Thursday, November 21, 2019

November Democratic Debate Recap: Lovefest or Snoozefest?

The Democratic debate Wednesday night was mostly devoid of sharp exchanges between candidates, with the partial exception of a few moments involving also-ran Tulsi Gabbard. To some observers, it was a pleasant and substantive affair; to others—especially reporters searching for a headline—it was a boring anticlimax to a long day dominated by the impeachment hearings in Washington.

The amicable climate was partially due to the MSNBC moderators, who mostly declined to ask questions intended to provoke conflict between specific candidates. Some corners of lefty Twitter credited this dynamic to the fact that all four moderators were women. But female moderators in previous debates have not been reluctant to set candidates against each other; a more likely explanation lies in MSNBC's own house style (personified by Rachel Maddow, the network's biggest star), which sells itself as floating cerebrally above anything that smacks of a mere made-for-TV stunt. Most candidates may also see attacks in a large field as strategically risky unless they can be directed at an easy target like Gabbard.

Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg are all doing well enough in the polls—whether in Iowa, nationally, or both—that debate performances aren't critical for their candidacies at this stage in the race (pundits never seem to think Biden does well in these events, but it doesn't seem to be hurting him with voters), and Gabbard, Yang, and Steyer aren't serious contenders for the nomination. That leaves Harris, Booker, and Klobuchar in the position of needing some kind of breakthrough as the days tick down, and all three seemed to have prepared for Wednesday's debate with an eye toward making a memorable impression with viewers. Notably, each of them made an explicit strategic case for themselves as nominees.

The problem is that they are all, to an extent, in competition with each other to attract media and activist attention during a crucial pre-Iowa stretch in which impeachment, not the Democratic primary race, will be the chief national political story. Journalists will probably agree that they all performed well, but none of them is likely to gain the kind of post-debate bounce that Harris got over the summer but couldn't sustain thereafter. For all three, their best path to the nomination remains a better-than-expected showing in Iowa that carries into the succeeding states. But while it's still early, it's not as early as it used to be, and their hopes increasingly depend on a major stumble by one or more of the front-runners.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Education Is Hurting Republicans in the Suburbs: New Op-Ed in the New York Times

I have a new piece over at the New York Times today explaining how Republican leaders' recent education policies are hurting them at the polls among suburban voters as they play to a conservative base that is growing older, more rural, and less well-educated. Could Republicans reclaim the education issue and win back the suburbs? It's happened before...

Sunday, November 17, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Why Can't Republicans Agree on What Happened with Ukraine?

According to a durable truism of American politics, Republicans find it much easier than Democrats to unite around a single political message. Not all nuggets of conventional wisdom are reliably accurate, but this one has substantial truth behind it: the collective self-definition of the Republican Party as the agent of an ideological movement makes it easier for Republicans to employ a common set of rhetorical themes, while the more coalitional Democrats are routinely speaking to multiple audiences at once. As one satirical headline from The Onion put it, "Democrats Unveil 324 Million New Slogans to Appeal to Each U.S. Resident Individually."

When it comes to the current impeachment inquiry, however, it's the Democrats who are collectively presenting a single theory of the case and the Republicans who are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to find consensus on an alternative argument. The events of this week illustrate the extent of this challenge, and the main sources from which Republican difficulties spring.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee came to Friday's public testimony of former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch with a clear message for the day's session: that Adam Schiff was a liar running an unfairly partisan inquiry. To this end, they took turns reading into the record previous public statements by Schiff that he would seek testimony from the whistleblower whose actions alerted Congress to the Ukraine affair. (Democrats have been abandoning these promises lately as they have found other witnesses willing to corroborate many of the claims in the whistleblower's original complaint.) Republicans also executed a procedural set piece—one of those almost-clever public stunts of which both parties are excessively fond when relegated to the minority—in which Rep. Elise Stefanik began speaking out of order, provoking Schiff to interrupt and deny her recognition; Stefanik and her colleagues then claimed that Schiff was abusing his authority in order to silence the only Republican woman on the committee.

The assumption behind this particular exercise was that Yovanovitch's testimony would not in itself be deemed particularly newsworthy by the press (she had no direct contact with the president, and her deposition in closed session had already been released), leaving partisan sparks on the committee to represent reporters' biggest takeaway from the day's proceedings. But President Trump foiled this strategy almost immediately by launching personal Twitter attacks on Yovanovitch that were soon echoed by his son Donald Trump Jr., stepping all over congressional Republicans' decision to treat her as a well-meaning but ephemeral public servant who was being misused by the real villains, the Democrats. Once Schiff read the president's words to Yovanovitch and invited her to reply, it was clear what the day's biggest media story would be. Republicans, normally reluctant to criticize Trump in public, didn't bother in this case to hide their frustration with his behavior.

Is impeachment a partisan witch hunt using career bureaucrats as dupes, or is it a deep state conspiracy in which they too are implicated? Is Ukraine a loyal ally deserving of the American military assistance that the Trump administration ultimately authorized in September, or did it treacherously intervene in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton? Did the temporary withholding of aid have nothing whatsoever to do with Joe and Hunter Biden, or was it a proper point of leverage to force Ukraine to crack down on the kind of corruption that the Bidens supposedly personify? Were Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland freelancing without Trump's knowledge or approval, or were they carrying out a plan masterminded by the president? Are the executive's constitutional powers so vast in the realm of foreign policy that no presidential act involving another nation could possibly be an impeachable offense?

It's increasingly clear that there is no common set of answers to these questions that both the White House and the congressional GOP can agree on—and stick to. Part of the problem is that Trump is willing to give up a lot of valuable factual ground as long as the normative defense of his actions remains absolute: celebrate him for committing murder and he'll thank you, but woe to the person who mildly criticizes him for jaywalking. Trump's inability to identify strategically counterproductive arguments on his own behalf has already caused him damage on the Ukraine affair. After all, the precipitating event that gave House Democrats a numerical majority supporting the pursuit of impeachment was Trump freely acknowledging to reporters that he had mentioned the Bidens in his July phone call with the Ukranian president.

Republicans' inability to settle on a single overaching defense that fits the uncontested facts of the case isn't likely to shake the loyalties of Trump supporters in the conservative media universe and the mass electorate. But it still makes a difference. Attentive elites in government and in the mainstream media are paying close attention to the impeachment process, and are sensitive to the quality of evidence and debate on both sides. So far, the prevailing view holds that Trump was, at least, up to something fishy with respect to Ukraine that justifies serious congressional examination. This judgment has noticeably colored press coverage and commentary; several journalists opined that the past week was one of the worst of Trump's entire presidency in part because of the effectiveness of the public hearings that began on Wednesday.

The media's reaction to Elise Stefanik's behavior on Friday was especially telling. Up until now, Stefanik has enjoyed a status as a bit of a press darling; as one of the few young Republican women in high-level political office and as a relative ideological moderate, she has regularly received positive coverage as the media-anointed face of a more "modern" Republican Party of the future (a role previously filled by figures like Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Nikki Haley). If the Washington community saw the Democrats' march toward impeachment as a stretch on the merits or a loser on the politics, journalists would have treated Stefanik's gamed-out attack on Schiff as a savvy maneuver or the raising of a fair procedural point, rather than as an attempted distraction by an ambitious Republican merely trying to ingratiate herself with a Trump-dominated party.

There are plenty of understandable reasons why the White House has prevented many potential witnesses from participating in the congressional investigation, and—given what we know—it may well be that Trump's political interests would not, on the whole, be served by honest testimony under oath by his subordinates. Yet one cost to this blockade policy is that there will be few witnesses in these open hearings with the motivation to mount a defense of the president built on their own authority as members of his administration and firsthand participants in the development of Ukraine policy. This unfilled space places even more weight on congressional Republicans, who must advance exculpatory arguments themselves rather than allow them to arise from the testimony of sympathetic executive branch officials. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, then, that the pro-Trump case so far is lacking the ideal amount of internal coherence.

Friday, November 08, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End

This week was the quietest, politically speaking, since Nancy Pelosi's announcement on September 24 that the House of Representatives was moving toward impeachment of the president. The most notable development was Adam Schiff's disclosure on Wednesday that the House was moving from private interviews to public hearings beginning next week, scheduling American ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to testify in open session.

This announcement signals that the fact-finding component of the House investigation is mostly completed. Taylor and Yovanovitch have already met with the committees leading the inquiry in closed session, and these depositions were recently released to the public. Their repeat appearances next week in the presence of reporters and television cameras will generate media publicity, but the public hearings attended by witnesses who already met with the committees are unlikely to uncover any major new facts that were not already brought to light by the skilled professional staff who led the questioning in private. There are other figures who might have further information about the Ukraine matter who are ignoring House subpoenas to testify, from John Bolton to Mick Mulvaney, but Pelosi and Schiff seem to have decided that they are unwilling to wait for the federal judiciary to sort out the validity of these refusals before proceeding.

It may seem premature for the House to already move into the next phase of the impeachment process. But despite the charged partisan conflict over impeachment, most of the factual record upon which it is based is not really in serious dispute. Democrats seem convinced that they've already seen enough to impeach the president. Republicans continue to oppose impeachment, but the defense is starting to shift under the weight of the evidence already presented from a blanket denial that there was a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government to a position that said quid pro quo was either an acceptable and unremarkable tool of American foreign policy, or that it was possibly troubling but not an impeachment-level offense. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that some congressional Republicans may attempt to defend Trump from impeachment by acknowledging that improper acts occurred, but that they were committed by underlings without the president's direction or knowledge.

The impeachment process may not have yet reached its halfway point in terms of the congressional calendar; especially given the upcoming holiday recesses, it's tough to see how it won't spill over into 2020 if the Senate has to conduct a trial. But the broad political outlines have become clear. Except for a handful of scattered critics, Republicans remain publicly loyal to the president (even if they are frequently critical, even furious, when off the record). Democratic support for impeachment appears at least equally solid; nothing in the results of Tuesday's off-year elections will cause Democratic leaders to worry about an emerging popular backlash. The upcoming public hearings and debates will be full of partisan fireworks, but few minds are likely to change from now on unless a new bombshell revelation appears from an unexpected source. It seems that we've already reached the end of the beginning—and the beginning of the end.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Pelosi Puts Her Skills on Display

Since the Ukraine story first broke in mid-September, important developments have piled up at such a rate that it's easy to overlook what hasn't happened. But here are a few headlines that have been virtually absent from the last five weeks of cascading news coverage: "Moderate Democrats Resist Impeachment Inquiry and Distance Themselves from Leadership." "Democratic Leaders Struggle to Satisfy Anti-Trump Base." "Democrats Fret that Impeachment Approach will Backfire in Key Districts." "Committee Chairs Battle over Jurisdiction while Senate Democrats Complain About 'Circus' in House."

This is not because the news media has lost its traditional appetite for juicy tales of internal party conflict. Rather, it accurately reflects the unusually high level of Democratic unity on the impeachment issue. Importantly, this unity appears to endure even in private—unlike on the Republican side, where public displays of support for the president have been accompanied by multiple accounts of anonymous congressional dissatisfaction and sniping at the White House.

Much of the credit for keeping Democrats unified belongs to the Trump administration, combined with the parade of witness testimony that continues to reveal damaging facts about the Ukraine matter at a near-daily frequency. The White House can use the levers of partisanship and conservative media pressure to keep most Republicans from publicly breaking with the president, but it has no obvious strategy for, or even seemingly much interest in, persuading any Democrats not to go ahead and vote for impeachment and conviction. The red meat contained in the October 8 letter to Congress from White House counsel Pat Cipollone, for example, was (among other things) a signal that no Democrat who continued to harbor qualms about impeaching Trump was going to be provided with any defense of the president's position that did not primarily rely on appeals to partisan loyalty.

Still, party unity seldom happens without party actors maneuvering to encourage it. The impeachment process has so far been a showcase for the political acumen of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has managed to keep both Trump-phobic liberals and risk-averse moderates on board with minimal defection or even complaint. Despite initial expectations that impeachment might cause a serious rift in the House Democratic Party, only two Democrats voted against authorizing formal impeachment inquiry procedures on Thursday. The Democratic leadership managed to win support from 29 of the 31 House Democrats representing congressional districts carried by Trump in 2016, including 8 of the 9 Democrats from seats where Trump outpolled Hillary Clinton by at least 10 percentage points.

Successfully wrangling moderate votes on the floor was only one way that the passage of the impeachment inquiry resolution demonstrated Pelosi's skill as a party leader. Though media coverage of the issue has been dominated by partisan fights over whether the House needed to formally authorize an inquiry and whether minority Republicans were being given enough procedural power, much of the resolution itself resolves what could have been a messy conflict over the roles played by relevant House committees as the drive toward impeachment begins to accelerate. Importantly, it places the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Adam Schiff at the center of the process—even though the Judiciary Committee has historically taken the lead in impeachment cases.

It's interesting to speculate about the reasoning behind this decision; my political science colleague Sarah Binder suggests that Pelosi might have given Intelligence the starring role in order to appease party moderates. (While the Intelligence Committee's former reputation for bipartisanship has broken down over the past few years, its membership is still less dominated by partisan show horses than the Judiciary Committee, long a haven for diehards on both sides.) There have also been media reports that Pelosi trusts Schiff more to preside over public hearings than Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler, with whom she has supposedly lost confidence. In any event, turf wars in Congress can be brutal, and even more so when an opportunity arises for potential media stardom once the proceedings move into view of the cameras. So while the formalization of committee roles may seem like inside baseball compared to other aspects of impeachment, the speaker's resolution of this particular issue is a quiet but important illustration of her effectiveness.

Pelosi's success is not unblemished; she has notably failed, at least so far, at fulfilling her own stated belief that impeachment should proceed with bipartisan support (not counting the ex-Republican Justin Amash of Michigan, now an anti-Trump independent). But she continues to be a somewhat underrated figure in the legislative politics of the 21st century, even though her record compares favorably to most of the other leaders who have held the speakership over the past several decades. It's likely that retrospective historical analyses will recognize her key role in clearing the path toward what now looks like a near-certain presidential impeachment.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Republicans Want to Make Impeachment About Schiff, Not Trump

As it enters its second month, the impeachment inquiry is starting to strain the internal cohesion of the Republican Party. Damaging revelations about the Ukraine affair continued to trickle out this week from media reports and the House investigation, making congressional Republicans increasingly reluctant to defend the president's behavior on the merits.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked Mitch McConnell about Donald Trump's claim that McConnell had privately agreed that Trump's July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president was "perfect." McConnell responded by denying any memory of his supposed praise of the president and notably passed on the opportunity provided by the question to confirm that he indeed approved of Trump's handling of the Ukraine issue. Public silence, often justified by claimed ignorance of the latest disclosures, has become Republican politicians' favored response to recent developments; as one reporter wryly remarked on Wednesday, "Once again a surprising number of Republicans are unfamiliar with the biggest story in DC." Many senators, perhaps with some relief, have fallen back on the excuse that, as potential "jurors" in an impeachment trial, it would be inappropriate for them to comment on the emerging factual record.

The Trump team has noticed. "Republicans have to get tougher and fight," Trump complained during his televised Cabinet meeting on Monday. The following day, Donald Trump Jr. criticized Lindsey Graham on Twitter for being insufficently visible in support of the president. A Daily Beast article published Tuesday night described a presidential administration and congressional party that had grown annoyed at each other, with a Senate aide suggesting that there was "very little appetite" among Republican senators for "defending the indefensible." The lack of a "war room" inside the White House for developing and disseminating a common set of talking points continues to frustrate many Republicans on the Hill; ex-John Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told the Washington Post that "in this situation, when only the president and his personal attorney seem to have all the facts, it's hard to have a coordinated defense."

But there are plenty of arguments against Trump's impeachment already in circulation; the president's own Twitter feed is an especially fertile source. The problem is that many congressional Republicans aren't comfortable staking their own credibility on any factual claim made by Trump, or committing to a specific line of defense that may later be abandoned without warning. When Republicans push for a counter-impeachment war room in the White House, they're really asking for a professional political shop in which strategy and communications are overseen by someone whom they trust to recognize their own political interest—in other words, someone other than the president.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans would rather discuss the behavior of the Democratic opposition. On Wednesday, a bloc of House conservatives led by Matt Gaetz of Florida disrupted the closed-door witness interviews organized by Democratic commitee chairs by crashing one of the meetings and occupying the hearing room for about five hours. This protest proceeded with the apparent approval of the president and the House Republican leadership; minority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana was one of the participants. The following day, McConnell and Graham introduced a resolution co-sponsored by most Republican senators accusing House Democrats of violating Trump's due process rights and granting House Republicans insufficient procedural privileges.

Shifting the subject of debate from Donald Trump to Adam Schiff solves some problems for Republicans. Rather than struggling to justify Trump's Ukraine policy or to explain away the well-documented concerns of credible witnesses like Fiona Hill and Bill Taylor, Republican members can return to the safer ground of partisan grievance. It also promotes party unity: Republicans may differ considerably among themselves over what they think of Trump, but none of them is predisposed to sympathize with Schiff. And it's simply more fun to be on offense than on defense, to be firing charges at others rather than trying to swat them away.

Yet there are costs as well. Some of the most common current complaints about the Democrats' handling of impeachment might become moot as events move along. The two major lines of attack at the moment are that access to witness depositions is restricted to the membership of the relevant House committees and that the House has not voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry. But today's private sessions will be succeeded by tomorrow's public hearings, and the House may well vote eventually to formalize the inquiry. By the time that House members actually consider articles of impeachment weeks or months from now, these objections will have lost much of their potency.

And when Republicans focus their energies on making the procedural case against Schiff, they risk failing to invest in disputing the substantive case against Trump—which potentially surrenders a lot of valuable ground to the pro-impeachment side. As one Republican source told CNN, "We can't defend the substance [so] all we do is talk about process." But Americans usually don’t care much about process disputes, whatever the merits of these disputes might be. Trump is right to worry that if many of his fellow Republicans are unwilling to confidently assure the public of his innocence, the public may draw the natural conclusion that he must have done something seriously wrong.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Trump Torches His Inside Reputation

The pioneering political scientist Richard Neustadt is best remembered for his insight that the unilateral powers of the presidency are much more limited than the expectations hung on the office by the American public and the ambitions of the people who occupy it, requiring presidents to engage in productive collaboration with other political elites—members of Congress and the bureaucracy, interest groups, foreign leaders, even the president's own direct subordinates—in order to achieve success. Neustadt believed that the maintenance of a positive personal reputation was necessary to convince these other actors to cooperate with the president; the power of the presidency, he argued, was largely "the power to persuade."

The developments of the past week have confirmed that Donald Trump is the ultimate anti-Neustadtian president. Trump's personal reputation among other elites, both at home and abroad, has always been low, but it took an even bigger dive this week when the ongoing Ukraine affair—already the focus of an impeachment inquiry in the House—was compounded by an abrupt policy change in Syria touched off by Trump's approval of an incursion by Turkey in a Sunday phone call with the Turkish president. Trump's withdrawal of American military defense from the Kurdish population in northern Syria received bipartisan disapproval in Congress and strong criticism across the ideological spectrum of foreign policy experts.

Several journalists have pointed out that it seems risky for Trump to alienate his fellow Republicans in the midst of an impeachment push, since (assuming that the House impeaches him) he'll depend on their votes in the Senate to avoid removal from office. That's true, but the Syria situation is unlikely to directly affect how Republican senators respond to an impeachment vote that may be months in the future.

The bigger danger for Trump is that impeachment, like any political process, will play out in a larger environment where his interests will be advanced or damaged by the choices made by other elites. At various points along the way, certain potential witnesses will be weighing whether to comply with congressional subpoenas, and whether to share or omit pertinent information. Accomplished attorneys will be weighing whether to accept offers to take Trump's case. High-ranking judges will be weighing whether to give deference to legal arguments made by White House representatives. Partisan officials will be weighing how passionately they should attack or defend the president. Political candidates will be weighing whether to run in the 2020 election. Journalists and other opinion leaders will be weighing whether to publicly endorse impeachment or removal from office.

All of these choices will be influenced to some degree by high-status decision-makers' evaluation of the president's personal attributes and behavior. And yet Trump's comportment has become even more idiosyncratic over the past week. Rather than reassuring attentive observers, he seems only to be unsettling them.

Trump habitually struggles to read people. Perhaps this difficulty reflects an adult lifetime during which his interactions with other human beings have been structured by corporate hierarchy and pop-culture celebrity, and during which he has taken in most of his information about the world around him via the distorted lens of television. Perhaps it's more foundational, more characterological in its source. Regardless, it sets him apart in the realm of politics, where most successful practitioners are experts at human relations and accustomed to grasping the perspectives and incentives of others.

Uniquely in American history, Trump was able to harness national fame to move directly from private life into the presidency without working his way up via an elective or military career where success tends to be dependent upon making a good personal impression on knowledgeable peers and superiors. But he has been repeatedly unable to recognize past mistakes in this area, as in many others, and thus to avoid repeating them. If anything, the push toward impeachment has provoked a perceptible deterioriation in judgment.

Jonathan Bernstein points out one dramatic example from this week's events: Trump not only sent Turkish president Erdogan a blustery letter on the Syrian issue, but also believed that releasing it publicly would bolster his standing in the eyes of other political leaders. Yesterday's meeting with congressional leaders at the White House was similarly disastrous; at least one Republican participant agreed with Democratic descriptions of a Trump "meltdown" that unnerved assembled officials in both parties. And what other than an unusual lack of emotional intelligence can explain his attempts to engineer a surprise reconciliation between the grieving parents of a British accident victim and the American diplomat's wife whose vehicle fatally struck him, as a live made-for-TV stunt with the White House as a backdrop for assembled cameras?

A central operating assumption of the Trump White House is that the Washington community is dominated by sworn enemies worthy only of being ignored or sneered at. And, indeed, it's only fair to acknowledge that Trump managed to achieve the presidency without the support or respect of many of its denizens. But failing, or not even trying, to build a positive reputation among influential insiders has costs and risks of its own. Just like anyone else, elites occasionally do have their uses.