Thursday, April 28, 2016

What Does Trump Tell Us About the Republican Party?

Donald Trump has confounded so many expectations, breaking so many supposed "iron laws" of American politics along the way, that it is tempting for those of us who initially and incorrectly dismissed his chances as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination to compensate for our error by proclaiming that the United States has unexpectedly entered a very different political age in which none of the old rules apply and a brave new Trumpian future awaits us all. In this vein, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, a conservative who shared many other normally-perceptive observers' previous skepticism of the Trump candidacy—as late as March 8, Douthat was predicting a Trump defeat—has written a new column trying to make sense of what the Trump phenomenon reveals about the state of American politics in general and the Republican Party in particular.

Douthat cites several previous characterizations of the political world that have been challenged by Trump's rise, including my research with Matt Grossmann concluding that the American party system is asymmetrically split between a party defined by a common ideological identity (the Republicans) and a party organized around a coalition of social groups (the Democrats). He writes:

But there was also a fair amount of political-science evidence that the Republicans really were a more ideological party than the Democrats, less inclined to view compromise in favorable terms, more inclined to regard politics through a philosophical rather than an interest-group service lens. 
Until Donald Trump blew this model up. Yes, Trump has adopted conservative positions on various issues, but he’s done so in a transparently cynical fashion, constantly signaling that he doesn’t really believe in or understand the stance that he’s taking, constantly suggesting a willingness to bargain any principle away. Except for immigration hawks, practically every ideological faction in the party regards Trump with mistrust, disgust, suspicion, fear. Pro-lifers, foreign-policy hawks, the Club for Growth, libertarians — nobody thinks Trump is really on their side. And yet he’s winning anyway. 
Or at least he’s winning a plurality. So perhaps Trumpism can be understood as a coup by the G.O.P.’s ideologically flexible minority against the conservative movement’s litmus tests; indeed to some extent that’s clearly what’s been happening.

It is true that Trump, almost uniquely for a Republican candidate, does not portray his political goals as derived from an abstract commitment to small-government principles or constitutional values. His is a much more colloquial style anchored less in hostility to federal power than in two other strains of conservatism—nationalism and racial resentment—that also have a long pedigree on the American right but have historically been less central to the intellectual foundations of the modern conservative movement or the practice of Republican Party politics. He has demonstrated that many Republican voters are not sufficiently alienated by such heterodoxies as support for current levels of entitlement spending, skepticism about free-trade agreements, and criticism of the Iraq War to turn away from a candidate whom they find otherwise appealing.

Yet it's difficult to conclude that Trump single-handedly disproves the existence of fundamental asymmetries between the parties. If Trump is not a doctrinaire conservative, neither is he a conciliatory moderate, and he is not running on a laundry list of detailed policy initiatives directed toward individual social groups, as is common practice among Democrats. (Indeed, Trump could hardly constitute better evidence in favor of our conclusion that many Republican supporters are motivated by broad rhetorical themes, not policy specifics.)

When Douthat writes that "nobody thinks Trump is really on their side," he's referring to a set of organizations and activists that have traditionally served as the leadership of the American conservative movement. It appears, however, that Republican voters look more and more to the most popular personalities in the conservative media universe (whose increasing and unparalleled influence is a major theme of our forthcoming book) for political guidance. If Trump is really a phony conservative, they reason, wouldn't Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity let us know?

Finally, while one might personally agree with Douthat's characterization of Trump as a "transparently cynical" candidate who "doesn't really believe in or understand" his own purported views, it is clear that Trump has managed to convince many Republican voters of the opposite: that he is a uniquely bold teller of truths who is courageously taking on a timid and corrupt Republican "establishment." It is perhaps appropriate for many conservatives who cheered on the Tea Party movement but are now aghast at Trump's success to consider the extent to which they themselves have contributed to the destruction of the national Republican leadership's popular credibility among the party's own primary electorate. Frequent depictions of figures like John McCain, Mitt Romney, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell as sell-outs and secret liberals have created a power vacuum that both Trump and Ted Cruz have filled, and have removed what would otherwise be a potentially powerful mechanism with which to fight them.

All in all, Trump is indeed an imperfect fit for a Republican Party that has traditionally conceived of itself as dedicated to the cause of limited government. But observers who are now proclaiming the Age of Trump should risk extrapolating too much from a single data point (some of us are old enough to recall when Ross Perot supposedly represented the future of American politics). If Trump, who lacks a loyal faction within the party's elected officeholders, loses the election, the Republican Party will retreat and regroup to consider its future and the lessons of the campaign—and many of the loudest voices within the party will unite in declaring that Trump was indeed a deeply flawed nominee.

Next time, they'll say, let's nominate someone different—a true conservative.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Northeast Tuesday: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. You can't beat somebody with nobody, and Donald Trump is running against a couple of nobodies in the Republican presidential primaries—at least as far as East Coast voters are concerned. Ted Cruz's brand of southern conservatism just doesn't play well among the Republicans of the eastern seaboard, and John Kasich is barely running a campaign at all (he has won fewer delegates than Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the race six full weeks ago after a series of humiliating defeats). Trump racked up landslide margins in all five states voting last night, giving him enough delegates that he remains in sight of gaining an overall majority by the end of the primary season.

2. There may be less "momentum" than usual this year, defined as shifts in voter support from one candidate to another based on the results of the sequential primaries. However, any organized effort to block a Trump nomination depends on a perceived possibility of success, and Trump's five-state sweep last night is a body blow to the morale of the "Never Trump" movement. If he manages to win Indiana next week, he may even attain the status of "presumptive nominee."

3. It's likely that the less frenzied election schedule in the back half of the primary calendar has helped Trump on balance. The shock of his early success has worn off, and with no debates and fewer incidents of physical violence at his campaign rallies over the last few weeks, he has succeeded in entrenching himself as the familiar front-runner while Cruz and Kasich have struggled for attention. Trump might not have reached such a secure position in the race if prominent conservatives had used the last month-and-a-half to build a public case against him. But with DC favorite Marco Rubio out of the race after March 15, the only serious remaining alternative to Trump in the race was Cruz, and it's clear that few influential Republicans were interested in risking their own standing within the party only to benefit the junior senator from Texas.

4. Pennsylvania is worth keeping an eye on when calculating the overall Republican delegate count. Under state party rules, most of the state's delegates are officially unbound to any candidate. It appears, however, that the Trump campaign succeeded in electing many of its supporters to delegate slots, while a number of other delegates have promised to vote for the winner of the state or congressional district (which would also be Trump, who carried every district in Pennsylvania). Trump's numerical path to an overall majority is much easier if he can count on another 30 to 40 delegates beyond his official pledged delegate haul from the ranks of the Pennsylvania delegation.

5. Who was the last non-incumbent presidential candidate who easily captured the nomination of a major party and began the general election as the overwhelming favorite to win the White House? I'm not sure of the answer (even Franklin D. Roosevelt, though the clear front-runner in 1932, needed four ballots to be nominated due to the two-thirds vote required by the Democratic convention at the time), but both of these criteria surely apply this year to Hillary Clinton now that it is likely that she will face Trump in November. To hear much of the press tell it, though, she is in big trouble. Channel-flipping last night brought me to a panel of MSNBC reporters moderated by Chuck Todd who went on and on about Clinton's political weaknesses and the prospect of Bernie Sanders-supporting millennials deserting her in favor of Trump in the general election. One does not need to be a Clinton admirer to admit that, by all objective evidence, she is at this moment far and away the most likely person to become the 45th president of the United States next January, yet much of the news media is completely unable to acknowledge her good fortune—much less give her any credit for bringing it on herself with the application of political skill.

We are headed into a general election in which one nominee may have a steady and significant lead for the entire length of the campaign even as the press constantly warns that she is susceptible to defeat by the other party (which is, incidentally, busy tearing itself apart as it nominates a highly flawed candidate). Nothing is guaranteed in electoral politics, but a congenitally Trump-hyping media universe has not yet come to terms with his unprecedented weaknesses in appealing to a broader electorate outside the Republican primaries, and a press corps that has long been suspicious of Hillary Clinton is routinely inclined to overstate her political vulnerabilities.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump Can't Transform the GOP By Himself

One of the most common responses to the question What Does Trump Mean? seems to consist of speculation that Trump is poised to provoke a wholesale redefinition of the policy agenda and popular base of the Republican Party, threatening both its national electoral fortunes and its status as the political home of the American conservative movement for years or even decades to come. A newly-published article from the Washington Examiner does a good job of summarizing this point of view, though it has emerged repeatedly over the past several months.

It's easy to understand the palpable despair dripping off of both the conservative intelligentsia and the Republican consultant community at the prospect of a Trump nomination. Yet the future long-term effects of Trump's rise are difficult to predict, and there are many more reasons to doubt that his current success presages a large-scale realignment than there are reasons to believe it.

The potential for Trump to remake the GOP is obviously much greater if he were to be elected president. But even victorious presidential candidates do not receive automatic deference from the House members and senators of their party. Because there is little reason to believe that a President Trump would establish a particularly good working relationship with Congress even if it remains under Republican control, the likelihood of Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell collaborating to marginalize the conservative movement and lead the GOP in a new, more dangerous direction seems much lower than the Trump administration's agenda becoming hopelessly bogged down in the legislative branch due to bipartisan opposition.

If Trump loses the general election, and loses it badly—surely a much more probable outcome, from today's vantage point—his ability to exert enduring influence over Republican politics is even less clear. Trump leads no definable faction within the party. He has few acolytes among the ranks of Republican officeholders, activists, and interest group leaders who would be left to pick up the pieces after a defeated Trump returns to his eponymous Manhattan tower. Other Republican candidates in the future will adopt his positions and style in an attempt to replicate his success in the nomination process, but may well find that his celebrity status and unique persona were a necessary component of his popular appeal.

Trump may well cause Republicans some problems that persist past this November. He may tarnish the party's reputation more enduringly among young voters and Latinos, for example. But parties are resilient things, electorally speaking. Note how far the political landscape shifted between 1992 and 1994, or between 2004 and 2006, or between 2008 and 2010. Observers who bet on "permanent" majorities (or minorities) are routinely—and often rapidly—disproven. Trump may well be a nightmare for the GOP, but not one from which it is unlikely to awaken.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Don't Like the Presidential Nomination Process? Save Some Blame For the States!

When presidential nomination contests are not wrapped up quickly in the first few weeks of voting, the slower pace of the primary calendar thereafter produces fertile ground for widespread gripes about the nomination process itself. The daily thrills and plot twists of February and March give way to the more tedious week-to-week slog of April and May, leaving more time and energy for broader evaluations of the nomination system. Supporters of candidates who are still actively campaigning but face diminishing odds of success can easily direct their frustration toward the rules and norms that seem to be responsible for preventing their desired outcome, even as backers of the front-runner express annoyance that their own favorite is still forced to withstand fire from also-rans within the party.

This year, the various procedural quirks of the process have received more than the usual amount of scrutiny—perhaps because both parties' races are still nominally unresolved as of late April (for the first time since 1980), because the insurgent Trump and Sanders candidacies are particularly sensitive to any apparent evidence that the deck has been stacked against them by the dreaded party "establishment," and/or because the internet has a way of amplifying dissatisfaction of every sort.

Everyone, it seems, has a list of grievances. The Trump campaign is suspicious that delegates are being unjustly denied them by state party conventions in Colorado and elsewhere. Anti-Trump Republicans lament delegate allocation rules that have disproportionately favored Trump and prevented non-Trump sentiment from coalescing behind a single rival candidate. Bernie Sanders supporters decry the existence of closed primary rules in some states; Hillary Clinton supporters decry the existence of caucuses in others. Behind many of these complaints is the assumption that one or both national parties wish things to be as they now are, presumably for some nefarious reason or reasons, and not only allow but encourage various infringements on democratic principles in order to serve other, less high-minded purposes.

Other political scientists have defended the parties and their role in structuring the nomination process. I wish to make a slightly different point, which is that the national party committees, though nominally in control of presidential nominations, face significant practical constraints in imposing their will upon the state parties and state governments that actually operate elections. Many of the specific aspects of the process that provoke popular disdain—the disproportionate influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, the inconsistency in delegate allocation formulas and voter eligibility requirements from state to state, the inept organization of many state caucuses—are, in truth, merely tolerated by the national parties. It is the states that insist upon them, and the states that therefore bear most of the responsibility for these departures from "pure" democratic equality.

Of course, the national parties could in theory attempt to impose stringent requirements on the states to smooth out these various inconsistencies, but practical complications are likely to ensue. If a national party were to mandate that all delegates be selected via primary elections, for example, but some states refused to authorize the public funds to hold them, what then? Would those states go wholly unrepresented at the national conventions—and, if so, would this be a more "democratic" outcome than the current system, which allows voters to attend party caucuses instead? Could the national parties insist on closed primaries nationwide, even though about half of American states do not have official party registration? Could they likewise require open primaries, even though some presidential primaries are held concurrently with primaries for down-ballot offices that might be influenced by the participation of voters from outside the party?

The imposition of strict national rules on the states and state parties is further impeded by the fact that the national parties, like the national government, are federal systems. National committees are comprised of representatives from the state parties, who select the national party chair and vote on internal party rules. A promise to crack down on the freedom of the states to run their primaries and caucuses as they prefer is unlikely to be a popular sentiment within any internal party committee or a winning platform for any candidate for national party chair. If anything, the state parties would prefer even more autonomy. Howard Dean ran successfully for chairman of the Democratic National Committee after the 2004 election by promising to direct more party money and resources to the state Democratic organizations, which turned out to be a very popular position among the ranks of the state party chairs who held seats on the national committee.

It is easy to look at the current complex and disjointed nomination system and call for large-scale reforms. Indeed, some reforms would be undoubtedly well-advised. But let's remember that others have come before us, with similar plans for changes to the process in the name of equality and fairness—and that their ambitions were foiled by the enduring ability of the states to defend their own turf against the attempted interference of the national parties. If you're looking to cast blame for what you don't like about the current nomination system, don't forget that the states deserve their fair share.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

New York: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. Donald Trump won the New York primary in a landslide, receiving about 60 percent of the popular vote and about 90 of the state's 95 Republican delegates. Trump undoubtedly benefited from a home-state advantage, but his performance bodes well for his chances in the five other northeastern states voting next Tuesday. Trump remains on track to flirt with an overall delegate majority by the end of the primary season in June.

2. Beyond the topline results, two additional developments represent good news for Trump. The first is Ted Cruz's poor performance. Cruz's brand of politics is not a natural fit for the Northeast, even among Republican voters, and he probably suffered from making a derogatory remark about "New York values" earlier in the race (perhaps not thinking ahead at the time). But the outcome in New York suggests that Cruz has not emerged as the main rival to Trump everywhere in the nation, and the fact that most of the remaining states on the calendar are located on the East and West coasts suggests that his campaign will face a serious challenge in consolidating the non-Trump vote and demonstrating positive "momentum" that might potentially impress Republican delegates weighing whether to throw the nomination to him over Trump.

3. Perhaps more importantly, Trump's victory speech departed from his signature cutting and bombastic style, lacking his usual tossed-off remarks belittling his Republican opponents. Some analysts have suggested that this new approach reflects a recent campaign shakeup in which nominal campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was unofficially supplanted by the more experienced Republican operative Paul Manafort. Trump's path to the nomination, still numerically unassured and perhaps hinging on the behavior of a pivotal bloc of unpledged delegates, will be smoothed considerably if he reduces the cloud of controversy surrounding his candidacy and signals a willingness to take advice from experienced campaign professionals.

In the past, the apparent emergence of a "kinder, gentler" Trump has been quickly reversed by a new eruption of slash-and-burn politics, so it is too soon to conclude that his speech marks a new strategic direction. Yet it is worth keeping an eye on his behavior in the coming weeks. At the very least, a more conciliatory Trump will dampen the energy within the party to organize a stop-Trump effort after the end of the primary season, which may allow him to claim the nomination even if he falls just short of a majority in pledged delegates. If a new, nicer style makes Trump's nomination more likely, however, it may not be in the interest of the Republican Party as a whole.

4. The Democratic race remains where it was before, with future nominee Hillary Clinton fending off a spirited but unsuccessful challenge from Bernie Sanders in New York, as she has done in the contest at large. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver attracted some attention last night by suggesting on MSNBC that Sanders will remain as an active candidate all the way to the July convention, pressuring superdelegates along the way to deliver him the nomination even though he will fail to receive a majority of pledged delegates. I wouldn't make too much of this, though. All political campaigns insist that a path to victory remains in sight, no matter how long the odds, right up until the moment of concession. Ultimately, the decision about what to do after the primaries are over will rest with Sanders himself, and there is no reason to believe that he will necessarily continue to contest the race once the voting ends. Some Democrats are worried about lasting divisions in the party if Sanders does not immediately rally around Clinton, but experience demonstrates that wounds incurred during the nomination season will be a distant memory by the time that the November election occurs.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Search for a Liberal Party

Jamelle Bouie of Slate has published a well-argued and beautifully-written piece placing the Bernie Sanders campaign in the larger context of Democratic Party politics past and present. While the headline ("There Is No Bernie Sanders Movement") will undoubtedly provoke complaints among some Sanders fans, the article itself is complimentary of Sanders, who has exceeded most expectations and demonstrated that a campaign devoted to purist liberalism can attract significant popular support. At the same time, the delegate arithmetic is clear: Sanders will not win the Democratic presidential nomination, and it is worth considering why his political message ultimately found a limited appeal even among the Democratic primary electorate.

Bouie's main conclusion, with which I concur unreservedly, is that committed liberals remain a minority within the Democratic Party. "The broad point," he writes, "is that a 'political revolution' can’t rest on a call for clean government and ideological rigor—the crux of Sanders’ general argument. The Democratic Party isn’t yet an ideological party, and many of its voters don’t put ideology or good-government reform at the top of their lists." From the standpoint of accumulating delegates, Sanders's fate was sealed by his inability to convince a greater share of African-Americans and other racial minorities that he would better represent their views and interests than would Hillary Clinton. The Democratic Party is a group coalition, and Sanders was unable to build a broad enough alliance of groups within the party to overtake Clinton in the national delegate count.

The pattern of a liberal insurgent losing a Democratic nomination race to a more moderate, transactional rival is a common one; Sanders's counterparts in previous years include Howard Dean (2004), Bill Bradley (2000), and Jerry Brown (1992). Because Sanders outperformed these predecessors, Bouie suggests that his campaign could serve as the foundation for the rise of a new liberal movement that might succeed down the road in capturing control of the Democratic Party, just as the modern conservative movement identified with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan became the dominant faction of the Republican Party by the 1980s. In my view, however, this remains an unlikely development. Among the reasons why:

1. It's unclear how much of Sanders's electoral success is a product of Hillary Clinton's specific weaknesses. In particular, his overwhelming margins among young voters might have been attenuated had he been facing a more conventional Democratic opponent, or opponents, who could also claim to be a fresh political face and who remained free of the baggage left by the Clintonist compromises of the 1990s and early 2000s. If Sanders were running against some combination of Cory Booker, Chris Murphy, and Amy Klobuchar, would voters under the age of 35 appear equally enthusiastic about the prospect of implementing socialism as the defining creed of the Democratic Party?

2. Because Sanders is not himself a Democrat, he is not in a position after the election to lead an internal faction of Democratic politicians and activists dedicated to remaking the party as a vehicle of the liberal cause—and it is unclear who else within the party has the national standing and influence to do so on his behalf. Elizabeth Warren is the most likely figure, although it is unclear whether she wishes to play such a role. Sanders disproportionately receives support from voters who are not themselves Democratic identifiers; why would we expect these voters not only to join the Democratic Party but also to become active within its ranks if their political hero has never done the same?

3. The American left, such as it is, has long had an ambivalent relationship with electoral politics in general and Democratic Party politics in particular. While the conservative movement threw itself into gaining root-and-branch control of the Republican organizational apparatus and using it to persuade and mobilize voters on behalf of conservative candidates, there has been no sustained counterpart to these efforts on the left; leftists often prefer other forms of protest such as marches, occupations, boycotts, and internet activism. (To take a recent example, compare the Tea Party movement to the Occupy movement. One side emphasized engagement in partisan politics and electoral participation on behalf of a policy agenda, the other did not. Which approach was more successful?) The current activity on behalf of the Sanders campaign will not be sustained past the end of his candidacy if his supporters view his defeat as signaling the futility of electoral mobilization rather than as a promising start upon which to build a sustainable movement.

4. The final triumph of the conservative movement within the Republican Party did not occur until Ronald Reagan demonstrated that a conservative candidate could win a national election, thus removing the strongest remaining justification for the existence of moderate Republicanism. It is unclear at best whether a Sanders-style liberal is electable; Bouie notes that left-wing Democrats are rarely elected statewide even at the sub-presidential level outside of the Northeast and coastal West. 

Even if a future Sandersesque candidate manages to win the Democratic nomination, a general-election defeat would only reinforce the instincts of many party actors that purist liberalism is, regardless of its other merits, ballot-box poison in the United States. As a result, non-purist Democrats would gain substantial justification for their efforts to swing the party back toward the center (as previously occurred in the mid-1970s and early 1990s).

5. Finally, it is unclear whether Sanders-style liberalism would be successful as a governing strategy even if granted officeholding power by the American electorate. Sanders is less interested than most Democrats in conceding ground to expert-dominated technocracy or the constraints of political pragmatism, which allows him to propose a bold legislative agenda and make campaign promises that remain appealingly unrestrained by the disappointing limitations of practicality. Once the election is over, however, the concrete demands of Democratic constituencies will not be satisfied by mere symbolic measures. Sanders's single-payer health care plan, for example, may be more ideologically pure than Obama's comparatively kludgy Affordable Care Act, but if he can't get it passed—or if it is enacted but fails to provide the benefits that it promises—than many Democratic supporters will judge his approach wanting, and look around for an alternative strategy that doesn't make the perfect the enemy of the good. 

The current "impure" nature of the Democratic Party does not reflect the triumph of corrupt corporate sellouts over innocent idealists, but instead represents the hard-won experience of most core groups within the party coalition that incrementalism and ideological flexibility are the best way to realize their political goals. If Sanders, or a future Sanders type, wishes to convince Democrats to dispense with that assumption, he or she would need to demonstrate that a more dogged adherence to ideological doctrine is equally if not more successful in addressing the specific social problems that Democratic constituencies seek to solve. Until then, the Democratic Party will remain a party on the left, but not truly of the left.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Debate Recap: More of the Same

Despite some sparks of mutual personal irritation, Thursday night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders reflected the stasis that the Democratic race has acquired. Clinton is still the pragmatist with a safe lead, Sanders is still the purist with a devoted base of support. Clinton feels vulnerable enough to Sanders's attacks to insist that he is denying the degree of their actual agreement over issues such as a $15 minimum wage and reforms of the Social Security tax, but not vulnerable enough to actually move her positions on other issues where the two candidates clearly differ (such as foreign policy, free college, and single-payer health care) further to the ideological left.

Any possibility that either Clinton or Sanders might say something particularly new or interesting was snuffed out by the CNN moderators, who were especially fond of cutting the candidates off in mid-sentence just as they were engaging with each other or moving past the two-minute responses that they had already given in previous debates. All in all, it was not a newsworthy event.

The news media face an incentive to hype the race to keep readers and viewers engaged. But assuming that the polls are right and Clinton gains a solid victory in the New York primary on Tuesday, the state of the delegate arithmetic will then become too clear-cut for anyone but the most committed Sanders supporters to ignore. While the final set of primaries will take another six weeks to play out, the final chapter of this contest is now coming into view.