assault measures? maybe something on opioids?—but it seems clear from this week's party retreat that Republicans have decided to focus their 2018 electoral message on taking credit for last year's tax cuts.

That leaves immigration as the most likely subject matter of any major non-budgetary legislative initiative enacted between now and November, though the chances still seem fairly modest from today's perspective. The approaching March expiration of DACA will compel the two parties to devote the next month to negotiations, but the probability of a comprehensive immigration agreement appears remote absent a significant concession by one or both sides. More likely, Trump will be faced with a choice between a narrow deal and no deal at all.

The decaying state of the legislative process in Congress is a subject that deserves much more public consideration than it has received. The decline of committee influence and expertise, the increasing power of party leaders at the expense of other members, the increasingly slapdash approach to major policy-making, and the fading institutional loyalty of incumbents to the legislative branch are all developments with wide-ranging implications for the workings of American government; they  should rightfully concern members of both parties. Even in a period of electoral triumph, many Republicans have expressed dissatisfaction with the congressional experience—and are voting with their feet by retiring in record numbers.

Relegated to the minority, at least for now, Democrats aren't any happier. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia briefly threw a scare into his fellow members of the Democratic caucus late last month when he flirted with retirement—which would almost certainly have thrown his seat to the Republican opposition. Manchin was persuaded to seek another six-year term in the Senate this November, though not before he expressed his displeasure with the operation of the institution whose members once frequently pronounced themselves the "world's greatest deliberative body."

"This place sucks," said Manchin.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Real Leverage on DACA Isn't Shutdowns, It's Stephen Miller

On Friday night, most of the Democratic caucus in the Senate protested against the lack of legislative progress on fixing the DACA program by voting against cloture on a Republican continuing resolution (CR) funding the federal government through February 16, thus precipitating a government shutdown. On Monday, most Democrats joined Republicans in voting to reopen the government through February 8—having won an informal agreement that the Senate majority leader would bring an immigration reform bill to the floor if one is produced by a bipartisan working group of senators.

Compared to the original demands of Senate Democrats, the "deal" they struck to reopen the government didn't look like much of a victory. Compared to 1995-96 and 2013 (when Republicans got nothing but political pain out of two much longer shutdowns), winning a shorter CR, a public pledge by Mitch McConnell, and a six-year reauthorization of the CHIP program (included in both bills) seemed like a pretty decent haul. But the experience seems to have left feelings of dissatisfaction across much of the party; moderate Senate Democrats either opposed or reluctantly supported the shutdown in the first place, while some liberal activists complained that Democrats caved too early and thus revealed the shallowness of their sympathy to the plight of the DREAMers.

Extracting a big payoff from a shutdown is probably impossible in most cases, because the cost is borne not only by the political opposition (if at all) but also by the public at large. Even if they sympathize with the underlying objectives, citizens will soon start to wonder why they have to suffer the inconveniences associated with an unfunded government. For a party out of power, forcing a shutdown is somewhat like running out onto the field during a sporting event—it seems in the moment like a dramatic act of defiant self-assertion, but immediately upon execution reveals a limited consideration of the key question "so then what happens?"

It's true that most Americans support a solution that would allow the DREAMers to remain in the United States lawfully; it's equally true that most Republican politicians are reluctant (with good reason) to cast their votes in favor of any bill that could be characterized by a future primary opponent as constituting "amnesty for illegals." The main obstacle to successful bipartisan negotiations over the issue has been the long and growing list of concessions that Trump and other Republican leaders have demanded as a price for their support. But these demands in turn reflect a political reality in which risk for Republicans exists much more on one side of the issue than the other—and government shutdowns aren't likely to change those calculations much.

If the DACA expiration date of March 5 arrives without a deal, however, the Trump administration will have to decide what to do about the DREAMers. It's quite possible that Trump will choose not to prioritize immigration enforcement measures against those who have registered under DACA despite the program's nominal cessation; it's also possible that the administration's freedom to maneuver will be limited at least temporarily by legal action. But there's a reasonable chance that Trump, encouraged by the immigration hawks on his staff like White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, will preside over the deportation proceedings of significant numbers of DACA-eligible immigrants.

Polling suggests that such a development, if it occurs, would be unpopular with the public, and congressional Republicans already facing an electoral headwind in 2018 would not welcome a campaign season characterized by widespread media images of sympathetic DREAMers being detained by federal agents. Another president might be counted on to spare his party such politically difficult developments in an important election year, but Trump hardly enjoys the private trust of his fellow Republican officeholders. If a bipartisan DACA agreement is indeed successfully enacted into law—an improbable development, from today's vantage point—it is much more likely to reflect Republican fears of an untrammeled Trump than another shutdown showdown.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Will the 2018 Elections Create Another "Outsider Class" in the House?

The Republican midterm landslides of 1994 and 2010 washed unusually large freshman classes into the House of Representatives; roughly a third of the Republican conference in both the 1995-96 and 2011-12 Congresses consisted of newly-elected members (31% and 35%, respectively). Many of these House freshmen lacked previous experience in elective politics. In 2011, for example, the nation's new federal representatives included people who came to Washington from careers as a roofing contractor, an airline pilot, a nurse, a pizzeria owner, a youth camp director, and a professional auctioneer.

In part because many members viewed themselves as "citizen legislators" sent by an angry electorate to shake up business as usual, the classes of 1994 and 2010 immediately earned reputations for rebelling against Republican party leaders and other senior members; especially in 1994, a number of freshmen had pledged to serve a limited number of terms in Congress—giving them little patience for following the traditional practice of deferring to veteran colleagues while methodically climbing the ladder of seniority. As my political science colleague Richard Skinner recently explained, there is a long-standing historical pattern of large freshman classes forcing a redistribution of power within the House—aside from the two already mentioned, the reformist "Watergate class" of 1974 is another well-known example—thus leaving an enduring residue on the operation of Congress for years after their arrival.

Given the growing evidence that 2018 is shaping up to be a good electoral year for the Democrats that may well result in a Democratic House majority 12 months from now, Richard considers the possibility that a large and boisterous "Class of 2018" might similarly provide the voting power for further rounds of institutional reform or leadership challenges. At the very least, he notes, it is likely that newly-elected Democrats will claim a mandate to constrain the power of the Trump administration, which may produce innovations in procedural antagonism between the legislative and executive branches.

A resurgence of activist energy in the Democratic Party since the 2016 election is evident in the unusually large numbers of Democratic candidates for Congress and the record-breaking fundraising totals they have collectively achieved so far. Surveying the field of candidates in many competitive seats, however, reveals a relative lack of conventionally experienced potential nominees for a year in which the conventional wisdom predicts a favorable environment for the party. In Colorado-6 and Pennsylvania-6, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—an arm of the Democratic House leadership—has officially endorsed military veterans Jason Crow and Chrissy Houlahan to oppose Republican incumbents Mike Coffman and Ryan Costello. In Texas-7, three lawyers, one doctor, one university administrator, and one journalist are competing in the Democratic primary to face nine-term incumbent Republican John Culberson. In Washington-8, an open seat vacated by retiring Republican Dave Reichert, an even larger assortment of candidates (all lacking previous tenure in elective office) are jockeying to advance to the general election against the likely Republican nominee, a long-serving state legislator. Hillary Clinton carried all four of these districts against Donald Trump in 2016; Democrats probably need to win all four in order to achieve a national House majority in 2018.

National party leaders and interest groups usually prefer experienced candidates as congressional nominees, especially on the Democratic side; political professionals tend to have better name recognition and fundraising ability, and are viewed as less likely to commit damaging mistakes or suffer embarrassing personal revelations over the course of the campaign. In most cases, the DCCC would have first attempted to recruit elected officeholders to run in its top targeted districts, and thus the current raft of less experienced potential nominees represents a kind of "Plan B" for national Democrats. It's possible that some of these candidates will stumble during the long election season ahead, complicating the party's ambitions to regain control of the House. On the other hand, candidates who are not "career politicians" may hold their own distinctive appeal among swing voters, and records of business success or military service are commonly recognized by the American public as more than adequate qualifications in themselves for election to public office.

Due to the larger stable differences between the two parties, it's likely that the next Democratic freshman class will be less rebellious than their Republican predecessors even if it contains a significant proportion of politically inexperienced representatives. But a party leadership that is growing decidedly long in the tooth is unlikely to attract as much collective loyalty from a generation of younger members who are newer to politics as it has received from the fellow congressional senior citizens who have served alongside those leaders for decades. On the first day of the 2019-20 congressional session, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will be 78 years old, her deputy Steny Hoyer will be 79, and third-in-command Jim Clyburn will also be 78. Regardless of what happens this November, the time is nearing for House Democrats to consider the question of succession—and a large and independent-minded class of 2018 would be in position to exert plenty of influence over the party's next direction.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Television President

It's fair to say that Donald Trump owes his political career to the medium of television. It was television that successfully sold Trump to the nation as the personification of American business success—from his frequent appearances on talk shows and newsmagazines in the 1980s and 1990s to his prime-time network reality show that lasted from 2004 until he began running for office in 2015. When Trump turned his attention to conservative politics during the Obama years, Fox News Channel offered him a weekly platform to promote his views. And when Trump threw his hat in the presidential ring, he received far more television coverage than any other candidate. Other politicians, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, have often been recognized for their mastery of television, but only Trump harnessed modern media to leap directly into the White House without working his way up the traditional ladder of subordinate political offices, after-dinner speeches at state party fundraisers, and long days of hand-shaking and small talk at state fairs, train stations, and barbershops.

But public discussions of the relationship between television and Trump have perceptibly reversed course in recent weeks. Rather than emphasize Trump's reliance on television as a tool to reach his supporters, political observers have become preoccupied with television's influence on Trump.

The New York Times reported in December that Trump watches between four and eight hours of TV per day, while Axios revealed this week that the daily presidential schedule tends to be liberally sprinkled with periods of "executive time" during which the executive in question is often alone with his remote control. Trump has defensively denied these and similar claims, but the evidence is clear enough—the various subjects addressed by the presidential Twitter account frequently exhibit a close real-time correlation to the programming of cable news outlets, especially Fox News Channel. When combined with Trump's aversion to reading long memos or sitting through extended oral briefings—Michael Wolff has claimed in his new Trump exposé that White House aides view their boss as "semi-literate" and far too impatient to spend much time in meetings discussing substantive issues—as well as an apparent lack of Internet savvy beyond his beloved Twitter platform, we are left with a portrait of a president who absorbs nearly all his information through the tube.

Naturally, this behavior is treated by his critics as demonstrating Trump's profound personal unfitness for the office he now holds. But such conclusions also reflect the remarkably widespread acceptance of the belief that consuming hours upon hours of television news programming, day after day, still leaves viewers dangerously uninformed about current political events, the functioning of the government, and the state of international affairs—an assumption tacitly acknowledged by Trump's own furious denials of habitual couch potato-dom. If it's indeed true that relying on TV to educate oneself about the world is indeed a formula for perpetual ignorance, surely Trump cannot be the only one who is damningly indicted by this fact.

Television is on the whole pretty bad at covering politics, for reasons that extend from the limitations inherent in the medium to the financial calculations guiding the programming choices of television executives. Above all, television demands eye-catching visual footage—which directs its attention to individuals over institutions, to conflict over cooperation, and to activities that occur in public over those happening out of the camera's view. Compared to print media, television coverage tends to dwell on a small number of "top" stories over the course of a typical day, and its temporal frame of reference is nearly always instantaneous; small tidbits of "breaking" news win out over much more important long-term developments. Analysts and reporters are chosen for their ability to speak extemporaneously in real time—and for their more general polish and camera-friendliness—as much as for their substantive insights, and the perpetual desire to build as wide an audience as possible limits any focus on topics not deemed interesting to the average viewer.

These characteristics produce a fairly consistent set of distortions. Above all, television offers a view of the political world utterly dominated by the day-to-day behavior of the president; any other government official normally attracts a similar volume of coverage only upon the advent of a particularly juicy scandal. The internal operation of Congress is commonly treated as an impenetrable mystery or ignored altogether; judicial and bureaucratic politics seldom merit much attention. Events beyond the borders of the United States similarly receive extensive coverage principally on the occasion of American military action or acts of terrorist violence.

Given the consistently president-centric nature of television's political programming, it's surely understandable that Trump the TV addict has struggled for the entire length of his administration to reconcile the differences between the job he thought he was getting and the one he actually has. Trump has repeatedly chafed against the limitations of the presidency's formal powers, complaining repeatedly that members of Congress, federal judges, Cabinet departments, and even the media themselves don't automatically submit to his personal will. He appears much more engaged in those presidential duties that occur in public view—giving speeches, signing laws and executive orders, joint appearances with foreign leaders—than those relegated to the world off camera (such as substantive meetings and briefings, or the negotiations of legislative provisions). The Times report that Trump "told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals" surely rings true to most observers of his presidency—especially to nervous fellow Republicans who wouldn't mind it too much if the controversial and unpopular chief executive ceded the spotlight every once in a while.

This week, Trump reacted angrily to Wolff's portrayal of him as an emotionally unbalanced ignoramus by proclaiming on Twitter that he was, in fact, a "very stable genius" and "like, really smart." In order to substantiate these assertions, Trump unexpectedly allowed televised access to Tuesday's bipartisan congressional meeting on immigration over which he was presiding. Members of both parties came away from the experience without, shall we say, necessarily reporting more confidence in the president's intellectual acumen or command of policy on his signature issue—but it's a safe bet that Trump has not read the political scientist Richard Neustadt's classic work Presidential Power, which argues that presidential success requires maintaining a positive presidential reputation among other elite actors in the political system.

Instead, Trump claimed today that his appearance before the cameras was a triumphant personal success, based in part on his own consumption of the resulting attention on television: "It was reported as incredibly good [and] got great reviews by everybody . . . phenomenal [coverage] for about two hours . . . a lot of [news] anchors sent us letters saying that was one of the greatest meetings they ever witnessed. . . . I'm sure their ratings were fantastic; they always are." In other words, a very special episode.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Corporations and the Culture War: Op-Ed in the New York Times

I have a new op-ed piece in the New York Times explaining how the culture war has fueled geographic divisions in the American electorate, which in turn has ended up furthering the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations. The analysis draws on the research presented in my recent book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.