Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Why COVID Was Never Going to Produce National Unity

The presidency of Donald Trump is often treated as if it represents a dramatic new development in American politics, but it's likely that future generations looking back on this time in history will be somewhat surprised, or even amused, by the prevalence of such a view. In many ways, Trump is more interesting, or important, as a fulfillment of existing trends reaching back decades into the past than he is as an innovator in his own right. In retrospect, a Trump-like figure rising to power within the Republican Party can, and probably will, be seen as a completely natural development.

The current historical moment is merely the point at which the barrier previously separating the increasingly-dominant media wing of the American conservative movement from its traditional officeholding wing suffered a serious structural buckle, catapulting many of the media types—with their distinctive preoccupations, motivations, and rhetorical styles—into positions of governing power. Put another way, the Trump administration is more or less a real-life simulation of what would have happened if Rush Limbaugh had been elected president. Journalists and attentive citizens often gasp at this or that example of "unprecedented" Trumpian behavior and marvel that they can't picture Barack Obama—or George W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan—ever saying or doing such a thing. But if the question were instead "can you imagine a President Limbaugh saying or doing that?" the answer is nearly always yes.

Many observers have expressed amazement at how quickly the nationwide public health crisis of COVID-19, itself not inherently an ideological or divisive issue, has evolved to conform to the outline of familiar culture-war conflicts. But to the media outlets that now exercise substantial influence over the national Republican Party, culture war is what politics is all about. In the world that they construct for their audiences, conservatism is in the position of defending America itself against ceaseless attack from Democratic politicians, liberal interests, and a mainstream news media all bent on its destruction or catastrophic transformation. In this constant state of emergency, there is little room to prize non-ideological values such as governing competence or policy expertise, and any form of compromise with the political opposition is tantamount to capitulation.

Even during periods of Republican rule, the content of conservative media programming focuses more on criticizing Democrats and the non-conservative media than on celebrating conservative electoral or governing successes. An emergence of national unity, with the leaders and members of both parties agreeing to implement public policies developed by non-partisan experts to address a widespread threat to the well-being of all citizens, wouldn't just undercut the arguments that liberals are wrong about everything and that government power cannot be leveraged productively for universal benefit. It's even worse than that: what would the conservative media talk about every day?

Trump's own instincts lie in the same direction. Unlike previous leaders of both parties, he ran for the presidency not by vowing to bring the country together but instead by promising constant conflict with an array of perceived enemies inside as well as outside its borders. Intermittent expectations that Trump might seek to "rise above" mere political warfare were thus unrealistic: in his view, the warfare is the whole point. The idea of approaching the current crisis with a bipartisan spirit is as incomprehensible to him as it would be to any Fox News host, and both Fox and the White House have quickly reverted to their common comfort zone of the partisan firing range: questioning the need for social distancing restrictions and even the severity of the disease itself while accusing Democrats, journalists, and scientists of using the crisis as a cover to sabotage the president.

But an important difference remains between officeholding conservatives and media figures: talking heads don't need to win over a plurality of eyeballs to build long and successful careers, but politicians can only stay in power by attracting more votes, whether popular or electoral, than the other side. The all-culture-war-all-the-time attitude is more reliable as a means of building a loyal audience in a splintered media marketplace than as a national campaign strategy. Trump is openly envious of the governors who have received a post-COVID boost in personal approval ratings that has eluded him, but the facts-first, inclusive governing approach that citizens have rewarded across party lines at the state and local level is simply not in his nature to adopt regardless of its potential electoral benefits.

Trump's current situation is reminiscent of the time that ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh to provide commentary on its highly-rated "NFL Countdown" pregame show. Limbaugh's tenure only lasted about a month, ending abruptly after he used his new platform to argue that mainstream sports media analysts were reluctant to criticize the performance of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because McNabb was black. Limbaugh, a lifelong sports fan, undoubtedly recognized what a valuable opportunity he was being provided, and that his new bosses would be expecting him to justify their controversial decision to bring him aboard by showing that he was capable of being more than an incendiary political warrior. But, like Trump, Limbaugh just couldn't help himself once the camera was pointed at him. His life’s purpose is to say these things, and these are the only kind of things he knows how to say.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Weakest Modern Presidency Faces a Pandemic From the Couch

For three years now, political scientists Jonathan Bernstein and Matt Glassman have been arguing that Donald Trump is a historically weak president—probably the weakest of the modern (post-FDR) presidents. This is a contrarian view in some respects. Trump dominates the day-to-day media coverage of politics like no other figure in memory, and even many of his harshest critics often describe him as ruthlessly wielding the power of his office.

But I suspect that this argument will become more popular over time, especially once Trump departs the presidency and is no longer the constant obsession of the political world. Even prior to the current emergency, Trump had rarely been invested in the substantive responsibilities of his office and had never been able to attract sustained popular support for himself or his policies. He has presided over an executive branch whose administrative and political capacity has been constrained by mismanagement, infighting, and a cast of substandard subordinates serving alongside an array of temporary appointees and outright vacancies. While other presidents learned on the job from early mistakes, Trump has seemed incapable of significant growth or adaptation.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed this weakness to public view like no previous event. Other than signing economic aid legislation for citizens and businesses—initiatives that were chiefly negotiated by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and congressional Democrats with little personal involvement by the president—Trump does not appear to be leading an ambitious national response to the epidemic. Governors and other state officials complain of insufficient federal assistance (and even active federal interference). According to recent reporting, Trump is unengaged with the substance of his administration's COVID mitigation efforts: his discursive appearances at task force meetings reveal a limited understanding of relevant subjects when he attends at all, and he spends much of the workday watching cable television.

Trump has angrily disputed these accounts, suggesting that he may be the hardest-working president in history. But the amount of time that he has visibly devoted to complaining on Twitter or holding extended press briefings is evidence enough of where his attention has been directed. Though they were initially assumed to be politically beneficial, the president's daily briefings have only turned out to advertise his limitations, impressing nobody who wasn't already a supporter. It's thus understandable that Trump's post-COVID bump in job approval was both comparatively modest and unusually short-lived.

Unlike the governors and mayors who are earning public support across party lines for their handling of the crisis, Trump seems incapable of understanding that projecting strength requires exhibiting intellectual command of the facts and toning down personal grievances. Rather than learning from experience, he repeats the same mistakes over and over: claiming that the virus will "just go away," touting unproven or nonsensical remedies, and making quickly-falsified predictions about how long the crisis will continue or how many Americans will die. And the president has repeatedly shifted responsibility for solving the problem from himself to state and local officials—quite a departure from the "I alone can fix it" rhetoric of the 2016 campaign.

The fundamental passivity of the president's response to COVID-19 is especially instructive given his normal preoccupation with projecting executive decisiveness, populist sympathies, and Type-A swagger. Trump's desire to comport to the ultimate "strong leader" archetype is indeed powerful, but not so powerful that it can overcome a limited interest in information-gathering, an inability to think strategically over the long term, a lack of mental focus on any subject other than himself, and a general absence of committed energy for the tasks of governing.

All of these traits were visible before COVID came along. But now the demands on this presidency have grown stronger while the president looks less and less comfortable in the job, unable even to mimic the seriousness of purpose that other elected officials have marshaled in the moment. He seems to be hoping that he will wake up one day and the virus will simply be gone—via miracle cure or act of providence—without the need for any dedication or sacrifice on his part. That's admittedly a relatable wish, but it's not how a strong president would act.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Solving the COVID Crisis Requires Bipartisanship, But the Modern GOP Isn't Built for It

American politics is famously polarized these days, but it's hard to envision any solution to the COVID pandemic and associated economic crisis that doesn't require a lot of bipartisan agreement. Democratic and Republican officeholders need to cooperate in order to enact economic aid legislation and other measures designed to ameliorate the effects of the outbreak. Supporters of both parties need to respect the authority of state and local officials to impose restrictions on public gatherings in order to slow the spread of the virus. And the future expiration of these stay-at-home orders will not produce an economic rebound unless Democrats as well as Republicans feel safe enough to resume their normal consumption activities.

As my political science colleague Frances Lee points out in Insecure Majoritiesher excellent book on the modern Congress, breakdowns in bipartisanship often benefit the party out of power, by denying the ruling side the policy achievements and broad popular legitimacy that it would gain from productive cooperation. Tamping down partisan divisions in order to focus on fighting the virus and helping those affected by the deteriorating economy thus especially serves the interest of the Republican Party, the current holder of the presidency. November's election will serve as an unavoidable referendum on President Trump, and citizens' perceptions of his performance in handling the COVID crisis will not only influence the outcome of the presidential race but will extend to congressional and even state-level contests as well.

Under the current circumstances, then, we might expect an incumbent president to pursue a strategy of staying above the partisan fray, reassuring Americans of all political preferences that he was committed to protecting both their health and their wealth from the current threats while finding some common ground with the leaders of the opposition. But Trump's instincts—especially in moments of potential vulnerability—compel him to attack his perceived enemies and ratchet up the general level of conflict. He has even suggested at times that he will condition federal aid to states and localities on the amount of deference he receives from their elected officials. There has been no apparent attempt by his administration to build credibility with the public outside the 45 percent or so of Americans who already like and trust the president.

Trump's personality is what it is. But his combative style is shared by many of his partisan allies. Other major elements of the Republican party network, such as conservative interest groups and the conservative media universe, are increasingly promoting Trump's position that the threat of the coronavirus is exaggerated and that prevailing social distancing restrictions are excessive. Familiar Republican targets—not only Democratic politicians but also scientific experts and the mainstream media—are under fresh attack from an American right that has become suddenly anxious about the president's chances of re-election during conditions of national economic catastrophe.

The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the government or solve specific social problems. So perhaps it shouldn't be shocking that an array of subjects, from what medical treatment might help COVID patients to how important it is to take measures protecting the lives of the elderly, have been drawn into the perpetual political wars. But leading conservative figures like Trump, Sean Hannity, and the Heritage Foundation will find it much easier to persuade existing supporters to take their side in a fight with "liberal" scientists, journalists, and public safety authorities than to win over the American public as a whole.

Republicans need a party-wide reset of priorities. There has seldom been a time in recent political history when daily partisan point-scoring has been rendered more irrelevant. The general election is far enough away that good policy is good politics: the best way for the ruling party to serve its own electoral interests is to work as hard as possible over the next seven months to render COVID manageable and prevent economic freefall. The widespread public confidence that will be necessary for "normal life" to resume simply can't be jawboned back into existence via daily press conferences, radio broadcasts, or Fox News monologues. If Republicans lose the battle with the coronavirus, they won't have much of a chance to win the fight against liberalism.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Sanders Was a Big Step Forward for Leftism—But Where Does It Go From Here?

Bernie Sanders officially suspended his 2020 presidential campaign on Wednesday, choosing not to contest the Democratic primaries all the way to the end of the calendar as he had done in 2016. It may seem in retrospect as if Sanders's second campaign was less successful than his first, since his support fell below its 2016 level in every state that voted after Super Tuesday and he dropped out of the race much sooner this time around. Yet Sanders achieved something important in 2020 that he never did four years ago: a temporary status as the favorite for the nomination during the two-and-a-half weeks between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, before Joe Biden's sudden resurgence blocked his path. It's likely that Sanders's two presidential bids, taken together, represent an important milestone in American politics. But it's impossible to know right now how important they will turn out to be.

After each of his candidacies, some analysts confidently declared that Sanders—despite his present-day defeats—nevertheless represents the future of the Democratic Party. This blog has consistently been skeptical of that argument, and it remains so today. Even if Sanders had managed to win the 2020 race, it would have been a testament to the complexities and contingencies of multi-candidate nomination politics more than the expression of a fundamental shift in the preferences of Democratic voters. And if Sanders had gone on to lose the general election to Donald Trump, there would have been substantial backlash within the party against his brand of politics.

Sanders found more success running for president than many people anticipated—and more success than any left-wing candidate achieved since Jesse Jackson, if not George McGovern. But as these historical parallels suggest, temporary breakthroughs do not inevitably lead to long-term transformations. Sanders has given leftism (a word I use in a non-pejorative sense to distinguish Sanders-style politics from the conventional Obama-Biden liberalism now prevailing within the Democratic mainstream) its best opportunity in at least a generation to establish itself as a persistently influential force in American politics, even if it remains unlikely to succeed in remaking the entire Democratic Party in its own image. But opportunities can be squandered, and they often have been before.

Sanders's most obvious contribution to the leftist cause is demonstrating that millions of Americans can be mobilized to support—and support passionately, with generous financial contributions—a political candidate who identifies himself as a socialist and who advocates a comprehensively left-wing set of issue positions that would, especially in the economic realm, represent a break from the thrust of American policy-making over at least the past 40 years. He diverted the attention of activists on the left who have often remained aloof from electoral politics to the potential benefits of seeking power through that means. And he (very sensibly) used the vehicle of a major party to do so, illustrating the self-defeating pointlessness of leftism's previous third-party dalliances by winning nearly four times as many total votes in one-and-a-half nomination contests as the Green Party has won over the past six general elections.

Sanders also introduced new or long-absent policy positions into the realm of public debate. Whether or not student debt forgiveness, a federal jobs guarantee, or six months of paid family leave are ever implemented in the United States, the necessary first step toward enactment is for a candidate to build a campaign around them. A political journalistic class that does not naturally welcome discussions of economic inequality and fairness has been compelled by Sanders's campaigns to acknowledge these subjects to a much greater degree than it did in preceding decades.

But Sanders also exposed some of the continued political weakness of American leftism even in a moment of relative triumph, so it's worth considering what else would need to happen for his candidacies to become the start of a larger revolution (as it were). Simply pointing at the age distribution of Sanders's support and claiming that the left wing can just wait to inherit the Democratic Party from its more moderate elders isn't very convincing. At any given historical moment, lefties can be prone to assuming that the enthusiasm of youthful activists for their cause is a sign that popular victory is just around the generational corner, but it's worth considering how many baby boomers who were marching in the streets in the 1960s and 1970s aged to become supporters of Joe Biden—or, for that matter, of Donald Trump.

While Sanders did much to promote the idea that left-wing politics could be productively advanced within the institutional framework of the Democratic Party, he did not entirely resolve—and, in some ways, even exacerbated—the tension between corners of the activist left and the party as it now exists. Sanders's refusal to officially become a Democrat himself, combined with his rhetorical attacks on the "Democratic establishment," meant that he couldn't speak of the party as a "we" rather than a "they," which contrasted with other leaders (such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) whose policy views overlap with Sanders but who present themselves as heirs to the left's lineage within the Democratic Party rather than outside it.

For those on the left who disdain the Democratic name, this separation was a major reason why Sanders was preferable to alternatives like Warren. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders ran better among political independents than among self-identified Democrats. Some of his most prominent and devoted public supporters, and even campaign staff members, have histories of open antagonism to Democratic leaders and organizations. But increasing the appeal of leftist politics within the Democratic electoral base in the future will require courting citizens who are loyal to the party and proud of its history—such as the black voters whose lack of support for Sanders proved decisive in both of the last two elections. The modern conservative movement gained control of the Republican Party not by dismissing the GOP's heritage but by claiming it for itself. Yet analogous actors on the left have been much more likely to criticize the Democratic leadership from outside the tent, limiting their persuasive power over those inside.

Another question still unanswered at this stage is whether momentum on the left will survive the end of Sanders's own national candidacy. Sanders is famous for his lack of interest in promoting or even talking about himself, but insurgent or upstart presidential campaigns often wind up presenting their candidates as political saviors who have arrived on the scene to personally cure the nation's ills, and—as with Obama and Trump before him—Sanders has indeed become such a figure, treated by some admirers as the only honest man in politics. Both Sanders campaigns styled themselves as a "movement," but can this movement extend beyond Sanders, his current activist supporters, and a handful of backbench allies in the House of Representatives?

One might be tempted to compare Sanders to Barry Goldwater, whose own unsuccessful presidential candidacy laid the groundwork for later transformational change, but the modern conservative movement was already much larger than one candidate or campaign by the time of Goldwater's 1964 nomination, and only two years after his general election defeat it elected its ultimate embodiment, Ronald Reagan, to be governor of the nation's largest state. Sanders has been a very effective spokesperson for his cause, but he does not seem to be a natural institution-builder, and an enduring political movement or party faction needs renewable capacity beyond the intermittent mobilization of quadrennial presidential campaigns. Here, as elsewhere, the conservative movement's ability to draw steady financial and structural support from business interests and wealthy patrons has given it an advantage that is difficult to replicate on the left.

The Sanders campaign was also ultimately hampered by another common impediment of left-wing politics: strategic and tactical deficiencies. Lefties can easily fall into the habit of waging campaigns in the political world as they wish it to be, not in the world as it is. They may also avoid practices that they consider unseemly, even if they might be effective. Post-mortem accounts of the Sanders operation describe flawed or absent polling, considerable strategic rigidity, and a candidate disinclined to reach out to other political figures who would have been in position to help him win. (The Warren campaign also seems to have been organized around the idea that relying on pollsters and professional consultants to make major decisions was somehow beneath its dignity and therefore to be resisted.) Romanticizing the noble defeat is a long-standing tradition on the American left, but it has undeniable practical drawbacks if the goal is to gain and hold political power.

Sanders has already left a mark on aspects of the Democratic policy platform, and he will almost certainly be credited in coming years with drawing a generation of activists into the political arena. Rather than exerting a transformative effect on the party as a whole, a more invigorated left wing is—if it can sustain its energy over the long term—more likely to act as one among many constituencies tugging on Democratic leaders to prioritize its particular concerns. Though such a development would fall well short of some supporters' revolutionary ambitions, it would be still a fairly impressive legacy for a second-place campaign to leave behind.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Time Passes Slowly Under COVID—So the Political World Should Adjust Accordingly

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect daily life in the United States, it has distorted the nation's collective sense of time. Many people have observed in the last few days how long the month of March 2020 seemed to last; the events of its first week, such as Joe Biden's electoral success on Super Tuesday and the withdrawals of Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren, now seem to have occurred in a long-distant era. This makes psychological sense: the world has fundamentally changed, that change is highly unpleasant and anxiety-provoking (if time flies when we're having fun, it crawls when we're miserable), and the measures imposed to control the spread of the virus confine most of the population to a limited set of spaces, activities, and companions.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of this development is its exacerbation of the American political class's existing preoccupation with immediate daily or even hourly developments at the expense of long-term perspective. The disinclination to think beyond the moment at hand has been a signature characteristic of the Trump presidency from its first day of existence, and the serious risks and dangers that accompany this aversion to planning and foresight have become excruciatingly obvious in the current crisis. Repeatedly dismissing the coronavirus as a non-threat or even non-issue in the early weeks of the pandemic may have fleetingly avoided spooking the press, the public, or the markets, but in retrospect it seems like a tragic error in both policy and political terms.

Trump's habit of governing with eyes fixed on the daily rhythms and pet subjects of television news coverage is commonly framed as an indictment of him, though it's equally an indictment of television news coverage. And social media, though it can do a better job of disseminating information than the average cable talking head-fest, operates with an even greater degree of transience. The emergence of the COVID-19 epidemic has only magnified this moment-to-moment mentality.

Rather than directing all of its energies towards developing and implementing an aggressive federal policy response, the White House has succumbed to the temptation to treat the pandemic as a public relations problem that needs a public relations solution (to paraphrase a previous president mischaracterizing his own presidency-defining crisis). Its daily press conferences are organized less to provide useful facts to the public than to allow Trump to engage in personal credit-claiming and subordinates or allies to bestow additional credit on him. Inevitably, these events attract considerable media attention, which just as inevitably provokes frustrated liberals to blast journalists for providing Trump positive publicity and allowing him to spread misinformation—even as Trump himself uses the platform to lob attacks at disfavored reporters. Meanwhile, in a particularly silly testament to the growing political time warp now in effect, a few days spent out of public view turned out to be long enough for a coalition of journalists, Republicans, and Bernie Sanders supporters to treat Joe Biden as if he had virtually forfeited the 2020 election.

The Trump administration, its opponents on the left, and its targets in the media have become locked in a cycle of perpetual mutual obsession that has not proven healthy for anyone concerned. Despite their many conflicts, all of these actors share the view that there's usually nothing more important than today's news. But the coronavirus does not abide by the same rules of time. It may have seemed to arrive quickly, but it is not likely to depart quickly. And so it renders the day-to-day preoccupations of the political world even more peripheral than usual.

In general, the rhetoric of political leaders, the testimony of scientific experts, and the coverage of media sources have done an increasingly effective job of persuading citizens of the potentially catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on both public health and the national economy. But there has been less open acknowledgement of the sheer length of time that it may take for daily life to approach relative normality. Trump, of course, went so far as to suggest last week that public institutions could reopen by Easter, for which he received considerable criticism before retreating from this timeline in recent days.

But even the University of Washington's frequently-cited projections of future infection and mortality frequencies, as foreboding as they may be in forecasting imminent emergency in much of the country, take on a reassuring bell-curved shape with the patient caseload declining rapidly in May, reaching minimal levels by mid-summer. However, these estimates assume the indefinite maintenance of maximal social distancing practices. It's likely that crisis conditions will continue until a vaccine or major treatment breakthrough arrives, and rules governing access to public spaces will need to reflect the ongoing presence of the threat. How can anything close to normal life resume before the virus is eradicated or the effects of infection become manageable?

For those who have found the last two or three weeks to be slowly-paced, the prospect of months or even years of continued restrictions—as casualties mount and the economy deteriorates—may seem hard to contemplate. But that's why the attention of politicians, journalists, and citizens alike should be trained squarely on potential paths to long-term solutions (or, at least, long-term ameliorations) rather than getting caught up in momentary dramas. If Trump indeed cares more about his own re-election chances than anything else, as many detractors charge, it's still true that his path to a second term runs through winning a war on the virus, not the daily news cycle.

Even analysts who are focused on the November election need to remind ourselves that seven months is a very long time in politics (seven months ago, for example, the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump's impeachment had yet to surface), and the next seven months will feel especially long. We all might as well settle in as best as we can, because we're going to be stuck here for a while.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Four Reasons to Be Cautious About Trump's Approval Ratings

Ever since the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis began to accelerate a couple of weeks ago, political obsessives have wondered about the likely effect that it would have on President Trump's job approval ratings—and, by extension, his chances of re-election in November. The few surveys that have been conducted over the past week or two don't show any dramatic movement—the FiveThirtyEight model currently estimates Trump's national approval at 43 percent, which is more or less where he's been since the end of the government shutdown in February 2019. But the lack of any apparent decline, combined with recent surveys that showed more respondents endorsing Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak than disapproving so far, have inspired some analysts to argue that the president may actually be benefiting politically from the crisis at the expense of the Democratic opposition.

Perhaps that's true. But realistically, it's far too soon to glean much about either the American public's ultimate response to Trump's management of the pandemic or its implications for the upcoming election. Here are four good reasons to exercise some patience before jumping to conclusions:

1. Political leaders' popularity often rises temporarily after the onset of a crisis. Political scientists call this pattern the "rally effect," and it's been documented many times over decades of history; most dramatically, George W. Bush's job approval shot up from about 50 percent to about 90 percent virtually overnight after the events of September 11, 2001. There are several plausible factors contributing to this phenomenon: citizens close psychological ranks around their national leaders in a moment of uncertainty and fear; they evaluate these figures on different criteria than they did before the crisis erupted; and the normally critical opposition party (sometimes) mutes its attacks on the incumbent. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte have enjoyed spikes in popularity during the current coronavirus outbreak, despite (especially in Italy's case) substantial national dislocation and tragedy.

But these popularity bumps fade with time. Either the crisis is soon resolved and citizens turn their attention to other things, or it is not, in which case they start to grow impatient with the effectiveness of their leader. The 2020 general election is still far enough away that even if Trump were to benefit from the rally effect in the short term, it wouldn't be a very reliable signal of his popularity more than seven months in the future.

2. Americans are still learning about the severity and likely duration of this crisis. National journalists are closely following each development of the coronavirus outbreak; most also live in places like New York and Washington where daily life has already been dramatically changed. But large sections of the country aren't as strongly affected so far, and the less obsessively attentive typical resident of middle America will not have experienced the same degree of disruption. Many Americans are presumably still unaware of the probable length of time before things get visibly better, much less return to normal—for example, while it seems quite apparent based on the trajectory of infection that many public school systems that are now closed are unlikely to reopen before the end of the academic year three months from now, few state authorities have yet acknowledged as much in public. Citizens who anticipate that the crisis will only last a matter of a few weeks may see little reason at this point to re-evaluate their opinions about the president, but they may start to feel differently if the inconvenience persists for longer than they first assumed.

3. Americans already have strong opinions about Trump, and most of them disliked him before the crisis. Trump has never consistently exceeded 50 percent job approval as president even during three previous years of relative peace and prosperity. His approval rating among Democrats has seldom reached double digits—it stood at 7 percent in the last Gallup survey—and his approval among independents (as measured by Gallup) has generally stayed between 35 and 40 percent for most of his presidency. The only way that his popularity could fall much further would be for elements of his remaining base—consisting almost entirely of habitual Republican voters—to become disenchanted with his performance, but these citizens are unusually resistant to changing their minds about him. Their partisan alignment means that they are already predisposed to support a Republican president, they are prone to discount criticism from Democrats and mainstream journalists, and they are disproportionately exposed to Trump-friendly messages from conservative media sources.

The good news for Trump is that he may be spared significant erosion in his popularity by the strong loyalty of his fellow partisans. But a steady approval rating could also be a problem, because he's already in a vulnerable position heading into re-election and is consistently running behind likely opponent Joe Biden in national polls. Even if the crisis were merely damaging enough to prevent Trump from boosting his public support by November, that itself might turn out to be a decisive factor in the election.

4. It's not the virus, it's the economy (stupid). The most worrying component of this crisis for the Trump administration and re-election campaign isn't the spread of COVID-19 itself and the casualties that it leaves in its wake. Instead, it's the larger impact on the economy. While the specific quantitative estimates of current forecasting models should be treated with skepticism in such an unprecedented and fast-moving environment, it seems inevitable that there will be a sudden and catastrophic economic shock that will at least temporarily push the U.S. into a recession.

Trump and his supporters will argue, with justification, that it would be unfair to blame him for the economic misery that a worldwide pandemic is poised to inflict on the nation. But voters tend to reward presidents for good economic times and punish them for bad times regardless of the incumbent's actual responsibility for either outcome. It wouldn't be surprising if Trump's popularity remained stable or even rose a bit over the next few weeks during (presumably) the strictest anti-COVID remediation measures, only to decline later in the year once the larger consequences, especially declining income and employment, became more visible to average citizens. He therefore has every reason to wish not only for a shallower economic plunge than most analysts now foresee, but also for a historically rapid national rebound once the worst is over.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Nelson W. Polsby's Analysis of Presidential Nominations Still Applies After 37 Years

Today at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, I reflect on the continued relevance of Nelson W. Polsby's 1983 book Consequences of Party Reform for the events of the last several weeks. The media-driven ups and downs of the Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 election illustrate the enduring insights of Polsby's research, as does his newly-resonant concern that excluding party leaders from playing a central role in selecting nominees increases the risk of electing a president who is unable to meet the expectations and challenges of the office.