Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Demise of the Health Care Bill Shows That Policy Still Matters

Over the past few years, it's become fashionable among many political experts to deny that policy substance plays much of a role in motivating the electoral choices of the American public. The dominant picture of citizen behavior in contemporary accounts is that of a crude tribalism, in which individuals' salient social or cultural identities motivate them to develop a simplistic but powerful affinity for a favored party—and an even stronger antipathy for the opposition—that subsequently determines their normative, and even factual, political beliefs. A number of my fellow political scientists are fond of quipping on Twitter that "all politics are identity politics" and that "negative partisanship rules everything" whenever evidence arises of such phenomena at work.

Like any pithy aphorism, these observations contain substantial, but not total, truth. Today's electorate is indeed strongly partisan in its candidate preferences, and much of this party loyalty is driven by an increasingly bitter feeling toward the other side (rather than a more positive view of one's own party). Many Americans do perceive political conflict as involving competition among social groups, and their own group identity often plays a powerful role in determining which partisan team they join and which they scorn.

But a theory of voting behavior that stops there cannot account for every important development in politics today, and the apparent demise of Mitch McConnell's health care bill in the Senate late Monday is one key example. There will no doubt be numerous inside-baseball reports and analyses about how and why the legislation has failed (at least so far) to attract the necessary support. But it's also worth stepping back and looking at the big picture. The largest single obstacle that the Republican Party has faced in repealing the Affordable Care Act has been the policy preferences of the American people.

While the ACA itself proved to be a divisive measure, most of its specific provisions have consistently enjoyed strong popular support. Moreover, repeal faced the same problem any other attempt at welfare state retrenchment creates: how does a political party revoke benefits from sympathetic current beneficiaries without provoking a serious popular backlash? Prior to Trump's election, Republicans—including Trump himself—could sidestep these dilemmas by keeping their alternative health care proposals vague and implausibly attractive. Once the GOP was compelled to write an actual bill, however, it unenthusiastically produced a set of policies that were almost historic in their unpopularity. Even Republican voters reported lukewarm-at-best attitudes towards the positions of their own party leaders—demonstrating that tribal loyalty still has its limits despite our unusually polarized climate.

If Republican members of Congress thought that mere group solidarity ruled the electorate, they would have resurrected the repeal bill that passed the House and Senate in 2015 (only to be vetoed, as expected, by Obama), quickly enacted it on a party-line vote last January, and moved on to other business—secure in the belief that any supporters who subsequently lost health insurance access could be easily convinced that their favored party was not to blame. Instead, the GOP embarked on a protracted, and so far unfulfilled, struggle to reconcile its ideological predispositions with the substantive demands and anticipated responses of the broader electorate. Donald Trump's bully pulpit and Mitch McConnell's tactical acumen have not yet proven able to overcome the suspicion among a critical mass of officeholders that politicians who defy the will of the public on important national policy issues risk popular retribution at the next round of balloting, regardless of the party label next to their name.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Want to Influence the Democratic Party? Try Joining the Democratic Party

While I was on vacation last week, my friend and colleague Sarah Reckhow sent me this story about a new website and self-described "political network" called Win the Future. Win the Future (WTF for short) is co-founded by two Silicon Valley moguls (Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Mark Pincus of Zynga, the parent company of the online games Farmville and Words with Friends). Frustrated with the Democratic Party for imperfectly representing their political preferences, Hoffman and Pincus are attempting to build a mass membership (or at least mass participation) organization via the Internet that will be devoted to "empower[ing] all of us to choose our leaders and set our agenda." Reading between the lines of their rhetoric, they want to push Democratic officials to shift further leftward on immigration and social issues while talking more about impeaching Donald Trump, but they are simultaneously rather less sympathetic than the current party leadership to the interests and power of labor unions and free-trade skeptics.

Two weeks out of town left me less attentive than usual to day-to-day social media trends, so I missed whatever reaction the unveiling of WTF provoked among expert observers of the political world. But I think I can guess. Starting with the name itself, the WTF initiative is marinated in tech-hype buzzword-speak. It trades mostly in overfamiliar platitudes (Up with giving a voice to the people! Down with career politicians!). The mechanisms by which its influence is to be amassed and deployed are described in a vague manner, with the following exception: it is clear that the organization will solicit direct cash contributions, which it will then use to rent advertising space on billboards (?!?). The political judgment on display is appropriately summarized by the revelation that one of the ideas for achieving a national party "revolution" involves encouraging the singer of a '90s-era power-pop band to mount an electoral challenge to popular California senator Dianne Feinstein.

In all likelihood, WTF will eventually pass into the same obscurity that has befallen most awkward mashups between politics and the tech sector. But its supposed purpose rests on an assumption that is much more widespread and longer-lived, and that promises to endure whether or not Hoffman and Pincus realize their particular organizational vision. This perspective views political parties in their current form as controlled by unaccountable politicians and other elites to such an extent that they are virtually impermeable to the influence of interested citizens—thus necessitating fundamental and even "revolutionary" measures in order to restore their democratic legitimacy.

Yet there are plenty of ways that parties are open to mass participation. Any eligible voter is able to take part in the process of selecting a major party's nominees for nearly all elected offices, including the presidency. Regular Americans can, and often do, work on behalf of favored candidates' campaigns and provide them with financial contributions. City, town, or county Democratic and Republican committees and clubs are usually quite welcoming to citizens who wish to commit themselves to becoming active in party affairs. Within the broader networks of both major parties sit a number of well-established interest groups—NARAL, the NRA, the League of Conservation Voters—that themselves solicit public membership and support, and that exert considerable power over the politicians of the party with which they are aligned.

Contrary to myth, politicians are quite sensitive to the wishes of party members, and there are plenty of historical examples of elected officials changing their policy positions in response to pressure from active factions and interest groups within their party. The success of the modern conservative movement in gaining control of the Republican Party is a textbook case—conservatives sought to dominate the organizational apparatus and nomination process of the GOP, compelling ambitious Republican politicians to satisfy the preferences of these activists in order to advance their own careers.

It takes a certain degree of credulity to believe that the parties' policy adoption process is currently walled off from the interested citizen by the machinations of self-dealing operators but could be cracked wide open with a dot-com address, some Twitter polls, and a few strategically-located billboards. Aside from the obvious superficial appeal of a pitch that taking over a major national institution is something that could be done from the comfort of a lunch-hour smartphone session, this thinking draws on a tendency that is more common on the American left than on the right: a certain ambivalence about partisan politics and a reluctance to engage with the electoral process from within a major party, even as one holds strong opinions about what that party should, or should not, stand for.

One example of this mentality dates from the 2016 presidential nomination contest, when some Bernie Sanders supporters argued that voters who refused to officially register as Democrats should still be granted the right to participate in Democratic primaries (a few even went so far as to assert that state primaries that excluded independents amounted to a form of "voter suppression"). Whether or not it's presumptuous to claim the right to influence party affairs without actually belonging to the party, it's—more importantly—fatally flawed tactical thinking. As conservatives have historically understood better than the American left, no idiosyncratic quirk exempts political parties from the general rule within human institutions that demands are more likely to be addressed when they come from inside the tent.

This isn't the first time that Silicon Valley types have demonstrated that success and smarts in other fields doesn't necessarily translate into a high political IQ. But taking the time and effort to gain an understanding of the actual operation of party organizations isn't only valuable for learning how best to achieve one's own political goals. It also reveals that party leaders who aren't already doing what you want are not necessarily being "unrepresentative," but may instead be doing a perfectly good job of representing the preferences of others who are more invested in the party cause.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

The Trump Defense Splits in Two, and the Big Story Remains Flynn

James Comey's testimony this morning was noteworthy in a number of ways without itself changing the broader political dynamics surrounding the Trump administration. Comey confirmed a number of specific revelations about his relationship with Trump in public and under oath, implying that he viewed Trump's behavior as quite possibly constituting abuse of power or obstruction of justice. Along the way, he signaled that former national security advisor Michael Flynn is being investigated for potentially lying to the FBI, and hinted opaquely that attorney general Jeff Sessions is sufficiently connected to the issue of Russian electoral sabotage that he properly needed to recuse himself from any Justice Department inquiries into the subject.

Anyone expecting Republican officeholders to begin suggesting based on today's events that Trump may have committed an impeachable offense was undoubtedly disappointed. As I've written before, impeachment is a political—and largely partisan—process, and Republicans simply have no political incentive to pursue it.

At the same time, it was easily apparent this morning how few true fans Trump has within his own party. On this score, what didn't happen at the hearing was as telling as what did. No Republican really offered an endorsement of Trump's behavior; most simply ventured that there might be a less damning explanation for it than the one offered by Comey and repeatedly emphasized that the FBI's counterintelligence investigation had not reached Trump himself. Republicans declined to criticize Comey's own leadership of the FBI, to suggest that he was misrepresenting any facts, or even to explicitly challenge Comey's assertion that he was fired in retribution for his handling of the Russia investigation. Some senators were clearly much more comfortable talking about the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, or inaccurate stories in the media than the actions of the current president at the heart of Comey's testimony.

When combined with the pugnacious statement released today by Trump's personal lawyer, the hearing confirmed that the Republican Party's defense of Trump on the Russia issue has split into two different tracks. Many congressional Republicans have adopted the position of conceding, or at least not disputing, Comey's factual claims while offering a more benign interpretation of the evidence—perhaps, as House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested this morning, this is all just a big misunderstanding stemming from Trump's inexperience in government. Their approach differs substantially from Trump's own case, which is built around the accusation that Comey is an outright villain who has intentionally lied under oath and improperly disclosed information to the press.

The first defense is obviously much safer ground than the second for Republican politicians, who hold some respect for Comey and who by now have learned not to lean too heavily on Trump's word about anything. But it will be interesting to see whether Trump is satisfied with their devotion to this version of events, or if he becomes frustrated with the reluctance of his own fellow partisans to publicly trash Comey on his behalf. It also raises the probability that Trump will once again take to Twitter to personally mount his own defense, even though Comey explained today that an ill-advised presidential tweet actually set in motion the appointment of a special prosecutor last month.

To some critics, Comey's account itself provides Congress with sufficient grounds to begin impeachment proceedings. But while it's legally or constitutionally defensible to argue that obstruction of justice can occur regardless of what the underlying crime is (if any), there's no way that the political act of impeachment goes anywhere without a lot more damaging evidence than is now available about what was being covered up. So we end the day with more notable details filled in, but with the central mystery of this entire matter still frustratingly unresolved: why did Trump go to such lengths to protect Michael Flynn? Until this question has a clear answer, impeachment remains a purely hypothetical scenario.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Price of Resentment Politics Is Policy Failure

In the month that has elapsed since Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency has become undeniable even within the corners of Washington once predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. Trump's behavior has not only sapped the morale of congressional Republicans and conservative interest group leaders, but has also repeatedly frustrated and even frightened members of his own Cabinet and White House staff. A plausible theory making the rounds suggests that one factor keeping White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in office is a shortage of other candidates willing to take what is nominally one of the most powerful and prestigious jobs in the entire country. It's now an open question whether Trump's approval rating within his own administration is any higher than the 39 percent of Americans who currently view his performance in a favorable light.

The realities of partisan politics will compel most Republicans to defend Trump in public even as they complain about him to reporters on background. Even if they do so privately, though, it is time for party members to reflect upon how a candidate like Trump was able to win the Republican nomination and sufficiently unify the party to achieve the presidency. After all, Trump hasn't really changed since he began running nearly two years ago. Nothing that he's done in office should be surprising to anyone except those who fooled themselves into expecting something different.

The democratic system works best when the same qualities that make someone a strong candidate for office also make him or her an effective leader once elected. But Republicans now face the problem that the individual attributes likely to bolster popularity within the party have become fatally misaligned with those necessary for governing success. Wasn't it a problem that Trump had no experience in public office? Not to Republican voters who scorn "career politicians" and venerate businesspeople who claim a superior background for managing the public sector. Wasn't Trump's temperament far from ideal for a national leader? Not to consumers of conservative media, where contempt and outrage are the default emotional states. Didn't Trump demonstrate little command of actual policy issues and elementary concepts? Not to vocal conservative authorities who dismiss reporters and intellectuals as snobby liberal hacks.

The other Republicans who ran against Trump in the 2016 primaries often shied away from confronting him directly, in part due to a strategic calculation that Trump would likely implode on his own and leave his supporters up for grabs. But few of the anti-Trump volleys that were made during the campaign focused on what are now clearly Trump's most consequential flaws. Instead, the usual Republican playbook of "attack-from-the-right" prevailed, emphasizing Trump's imperfect devotion to conservative ideological doctrine. These charges didn't stick with Republican voters, in large part because of the extent to which anti-Obamaism and anti-Clintonism represent foundational tenets of contemporary conservatism as defined by right-of-center media personalities. And nobody in the Republican presidential field was more of an "anti-Obama" figure than Trump, in both senses of the term: as an outspoken critic of Obama and as his ultimate antithesis. Plus, Trump's signature issue was immigration, and he made sure nobody got to his right on a subject of major current concern to the Republican popular base.

Trump's electoral triumph demonstrates the considerable power of cultural, nationalist, and ethnic resentment as engines of popular mobilization. However, a party that rewards skill at stoking such sentiments rather than policy fluency or governing competence is asking for trouble—and now the trouble is here. Democrats, of course, find nothing to celebrate in Trump's record so far. But Republicans who prioritize the implementation of sound conservative policy are also being primed for disappointment. The GOP is in such a state that it cannot, by its own admission, be counted upon to avoid a government shutdown or a possible default on the national debt this year—much less to develop and enact successful initiatives on health care, taxes, financial regulation, and other topics.

After just four months, a remarkable despondency has set in within Republican ranks about the prospect of a legislatively productive 115th Congress. Despite holding unified control of government, the party is simply unequipped for serious policy-making—a deficiency for which Trump is both cause and symptom. Republicans have honed a style of oppositional politics that has proven repeatedly effective at winning primaries and general elections alike, handing them a governing majority for at least the next two years. But this approach offers little guidance about how to exercise that power to craft specific policies, and has deposited into office a number of politicians—Trump chief among them—who are poorly positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.

For various reasons, Democrats are much less susceptible than the GOP to the rise of Trumpian candidates who are indifferent to mastering the mechanics of government on behalf of feasible policy objectives. But the rise of Trump as a uniquely powerful villain raises the danger that Democratic politics will also tilt farther toward symbolic demonstrations of opposition at the expense of other goals and values, benefiting future Democratic candidates who are the savviest at positioning themselves against Trump rather than those who offer the best promise of effective leadership. The emergence of a political climate in which both parties are driven primarily by fear and hatred of the other side has a number of important consequences, but the routine enactment of good public policy is certainly not among them.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

November 2018 Is Still a Long Way Away

The results of the special House election in Montana last week—where the Republican candidate won by a single-digit margin in a "deep red" constituency—are best interpreted as providing one more data point in favor of the conclusion that the national political environment has undergone a substantial, though not necessarily fatal, shift away from the Republicans and towards the Democrats since the inauguration of Donald Trump. This swing is thoroughly consistent with the larger back-and-forth pattern of partisan competition for the past 25 years, in which achieving unified control of Congress and the presidency has consistently rendered a party vulnerable to immediate popular backlash.

On the basis of history alone, then, there is good reason to expect the 2018 election to produce a more favorable outcome for the Democrats than 2016. How much more favorable, however, is impossible to foresee so far in advance of the vote. Eighteen months is a long time in politics under normal conditions—conventional wisdom would have bet overwhelmingly at this stage against the final results of the 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2006, 2010, and 2016 elections. And we are not currently in normal conditions; if anything, the speed of political developments is unusually quick these days, and the level of uncertainty about future events is even higher than usual.

From today's perspective, there are at least two major political issues that are likely to exert a significant effect on the results of the 2018 midterms. One is the Trump-Russia connection and its associated complications, stretching from Wikileaks to Michael Flynn to Jared Kushner to the FBI. Though the appointment of a special prosecutor suggests that this story isn't fading anytime soon, it's impossible to predict what directions it will go over the next year and a half, and what response it will produce in the mass electorate. The key question lurking behind the Russia affair—the extent of Trump's personal knowledge of, or involvement in, any illegal or shady activity—is not much clearer now than it was at the beginning of his presidency, and there is no guarantee that the Mueller investigation will provide a clear answer before November 2018.

The second significant and unpredictable factor in 2018 will be health care: specifically, whether the Republican-controlled Congress will succeed in enacting health care reform, and—if so—what form such legislation will take. The House narrowly passed a reform bill in early May, but Senate Republicans have opted to write their own version from scratch—an effort that already seems to have encountered serious problems. Whether the Senate will be able to pass a health care bill of its own is itself difficult to determine (Republicans can only afford two defections out of a 52-member conference). And whether any bill crafted to survive the Senate gauntlet could then serve as the basis for successful reconciliation negotiations between the two chambers is itself very difficult to know in advance, at least until its major provisions come into greater focus. Whatever the Republicans wind up doing about health care, from passing nothing at all to pushing through a substantial rollback of the Affordable Care Act, is almost certain to carry an electoral cost in 2018, but how big a problem health care will be for the party is impossible to ascertain before it's apparent what the policy change (if any) will be and when it will take effect.

So even excluding the unforeseeable events—foreign crises, terrorist attacks, economic trends—that may well occur and further influence the electoral balance between the parties, we have little reason to believe that the political climate will remain stable between now and November 2018. It's more likely that things get better for the Democrats than for the Republicans, given the performance of the Trump administration and the 2017–2018 Congress so far, but the range of plausible outcomes is exceptionally wide. Due to a structural Republican advantage in the ways that House districts are drawn and in the specific Senate seats up for election in 2018, even a decided nationwide pro-Democratic trend may not prove sufficiently strong to hand the party control of either chamber.

The special election approaching on June 20th in what has become a nationally representative suburban Atlanta House district will almost certainly be treated as an electoral bellwether by the news media. But even if the results accurately reflect the political environment of the moment, we're still so far away from the midterms that there is little sense in interpreting the Georgia race as an indicator of which party is favored to win the most seats in 2018. Throwing up your hands and saying "it's just soon to tell" is not a good strategy for advancing one's career in public punditry, where the constant reading of tea leaves is part of the job description. But in this case, it is just too soon to tell—so beware of anyone who says differently.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Trump Will Go When the Conservative Media Say It's Time to Go (Probably Never)

Donald Trump's presidency is barely four months old, but the events of the past week or so have seemed so explosively damaging to his position in the eyes of many observers that I spent part of my Tuesday morning on the phone with an Ottawa radio show explaining to Canadian listeners how the system of presidential impeachment works. It's not hard to understand why Trump has inspired a frenzy of "i-word" talk in Washington. His sacking of FBI director James Comey last week amid a federal investigation examining the Russian intervention into the 2016 election seemed more than a bit reminiscent of both Richard Nixon's attempt to obstruct an FBI probe into Watergate and Nixon's later firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, along with the top two officials of the Justice Department, in the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973. That Comey appears to have evidence demonstrating that he received personal pressure from Trump to end or limit the Russia probe has only further turned up the heat on a simmering scandal.

But while the Watergate parallels are undeniable, our current moment also bears resemblance to the early days of the process that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998–99. When the first reports of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and misleading sworn testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit emerged in the press, many pundits jumped to the conclusion that Clinton was finished as president, even predicting that he would be out of office within the week. Not only did Clinton remain to serve out his full term, but the revelation of the Lewinsky affair and Clinton's subsequent impeachment by the House of Representatives did not even put a dent in his job approval ratings (which actually increased over the course of the year). If Nixon's lesson is that messing around with an active law enforcement investigation ultimately leads to ruin for a sitting president, Clinton's experience teaches instead that what first looks like a catastrophic political problem can be transformed into a survivable, and even winnable, partisan fight (and, no less importantly, that media analysts sometimes lose their perspective in the midst of unforeseen events).

It's common for experts to say that impeachment is less a legal than a political process, but that observation can have several different meanings. First, it reflects that the constitutional language is brief and vague with respect to what presidential acts are properly considered impeachable offenses—"treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors"—and that interpretation of these terms falls in practice to the (elected) legislative branch rather than, as would otherwise be the case, the federal judiciary. Second, it takes into account that it's possible to imagine acceptable grounds for impeachment that are not technically against the law but violate the president's oath of office and deeply threaten the national interest (such as an abuse of the pardon power or excessive entanglement with foreign states). Third, it recognizes that debates over the impeachment and removal of a president are inescapably bound up in partisan and other "political" motivations; as in any other issue before the government, where you stand is, at least in part, a function of where you sit.

More broadly, the impeachment process is political because it involves the potential reversal of a national election. The question of democratic legitimacy is—properly, I think—central to discussions of impeachment. It is important for the stability and credibility of our system of government that such an act be widely viewed by the American public as an appropriate response to serious wrongdoing, not merely an exercise in partisan vengeance. And the public is not likely to come around to such a view quickly or easily.

It's easy to forget in retrospect how long the Watergate scandal lasted until Congress was ready to act on articles of impeachment—and how even then, Nixon's fate was not sealed until the release of the "smoking gun" tape that proved his involvement in the coverup from its earliest stages. Republican senators then abandoned Nixon's defense, concluding that even their own party's voters would accept his removal from office under such circumstances. In the Clinton case, neither impeachment nor conviction was supported by a majority of citizens. Republicans failed to convince the American people that Clinton deserved removal from office over what was widely understood as basically a sex scandal, or that their own motives in impeaching him rose above mere partisan warfare.

Many congressional Democrats, whose top leaders all served in Washington during the Clinton years, understand from that experience that looking too eager to yell "impeachment" before knowing all the facts can be politically risky, even as they must contend with a Trump-hating party base that will likely reward individual members who raise the question. And Republicans, of course, have no reason to entertain the notion at all. As much as they might privately mutter about Trump's behavior or wish that a snap of the fingers could deliver them a Mike Pence presidency instead, Republican members of Congress are not about to impeach a president of their own party. Debates over whether Trump's behavior rises to the level of an impeachable offense are certainly appropriate, but are at this stage purely academic.

What would it take for Republican support for Trump in Congress to crumble as Nixon's did in August 1974, forcing his premature departure from office? Republican politicians would not turn against Trump en masse without the support of a significant share of Republican voters, and Republican voters would only do so if persuaded by key members of the conservative media. This is not a wholly unthinkable scenario; conservative media figures have ultimately soured on every major national Republican politician in the post-Reagan era, and their enthusiasm for Trump will at least diminish substantially over his tenure in office if the mistakes and failures continue to pile up. But it's hard to imagine influential conservatives abandoning Trump for Pence unless the Republican legislative agenda runs completely aground and Trump proves fatal to the Republican Party's electoral standing in 2018. Even then, Republicans may well still resist actually joining together with Democratic opponents to support Trump's impeachment or removal from office.

So we're a long way away from impeachment proceedings being anything but a dimly hypothetical scenario. Congress could take other, less drastic steps to assert some control over Trump—perhaps starting with gaining some concessions to political normality in exchange for approving his executive-branch appointments—but the medium-term approach favored by the GOP seems to be "muddle through and hope things don't spiral too far out of control." From Republicans' point of view, that is quite possibly the best available option under the circumstances.

But it's still not a great place to be. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not popular enough to protect his party from potentially serious electoral backlash; unlike Nixon, Trump is not wounded enough to allow his party to help push him out the door and regroup with an untainted successor. Congressional Republicans find themselves in the middle of a political vise restricting their freedom of movement in both directions—and they, like Trump, aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Congressional Republicans Won't Abandon Trump Over Comey

Donald Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey this week might well be the single most damaging event so far of a presidency that has been defined by unrelenting chaos since its first day of existence. Sprung on the country with so little warning that even the White House's own press shop was caught completely unprepared to address the subject, the Comey sacking was accompanied by a public justification so completely implausible that Trump's own aides readily conceded its falsity to the press once guaranteed anonymity. It was immediately obvious that Trump's action was not motivated by a desire to avenge the unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton but was instead intended to squelch the FBI's investigation of his own campaign's ties with Russia—inspiring a plethora of comparisons to Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" and raising dark musings about obstruction of justice and other impeachable offenses.

Axing Comey was a bungle of multi-dimensional proportions. Trump may have been sick of hearing about Russia every time he turned on the television, but his "solution" to this particular problem merely ensured that cable news will talk about little else for weeks or more. Making enemies in the FBI also increases the probability that damaging information winds up leaking to the media, and any indication that pressure from the top has indeed attempted to curtail the Russia probe will set off a ten-ton explosion inside the Justice Department. It also makes the president look as if he is guilty of a serious offense—whether or not he actually is.

One might expect congressional Republicans to distance themselves as much as possible from the Comey affair, if only for the purposes of political self-preservation. With a few exceptions, however, party members have remained supportive of Trump's decision to fire Comey and dismissive of suggestions that the circumstances warrant the appointment of a special counsel or formation of an independent investigatory commission. House Speaker Paul Ryan characterized Trump's action as "an important command decision" and argued that "it was entirely within the president's role and authority to relieve" Comey. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly rejected Democratic calls for a special prosecutor on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, suggesting that the entire controversy was merely an exercise in partisanship.

It's likely that most Republicans in the House and Senate privately view the Comey firing as a mistake on Trump's part, and may even worry that the new president will continue to lurch from one self-made crisis to another over the next 18 months. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they think creating daylight between Trump and themselves would work to their own benefit. Republicans commonly view the successful mobilization of their own party's conservative base as the decisive factor in elections, rather than courting of the independent or swing vote. Under this theory, turning against Trump—no matter how much his behavior might justify it—only hurts the congressional party by reducing the enthusiasm of Republican voters for showing up at the polls in 2018 and 2020.

McConnell in particular believes that voters are persuaded more by partisan cues than by objective facts. His openly-acknowledged justification for preventing any bipartisan agreement on health care reform during the Obama administration was that bipartisanship "tend[s] to convey to the public that this is OK, they must have figured [the issue] out," resulting in broad popular support. In other words, voters are significantly more likely to approve of a policy endorsed by members of both parties than an identical policy over which Democrats and Republicans remain divided—which means that one's own party should avoid conceding ground to the positions adopted by its opponent whenever possible.

To McConnell, Republican support for any Democratic calls to investigate Trump would only signal to voters that Trump had indeed done something wrong, further reducing the president's public support and thus giving the Democrats even more of an advantage. Converting every Trump-related controversy into a partisan food fight instead allows Republicans to summon their base to rally behind them in yet another polarizing battle against the left. Since Democratic supporters are already likely to be highly motivated to turn out against Trump in the next two elections, Republicans are concerned about whether their own side will match their opponents' level of engagement.

Of course, this approach carries certain risks. The most obvious danger is that congressional Republicans could wind up chaining themselves more tightly to Trump just as he plummets off a political cliff. The lack of a meaningful difference between Trump and the rest of the Republican Party gives anti-Trump voters good reason to replace even personally popular Republican incumbents with Democratic challengers. Unless Trump finds a way to bolster his national popularity in the future, even a relatively energized Republican base may not be enough to protect the party against a wider popular backlash among Democrats and independents.

It's also quite possible that Ryan and McConnell would be better served in the long run by buzzing a warning pitch or two under Trump's chin at this stage of his presidency. Automatic party support for his various antics in office may only reinforce bad behavior on Trump's part, making future Comey-scale debacles all the more likely and dragging the entire party into an inescapable political morass. Occasional demonstrations of independence by congressional Republicans might have a constraining effect on a president with flawed knowledge, instincts, and judgment, encouraging him to consult with a wider array of interlocutors and steering him away from the most disastrous courses of action. Normally, party leaders' interests are not well-served by greater intra-party tension. But we are, at the moment, a fair ways off from normalcy.