Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Should Democrats Really Worry About a Contested Convention?

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report published an op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday provocatively titled "Why a Long Democratic Primary Slugfest Might Help Re-Elect Trump." In the piece, Wasserman argues that the Democratic presidential nomination race in 2020 could well turn out to be a protracted fight that exposes or exacerbates wide rifts within the party, that the identity of the Democratic nominee might remain unresolved until the national convention, and that internal conflict could prevent Democrats from unifying to defeat Donald Trump in the November general election.

At the foundation of Wasserman's case is an important observation: under the internal rules of the Democratic Party, winning a majority of pledged delegates requires attracting at least a near-majority of the popular vote in presidential primaries. That's because Democrats, unlike Republicans, mandate the proportional allocation of delegates; all candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a state or congressional district are entitled to a corresponding share of the delegates chosen there regardless of whether they place first. If there are multiple candidates attracting significant but not overwhelming popular support over an extended segment of the primary calendar, no single candidate will accumulate a majority of delegates, and therefore the national party might assemble in Milwaukee on July 13, 2020 without a certain nominee.

However, I think that this scenario is far less probable than Wasserman suggests—and that even if no candidate ends the primary season with a majority of delegates formally pledged to him or her, neither unusually bitter infighting nor ineffective opposition to the Republican ticket are particularly likely consequences. Here are some of the reasons behind this skepticism:

1. The early states will immediately cull the field. At the current preliminary stage of the process, it's relatively easy to envision a long competition with multiple strong contenders. But the early states invariably impose a deep and sometimes brutal mark on the race, reinforced by the news media's enthusiasm for branding candidates as either winners or (more commonly) losers. There have been 20 contested presidential nominations since the modern system was introduced in 1972, and the eventual nominee placed no worse than second in the New Hampshire primary in all 20 elections. Unsuccessful candidates may not immediately drop out if they do badly in the first few states, but unless they can consistently reach the necessary 15 percent threshold of popular support in the face of the resulting negative publicity or media inattention, they won't be able to deprive the front-runner of delegates.

2. Front-loading might end the race sooner, not later. Wasserman argues that the front-loading of the nomination calendar paradoxically increases the chance of a dragged-out competition, because many pledged delegates will be chosen at a point when multiple active candidates could potentially split the electoral map among themselves. It's possible to see things working out that way. But it seems equally plausible that the evolution of Super Tuesday into an early March quasi-national primary raises the level of financial and organizational resources necessary to run a viable campaign beyond the reach of more than a handful of candidates, and that the extensive media coverage required to catch the eye of voters tuning into the race after Iowa and New Hampshire will similarly be divided among just two or three main contenders. If the results of Super Tuesday and the two following weeks give one candidate a large enough lead in the delegate count, the front-loading of the calendar could produce an apparent nominee by March 17, since the combination of proportional allocation requirements and the lack of delegate-rich states voting later in the season makes it even more difficult for a trailing opponent to mount a second-half comeback.

3. The Democratic Party is not "highly fractious." Notwithstanding the wildly disproportionate fascination in some circles with a few backbench members of the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party is arguably as unified, at both the mass and elite level, as it's ever been in its history. There are important differences among Democrats, of course, and some of these differences will be publicly litigated over the course of the 2020 presidential nomination race. But there's little reason to believe that internal party divisions are any greater, or harder to overcome, than they were in 2008, or 1992, or 1976, or 1948, or 1932. Democrats universally dislike Donald Trump and are highly motivated to defeat him in 2020; no major candidate or group within the party will want to risk being forever blamed for Trump's re-election by stirring up trouble between the convention and the November vote.

4. A true contested convention is very unlikely, because party leaders will work hard to prevent it. Media discussions of hypothetical contested conventions often carry the whiff of hopeful anticipation; many journalists find today's scripted coronations to be impossibly boring and yearn to experience the excitement of yesteryear's dark horses and smoke-filled rooms. But party leaders have exactly the opposite view. They fear and despise the unpredictability and colorful in-fighting that media types live for; above all, they want an exuberant, harmonious, drama-free party. Democratic officials will therefore do everything in their power to prevent the kind of rollicking free-for-all that the term "contested convention" or "brokered convention" commonly connotes.

For risk-averse party leaders who are habitually obsessed with maintaining internal unity and popular legitimacy, the obvious path of least resistance in a situation where no candidate has accumulated a majority of pledged delegates is to close ranks around the first-place finisher in the delegate count. Secondary candidates could be pressured to release their own delegates and endorse the leader; alternatively, superdelegate votes could deliver him or her a numerical majority on the second ballot at the convention. Denying the nomination to the candidate with the greatest demonstrated popular support would risk a highly inconvenient public debate over whether the "voice of the people" was being silenced by the scheming of party "bosses," as the experience of the 2008 and 2016 superdelegate controversies demonstrated so memorably. At the same time, the Democratic leadership is quite unlikely to let a contested nomination play out without attempting to direct the proceedings in advance; it's not obvious how a modern convention could even be competently staged without a presumptive nominee to take charge of its organization.

Until such a turn of events actually happens, it's impossible to know whether the nominal majority requirement for presidential nominations is, as I suspect, closer to a plurality requirement in practice. But the prospect of a chaotic nomination process or national convention doesn't seem like a leading concern for the Democratic Party at this stage of the election. Whatever challenges Democrats may face in 2020, a deeply divided or unmotivated party base is unlikely to be one of them.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

In Fox Debate Flap, the Press Defends Its Power to Pick Presidents

It is widely accepted in most democracies that party leaders have a right to control the process of nominating candidates for elective office. Here in the United States, however, this proposition is not merely controversial but downright unpopular.

Even the hint that superdelegates might exercise their voting rights under party rules to support a candidate other than the narrow leader in the pledged delegate count provoked accusations in both the 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential nomination contests that insiders had "rigged" the system in order to silence the voice of the people. These complaints forced a chastened Democratic National Committee to enact limits to superdelegate power in order to protect its popular legitimacy. Republican politicians in 2016 similarly looked on helplessly as voters delivered the nomination to a candidate whom many believed at the time to be a generationally disastrous standard-bearer for their party. Despite this broadly-shared judgment, attempts to force an alternative outcome at the national convention had little energy and soon fizzled out entirely.

But it's too simplistic to view struggles over control of nominations as only pitting party bosses against regular citizens. As critics like Nelson W. Polsby observed decades ago, the post-1968 reforms that created the modern presidential nominating process actually transferred crucial influence from one set of elites—state party organizations—to another set—the news media. Because voters in party primaries habitually act with limited information and weak preferences, especially when the field expands to three or more contenders, they can be decisively swayed by the volume and tone of press attention devoted to each candidate.

The post-reform era is littered with presidential candidacies made and unmade by media coverage. Ed Muskie outpolled George McGovern in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1972, yet the press treated McGovern like the winner in both cases, setting him on a path to the Democratic nomination. Jimmy Carter received a similar publicity boost after finishing behind an uncommitted slate of Iowa delegates in 1976. Reporters and commentators accepted Bill Clinton's self-proclaimed persona as the "comeback kid" at the expense of Paul Tsongas, the actual winner of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. In the 2000s, media favorites John McCain and Barack Obama benefited from sympathetic coverage while the unlucky Howard Dean became a media dartboard for the sin of screaming too loudly in a concession speech. Donald Trump attracted far more press attention than any other candidate in 2016, to the frustration of rivals who found it much harder to get their messages out to the public.

Journalists sometimes resist acknowledging their sizable influence over nominations, and may not always be fully conscious of the central role they can play in determining the outcome. But when party leaders attempt to assert power at the potential expense of the media, members of the press quickly rise to defend the prerogatives of themselves and their peers.

The Democratic National Committee announced this week that Fox News Channel would not be authorized to hold a debate among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, in the wake of reports confirming the de facto alliance between Fox News and the Trump White House. Rather than respect political leaders' judgment about how their own party's nomination process should operate, prominent journalists immediately blasted the DNC, vouching for their Fox News colleagues in the face of a perceived affront to their professional rectitude. Some even accepted the DNC's premise that Fox would treat Democratic candidates with more hostility than the other news outlets hosting debates in 2020, suggesting that the gauntlet of a Fox-organized debate was not a trap to be avoided but rather a test of character that the party was failing.

 "If you can't answer questions—especially if they're not the questions you want asked—maybe you don't have good answers," snorted Jonathan Allen of NBC. "And if you aren't prepared for tough questions/subjects in a primary debate, how will you handle the general?" chided Zeke Miller of the Associated Press. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times preferred the ha-ha-you-suckered-yourself style of riposte: "it sends a message of being afraid of something. Which is what Trump feeds off in opponents."

Beneath this outburst of (self-)righteous indignation is a set of powerful assumptions: that the press—not voters or party leaders—properly holds the job of asking "tough questions" (and judging the worthiness of the answers) during the nomination process, and that televised debates are the most important venue for performing this critical task. Parties "expect the forums to produce infomercials that glorify their candidates, not journalistic grillings," taunted Jack Shafer of Politico, who went on to argue that any candidate who didn't want to participate in a debate sponsored by a disfavored cable network should "be disqualified from running" for the presidency—in case any doubt remained about where Shafer thinks the power to choose the nation's political leadership should rightfully reside.

One quirky attribute of American media culture is the consensus veneration of debates as a uniquely sacred exercise in civic enlightenment. The origin of this precept is somewhat mysterious; perhaps it's a romanticized legacy of Messrs. Lincoln and Douglas, or maybe it just reflects a collective belief that campaign events organized by the media are definitionally superior to those produced by the candidates and parties. In any case, a frank and unsentimental re-evaluation of its experiential soundness is decades overdue. It's not hard to recall important debates, or moments in debates, in both primaries and general elections. But nearly all of them involve candidate mannerisms, zingers, or gaffes (gaffe after gaffe after gaffe), not important substantive discussions or revelations. Is this really the best way to choose a president?

The Republican National Committee recently pondered this question as well. Republican leaders concluded that there were too many debates during the 2012 nomination season, which (in their view) gave an undeserved platform to secondary candidates while pushing their eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, into taking positions that were ultimately damaging to the party's general election chances (Romney's endorsement of "self-deportation" as an immigration policy, blamed in retrospect for costing him Latino support, was made during a Republican primary debate). In response, the RNC, like the DNC, acted after 2012 to limit the number of debates and take greater control of the sponsors and moderators.

The parties naturally perceive a strategic advantage in a nomination procedure that bolsters the chances of producing a nominee who can unify the party, be a formidable general election candidate, and possess the skills to govern successfully. But surely the American public would also be well-served by a choice of presidential candidates who possess such qualities. And it's not clear that the incentives governing the media's coverage of elections necessarily favor an equally desirable set of characteristics, despite the self-important proclamations of some self-appointed gatekeepers.

With the mixed track record of the media-dominated nomination process over half a century of history, perhaps both national committees deserve some deference to tinker strategically with aspects of the current system without facing attacks from journalists acting as if their personal honor has been outrageously besmirched by rank partisan interlopers. For some, it may not be easy to conceive of a situation where the interest of the public is not aligned by definition with that of the press, or is instead more closely matched with that of the perennially-maligned party organizations. But as Nina Simone used to sing, "it be's that way sometime."

Monday, February 11, 2019

There Are No Clear Lane Markers on the Road to the White House

Political journalists are fond of metaphors, and one recent analogy that seems to be rising in general usage is the comparison of the presidential nomination process to a highway with multiple "lanes" corresponding to identifiable party factions or subgroups. According to this view, each candidate and primary voter resides in a specific party lane (or, on rare occasions, can straddle the boundary between two lanes). The best-positioned candidates in the race, then, will be those who can unite the voters in their lane—either because they have it all to themselves from the start, or because they quickly knock similarly-situated candidates off the road.

It's not surprising that the "lane" concept gained popularity during the initial stages of the 2016 Republican nomination contest. With so many candidates running that they couldn't even fit on a single debate stage (seventeen in all, including at least five or six with plausible paths to the nomination at various points), some sort of classification scheme seemed necessary to make sense of the situation. One representative Washington Post analysis from early 2015 (prior to Donald Trump's entry into the race) identified four Republican lanes: Establishment (led by Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio), Social Conservative (home to Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson), Tea Party (dominated by Ted Cruz), and Libertarian (aligned with Rand Paul).

In 2020, it's the Democrats who will have a large and varied field of candidates, and so analysts are already getting to work defining the salient subcategories within the party and figuring out where each potential contender stands in relation to them. One conceptual framework might emphasize ideology: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the party's left edge; Michael Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar on the moderate wing opposite them; Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand jostling to occupy the middle space in between. Or, perhaps, the supposed lanes in the Democratic race more closely correspond to boundaries of social identity like race and gender, with voters lining up behind candidates who share their demographic characteristics. Or maybe the press will decide that the contest is really a story of Democrats who prioritize economic concerns facing off against Democrats motivated more by cultural causes, or a battle of generations, or even (please, let us be spared from this againbeer drinkers versus wine drinkers.

While some of these analytical attempts to sort out the primary competition contain grains of truth—there are, after all, identifiable constituencies within the parties that are more or less attracted to various candidates—the "lanes" model of characterizing nomination contests is fundamentally flawed and potentially misleading. It rests on assumptions about how voters behave in party primaries that don't hold up in reality, as the history of presidential nominations (including the 2016 race) makes very clear.

A reliable rule of thumb about nomination politics is that when voters are required to make an electoral choice among multiple candidates within the same party, their preferences will be relatively weak, unpredictable, based on limited information, and open to change up until the moment they cast their ballots. It can be easy to impose a clever and plausible-sounding analytical structure on the process in advance, or to explain in retrospect why one candidate won more support than another. But in the midst of the action, there is plenty about nominations that resists straightforward interpretation or forecasting. And the larger the field of contenders, the more complicated things get.

Candidates bob up and down in the polls on waves of positive or negative media attention (five different Republicans held the lead in national surveys at various points between October 2011 and February 2012, according to the RealClearPolitics aggregator). Expectations about which opponents will benefit when a particular candidate suffers a collapse in support frequently turn out to be mistaken. The important differences separating the various candidates in the eyes of party voters are themselves open to perpetual contestation by the candidates themselves, and may shift over the course of the race. And past nominees have often attracted broad support within the party by finessing internal differences in order to court multiple constituencies at once, even at the cost of logical incoherence—such as Barack Obama's self-portrayal in 2008 as simultaneously more principled and more open to compromise than his opponent Hillary Clinton.

Even though the "lanes" analogy originally caught on as a way to conceptualize the Republican nomination contest in 2016, it didn't turn out to capture the dynamics of the race that year—and may have even lulled some Republicans into adopting an ineffective or counterproductive strategy. Heading into the Iowa caucus, a widespread belief held that most Republican voters were resistant to nominating Donald Trump (and, perhaps, Ted Cruz as well), but the "establishment" lane was clogged with too many candidates: Bush, Rubio, Chris Christie, and so forth. Once a single contender broke out of the pack, Republican regulars would likely coalesce around him, and he would be in a good position to overtake Trump.

This assumption is why rival Republican candidates spent more time criticizing each other than attacking Trump despite his lead in the polls, and why Rubio's third-place finish behind Cruz and Trump in Iowa attracted a burst of media hype ("here, finally, is the establishment's chosen horse!"). But Rubio stalled in New Hampshire (thanks in part to Christie's decision, following the same strategic premise, to attack him instead of Trump in the next debate), and Trump's victory there started to set him on a path to the nomination. Rather than bumping against a hard ceiling of support, Trump's vote share in primaries and caucuses started to approach an outright majority as more Republicans jumped on the bandwagon of a successful candidate. Just as in past nomination contests, doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire generated favorable publicity for Trump that led to electoral momentum, and winning in one set of states made it easier to win in the next set as his popularity grew across the supposed boundaries separating one party subgroup from another.

It's important to understand how candidates behave strategically to build electoral coalitions and, to the best of our ability, to identify what considerations prompt voters to choose a specific candidate. But any conceptual model of nomination politics needs to incorporate a large random error term, representing the varying effects of personal charisma, persuasive advertising, memorable debate performances, catchy slogans, journalistic takedowns, verbal gaffes, and other factors that have proved difficult to anticipate yet can be just as influential as substantive positions or group membership in shaping voters' evaluations of the candidates. We're about a year away from primary and caucus participants being asked to officially register their preferences, which means that we're still a year away from rank-and-file Democrats beginning to settle on their choice of nominee. It's a long road to the nomination, and the vagaries of timing and luck ensure that many unforeseen twists and turns still lie far ahead.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Why Pelosi Gets More Attention Than Schumer For Taking on Trump

In the wake of President Trump's decision last Friday to sign a temporary continuing resolution that reopened the government for three weeks, thus ending the longest federal shutdown in American history, the most popular interpretation of this development (widely held in all but the most pro-Trump corners of the conservative media) was that Trump had conceded defeat in a one-on-one battle of wills with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi, by most accounts, had personally outmaneuvered, outwitted, and simply out-toughed the president. The resulting headlines tell this story clearly enough: "How Nancy Pelosi Ended Donald Trump's Shutdown" by Ezra Klein of Vox; "'She's Not One to Bluff': How Pelosi Won the Shutdown Battle" by Politico"How Nancy Pelosi Used Her Smarts and Strength to Absolutely Dominate Donald Trump" by columnist Elizabeth Drew.

This Pelosi-centered frame prevailed even though the precipitating legislative maneuver that preceded Trump's concession occurred in the Senate. Last Thursday, Mitch McConnell introduced a Trump-backed proposal that included billions in funding for a border wall; it received only 1 Democratic vote (from Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Senate's least liberal Democrat) and lost 2 votes from arch-conservative Republicans. McConnell then allowed consideration of a Democratic alternative "clean bill" that lacked wall funding, which attracted a higher level of support by combining a unanimous vote from Democrats with 6 defecting Republicans. It was clear at that point that momentum had turned against the White House.

According to a report from Axios, it was only after Chuck Schumer told McConnell that Trump's idea for a "down payment" on the wall funding was a non-starter among Senate Democrats that Trump was convinced to drop his demands and reopen the government. Schumer had previously goaded Trump into taking responsibility for the shutdown during a December meeting in the Oval Office that Trump had abruptly opened to the press. Throughout the entire process, Schumer and Pelosi seem to have worked in close collaboration to oppose the White House and congressional Republicans—even appearing together to deliver the response to Trump's national address on January 8. Yet the same media stories that featured blaring headlines crediting Pelosi for besting Trump relegated Schumer's role to brief passages in the bottom paragraphs when they mentioned him at all.

Why have the two Democratic leaders received such different coverage, in both quantity and quality, during and after the shutdown? Here are three reasons for this pattern:

1. Personal Reputation. Before the shutdown occurred, Pelosi was widely considered to be a committed liberal, while Schumer was viewed as much more of a "squish." This distinction is not unjustified. Yet it reflects the differing institutional constraints of the two Democrats as much as their personal instincts. The procedural complexity of the Senate requires its leaders to be more transactional than the majoritarian House, and Schumer's need to defend ten members of his caucus running for reelection in Trump-carried states during the 2017–18 session of Congress constrained his ability to lead the public opposition to the president—in contrast to Pelosi, who was freer to play offense. But it also meant that media analysts and partisans on both sides were likely to view the shutdown resolution as a victory for the supposedly tougher and more principled Pelosi regardless of the true nature of events. (Note the January 15 headline from the satirical Onion: "Chuck Schumer Honestly Pretty Amazed He Hasn't Caved Yet.")

2. Job Title. Put simply, Pelosi is the leader of a majority and the most powerful legislator in her chamber, and Schumer is not. It is thus natural in a sense for her to be treated as the primary face of the opposition to Trump, even if the Senate minority's ability to exercise obstructive power via the filibuster is a fundamental characteristic of our political system. Pelosi was also in the position to send a highly-publicized letter to Trump disinviting the president from giving his State of the Union address until the shutdown was ended, which certainly added to the perceptions that the larger partisan standoff over the border wall amounted to a personal conflict between the two of them.

3. Gender. Nancy Pelosi has been a highly skilled and effective legislative leader for 16 years, including a very productive previous tenure as speaker between 2007 and 2010. It is hardly a coincidence, however, that after almost two decades in power she has achieved a newfound status as a national feminist icon at a time when the opposing president is Donald Trump. Even for the mainstream press, the idea of anti-Trump forces being led by a woman is simply too good a story line not to adopt as the dominant frame of the current partisan divide in Washington. Journalists are especially interested to know what Trump thinks of Pelosi—a curiosity that does not extend equally to Schumer or many other Democrats.

Gender is on everybody's mind more than usual these days. If, say, Patty Murray were serving as the Senate minority leader rather than Schumer, it's very likely that the events of the past several weeks would have been framed as "Trump versus two women" rather than "Trump versus Pelosi," even if the legislative roles, sequence of developments, and final outcome had remained the same. At a time when journalists and citizens alike are even more inclined than usual to view politics in terms of the personalities and identities of individuals rather than larger structural or institutional factors, it's worth remembering that the stories we're told are sometimes the stories we're in the mood to hear.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Honest Graft in the Washington Post: Why Trump Didn't Get His Wall

Today in the Washington Post, I explain why the Republican-controlled Congress of 2017–2018 didn't fund Trump's border wall when they had the chance, and why Republicans are better off keeping immigration as an issue than trying to implement their favored policy solutions.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Now Trump Wants His Wall, But It Looks Like He's Two Years Too Late

The border wall is often described as Donald Trump's signature issue, his most famous campaign promise, the very rationale for his political career—and therefore the most urgent priority of his presidency. And, indeed, Trump's recent behavior seemingly confirms this view. His unmet demands for $5 billion in wall funding have resulted in a goverment shutdown now approaching three weeks in length, and his first nationally televised Oval Office address Tuesday night, though brief and uneventful, was devoted entirely to justifying this hardball approach to what he characterizes as a "crisis" at the border. Trump is even supposedly considering the extraordinary step of declaring a national emergency that might allow him to move forward on wall construction without congressional approval, though his right to do so would remain unsettled at best for months or even years in the face of certain legal challenges.

Both allies and critics concede the centrality of the wall issue to Trump's political appeal and personal connection with his most enthusiastic supporters. But if building the wall was so necessary to the success of his presidency, why did he wait until now to act?

Trump made a very consequential decision soon after his unexpected election in November 2016 to delegate the prioritization of a legislative program to the Republican leadership in Congress: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the wall was far from the top priority for either Ryan or McConnell, who cared much more about repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting tax reform. Addressing those two issues thus became the first order of business for Congress, while objectives that were more personally associated with Trump—like the border wall and infrastructure spending—moved further down the "to do" list.

At least in public, Ryan and McConnell assured Trump and other Republicans that they would get to everything on the agenda. Under the timeline unveiled at a January 2017 party retreat, ACA repeal would be accomplished by March, with tax reform following by the end of July—at which point the first phase of wall funding would be in place and an infrastructure bill would be well in the pipeline. But legislative business has a way of taking longer than expected, and in the end Republicans spent the first nine months of 2017 unsuccessfully attempting to pass a health care bill before giving up and moving to tax reform, which they pushed through in December.

By the time Congress turned its attention to immigration in early 2018, spurred on by the Trump-ordered expiration of the DACA program, a combination of several factors (fast-approaching midterm elections, Ryan's soon-to-be-public departure and its associated internal Republican leadership competition, and an increasingly beleaguered and intransigent White House) limited the potential for legislative accomplishment. Republican leaders successfully convinced Trump to wait until after the midterms to demand his wall money, avoiding an electorally disastrous pre-November shutdown but setting up a standoff in the final weeks of the 115th Congress that has now extended into the second week of the 116th.

One lesson that the Trump White House might have usefully taken from American history is that there is such a thing as a presidential "honeymoon": presidents usually have an easier time working their will in Congress during the early months of their first term than any time thereafter. But Trump, an unsophisticated newcomer to legislative politics with an amateurish and perpetually squabbling cadre of advisors, was not well-positioned to dispute the assurances of Ryan and McConnell that they knew best how to proceed—yet another example of his uniquely weak presidency. Two years later, Trump may come to regret that he didn't insist on funding for the border wall right away; the many months spent fruitlessly pursuing health care reform certainly seem in retrospect like wasted time. Though presidents may gain valuable wisdom through experience in office, the opportunity for realizing ambitious legislative change is greatest when they are still brand new to the job.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Freedom Caucus Will Remain Powerful in 2019, Thanks to Trump

Because the House of Representatives operates by majority rule (unlike the Senate), the loss of the 2018 elections means that House Republicans will need to become accustomed to an immediate evaporation of their institutional power once the new session of Congress begins on January 3. As the New York Times points out today, most Republican members have never experienced life in the minority, and will need to adjust to an abrupt reduction in their procedural importance. "We have come to grips with the shock of the election," explains Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), "but the shock of [not] governing will still be a wake-up call for some people."

One might expect that the House Freedom Caucus would be especially hard-hit by the shift in party control. Though it represented no more than about 20 percent of Republican House members, the Freedom Caucus was able to exert disproportionate leverage in the past by threatening to vote against initiatives backed by the Republican leadership. When combined with the votes of minority Democrats, opposition from the Freedom Caucus would ordinarily be enough to sink legislation on the House floor, and could even be used to force out a sitting speaker. Starting in January, however, the Freedom Caucus will be a minority of a minority, without the ability to strategically harness Democratic votes to bolster its legislative influence over the Republican conference. Its former leader Jim Jordan lost his race for minority leader to Kevin McCarthy by a lopsided vote of 159 to 43, and then failed to win enough party support to become the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee.

Yet the Freedom Caucus will hardly be irrelevant in 2019, because it retains a powerful ally in the White House. Trump may have campaigned as a heterodox populist, but he has mostly governed as a hard-line conservative, and his intermittently rocky relationship with the Republican congressional leadership has made him sympathetic to party insurgents who share the same set of complaints about the slow pace of conservative legislative accomplishments. Members of the Freedom Caucus have further strengthened these bonds by serving as frequent defenders of his administration on cable television and by targeting Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein—an easy way to earn the affection of the president.

The current government shutdown over Trump's border wall demands has Freedom Caucus fingerprints all over it. Jordan and Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows have encouraged Trump's instincts toward political confrontation on the issue, in contrast to Republican leadership figures who have signaled their impatience with the shutdown. Like Trump, the Freedom Caucus cares a lot about maintaining the enthusiastic support of activists and media personalities on the right, and little about expanding its appeal beyond the bounds of the Republican Party's conservative base.

One potential eventual solution to what now looks like an extended shutdown is for Congress to override a presidential veto of a resolution reopening the government. But while most congressional Republicans would prefer not to take the heat for Trump's risky shutdown strategy, it's likely that the Freedom Caucus would stay loyal to Trump and gladly pile public attacks onto fellow Republicans who considered defection. Under such circumstances, it's hard to imagine that enough Republicans would join Democrats to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. The formal institutional power of the Freedom Caucus may be waning with the end of the Republican majority, but its role as an enforcer of purity within the GOP as a whole will remain fully intact as long as the Caucus stands with Trump, and Trump with it.