Tuesday, January 19, 2021

In the End, the Trump Presidency Was a Failure on Its Own Terms

The most surprising political development of the 21st century was that Donald Trump became president of the United States. The least surprising development was that he turned out to be bad at the job.

Evaluating presidential performance can be difficult. Some presidents' qualities only become clear long after they leave office, as previously unknown information comes to light and the revelations of history render their decisions more or less justified than they seemed at the time. Ideological predispositions inevitably color our views of political figures, who sometimes rise or fall in retrospective estimation as subsequent intellectual trends shift the grounds on which they are judged—like the renewed emphasis in recent years on the importance of civil rights that has bolstered the reputation of U. S. Grant among presidential scholars while damaging that of Woodrow Wilson. And there is no consensus, even among experts, on what the responsibilities of the president are and what standards are appropriate to determine success in office.

Regardless of these challenges, the general verdict on Trump among historians and political scientists, reporters and commentators, and most of the Washington political community (including, at least privately, many Republicans) is guaranteed to range from disappointment and mockery to outright declarations that he was the worst president in American history. And there is little reason to expect that the information yet to emerge about the internal operations of the Trump administration will improve his reputation in the future. Instead, it's far more likely that there are stories still to be told about the events of the last four years that history will find just as damning as today's public knowledge.

Trump's defenders will respond that the scholars and journalists who claim the authority to write this history are fatally corrupted by hostile bias. It's certainly true that these are collectively left-leaning professions, and that the Trump presidency treated both of these groups as political opponents from its earliest days. So what if we tried for a moment to give Trump the benefit of the doubt by attempting to evaluate his presidency as much as possible on its own terms? Did Trump succeed in achieving what he wanted to do, even if it wasn't what others wanted him to do?

One approach to answering this question involves returning to the 2016 campaign and comparing the positions of Trump the candidate to the record of Trump the president. Trump did deliver on some of his promises once in office: he cut taxes and regulations, he strengthened barriers to immigration and travel from overseas, and he appointed a large number of conservatives to the federal judiciary. But his signature proposals were never enacted, including the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, the significant renegotiation of international trade agreements, a major federal infrastructure investment, and a wall spanning the nation's southern border funded by the Mexican government.

There was also a more general set of failures that didn't concern specific policies as much as a basic approach to the job. While a candidate in 2016, Trump presented himself as an energetic deal-maker who would fight harder than his predecessors in both parties for the interests of the American people. But he turned out to be much less invested in his official responsibilities than in spending his daily "executive time" watching cable television and his weekends playing golf; he was sufficiently self-conscious about this lack of work ethic to inelegantly deny it in public ("President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings") but not to actually alter his behavior. 

Trump's pre-election suggestions that he would attract an all-star team of executive personnel to join the government similarly stood in sharp contrast to the actual staff of his administration, which was by some distance the least qualified and talented group of subordinates assembled by any modern president of either party. (And many key positions were filled by acting appointees or were simply left vacant for months and even years.)

With Trump's evident lack of interest in substantive details, his instinct for combativeness (a universally-acknowledged personal quality which many of his supporters admired), and his apparent difficulties in grasping the motivations of others, the promised knack for deal-making never materialized either. Both major legislative achievements of his presidency—the 2017 tax cut bill and the two rounds of COVID relief in 2020—were, by all accounts, developed and enacted with minimal direct involvement by the president. When Trump did insert himself in legislative negotiations in late 2018 and early 2019 by demanding that Congress approve funding for his border wall, the result was a prolonged government shutdown and subsequent retreat after Senate Republicans abandoned their support for his position.

Of course, politicians occasionally have been known to make promises on the campaign trail that they do not expect to keep if elected. Maybe it's inaccurate to treat public commitments in the midst of a tough electoral race as evidence of a president's true goals. So, based on the actions of the Trump administration once it began, what can we conclude about what it wanted to do and whether it succeeded in doing it?

The primary animating force of the Trump presidency, the juice that fueled the president and his subordinates every day, was the waging of a permanent political war against an array of perceived enemies. The Democratic Party was one such enemy—this was by far the most thoroughly partisan presidency in memory—but hardly the only one. The news media, career bureaucrats, intellectuals and educators, the entertainment industry, and any insufficiently supportive Republican were all dependable targets.

This war was unrelenting, but achieved few victories outside the bounds of the Republican Party (where Trump's influence and threats were most effective at punishing dissenters). Trump's critics spent the past four years feeling sad, angry, offended, and even fearful about the potential destruction of American democracy. But it's hard to make the case that their political or cultural power was weaker at the end of his presidency than it was at the beginning.

Trump succeeded in preventing Hillary Clinton from leading the country, but he wound up empowering Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer instead. He railed against liberal elites who predominate within social institutions like universities, media organizations, and technology companies, but his time in office only saw a continued progression of leftward cultural change in American society and a parallel departure of highly-educated voters from the Republican Party. The conservative intellectual project has not suffered as much damage in many decades as it did over the past four years; conservative thinkers and writers were internally divided into pro- and anti-Trump factions, were exposed as holding a limited ability to speak for the conservative mass public, and were deprived by Trump's behavior of a precious claim to moral superiority over the left. And the fact that the Trump administration is leaving office complaining of being "silenced" and "canceled" by a multi-platform social media ban imposed on its leader is evidence enough of its lack of success in gaining influence over the tech sector.

A final, inadvertantly-acknowledged testimony to the failure of the Trump administration was its prevailing communication style. Both the outgoing president and his succession of spokespeople stood out for two distinctive traits: a lack of commitment to factual accuracy and a perpetually grouchy demeanor. The typical public statement from this White House was a misleading claim delivered with a sarcastic sneer. Of course, no member of the administration would admit on the record that the Trump presidency was anything less than a parade of unparalleled triumphs. But it doesn't make sense to lie so much unless the truth isn't on your side, and there's no good reason to act so aggrieved all the time if you're really succeeding as much as you claim.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Two Weaknesses Exposed on Capitol Hill

The most prevalent conspiracy theory within the Republican Party, promoted for decades by many of its elected officials and opinion leaders, holds that the Democratic opposition regularly steals elections via organized plots of fraudulent balloting and ballot-counting. On Wednesday, January 6, this theory took human form and broke down the doors and windows of the U.S. Capitol in Washington as the officers of the American government fled in fear for their safety, and even their lives.

It's impossible to know for sure how many Republicans actually believe these claims of widespread Democratic voter fraud, how many do not, and how many land somewhere in the middle. But even those who are not sincere adherents can find conspiracy theories to be quite useful. For decades now, accusations and insinuations of electoral dishonesty have accompanied Republican resistance to Democratic initiatives aiming to lower the administrative burdens of voting, and have justified the imposition of voter identification requirements at polling places in a number of states. (Both parties tend to believe, accurately or not, that measures making it easier to vote work to the advantage of Democratic electoral fortunes.)

The results of the 2020 presidential contest supplied even more reasons for Republicans to promote stories of a stolen election. This claim could provide a psychologically satisfying explanation for why a president whom many conservatives admire to the point of hero worship nevertheless failed to win a second term in office. It could allow other figures in the party to demonstrate their solidarity with the president in question, who is well-known for demanding regular gestures of personal loyalty. And it could fuel a simmering anger among conservative voters at the supposed illegitimacy of the incoming president, which could helpfully stimulate high engagement and turnout in future elections.

But when a large population of citizens is told repeatedly by authorities they trust that political power is being improperly seized by a nefarious cabal, many will naturally start to think that they should do something drastic to stop it. And so whatever strategic cleverness might have inspired the repeated promotion of this and other conspiracy theories has been abruptly joined this week by what might be euphemistically called the corresponding downside risk.

The past five years have been especially valuable in revealing where power within the Republican Party does and doesn't reside. Republican members of Congress enjoy substantial internal influence in certain areas: they largely controlled the party's legislative agenda and shaped much of the policy-making during the tenure of the outgoing administration. But in the realm of rhetoric and communication, of speaking for their party and guiding its members, congressional Republicans are clearly at the mercy of a conservative media apparatus that has achieved the ability to dictate what the Republican Party should and shouldn’t publicly stand for.

If being a true conservative requires refusing to deny that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by treacherous Democrats, then Republican politicians will, regardless of their private views, be reluctant to defend the integrity of the electoral system, will support the disenfranchisement of voters from multiple states merely on the basis of improbable claims and rumors dismissed in courts of law by judicial appointees of both parties, and will pile on to demand the resignation of a fellow Republican elected official who was baselessly accused of mismanaging the administration of his state’s election once it became clear that the Democrats had narrowly won there.

The personal calculation at play here is obvious enough, and politicians of both parties can be expected to protect their own interests. But what do these acts add up to, in the end, if not the willful spreading of untruth, and the cession of massive national power to a set of voices who hardly even claim to prize or reward anything more than victory over their political adversaries? Recent events raise the question of whether the inarguable failure of security forces to defend the Capitol has been mirrored by an equally damaging weakness of responsible leadership from those who are supposed, at least some of the time, to lead. Can our form of government count on faithful protection from its stewards regardless of the partisan winds of the moment? Or are civic values, like the buildings that so often symbolize them, vulnerable to being smashed to pieces by those angry that they lost the last fight?

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Why So Many Conservatives Believe the 2020 Election Was Stolen

It was easy to predict before the 2020 election that Donald Trump would never personally acknowledge that he lost fairly, if indeed he were to lose. This expectation was apparent enough from any casual observation of Trump's behavior over his entire career in public life. Trump had even made accusations of widespread illegal voting in 2016, immediately after his surprising electoral success, so there was little reason to wonder whether he would dismiss the validity of any contest in which he was actually defeated.

What's become clear in the weeks following the vote is that this view is spreading widely within the Republican Party. A Monmouth University poll found that 77 percent of Trump supporters believed that Joe Biden's victory was due to fraud. Lawsuits and protests in multiple states have sought to overturn the results of the election or visit revenge on the officials responsible for counting the votes. Attuned to the winds blowing within their party, most Republican members of Congress either openly deny that Biden is the rightful president-elect or simply refuse to explicitly acknowledge Trump's defeat, a play-it-coy strategy that is reminiscent of many Republican elected officials' treatment of the "birther" conspiracy theory during the Obama administration.

In a provocative recent piece, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative critic of Trump, confirmed the popularity of the stolen-election theory on the American right—even among those whom he describes as "people I would not have expected to embrace it." Searching for explanations for this development, he not only lays responsibility on Trump's own claims and those of the president's vocal allies in the conservative media, but also describes a pre-existing skepticism of bureaucratic, academic, and journalistic institutions fueled by the underrepresentation of conservatives within their ranks. This perceived exclusion, Douthat argues, naturally encourages an anti-authority mentality on the right that easily leads to a search for alternative forms of knowledge—or "knowledge"—fulfilling a psychological demand for challenging the official accounts of emotionally unwelcome events. In other words, the very insistence of the "liberal media" and "liberal experts" that Trump was unambiguously defeated in a fair election is breeding a kind of reflexive resistance to the idea among those who distrust these traditional sources of information.

The dynamic that Douthat describes is likely an important part of the story. But there's another reason for the appeal of claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump that draws a bit more on conservatives' own long-held working theories of electoral politics.

The landslide victories of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s convinced many conservatives that there was no tradeoff between ideological purity and popular success—to the contrary, that an unambiguous embrace of the conservative cause brought reliable electoral reward. Subsequent Republican losses in presidential elections have often been explained away as cases when the party was rejected by the electorate after straying from its true ideological path, thereby reducing the participatory enthusiasm of the Republican base while causing other voters to lose respect for the GOP's wavering devotion to its own supposed principles. This view cites George H. W. Bush's loss in 1992 after violating the "no-new-taxes" pledge that he was elected on four years before; the Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 after the George W. Bush administration deviated from small-government doctrine on domestic policy; and the back-to-back defeats of John McCain and Mitt Romney, both dismissed in retrospect as imperfectly loyal standard-bearers for the conservative movement.

Had Trump also lost in 2016, conservatives could have easily explained his defeat without revising this theory; simply pointing in the direction of Trump's politically inconsistent personal history and various rhetorical heterodoxies during the campaign would have allowed them to claim that he, too, failed because he wasn't a faithful enough conservative. But once elected, Trump began to preside over a strongly ideological administration that quickly and enduringly achieved both the committed support of leading conservative media figures and a remarkable, arguably unmatched degree of mobilized passion within the Republican popular base. If Republican presidential candidates only lose when they turn their back on conservatism and disappoint their own party's grassroots supporters, Trump's presidency seemed like it was custom-built to avoid such a fate.

On top of this, the belief that voter fraud is a serious problem in American elections, and that it is perpetrated in particular by liberal Democrats in big cities, has long been prevalent among conservatives. For years before the 2020 election, this claim has been used to justify the passage of voter ID laws and other restrictive measures by Republican-controlled state legislatures despite the absence of hard evidence substantiating it.

Even without Trump's own accusations further stirring the pot, then, the situation was ripe in 2020 for many conservatives to believe that the only way the president could lose would be through a fraudulent election, and that Democrats had both the means and the inclination to commit such fraud. The narrow popular margins in pivotal states, the record amount of mail-in voting, the late reporting of urban vote piles, and the victory of an opponent (Biden) whom few conservatives view as a particularly wily or charismatic adversary all serve as additional fodder for this conspiratorial thinking, but it would probably have spread after a loss of any size or scope. Rather than revisit decades of assumptions about the administration of, and dynamics of vote choice in, American elections, it is psychologically easier to simply conclude that any defeat of a conservative popular hero must have been rigged by unscrupulous liberals.

Partisans on both sides are susceptible to conspiracy theories in the wake of political disappointment; claims of biased voting machines circulated for a time among Democratic supporters in the wake of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, for example. But most Democrats subscribe to foundational assumptions that, though they may also be factually incorrect at times, allow for the possibility of electoral defeat that is at least legally—if perhaps not morally—legitimate. Rather than assert outright theft, they more commonly accuse Republicans of cynically exploiting popular prejudices or riding waves of corporate cash to victory, or blame their own side's candidates and advisors for blowing the race through strategic incompetence. (Even the 2020 results, by no means a total failure for Democrats, have inspired plenty of internal recriminations.) Conservatives, by contrast, are more likely to assume that a valid Republican defeat must be the electorate's punishment for the sin of ideological impurity. If Trump gave the American public the steadfast conservatism it supposedly craves, it's emotionally satisfying for them to conclude that maybe the voters didn't actually intend to end his presidency after all.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Three Big Benefits That Trump Provides to Republican Politicians

One widespread assumption of the last four years has held that most Republican members of Congress and other top elected officials privately disdain Donald Trump, view him as a serious political liability foisted on them by misguided voters, and would just as soon be rid of him forever as the leader and dominant personality of their party. This view unites liberals whose own hatred of Trump is so strong that they presume it simply must be widely shared (even by Mrs. Trump), anti-Trump conservatives who insist on maintaining a sharp distinction between Trump and the rest of the GOP, and journalists who have often seen Republican politicians roll their eyes at, or complain on background about, various Trump-related antics.

But the events of the past two weeks confirm that anti-Trump sentiment is by no means widespread among the national Republican leadership. Congressional Republicans have hardly used the opportunity of Trump's electoral defeat to put his presidency behind them. In fact, they have done little to dispel, and in some cases have openly promoted, Trump's own claims that the election was illegitimately decided—even though the acceptance of such beliefs among Republican voters makes it more likely that Trump retains his hold on the party for at least another four years, potentially culminating in a third consecutive presidential nomination in 2024.

The burdens that Trump hangs on his fellow partisans are obvious and well-chronicled. But he also provides some valuable benefits to other Republican politicians that aren't as widely appreciated. Here are three important ways in which Trump keeps many of them satisfied with, and even enthusiastic about, his continued leadership of the party:

1. Ideology. Everybody remembers how little support Trump received from Republican officials when he first ran for president in 2015 and 2016. But a fair amount of that opposition wasn't really based on a moral objection to Trump the man, as has been made clear in retrospect. Instead, it reflected Republican worries that Trump would be an unelectable nominee or that he couldn't be trusted to uphold conservative ideology. Both concerns were soon alleviated: Trump was indeed elected president, and he quickly proceeded to lead the most consistently conservative administration in nearly a century. Whereas even George W. Bush, once a national conservative hero, occasionally pushed his partisan allies in Congress to support ideologically impure legislation (the No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare Part D, comprehensive immigration reform), Trump has left the Republican right with few tough dilemmas and much to cheer. His policy agenda and personnel appointments (including to the federal judiciary) have been almost uniformly conservative, and—despite the "deal-making maverick" persona of his first campaign—he has never shown much interest in forcing his party into compromise with the Democratic opposition.

2. Protection. Beneath the Type-A bravado that many Republicans prefer to adopt in public lies a great deal of fear and vulnerability. The Obama years were a difficult time for Republican politicians, who found themselves the targets of constant criticism from conservative activists. For every veteran incumbent who was seriously challenged in a Republican primary election, many more suffered repeated attacks from angry constituents and conservative media figures who accused them of failing to prevent Obama's rise to power. But the Trump presidency has eased these conflicts. Trump's popularity among the Republican electorate is so profound that an endorsement or word of praise from him is usually enough to protect other Republicans from backlash among the grassroots. And to earn this precious seal of approval, Republicans don't need to take a series of tough votes or alienate important constituencies; they just need to stay publicly loyal to "Mr. Trump" and defend him from his enemies. For most Republican incumbents, who represent safely red states or districts where Trump is popular and Democratic challengers aren't a serious threat, that's a pretty good bargain.

3. Mobilization. Both the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election produced voter turnout rates that hadn't been matched in a century or more. Democrats were able to harness deep antipathy to Trump to mobilize their supporters and win control of the House of Representatives in 2018 and the presidency in 2020. But Republicans flocked to the polls as well to defend Trump, even in a midterm election when he wasn't on the ballot. Though this conservative electoral engagement couldn't save Trump from defeat or keep the House in Republican hands, it did allow Republicans to pick up Senate seats in 2018 and potentially maintain control of the chamber for at least the first two years of Biden's presidency as well—while the unanticipated gains in House races this year make a return to power in 2022 very possible. Trump critics were hoping that the 2020 elections would deliver a national popular repudiation of the Republican Party as punishment for the perceived sins of its leader. Instead, Trump lost an unexpectedly close race for re-election while other Republican candidates benefited from the turnout surge among his devotees and a critical slice of down-ballot support from voters who opted for Biden at the top of the ticket. Never before in modern American history has a party emerged as unscathed from the defeat of its incumbent president.

Enthusiasm for Trump's leadership is, of course, hardly universal within the GOP; the existence of openly critical figures like Mitt Romney and John Kasich suggests the presence of additional anti-Trump Republicans who keep their opposition quiet for reasons of political self-interest. But we shouldn't assume that publicly-stated support for Trump is only motivated by a strategic calculation to pander to the Republican electorate. For many Republicans, Trump's flaws are accompanied by some very real assets, and they can envision a worse future than one where he continues to lead the Republican Party even while in exile.

Monday, November 09, 2020

In the 2020 Elections, Partisan Stability Defeats Expectations of Change

Imagine someone who set off into the Siberian wilderness right after the 2018 midterms, didn't experience any of the 2020 campaign, and returned to civilization today to see the outcome of last week's election. This person would come back to the following results: 

• A close national presidential contest decided by crucial victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

• A set of Senate races that almost perfectly mirrored the presidential results in each state, with the lone exception of Republican moderate Susan Collins outrunning the rest of her party's candidates in Maine.

• A mostly incumbent-friendly set of House elections, with a few of the 2018 Democratic wave's biggest upset winners—Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico—unable to defend their Republican-leaning seats when facing a presidential-year electorate.

• A continuation of the ongoing pro-Democratic shift in the nation's largest metropolitan areas, pushing former "red states" Arizona and Georgia into full partisan competitiveness and reducing the size of the Republican statewide advantage in Texas.

• A partially countervailing solidification of Republican electoral strength in small towns and rural areas nearly everywhere in the country except New England, keeping key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania highly competitive while shifting Ohio and Iowa further toward the GOP.


If this person were a Democrat, he or she might be perfectly content with an election in which Donald Trump was defeated and Nancy Pelosi's House majority remained intact. Or maybe there would be some dismay that the popular repudiation of Trump was not strong enough to deliver Democrats an outright national landslide that handed the party clear control of the Senate. Likewise, a Republican supporter might mourn Trump's defeat—or conclude that, under the circumstances, the outcome could have been even worse. 

But there would be no reason for our returning wanderer to be surprised about any of the major results of the 2020 election. The outcome represents a doggedly consistent continuation of the basic electoral fundamentals of the last decade or more: closely-matched popular support for each party, severe and growing geographic polarization, rampant straight-ticket voting, and important Republican structural advantages in the electoral college and congressional apportionment, especially in the Senate.

Those advantages meant that Biden's victory over Donald Trump was in fact very narrow; a shift of 1 percent of the vote in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona would have re-elected Trump despite Biden's comfortable lead in the national popular vote. But they also increase the magnitude of Biden's achievement: the defeat of an elected incumbent president for only the fourth time in the last century, and the ejection of a party from control of the White House after just four years in power for only the second time since 1896. And the pro-Republican tilt of our electoral institutions helps to explain why Democrats were unable to grow their margin in the House of Representatives or win a majority in the Senate, which wound up tempering some party members' delight in the election results.

That disappointment was mostly a testament to the power of pre-election polling to sway expectations. Thanks to overly rosy survey results, optimistic Democrats had visions of revolutionary success dancing in their heads: Senate victories in Montana, Kansas, and even South Carolina; breakthroughs in House races in Indiana and Missouri; even Texas turning "blue" for the first time in 44 years. This wasn't just partisan daydreaming; Republican operatives told journalists that their own private polls were as potentially devastating to their party as the publicly-released data.

There's a lesson here beyond the obvious need to re-evaluate the trustworthiness of polling methodology and forecasting models. For all the ways in which American politics seems to have entered a period of rapid and disorienting change, the partisan preferences of the electorate have only become more and more entrenched over time. Events and developments that might seem inevitably transformative, from Trump's election to the COVID epidemic to piles of small-dollar donations raised by congressional candidates from Maine to Alaska, have repeatedly proven to have only minor effects on the voting choices of citizens loyally committed to their existing partisan teams. If we simply assume that this electoral stability will prevail until proven otherwise, we are much less likely to be surprised by what we see.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Reappearing American Voter

We're almost at the end of the 2020 campaign season, and there will be plenty to say soon enough about the outcome. But before attention turns to the various winners and losers of this year's election, it's worth pausing to recognize something that's already clear: the national turnout rate is certain to be unusually high, perhaps even to historical levels. And that in itself is a remarkable fact.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a widespread concern about the declining proportion of electoral participation. Scholars and analysts spoke of the "disappearing American voter," connecting this trend to a worrisome decay of community engagement and social ties more generally (as in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Americans had become apathetic and cynical about politics, it was said, withdrawing from meaningful civic life to seek refuge in the comparatively mindless world of mass entertainment.

It's not likely that Americans today are less distrustful, or less obsessed with pop culture, than they were 25 or 30 years ago. But they are certainly voting more often. According to calculations by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, the national turnout rate in presidential elections hit a modern low point in 1996, when 52 percent of eligible citizens showed up to vote. By the 2008 election of Barack Obama, turnout had risen to 62 percent of eligible citizens, the highest share since 1968. Even the 2016 contest—widely viewed as an uninspiring choice between two unpopular candidates—resulted in a turnout rate of 60 percent, comparable to the rates in the supposedly more civically healthy decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

We have several reasons to believe that turnout will be even higher in 2020. The 2018 midterm elections produced a turnout of 50 percent, the highest rate in a non-presidential year since women were granted the franchise in 1920. Unusually high numbers of respondents are telling pollsters that they are closely following the current election, care about who wins, and intend to vote. And many have already voted: the volume of early and mail-in votes is far above that of any previous year (reflecting pandemic concerns and the promotion of alternative voting procedures by many state election officials), to the point that ballot totals in some states already rival or exceed the number cast four years ago even before Election Day itself. If the national turnout reaches 155 million voters, or 65 percent of the eligible electorate, it will be the highest participation rate in more than a century.

There are several plausible contributing factors to the post-1990s rise in turnout, but one surely is the growing perception that elections are very important—that it really matters to the direction of the country whether one candidate or the other becomes president. As it turned out, then, the cure for fading electoral participation was greater partisan polarization and more divisive candidacies. Perhaps this is a worthwhile reminder that in politics, the perceived problems of one era are often solved by the perceived problems of the next.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Second Presidential Debate Recap: At Long Last, a Conventional Partisan Fight

Thursday's event was the fifth general election debate of Donald Trump's political career. It was, by far, the most ordinary of the five.

Yes, there were some of the usual uniquely Trumpian flourishes—the factual hyperbole, the sarcastic mockery of the opposition, the dubious stories of people being moved to tears in his presence. But the relative lack of interruptions and constant cross-talk this time around exposed the familiarity of the actual substantive terrain over which the candidates fought.

Joe Biden acted very much like a typical Democrat. He came to the debate armed with summaries of specific policy proposals to address specific social problems, along with associated facts and figures: a public option for health care, a climate change bill, an immigration reform initiative. He pledged to protect the interests of specific groups within the Democratic coalition, such as labor unions, African-Americans, and the "middle class" more generally.

Trump, for his part, exercised the usual Republican counterstrategy against such an approach. He conceded ground on many of the specific policies, and even tried to outflank Biden at times (as on criminal justice). At times, his attacks did not target the content of Biden's proposals at all, but instead cited Biden's lack of success at achieving them while he was in office. 

But Trump also described Biden's agenda in a more general sense as ideologically radical, associating Biden with left-wing figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He warned that Biden's election would threaten the future of America as we know it. And he repeatedly cited various stories and claims that circulate in the conservative media but are less well-known outside its regular consumer base.

That Joe Biden is a walking personification of his party is hardly news. But beneath the idiosyncratic exterior, Donald Trump has himself become an increasingly orthodox Republican over the course of his time in politics. In both his rhetoric and his substantive positions, Trump hews more closely to party doctrine today than he did in 2016, and his instincts in the heat of the debate reflect this evolution.

Many media commentators opined afterwards that the debate didn't break any new ground. That's a reasonable characterization. But one big reason why is that each candidate adopted the traditional playbook of his own partisan team, playing to its perennial strengths and defending against its weaknesses. In a year stuffed with unprecedented developments, it was a rare moment of political conventionality.