Friday, February 17, 2017

A President Misjudges His Audience

Whenever a major political event occurs or news story breaks, it's only a matter of time before political commentators shift from a discussion of the topic itself to predictions about its "political" implications—by which they usually mean its presumed effect on the attitudes of the typical American voter. "It's true that all of Washington is obsessed today with [a new international treaty / a congressional budget agreement / a missile test launch by a band of Nova Scotian separatists]," they'll ask each other, "but do you really think this issue is important to the average [factory worker in Ohio / factory worker in Michigan / factory worker in Indiana]?"

Accusations that the political media devote too much attention to poll-driven "horse race" journalism and not enough to the substance of policy are neither new nor entirely invalid. But the political implications of current events are hardly irrelevant or frivolous subjects of analysis—after all, how can Americans understand their political system without understanding politics? Neither "substantive" nor "political" coverage should be produced, or consumed, to the exclusion of the other—we need plenty of both to be properly informed about what's going on in the world.

The real problem with "political" analysis is that it is too often restricted to dissecting the results of past polls or speculating about the results of future polls. In truth, the subject of politics encompasses much more than the collective opinion of the mass public at any given moment. If we insist on judging the importance of political events through the narrow lens of whether or not they cause immediate, measurable shifts in citizen attitudes, we often risk missing the real story.

As you may have heard, President Trump held a long and contentious press conference yesterday that left the press with a lot to chew on—not least because journalists themselves were primary targets of Trump's anger and sarcastic contempt. One instinctive response to such a development is to engage in extensive debate about whether or not the average voter, or even the average Trump supporter, will feel more or less warmly toward Trump because of his behavior on Thursday. Did Trump hurt himself in the eyes of John and Jane Q. Public by his blustery performance? Did smacking around the press instead merely endear him further to the denizens of middle America who installed him in the presidency? Or do "real people" (a Washington phrase that, even though it is usually used half-seriously, still contains an off-putting element of unwitting condescension) not care either way, because they have other things to occupy their attention?

But this reflexive how-does-it-play-in-Peoria mentality misses the true story, at least in the present case. Over the past four weeks, a pivotal class of political actors both in this country and around the world has rapidly converged on the belief that the Trump administration is a terrible mess in nearly every conceivable respect. Members of Congress (of both parties), interest group leaders, bureaucrats, federal judges, media figures, foreign leaders, and even top staffers (and would-be staffers) within the White House itself are by all accounts agape with disbelief at this state of affairs, which has no remote parallel in the modern history of the nation.

Trump apparently wished to dispel this conclusion on Thursday, but his antics only reduced his stature still further in what turned out to be a serious political miscalculation. (The New York Times reported that the press conference was Trump's own idea, overruling the well-founded misgivings of his advisors—or at least that's what the advisors ran to tell the Times after it was over.) Trump may not believe that he needs to care about whether or not other political elites—a term I use descriptively rather than pejoratively—view him as competent, trustworthy, honest, patient, strategically acute, or mentally well-balanced. Or maybe he does care, but has no idea how to conduct himself in order to create such an impression.

Either way, the political implications of the press conference have little to do with whatever slight or temporary effect it might or might not have on the president's public approval rating. The most important audience for Trump's appearance was the highly observant set of other influential political figures whose trust and cooperation is essential to the success of any administration, but who have grown increasingly uneasy over the course of the past month. Even if nobody else watched or cared, the president was making a fool of himself before a powerful group of people with considerable capacity to frustrate his policy ambitions and damage his political standing. When even the Kremlin is beginning to waver in its enthusiasm, it's time to wonder how many governing allies the new president will manage to maintain during his time in office.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Trump Cries "Fake News"...But What He Really Thinks Is More Important

Last night, the New York Times added yet another volume to what is becoming, after less than three weeks, a growing journalistic genre: the Dysfunctional Trump White House Chronicles. (Previous installments can be found here, here, here, and here, among other examples.) Predictably, the Washington community immediately began to feast on the juicy anecdotes the Times provided: did Steve Bannon really hornswoggle Trump into appointing him to the National Security Council without knowing it? could it really be true that the staff can't even figure out how to turn on the lights in the Cabinet Room?

Just as predictably, the new president took to Twitter this morning to angrily dismiss the story as "total fiction" and "FAKE NEWS" from a "failing" newspaper. Trump's ebbing credibility ensures that such responses are in turn treated by the press as desperate denials of reality. To be fair, however, any presidential administration would publicly challenge the accuracy of damaging media coverage like this, whether or not it were true—though a more measured pushback delivered indirectly through a press secretary is, admittedly, the more traditional means of doing so.

In the long run, it's less important what Trump says about these stories that what he really thinks. Does he actually believe, as he claims, that the Times simply made the whole thing up? Or does he continue to rail against media bias in public while realizing that his own top employees are repeatedly using the press to send up warning flares about alarming dysfunction within his shop? The sheer volume of leaks alone confirms that this White House is far from running smoothly and is particularly beset by the kind of internal infighting that often springs up in government, especially in the absence of an attentive and engaged leader.

If Trump comes to understand that there really are serious problems with the way his administration operates, he won't acknowledge as much in public—but he will privately order changes designed to address them. (Whether those changes are actually effective is another question.) In the best case scenario, Trump responds by defining clear administration objectives and lines of authority that invest primary decision-making responsibility in the most experienced and competent members of his staff and cabinet, reducing the squabbling and elementary errors that have plagued the first weeks of his presidency.

More troublingly, Trump could decide instead that the biggest challenge facing his administration was not its bumpy record of governing but rather the tendency of some of his aides to pop off to the Times or Post whenever they lose an internal debate or turf battle. When a president decides that the mere existence of leaks themselves is the real problem to be solved, history suggests that big trouble is around the corner.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Strategic Lens Won't Bring Trump into Focus, So Let's Give Psychology a Shot

It didn't take very long for the signals to arrive that this would be a different kind of presidency. On the first full day of the Trump administration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared before the news media to chastise them for (accurately) reporting that the number of spectators at the new president's inauguration ceremony had failed to equal the crowds drawn by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Lest there be any confusion over whether it was Spicer's idea to immediately risk his own personal credibility by making obviously incorrect claims about a completely trivial matter, Trump himself brought up the issue during his visit to CIA headquarters the same afternoon, bragging as well about the number of times he's appeared on the cover of Time and offhandedly remarking that the United States might re-invade Iraq to seize control of its oil supply.

If anything, the strangeness factor has been increasing ever since. Trump remains visibly preoccupied with indicators of personal power, status, and popularity at the expense of other matters. In a single week, the new president has pretended that he lost the national popular vote due to a non-existent epidemic of voter fraud, compared Chicago to Afghanistan and threatened to send in "the Feds" to impose order, and boasted that his CIA appearance produced the "biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl."

Much remains unknown about how the new administration will operate, but this week has confirmed beyond doubt that Trump, to a greater degree than any other major American politician, eschews rational strategy in favor of personal instinct—an instinct that is largely influenced by emotion, especially negative emotion. And his actions ultimately can only be understood in that sense.

This attribute presents a challenge to journalists and academics alike, who have developed long-standing and elaborate traditions of analysis that treat politics primarily as a series of strategic puzzles. Politicians may—and do—regularly make mistakes or miscalculations, or the world around them can change in a manner that renders previously effective behavior futile or even counterproductive, but the common assumption is that political action is directed toward an identifiable purpose that is perceived to further the substantive objectives or tactical interests of the actor.

Reporters are so predisposed to view politics through this lens that even stunts as clearly nonsensical as Spicer's press statement on Saturday prompt musings about the savvy thinking that might undergird them. Trump's endless attacks on the press and claims of unfair treatment, for example, could in some cases be plausibly interpreted as stoking a politically useful sense of grievance among his supporters, or by cleverly undercutting the power of the news media to contradict factually inaccurate statements made by his administration. And, to some degree, his behavior does and will have such an effect.

But among the most revealing news stories of the past week have been reports sourced from within the White House itself confirming that these matters are private obsessions, not merely public battle cries. Indeed, Trump's claims that millions of illegitimate votes deprived him of a rightful popular victory were first raised in a closed-door meeting with the congressional leadership of both parties, who were likely not reassured as a result that the new president has a firm grip on political reality. In retrospect, the characteristic that allowed Trump to overcome expectations and successfully capture both the Republican nomination and the White House looks less like a unique degree of strategic sophistication on his part and more like a simple ability and willingness to say or do things that other candidates couldn't—or wouldn't.

While Democrats and other critics have responded to the first week of the Trump era with blasts of righteous outrage, some Republicans seem to be experiencing a quieter feeling of queasiness brought on by the dawning realization that Trump's bizarre behavior is not merely an act created for public consumption. The frustrations experienced by the Trump aides who have already leaked damaging material to the Times and Post are undoubtedly spreading more widely within the party. Given the outcome of the last election, one would have expected this past week's retreat by congressional Republicans to be held amid an atmosphere of unrestrained euphoria, yet journalistic accounts paint a picture of a collectively uncertain GOP that is warily attempting to take the measure of its new leader.

Weighing the evidence, it seems as if observers both inside and outside the political world—including those of us studying politics using the tools of social science—need to readjust their assumptions and expectations of presidential behavior if they want to understand what's going on. As one anxious Republican told Politico, "It's surreal. We finally have the White House, and it's this." In order to figure out what exactly "this" is and how it will work in practice, the gaming-out of strategic calculus will need to be complemented even more than usual by insights from the realm of human psychology, where the presence of logic and reason is never taken for granted.

Friday, January 20, 2017

BC Scholars on the Trump Presidency

The Boston College Chronicle asked a number of BC faculty members about their expectations for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. Yu can find my thoughts among those of my colleagues here.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Asymmetric Politics on the New Books in Poli Sci Podcast

Matt Grossmann and I are guests on the latest edition of the podcast New Books in Political Science, hosted by Heath Brown of CUNY, to talk about our new book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. The podcast episode is available here or via the usual podcasting channels.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

You Gotta Fight For Your Right...to Write the Obamacare Repeal Bill

The Republican congressional leadership's ambition to begin the process of dismantling Obamacare within days of Donald Trump's ascension to the presidency has hit a snag. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan had previously agreed upon a legislative strategy of immediately enacting a bill that would ostensibly "repeal" much of the Affordable Care Act (via budget reconciliation legislation, which is not subject to filibuster in the Senate) but would delay its effective date of implementation for at least two years in order to give Republicans in Congress time to develop their long-promised alternative health care reform plan.

Now some fellow Republicans are throwing obstacles in their path. Five members of the Senate majority have introduced an amendment that would effectively delay a vote on repeal until March, while a few others have suggested that the ACA should not be repealed until a replacement plan is ready to be enacted in its place. On the House side, members of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus have also threatened to oppose the Republican leadership's budget resolution when it comes up for a vote later this week unless they receive more specific information about the nature and timetable of ACA repeal-and-replace legislation. (Passage of the budget resolution through both chambers is a necessary first step to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to repeal provisions of the ACA.)

We might expect politicians to get a case of political cold feet about the risk of voting to upend the entire health care industry in potentially unpredictable ways, as well as the potential fallout of revoking public benefits from millions of citizens. Otherwise staunch ideological conservatives like Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have objected to the leadership's fast-track approach; it's hardly a coincidence that both senators represent states that have experienced a significant decline in their populations of uninsured residents under the ACA. Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, another state with many ACA beneficiaries, even endorsed the idea that any replacement health care plan should cover more citizens than Obamacare does—a telling concession to the complex political considerations that Republicans now face as they try to square their small-government philosophical predispositions with their electoral survival instincts.

But that can't be the whole story. After all, the House Freedom Caucus is famous for claiming unmatched devotion to conservative principle and for constantly criticizing the Republican leadership from the ideological right. It's hard to envision its members going wobbly on ACA repeal before Trump's term has even begun—especially since they uniformly represent deep red districts with little chance of serious challenge from the Democratic opposition.

What's also going on here is the preliminary round of what may prove to be a significant internal battle within the Republican Party over the legislative specifics of repeal-and-replace. The absence of a party-endorsed replacement plan for Obamacare over the seven years and counting since one was promised by the congressional GOP reflected the difficulties that party leaders faced in uniting Republican members around a single alternative—but this policy void must be filled now that repeal-and-replace has evolved from catchy slogan to legislative agenda. Various key actors within the party will now seek to maximize their leverage over the policy-making process, which often involves threatening or even imposing procedural obstacles to the passage of reform unless and until they gain the opportunity to exert influence over its shape. The Freedom Caucus is not averse to making common cause with Democrats to outvote its own party leadership on the floor of the House, while the small group of Republican senators currently making trouble for McConnell similarly constitute a strategically pivotal voting bloc, given the close margin of party control in the chamber.

Jonathan Chait and Brian Beutler argue that the public maneuvering of the past few days indicates that there probably aren't 51 votes in the Senate to repeal and replace the ACA in anything other than cosmetic fashion. That's true for the moment, though it would be premature to conclude that repeal is doomed to failure. At this stage, it's likely that the senators currently wandering off the leadership reservation are raising public doubts in order to assert control over the reform process rather than to derail it entirely. Tellingly, one of the troublemakers is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who might well be expected to seize an opportunity to establish his own independent authority over both the substantive and procedural content of reform. The relatively pragmatic and policy-minded Alexander will be in the position to argue that the only bill with a prayer of passing the Senate will be one that he writes himself, and that his committee—not the House leadership or the hard-line Tea Party bloc—should therefore take the lead in developing the elusive Republican alternative reform package.

Such claims will not sit well with the Freedom Caucus or other Republican factions, which will use similar tactics in order to seek control of the process for themselves. This fight could get messy, and the current GOP congressional leadership does not have an impressive record of successfully uniting its members in support of ambitious, complex, politically controversial policy initiatives. It's not difficult to imagine large-scale reform ultimately foundering due to unresolvable differences between the House and Senate, or between party pragmatists and conservative purists. Over the past few weeks, as the reality of imminent one-party rule has begun to settle upon Washington, a number of Republican officeholders have begun to acknowledge that "repeal-and-replace" is much more complicated in practice than it might have initially appeared.

However, it's very difficult to gauge the prospects for ACA repeal without further insight into the intentions of the new president. Donald Trump holds unique political influence within his party that he could exploit to crack some heads on Capitol Hill and get a deal done (what Republican member of Congress would want to end up on the wrong side of a presidential Twitter rant?). If Trump identifies ACA replacement as a top priority and devotes the necessary attention and energy to the issue during the first months of his presidency, it would be hard to deny the possibility of legislative success—even if it were followed by significant policy complications that would then invite a popular backlash against Republican politicians.

If he really wants fundamental reform to pass, however, Trump will have to assure congressional Republicans that he won't sell them out. There will be some unavoidable political costs to a true repeal-and-replace approach, and GOP members will need Trump to provide them with political cover by sharing these costs. Right now, they are probably unsure of his loyalty—and, based on his past behavior, they have reason to be. 

What happens when citizens, some of them Trump supporters, begin to complain that he and his party are messing around with their health insurance? Does Trump take responsibility for the policy implications of repeal-and-replace, or does he respond to blowback by disavowing the Republican replacement plan and blaming Congress for any unpopular consequences? It would truly be a political nightmare for congressional Republicans if they were to cast tough votes to repeal the ACA only to have a president of their own party join the chorus of critics.

So far, it doesn't seem as if the incoming president has communicated to congressional Republicans that health care reform is in fact his primary legislative objective, or that he will stand with them politically over the months and even years that will be necessary to see it through to completion. One senator even pleaded with Trump this week to clarify his health care ideas via Twitter—which, though it inspired some mockery, would at least have the advantage of publicly committing the new administration to some specific choices and thus send valuable signals to the Hill about how best to proceed.

ACA repeal isn't dead, but it faces little chance of surviving the arduous legislative process without significant presidential investment. Unless Trump is willing to publicly and privately devote himself to the cause (and assume the corresponding political risks), Congress is unlikely to do the heavy legislative lifting required to enact significant further change to the American health care system. If he wants to claim victory over Obamacare, Trump needs to join the fight.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

How Obamacare Repeal Illustrates Conservatism's Central Challenge

Over the past eight years, the Republican Party has publicly stood for nothing so much as the proposition that the Affordable Care Act—a.k.a. "Obamacare"—is more than just a misguided set of public policies but is in fact a fundamental threat to cherished values. Congressional Republicans have referred to the ACA as a "stunning assault on liberty" that "tramples on the freedoms of Americans" and is itself "un-American"; former party leader John Boehner warned in 2010 that the legislation would cause an "Armageddon" that would "ruin our country." The implementation of the ACA's provisions over the course of Obama's presidency has done nothing to reconcile the GOP to the act's existence nearly seven years after its enactment, and party members have energetically pursued various attempts to overturn or undermine the law—from judicial challenges to state-level Medicaid expansion blockades to the unsuccessful Ted Cruz-led government shutdown maneuver in October 2013.

Soon after the ACA was passed, Republicans collectively adopted a slogan of "repeal and replace"—committing the party to repealing the hated Obamacare while replacing it with a "better" alternative. Republican politicians have not found much success in specifying exactly what that alternative would be, despite repeated promises over the past seven years that the public unveiling of their own detailed health care plan was just around the corner. Even if the GOP's pledge to enact a different version of health care reform represented a clever rhetorical strategy more than a serious policy position, however, it still contained a key implicit concession. By promoting the idea of a superior legislative replacement (however hypothetical it might be), Republican leaders were acknowledging that the central purpose of the law itself—government-initiated expansion of citizen health-care access—was not per se illegitimate, and that revoking the benefits provided by the ACA to millions of Americans by merely ripping out Obama's reforms by the roots was not a politically palatable stance.

With Donald Trump about to assume the presidency, Republican leaders are now considering how best to translate the "repeal and replace" pledge into a concrete legislative program. This has proven difficult. Congressional Republicans understandably wish to satisfy their own ideological commitments (and the demands of their party base) by moving quickly to pass repeal legislation. But without a replacement proposal ready to go, the current strategic plan involves delaying the actual implementation of repeal for two years or more.

In some respects, advocating such a relaxed timetable is a curious position for a party that has previously characterized the ACA as representing a menacing threat to the very future of America itself. But Republicans have found themselves in a genuine political bind. Repealing Obamacare carries substantial political risks for the GOP; voters seldom reward politicians for denying them benefits that they have previously enjoyed, while the health care industry as a whole could experience substantial disruption due to funding cuts and uncertainty about future federal policy. (Even the kick-the-can-into-2019 approach currently favored by Republican congressional leaders could have the effect of unraveling the individual insurance market as early as this spring, if insurers respond by pulling out of the marketplace ahead of schedule.) With unified Republican control of the federal government arriving on January 20, voters would not be confused about which party to blame for any problems that might occur.

The Republican health care dilemma has become a microcosm of the larger challenge faced by the conservative movement for the better part of a century. American conservatives are committed to the ideal of limited government power as a means of protecting individual liberty, and have repeatedly promised to achieve "revolutionary" reductions in the size and role of the federal state. Yet rolling back the scope of government is very difficult in practice, since most of what it actually does—providing benefits to various classes of citizens—is politically popular. Even conservative politicians maintain an instinct for electoral self-preservation that encourages them to assure constituents that nobody will be left worse off by their policy proposals, and some conservatives have been known to support new expansions of federal responsibility, despite their stated small-government principles, as an effective means of appealing to voters.

Thus the increasing electoral success of an increasingly conservative Republican Party over the past 40 years of American politics has yet failed to result in an overall reduction of federal authority. When conservative activists complain that Republican politicians talk a good game about shrinking government but seldom follow through once in office, they have something of a point. As Matt Grossmann and I explain in Asymmetric Politics, much of the GOP's distinctive governing behavior reflects the enduring gap between the American public's general preference for "small government" in the abstract and its collective support for most specific government activities.

Republicans are therefore simultaneously filled with excitement about the prospect of repealing Obamacare—or, at least, passing legislation that can be sold to the party base as repealing Obamacare—and rife with anxiety about being blamed for any unpopular consequences that might ensue. One interested party has recently communicated some concern on this point. In a series of tweets posted on Wednesday, Donald Trump exhorted Republicans to "be careful" to make sure that "Dems own the failed Obamacare disaster" which, he predicted, would "fall of its own weight."

Trump's words reflect a recognition that the "big-government" ACA has served as a highly effective foil for Republicans during the Obama presidency, but that the partisan calculation is likely to change once the GOP assumes sole responsibility for federal policy-making. Politically speaking, it's much easier to continue to rail against the Democrats from the opposition bench than to start fiddling around with people's health insurance in a way that might put one's own party on the defensive. Of course, if Republicans do receive blame for any changes to the American health care system that inspire a popular backlash over the next four years, such blame will be shared by, and even primarily directed at, the next occupant of the White House—even if his substantive role is limited to signing legislation crafted by his fellow partisans on Capitol Hill. The recent Twitter record suggests that such a realization is dawning on said occupant.

It is still very difficult to predict exactly what health care policies will be enacted by the incoming Congress and presidential administration. Most probably, Republicans will successfully rescind some of the ACA's provisions while leaving others at least partially intact. For Democrats who view the legislation as one of their party's most important and hard-won policy achievements, even an incomplete dismantling of the law will be a heavy blow. Yet anything less than total repeal-without-replacement will result in a federal role in the health care realm that will remain larger in 2020 than it was in 2010—rendering the conservative movement's central goal of reducing the government's reach in domestic affairs that much further away from realization.