Monday, January 16, 2017

Asymmetric Politics on the New Books in Poli Sci Podcast

Matt Grossmann and I are guests on the latest edition of the podcast New Books in Political Science, hosted by Heath Brown of CUNY, to talk about our new book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. The podcast episode is available here or via the usual podcasting channels.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

You Gotta Fight For Your Right...to Write the Obamacare Repeal Bill

The Republican congressional leadership's ambition to begin the process of dismantling Obamacare within days of Donald Trump's ascension to the presidency has hit a snag. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan had previously agreed upon a legislative strategy of immediately enacting a bill that would ostensibly "repeal" much of the Affordable Care Act (via budget reconciliation legislation, which is not subject to filibuster in the Senate) but would delay its effective date of implementation for at least two years in order to give Republicans in Congress time to develop their long-promised alternative health care reform plan.

Now some fellow Republicans are throwing obstacles in their path. Five members of the Senate majority have introduced an amendment that would effectively delay a vote on repeal until March, while a few others have suggested that the ACA should not be repealed until a replacement plan is ready to be enacted in its place. On the House side, members of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus have also threatened to oppose the Republican leadership's budget resolution when it comes up for a vote later this week unless they receive more specific information about the nature and timetable of ACA repeal-and-replace legislation. (Passage of the budget resolution through both chambers is a necessary first step to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to repeal provisions of the ACA.)

We might expect politicians to get a case of political cold feet about the risk of voting to upend the entire health care industry in potentially unpredictable ways, as well as the potential fallout of revoking public benefits from millions of citizens. Otherwise staunch ideological conservatives like Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have objected to the leadership's fast-track approach; it's hardly a coincidence that both senators represent states that have experienced a significant decline in their populations of uninsured residents under the ACA. Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, another state with many ACA beneficiaries, even endorsed the idea that any replacement health care plan should cover more citizens than Obamacare does—a telling concession to the complex political considerations that Republicans now face as they try to square their small-government philosophical predispositions with their electoral survival instincts.

But that can't be the whole story. After all, the House Freedom Caucus is famous for claiming unmatched devotion to conservative principle and for constantly criticizing the Republican leadership from the ideological right. It's hard to envision its members going wobbly on ACA repeal before Trump's term has even begun—especially since they uniformly represent deep red districts with little chance of serious challenge from the Democratic opposition.

What's also going on here is the preliminary round of what may prove to be a significant internal battle within the Republican Party over the legislative specifics of repeal-and-replace. The absence of a party-endorsed replacement plan for Obamacare over the seven years and counting since one was promised by the congressional GOP reflected the difficulties that party leaders faced in uniting Republican members around a single alternative—but this policy void must be filled now that repeal-and-replace has evolved from catchy slogan to legislative agenda. Various key actors within the party will now seek to maximize their leverage over the policy-making process, which often involves threatening or even imposing procedural obstacles to the passage of reform unless and until they gain the opportunity to exert influence over its shape. The Freedom Caucus is not averse to making common cause with Democrats to outvote its own party leadership on the floor of the House, while the small group of Republican senators currently making trouble for McConnell similarly constitute a strategically pivotal voting bloc, given the close margin of party control in the chamber.

Jonathan Chait and Brian Beutler argue that the public maneuvering of the past few days indicates that there probably aren't 51 votes in the Senate to repeal and replace the ACA in anything other than cosmetic fashion. That's true for the moment, though it would be premature to conclude that repeal is doomed to failure. At this stage, it's likely that the senators currently wandering off the leadership reservation are raising public doubts in order to assert control over the reform process rather than to derail it entirely. Tellingly, one of the troublemakers is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who might well be expected to seize an opportunity to establish his own independent authority over both the substantive and procedural content of reform. The relatively pragmatic and policy-minded Alexander will be in the position to argue that the only bill with a prayer of passing the Senate will be one that he writes himself, and that his committee—not the House leadership or the hard-line Tea Party bloc—should therefore take the lead in developing the elusive Republican alternative reform package.

Such claims will not sit well with the Freedom Caucus or other Republican factions, which will use similar tactics in order to seek control of the process for themselves. This fight could get messy, and the current GOP congressional leadership does not have an impressive record of successfully uniting its members in support of ambitious, complex, politically controversial policy initiatives. It's not difficult to imagine large-scale reform ultimately foundering due to unresolvable differences between the House and Senate, or between party pragmatists and conservative purists. Over the past few weeks, as the reality of imminent one-party rule has begun to settle upon Washington, a number of Republican officeholders have begun to acknowledge that "repeal-and-replace" is much more complicated in practice than it might have initially appeared.

However, it's very difficult to gauge the prospects for ACA repeal without further insight into the intentions of the new president. Donald Trump holds unique political influence within his party that he could exploit to crack some heads on Capitol Hill and get a deal done (what Republican member of Congress would want to end up on the wrong side of a presidential Twitter rant?). If Trump identifies ACA replacement as a top priority and devotes the necessary attention and energy to the issue during the first months of his presidency, it would be hard to deny the possibility of legislative success—even if it were followed by significant policy complications that would then invite a popular backlash against Republican politicians.

If he really wants fundamental reform to pass, however, Trump will have to assure congressional Republicans that he won't sell them out. There will be some unavoidable political costs to a true repeal-and-replace approach, and GOP members will need Trump to provide them with political cover by sharing these costs. Right now, they are probably unsure of his loyalty—and, based on his past behavior, they have reason to be. 

What happens when citizens, some of them Trump supporters, begin to complain that he and his party are messing around with their health insurance? Does Trump take responsibility for the policy implications of repeal-and-replace, or does he respond to blowback by disavowing the Republican replacement plan and blaming Congress for any unpopular consequences? It would truly be a political nightmare for congressional Republicans if they were to cast tough votes to repeal the ACA only to have a president of their own party join the chorus of critics.

So far, it doesn't seem as if the incoming president has communicated to congressional Republicans that health care reform is in fact his primary legislative objective, or that he will stand with them politically over the months and even years that will be necessary to see it through to completion. One senator even pleaded with Trump this week to clarify his health care ideas via Twitter—which, though it inspired some mockery, would at least have the advantage of publicly committing the new administration to some specific choices and thus send valuable signals to the Hill about how best to proceed.

ACA repeal isn't dead, but it faces little chance of surviving the arduous legislative process without significant presidential investment. Unless Trump is willing to publicly and privately devote himself to the cause (and assume the corresponding political risks), Congress is unlikely to do the heavy legislative lifting required to enact significant further change to the American health care system. If he wants to claim victory over Obamacare, Trump needs to join the fight.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

How Obamacare Repeal Illustrates Conservatism's Central Challenge

Over the past eight years, the Republican Party has publicly stood for nothing so much as the proposition that the Affordable Care Act—a.k.a. "Obamacare"—is more than just a misguided set of public policies but is in fact a fundamental threat to cherished values. Congressional Republicans have referred to the ACA as a "stunning assault on liberty" that "tramples on the freedoms of Americans" and is itself "un-American"; former party leader John Boehner warned in 2010 that the legislation would cause an "Armageddon" that would "ruin our country." The implementation of the ACA's provisions over the course of Obama's presidency has done nothing to reconcile the GOP to the act's existence nearly seven years after its enactment, and party members have energetically pursued various attempts to overturn or undermine the law—from judicial challenges to state-level Medicaid expansion blockades to the unsuccessful Ted Cruz-led government shutdown maneuver in October 2013.

Soon after the ACA was passed, Republicans collectively adopted a slogan of "repeal and replace"—committing the party to repealing the hated Obamacare while replacing it with a "better" alternative. Republican politicians have not found much success in specifying exactly what that alternative would be, despite repeated promises over the past seven years that the public unveiling of their own detailed health care plan was just around the corner. Even if the GOP's pledge to enact a different version of health care reform represented a clever rhetorical strategy more than a serious policy position, however, it still contained a key implicit concession. By promoting the idea of a superior legislative replacement (however hypothetical it might be), Republican leaders were acknowledging that the central purpose of the law itself—government-initiated expansion of citizen health-care access—was not per se illegitimate, and that revoking the benefits provided by the ACA to millions of Americans by merely ripping out Obama's reforms by the roots was not a politically palatable stance.

With Donald Trump about to assume the presidency, Republican leaders are now considering how best to translate the "repeal and replace" pledge into a concrete legislative program. This has proven difficult. Congressional Republicans understandably wish to satisfy their own ideological commitments (and the demands of their party base) by moving quickly to pass repeal legislation. But without a replacement proposal ready to go, the current strategic plan involves delaying the actual implementation of repeal for two years or more.

In some respects, advocating such a relaxed timetable is a curious position for a party that has previously characterized the ACA as representing a menacing threat to the very future of America itself. But Republicans have found themselves in a genuine political bind. Repealing Obamacare carries substantial political risks for the GOP; voters seldom reward politicians for denying them benefits that they have previously enjoyed, while the health care industry as a whole could experience substantial disruption due to funding cuts and uncertainty about future federal policy. (Even the kick-the-can-into-2019 approach currently favored by Republican congressional leaders could have the effect of unraveling the individual insurance market as early as this spring, if insurers respond by pulling out of the marketplace ahead of schedule.) With unified Republican control of the federal government arriving on January 20, voters would not be confused about which party to blame for any problems that might occur.

The Republican health care dilemma has become a microcosm of the larger challenge faced by the conservative movement for the better part of a century. American conservatives are committed to the ideal of limited government power as a means of protecting individual liberty, and have repeatedly promised to achieve "revolutionary" reductions in the size and role of the federal state. Yet rolling back the scope of government is very difficult in practice, since most of what it actually does—providing benefits to various classes of citizens—is politically popular. Even conservative politicians maintain an instinct for electoral self-preservation that encourages them to assure constituents that nobody will be left worse off by their policy proposals, and some conservatives have been known to support new expansions of federal responsibility, despite their stated small-government principles, as an effective means of appealing to voters.

Thus the increasing electoral success of an increasingly conservative Republican Party over the past 40 years of American politics has yet failed to result in an overall reduction of federal authority. When conservative activists complain that Republican politicians talk a good game about shrinking government but seldom follow through once in office, they have something of a point. As Matt Grossmann and I explain in Asymmetric Politics, much of the GOP's distinctive governing behavior reflects the enduring gap between the American public's general preference for "small government" in the abstract and its collective support for most specific government activities.

Republicans are therefore simultaneously filled with excitement about the prospect of repealing Obamacare—or, at least, passing legislation that can be sold to the party base as repealing Obamacare—and rife with anxiety about being blamed for any unpopular consequences that might ensue. One interested party has recently communicated some concern on this point. In a series of tweets posted on Wednesday, Donald Trump exhorted Republicans to "be careful" to make sure that "Dems own the failed Obamacare disaster" which, he predicted, would "fall of its own weight."

Trump's words reflect a recognition that the "big-government" ACA has served as a highly effective foil for Republicans during the Obama presidency, but that the partisan calculation is likely to change once the GOP assumes sole responsibility for federal policy-making. Politically speaking, it's much easier to continue to rail against the Democrats from the opposition bench than to start fiddling around with people's health insurance in a way that might put one's own party on the defensive. Of course, if Republicans do receive blame for any changes to the American health care system that inspire a popular backlash over the next four years, such blame will be shared by, and even primarily directed at, the next occupant of the White House—even if his substantive role is limited to signing legislation crafted by his fellow partisans on Capitol Hill. The recent Twitter record suggests that such a realization is dawning on said occupant.

It is still very difficult to predict exactly what health care policies will be enacted by the incoming Congress and presidential administration. Most probably, Republicans will successfully rescind some of the ACA's provisions while leaving others at least partially intact. For Democrats who view the legislation as one of their party's most important and hard-won policy achievements, even an incomplete dismantling of the law will be a heavy blow. Yet anything less than total repeal-without-replacement will result in a federal role in the health care realm that will remain larger in 2020 than it was in 2010—rendering the conservative movement's central goal of reducing the government's reach in domestic affairs that much further away from realization.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Forget the '60s—The Real Generation Gap Is Happening Right Now

Since the election last month, we have seen a parade of analyses examining how Clinton supporters differ from Trump supporters along the dividing lines of race, education, and geographic residence. The persistence of partisan differences by age in American elections, however, has received somewhat less attention. Younger voters, who first demonstrated a notable relative preference for the Democratic Party in the 2004 presidential election, swung even further towards the Democrats in the two Obama elections; Obama carried the under-30 vote by 34 points in 2008 and by 23 points in 2012, according to the national exit polls. At the same time, voters over the age of 50 collectively preferred Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney to Obama in both of his successful national campaigns.

Hillary Clinton may have lacked Obama's (and Bernie Sanders's) personal appeal among younger voters, but she still carried the under-30 vote by an 18-point margin over Trump according to the 2016 exit polls, while voters over the age of 45 collectively opted for Trump by 9 points—confirming that the contemporary political generation gap will outlast the Obama era. This is a significant divide by historical standards. None of the 1960s-era elections produced a comparable partisan difference, despite the decade's prominent youth-led protest movements and memorable "don't trust anyone over 30" rhetoric. According to Gallup data, Hubert Humphrey led Richard Nixon in 1968 among voters under 30 by only 9 points, 47 percent to 38 percent, while voters over the age of 50 preferred Nixon by just 6 points (47 percent to 41 percent). So Trump performed about as well among young voters in a two-person contest as Nixon did in a three-way race.

Many of the most prominent political issues of our time include a generational dimension separating the left-leaning young from their more conservative elders. Social issues such as gay rights and drug legalization divide Americans sharply by age. The Affordable Care Act drew its fiercest opposition from the elderly—who already enjoyed Medicare benefits and thus perceived little collective interest in expanding health care access to younger citizens. Climate change is of greater concern to those who stand to inherit the planet than those who rule it today. Democratic candidates frequently tout their plans for enhancing college affordability and access to childcare; Republicans seldom discuss these topics. Conservative efforts to lower federal tax rates on high incomes also stand to primarily benefit older—and disproportionately wealthier—voters.

More broadly, the 2016 election exposed a key divide in the American electorate between nationalism and internationalism, between a preference for traditional social hierarchies and an attraction to new social norms. The themes of cultural nostalgia and alienation adopted by the Trump campaign were particularly primed to appeal to older generations feeling increasingly out of place in contemporary society and preferring a bygone past of perceived American "greatness" defined by a rejection of "political correctness" at home and an adherence to military/economic unilateralism abroad. Just as the Brexit referendum in the UK passed over the opposition of a younger generation of Britons much more at ease with European integration than their parents and grandparents, the oldest incoming president in American history assembled a narrow electoral coalition that is heavily weighted toward his own age cohort—and there's no particular reason to believe that he will govern in a manner that increases his appeal to those who did not support his candidacy. A Pew survey released this week found Trump with a favorable rating of just 24 percent among respondents aged 18-29 and 25 percent among those aged 30-49, compared to 47 percent among 50-to-64-year-olds and 54 percent among the 65-and-over population.

Ronald Reagan's famous "optimism" was to some degree an assured belief that the future belonged to conservatives. A more extensive elucidation of this view, complete with accompanying data, can be found in any number of the essays written by Michael Barone in the 1980s for the Almanac of American Politics. Barone viewed Reagan's electoral success as proof that a majority of American voters had come to recognize the fundamental flaws of liberalism and were acting together to push their country in a rightward direction. The Democrats, according to Barone, were the party of declining central cities, out-of-fashion hippie relics, and Rust Belt anachronism; the Republicans were the party of burgeoning suburbs, private-sector innovators, and Sun Belt futurism. Importantly, in Barone's view, conservatives were winning the hearts and minds of younger Americans, who could be expected to take up Reagan's torch and advance it still further through subsequent decades. As Barone and Grant Ujifusa wrote in the 1990 edition of the Almanac“[t]he young voters of the 1980s, Republican strategists hope, and Democratic strategists fear, will carry their sunny Republicanism into the 2030s and 2040s.”

Young people may still be sunny these days, but Republicanism is decidedly not. The victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama damaged conservatives' confidence that they spoke for an enduring popular majority, and the main conservative objectives of shrinking the size and scope of government, establishing unquestioned American military supremacy abroad, and promoting morally traditionalist attitudes among the American public have all, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, remained unfulfilled in the years since Reagan departed the national stage. When combined with the continuing leftward evolution of American culture in the realms of race, gender, religion, and sexuality, these developments have left many conservatives—including the current president-elect—warning darkly of the imminent destruction of America as we know it, which in turn justifies increasingly aggressive challenges from the right to established political norms and institutions.

Now that it is the Democratic Party that is becoming more Sun Belt than Rust Belt, that is the favored party of revitalized urban metropolises and centers of innovation like the high-tech sector, and that is more attuned to the millennial-generation cultural zeitgeist, older conservatives exhibit a shaken faith in the wisdom of popular majorities. Barone himself has taken to explicitly arguing in favor of the electoral college precisely because it might act—as it did in 2016—to thwart the will of a national plurality that he finds ideologically and demographically uncongenial. Other Republicans have responded to social change by advocating restrictions on access to the ballot that disproportionately affect young and non-white citizens, in order to further tilt the electoral system away from their political opponents.

As the Republican victories of 2014 and 2016 confirm, there is no youth-led "permanent Democratic majority," in part because our electoral rules and institutions tend to provide Republicans with a built-in advantage in close elections. Plus, there are simply lots and lots of baby boomers and pre-boomers, and they vote more reliably than their children and grandchildren. But if the young will respond to Trump's ascendance by resenting the disproportionate political and economic power of the right-leaning old, the old will continue to resent the increasing cultural power of the left-leaning young. The power of the presidency simply does not extend to authority over the national culture, and the institutions that do exert substantial cultural influence—the news media, entertainment industry, educational system, and so forth—can be expected to serve as centers of resistance to Trump and Trumpism. Cultural backlash can be a powerful tool for winning elections, but it's very hard to actually deliver on promises to move an entire society back in time.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump and the Myth of the American Presidency

Most political scientists view the American political system as a dense set of interlocking rules, institutions, and actors that interact in complicated and ever-evolving ways. This web of power derives much of its complexity from the fact that the United States is, distinctively, both a separation-of-powers system and a federal system. Our politics not only encompasses many different independent positions and levels of authority but also provides multiple access points for individuals and groups outside the formal structure of the government—including advocacy organizations, media sources, and mobilized citizens—to exert influence over its operations. Even scholars who devote their careers to studying one element of this system—Congress, courts, voters, interest groups, and so forth—must constantly account for the ways in which their subject of interest is affected by the other components of the system.

American citizens acquire in grade school the familiar factual knowledge that their government has three separate branches and a federalist structure. In practice, however, popular attention to the subject of politics focuses overwhelmingly on the office of the presidency and the individuals who hold it—or who seek it during a drawn-out campaign process that lasts for nearly half of the presidential term. Citizens have invested the presidency with meaning and expectations that far exceed the capacity of even its most resourceful inhabitants to fully satisfy, ignoring both the very real limitations of the president's ability to implement major change and the key roles played by other political actors and by the institutional framework of the constitutional system itself.

The campaign that just concluded only further widened the chasm separating the actual presidency from its role in the American imagination. Popular and media attention focused on the race to the White House to the exclusion of all other electoral competition; candidates for the Senate and other important offices only received national press coverage when they said or did something that related to one or both of the presidential nominees. To a greater extent than any candidate in memory, Donald Trump portrayed the presidency as a position of unrestricted power from which he could not only impose sweeping change on national and world politics—singlehandedly bringing back the steel industry from overseas, building a border wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it—but even reverse unwelcome trends in American culture ("When I'm president, we're going to say Merry Christmas again!")

Hillary Clinton was by contrast relatively cautious about over-promising on policy and keen to avoid appearances of grandiosity, reflecting both her own instincts and her understanding of the limitations of the presidency as well as its power. When discussing this or that political issue, Clinton would frequently pledge if elected to do "everything I can" to address the concerns of her audience—a promise to try rather than a promise to succeed.

Yet Clinton, too, ultimately wound up running a campaign that treated the presidency more as an abstract symbol than a position of executive responsibility. She attempted to benefit from popular disapproval of Trump's personal behavior by arguing that he would be a poor role model for the nation's children and would represent a victory for the forces of bigotry and misogyny. Democrats and Republicans came to share the view that the 2016 election did not merely present a choice between two very different visions for what America should be, but forced the electorate to determine which of two possible futures the nation would indeed have—with one path permanently selected and the other foreclosed.

Since the election less than two weeks ago, the nation has experienced an eruption of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim speech and behavior—all presumably fueled by the perception that Trump's ascension to the presidency represents a larger impending transformation of American society (notwithstanding the narrowness of Trump's victory nor his failure to receive a plurality of the national popular vote). These incidents have not been limited to the Trump-friendly regions of the nation; even those of us who live in the "deep blue" precincts of the metropolitan coasts have experienced the same trend. The presumption behind much of this behavior is that America under Trump will look fundamentally different from America under Obama or (hypothetically) Clinton.

As some of his most ardent supporters envision a wholesale change in the social order, Trump himself has spent the same two weeks reckoning with the limits of the office he is poised to occupy. Evidence has surfaced of a rocky transition process and a president-elect who seems more interested in looking after his business interests and engaging in amateur television criticism than in staffing the executive branch. He has also begun to walk back some of his key campaign promises; anyone actually expecting Trump to immediately begin mass deportations, build a border wall, or throw Hillary Clinton in jail once he assumes office is about to be very disappointed.

Most scholars agree that the modern presidency rewards preparation. The most successful presidents have prioritized hiring highly competent subordinates who share a common policy agenda, have placed them at key positions of power, and have moved quickly to take advantage of the honeymoon period at the start of a new president's term, when his popularity and political influence are usually at their peak. It is not at all clear that Trump is equipped to begin his term in office two short months from now with the institutional capacity of the executive branch running at full speed.

We are left, then, with the prospect of an ever-widening divide between the growing symbolic power of the presidency in the American popular imagination and the stubborn reality that the president is merely one element of a political system that often resists bending to his will. All presidents have chafed against the limitations of the office, but Trump's combination of rhetorical ambition and practical inattentiveness presents a particular challenge to the new administration. The news media, which has contributed greatly to propagating the myth of the all-powerful presidency, will reliably cover American politics for the next four years almost exclusively through a Trump-centered lens, which will have the effect of further magnifying his failures as well as his successes. If the president cannot even claim control over Congress and the bureaucracy, what are his chances of making us all say Merry Christmas every December?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Princeton Podcast on Asymmetric Politics

Yesterday, Matt Grossmann and I talked with Julian Zelizer and Sam Wang of Princeton University about our new book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. You can hear our conversation on the latest edition of their podcast, Politics and Polls.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Podcast Interview

Yesterday I talked to Marc Chavannes of the Dutch podcast The Correspondent about the American elections of 2016. You can listen to our conversation here.