Sunday, January 14, 2018

Will the 2018 Elections Create Another "Outsider Class" in the House?

The Republican midterm landslides of 1994 and 2010 washed unusually large freshman classes into the House of Representatives; roughly a third of the Republican conference in both the 1995-96 and 2011-12 Congresses consisted of newly-elected members (31% and 35%, respectively). Many of these House freshmen lacked previous experience in elective politics. In 2011, for example, the nation's new federal representatives included people who came to Washington from careers as a roofing contractor, an airline pilot, a nurse, a pizzeria owner, a youth camp director, and a professional auctioneer.

In part because many members viewed themselves as "citizen legislators" sent by an angry electorate to shake up business as usual, the classes of 1994 and 2010 immediately earned reputations for rebelling against Republican party leaders and other senior members; especially in 1994, a number of freshmen had pledged to serve a limited number of terms in Congress—giving them little patience for following the traditional practice of deferring to veteran colleagues while methodically climbing the ladder of seniority. As my political science colleague Richard Skinner recently explained, there is a long-standing historical pattern of large freshman classes forcing a redistribution of power within the House—aside from the two already mentioned, the reformist "Watergate class" of 1974 is another well-known example—thus leaving an enduring residue on the operation of Congress for years after their arrival.

Given the growing evidence that 2018 is shaping up to be a good electoral year for the Democrats that may well result in a Democratic House majority 12 months from now, Richard considers the possibility that a large and boisterous "Class of 2018" might similarly provide the voting power for further rounds of institutional reform or leadership challenges. At the very least, he notes, it is likely that newly-elected Democrats will claim a mandate to constrain the power of the Trump administration, which may produce innovations in procedural antagonism between the legislative and executive branches.

A resurgence of activist energy in the Democratic Party since the 2016 election is evident in the unusually large numbers of Democratic candidates for Congress and the record-breaking fundraising totals they have collectively achieved so far. Surveying the field of candidates in many competitive seats, however, reveals a relative lack of conventionally experienced potential nominees for a year in which the conventional wisdom predicts a favorable environment for the party. In Colorado-6 and Pennsylvania-6, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—an arm of the Democratic House leadership—has officially endorsed military veterans Jason Crow and Chrissy Houlahan to oppose Republican incumbents Mike Coffman and Ryan Costello. In Texas-7, three lawyers, one doctor, one university administrator, and one journalist are competing in the Democratic primary to face nine-term incumbent Republican John Culberson. In Washington-8, an open seat vacated by retiring Republican Dave Reichert, an even larger assortment of candidates (all lacking previous tenure in elective office) are jockeying to advance to the general election against the likely Republican nominee, a long-serving state legislator. Hillary Clinton carried all four of these districts against Donald Trump in 2016; Democrats probably need to win all four in order to achieve a national House majority in 2018.

National party leaders and interest groups usually prefer experienced candidates as congressional nominees, especially on the Democratic side; political professionals tend to have better name recognition and fundraising ability, and are viewed as less likely to commit damaging mistakes or suffer embarrassing personal revelations over the course of the campaign. In most cases, the DCCC would have first attempted to recruit elected officeholders to run in its top targeted districts, and thus the current raft of less experienced potential nominees represents a kind of "Plan B" for national Democrats. It's possible that some of these candidates will stumble during the long election season ahead, complicating the party's ambitions to regain control of the House. On the other hand, candidates who are not "career politicians" may hold their own distinctive appeal among swing voters, and records of business success or military service are commonly recognized by the American public as more than adequate qualifications in themselves for election to public office.

Due to the larger stable differences between the two parties, it's likely that the next Democratic freshman class will be less rebellious than their Republican predecessors even if it contains a significant proportion of politically inexperienced representatives. But a party leadership that is growing decidedly long in the tooth is unlikely to attract as much collective loyalty from a generation of younger members who are newer to politics as it has received from the fellow congressional senior citizens who have served alongside those leaders for decades. On the first day of the 2019-20 congressional session, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will be 78 years old, her deputy Steny Hoyer will be 79, and third-in-command Jim Clyburn will also be 78. Regardless of what happens this November, the time is nearing for House Democrats to consider the question of succession—and a large and independent-minded class of 2018 would be in position to exert plenty of influence over the party's next direction.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Television President

It's fair to say that Donald Trump owes his political career to the medium of television. It was television that successfully sold Trump to the nation as the personification of American business success—from his frequent appearances on talk shows and newsmagazines in the 1980s and 1990s to his prime-time network reality show that lasted from 2004 until he began running for office in 2015. When Trump turned his attention to conservative politics during the Obama years, Fox News Channel offered him a weekly platform to promote his views. And when Trump threw his hat in the presidential ring, he received far more television coverage than any other candidate. Other politicians, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, have often been recognized for their mastery of television, but only Trump harnessed modern media to leap directly into the White House without working his way up the traditional ladder of subordinate political offices, after-dinner speeches at state party fundraisers, and long days of hand-shaking and small talk at state fairs, train stations, and barbershops.

But public discussions of the relationship between television and Trump have perceptibly reversed course in recent weeks. Rather than emphasize Trump's reliance on television as a tool to reach his supporters, political observers have become preoccupied with television's influence on Trump.

The New York Times reported in December that Trump watches between four and eight hours of TV per day, while Axios revealed this week that the daily presidential schedule tends to be liberally sprinkled with periods of "executive time" during which the executive in question is often alone with his remote control. Trump has defensively denied these and similar claims, but the evidence is clear enough—the various subjects addressed by the presidential Twitter account frequently exhibit a close real-time correlation to the programming of cable news outlets, especially Fox News Channel. When combined with Trump's aversion to reading long memos or sitting through extended oral briefings—Michael Wolff has claimed in his new Trump exposé that White House aides view their boss as "semi-literate" and far too impatient to spend much time in meetings discussing substantive issues—as well as an apparent lack of Internet savvy beyond his beloved Twitter platform, we are left with a portrait of a president who absorbs nearly all his information through the tube.

Naturally, this behavior is treated by his critics as demonstrating Trump's profound personal unfitness for the office he now holds. But such conclusions also reflect the remarkably widespread acceptance of the belief that consuming hours upon hours of television news programming, day after day, still leaves viewers dangerously uninformed about current political events, the functioning of the government, and the state of international affairs—an assumption tacitly acknowledged by Trump's own furious denials of habitual couch potato-dom. If it's indeed true that relying on TV to educate oneself about the world is indeed a formula for perpetual ignorance, surely Trump cannot be the only one who is damningly indicted by this fact.

Television is on the whole pretty bad at covering politics, for reasons that extend from the limitations inherent in the medium to the financial calculations guiding the programming choices of television executives. Above all, television demands eye-catching visual footage—which directs its attention to individuals over institutions, to conflict over cooperation, and to activities that occur in public over those happening out of the camera's view. Compared to print media, television coverage tends to dwell on a small number of "top" stories over the course of a typical day, and its temporal frame of reference is nearly always instantaneous; small tidbits of "breaking" news win out over much more important long-term developments. Analysts and reporters are chosen for their ability to speak extemporaneously in real time—and for their more general polish and camera-friendliness—as much as for their substantive insights, and the perpetual desire to build as wide an audience as possible limits any focus on topics not deemed interesting to the average viewer.

These characteristics produce a fairly consistent set of distortions. Above all, television offers a view of the political world utterly dominated by the day-to-day behavior of the president; any other government official normally attracts a similar volume of coverage only upon the advent of a particularly juicy scandal. The internal operation of Congress is commonly treated as an impenetrable mystery or ignored altogether; judicial and bureaucratic politics seldom merit much attention. Events beyond the borders of the United States similarly receive extensive coverage principally on the occasion of American military action or acts of terrorist violence.

Given the consistently president-centric nature of television's political programming, it's surely understandable that Trump the TV addict has struggled for the entire length of his administration to reconcile the differences between the job he thought he was getting and the one he actually has. Trump has repeatedly chafed against the limitations of the presidency's formal powers, complaining repeatedly that members of Congress, federal judges, Cabinet departments, and even the media themselves don't automatically submit to his personal will. He appears much more engaged in those presidential duties that occur in public view—giving speeches, signing laws and executive orders, joint appearances with foreign leaders—than those relegated to the world off camera (such as substantive meetings and briefings, or the negotiations of legislative provisions). The Times report that Trump "told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals" surely rings true to most observers of his presidency—especially to nervous fellow Republicans who wouldn't mind it too much if the controversial and unpopular chief executive ceded the spotlight every once in a while.

This week, Trump reacted angrily to Wolff's portrayal of him as an emotionally unbalanced ignoramus by proclaiming on Twitter that he was, in fact, a "very stable genius" and "like, really smart." In order to substantiate these assertions, Trump unexpectedly allowed televised access to Tuesday's bipartisan congressional meeting on immigration over which he was presiding. Members of both parties came away from the experience without, shall we say, necessarily reporting more confidence in the president's intellectual acumen or command of policy on his signature issue—but it's a safe bet that Trump has not read the political scientist Richard Neustadt's classic work Presidential Power, which argues that presidential success requires maintaining a positive presidential reputation among other elite actors in the political system.

Instead, Trump claimed today that his appearance before the cameras was a triumphant personal success, based in part on his own consumption of the resulting attention on television: "It was reported as incredibly good [and] got great reviews by everybody . . . phenomenal [coverage] for about two hours . . . a lot of [news] anchors sent us letters saying that was one of the greatest meetings they ever witnessed. . . . I'm sure their ratings were fantastic; they always are." In other words, a very special episode.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Corporations and the Culture War: Op-Ed in the New York Times

I have a new op-ed piece in the New York Times explaining how the culture war has fueled geographic divisions in the American electorate, which in turn has ended up furthering the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations. The analysis draws on the research presented in my recent book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Special Election Recap: Alabama Shakes (Up the Senate)

Here are a few things we learned from the dramatic victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election last night:

1. Special election results are often over-interpreted as political harbingers, and this particular election would no doubt have turned out much differently if Republicans hadn't nominated Roy Moore. At the same time, it's fair to say that the outcome in Alabama constitutes one more data point indicating a major shift in the national partisan climate over the past year—when combined with the New Jersey and Virginia elections in November, the results of other scattered special elections elsewhere, and the increasingly pro-Democratic trend in the generic ballot and distribution of party identification in the population.

2. Moore really was one of the all-time worst candidates for major political office in a competitive race. Even before the sexual predation and assault accusations surfaced last month, he had almost lost an election for state supreme court in 2012 and was running ahead of Doug Jones by only about 10 points in a state Trump had won by 28 the year before. Moore raised very little money and barely campaigned in public, leaving the state entirely over the final weekend before the election. (He also demonstrated very little understanding of major issues that he would be voting on as a senator.)

3. Whether your post-election analysis of choice emphasizes the successful Democratic mobilization of the African-American vote on Jones's behalf or the defection from Moore of traditionally Republican well-to-do suburban whites, both developments represent major political stories (and both were critical to Jones's chances of victory in a normally safe Republican state). Moore was the kind of figure who not only provoked energetic opposition from the Democratic base but also failed to inspire unity (and similarly enthusiastic turnout rates) among the members of his own party. The biggest danger for national Republicans heading into 2018 is that Donald Trump shares these attributes as well.

4. It's hard to beat somebody with nobody in politics, and Democrats have nominated a lot of nobodies for office in red states lately. (The last time that this particular seat was up for election in 2014, in fact, the Democratic candidate was literally nobody.) The party was very fortunate to have a viable candidate on hand in Jones (who needed to jump in the race before knowing that Moore would wind up being the Republican nominee), demonstrating the importance of recruiting high-quality candidates even when most voters can be predicted to simply vote the party line. The pro-Democratic drift of well-educated, prosperous suburbanites is particularly key for Democratic chances in future elections, from Congress all the way down to the state and local level. Well-educated, prosperous people tend to be strong potential candidates for political office, and the suburbs tend to be electorally pivotal in most parts of the country. Democratic gains in the Virginia legislature last month, for example, mostly occurred in suburban districts that were already shifting Democratic in the presidential vote but where veteran Republican incumbent legislators were previously unused to facing serious challengers; a groundswell of attractive Democratic candidates is necessary for the party to take full advantage of the favorable national environment that it is likely to have in 2018.

5. The flipping of the Alabama seat will have only minor implications for the operation of the Senate over the next year; assuming that Republicans manage to push their tax reform bill through Congress before Jones is seated, any other legislative action will require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But the prospect of a Democratic majority in the Senate after the 2018 election is now quite realistic, requiring a net gain of two seats (with Nevada and Arizona the most obvious targets) rather than the previous three. Jones's victory also increases the odds of a 50-50 Senate in 2019–2020 with Susan Collins of Maine serving as the pivotal vote—not as dramatic a shift as an outright Democratic majority would be, but still a very real complication for the Trump administration's legislative goals and executive/judicial appointment objectives heading into the 2020 election.

6. For this reason, it's pretty silly to argue that Republicans are better off with Moore losing the election. True, a Senator Moore would have been an extremely awkward presence in the Capitol, and dilemmas about how to handle the accusations against him would have created a lot of headaches for Moore's fellow Republican senators. But every seat is incalculably precious in our current partisan environment, and Mitch McConnell would presumably rather be a majority leader with Moore sniping at him from the back benches than risk losing control of the chamber entirely.

7. There's a lot of anger being directed against Steve Bannon by Washington Republicans today for supposedly saddling the party with Moore, and for vowing to help other similarly-styled candidates win Republican primaries next year. Not only does this line of argument exaggerate Bannon's personal influence over an Alabama primary election that Moore—already a well-known figure in the state—won by nearly 10 points, but it also ignores the fact that Republicans have been regularly nominating controversial if not toxic candidates for high office since the beginning of the Obama administration. The bigger problem, of which Bannon's rise is more symptom than cause, is that an ideologically-oriented party is particularly susceptible to popular appeals based on doctrinal purity and punch-the-left confrontationalism over other attributes such as electability, policy command, and general suitability for office. It's probably true that the conservative media bears a lot of responsibility for this trend, but blaming Bannon or Breitbart alone is overly simplistic—and convenient. After all, Roy Moore was a popular conservative hero back when Steve Bannon was still a Hollywood movie producer.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Today at the Washington Post: Roy Moore and the GOP

I have a new post up today on the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, kicking off the big election day in Alabama with an analysis of what Roy Moore's campaign can tell us about the distribution of power within the Republican Party.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An Honest Graft Thanksgiving: The Generation Gap Keeps Growing

The term "generation gap" is most commonly associated with the 1960s and early 1970s, when the unusually large cohort of Americans born during the post-World War II baby boom reached adolescence and then adulthood. According to a widely-accepted perception, a society-wide gulf opened up during this period dividing the then-youthful baby boomers from their parents and grandparents over political issues such as civil rights, women’s rights, and the Vietnam War as well as cultural battles over music, art, fashion, sexual practices, and recreational drug use. A half-century later, the popular identification of "the sixties" with a burst of youth-led social change remains as familiar as ever in the collective American mind, even for the growing share of the national population born too late to have experienced the era themselves.

But a much bigger, though less well-promoted, generation gap is happening right now. The difference in political loyalties between younger and older Americans is both larger and more consistent today than it was during the golden age of boomer self-mythologization:

This growing gap in the partisan affections of the young and the old is caused by two parallel developments. One is that Americans under the age of 40, especially members of the "millennial generation" (born in 1982 and after), are distinctively more liberal and Democratic than their older counterparts. The other is that older generations have become more Republican-leaning over time—even the baby boomers who once symbolized sixties-style lefty politics:

Unsurprisingly, Gallup data find that job approval of President Trump is consistently correlated with age. Older Americans have collectively mixed feelings about Trump, while younger Americans overwhelmingly dislike him:

Trump Job Approval by Age, Jan–Nov 2017

The contemporary generation gap also extends to non-presidential elections. Both of the governor's races held earlier this month produced significant age differences in partisan support. In Virginia, voters aged 18-44 supported Democrat Ralph Northam for governor by a 30-point margin (64 percent to 34 percent), according to media exit polls, while voters 45 and older narrowly preferred his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie (51 percent to 49 percent). In New Jersey, Democratic candidate Phil Murphy and Republican nominee Kim Guadagno similarly split the over-45 vote (exit polls gave Murphy a 3-point edge) while Murphy swept the under-45 vote by a lopsided ratio (66 percent to 30 percent).

American politics today is shot through with intergenerational conflict, from cultural disagreements over transgender rights to economic proposals that raise tax rates on students while cutting them for wealthy investors and the estates of multimillionaires. If your Thanksgiving dinner table becomes the battleground for a political war between the generations this week, you will surely not be alone.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What Matters for Moore Is the View from Alabama, Not Washington

The accelerating litany of serious accusations against U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama has prompted incumbent Republican senators to denounce and distance themselves from their party's embattled nominee over the past few days. Reactions within the chamber that Moore seeks to join next month have been uniformly harsh, ranging from the withdrawal of previous endorsements to calls for Moore to be immediately expelled from the Senate if he were to win the December 12 election.

Reporters are busy this week chasing down reluctant Republicans in Capitol hallways to put them on record about the Moore situation, revealing what appears to be a rough consensus that (a) Moore should drop out of the race and (b) a more suitable Republican candidate should mount a write-in campaign regardless of whether he does drop out.

This is all perfectly newsworthy, but not likely to matter too much in terms of what happens from here. Moore has no particular reason to listen to what Washington Republicans say. If he thought that he couldn't win despite their opposition, he might consider withdrawing to avoid a humiliating defeat—but why would he think that? After all, Moore defeated the appointed incumbent, Luther Strange, by nine points in the Republican primary runoff even though Strange enjoyed the backing of virtually all of the party's national elected leadership.

Of course, the most powerful Republican in Washington has yet to weigh in; a presidential denouncement would be more damaging to Moore than criticisms from the likes of Jeff Flake and Susan Collins. Even so, Trump inserting himself into the race seems like a necessary but hardly sufficient prerequisite for a Moore withdrawal or successful end-around of the official Republican nominee via write-in balloting.

And the president seems unlikely to devote himself to pushing Moore out once he returns to the White House from his trip overseas. Trump felt burned by the primary, when he campaigned for Strange only to see Alabama Republicans choose Moore instead, and will not be enthusiastic about taking on the risk of exhibiting political weakness a second time in the same election.  Plus, the specific nature of the accusations against Moore makes the whole issue a treacherous one for Trump to raise given his own personal record. He's in a poor position to adopt the this-is-not-what-the-Republican-Party-stands-for argument that George H. W. Bush made when disavowing David Duke's 1990 campaign against Louisiana senator Bennett Johnston, the closest parallel to the current situation in modern Senate history.

It's only natural for a press corps based in Washington to adopt a Washington-centric view of the race. But Alabama residents are more likely to be influenced by other Alabama residents. If Moore drops out (an unlikely development), if a write-in campaign gains traction, or if a critical mass of Republican voters skips the election or defects to Democratic nominee Doug Jones, it will reflect the political environment in Alabama and the behavior of party leaders, elected officials, and media outlets at the state level. And so far, the Moore revelations have been met with much less shock and outrage in the places where this election will actually be decided than in the Potomac-adjacent environs where Republican federal officeholders preside with waning influence over the untidy affairs of their party.