Friday, May 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Congressional Republicans Won't Abandon Trump Over Comey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 04, 2017

AHCA, Part II: The Pivotal Votes in the House GOP Are on the Right, Not in the Center

Many veteran politics-watchers have a model in their head that they use to understand both electoral competition and congressional policy-making. In this model, the policy preferences of politicians or voters are arrayed along a single ideological dimension stretching from a left (liberal) to a right (conservative) pole. Faced with a choice between two policies, each individual will reliably prefer the option that is located closest to his or her own ideal position on this spectrum.

Political scientists call this model a "Downsian" conception of politics (referring to its formalization in Anthony Downs's 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy) but even non-academics tend to accept its basic premises—which is why ideologically moderate candidates are generally viewed by political pundits as having a stronger chance of election in two-party competition than relatively extreme rivals. One important implication of Downian logic is that the median voters, or median legislators, on this ideological spectrum wield decisive political power, because they are strategically positioned to dictate the ultimate policy outcome. Thus we can end up with moderate policy even when moderates represent a minority of the total population of political actors.

When the Democrats were debating the ACA in 2009 and 2010, they had to pay attention to the demands of the moderate bloc because moderates held the pivotal votes in Congress. There could be 200 Democrats who favored a provision—like the public option—and 30 who opposed it, but the 30 could get their way over the wishes of the 200 because they could always threaten to join Republicans in a majority that would vote down any bill they viewed as too liberal. This is a familiar strategic environment for vote-counting party leaders, and jibes with the intuition of many political analysts.

But the House Republican Party does not really work this way. The members of the House Republican Conference who are the most liable to threaten defection—and to deliver on such threats—are the hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus. It was the Freedom Caucus that torpedoed Round 1 of the ACA repeal in March, on the grounds that the bill did not go far enough in a conservative direction. And it was the support of the Freedom Caucus this afternoon that allowed the second effort at repeal to narrowly squeak through the House, after winning concessions in the interim that pushed the bill further to the ideological right.

One might expect that satisfying the demands of the Freedom Caucus would doom the bill's support among Republicans representing politically marginal districts. But it turned out that while many of those members communicated great discomfort with its provisions, they were not willing to withstand the political blowback from within their own party by supplying the key votes to kill the bill.

The House GOP is thus in an unusual position in which the pivotal policy influence in the caucus lies on the party's right edge, not in its center. Thus the bill picked up greater support as it moved further in a conservative direction over time—a pattern that is directly inconsistent with traditional legislative logic. Even Republicans from competitive districts became more supportive of the AHCA as it shifted to the ideological right; while they were willing to pile on against the previous version once the Freedom Caucus had already vowed to block it, they were substantially less enthusiastic about courting conservative attacks by opposing the bill from the left once their own votes would prove decisive to the outcome.

It should be noted that the Republican Party's frequent rejection of Downsian logic extends to the electoral sphere as well. Rather than view voting for the AHCA as an unacceptable risk given the law's unpopularity among swing voters, many Republicans believed that they would court greater danger by failing to pass anything and thus demobilizing their own party base:

When a party defines itself as the agent of an ideological cause, it is almost inevitable that many elected officials will perceive political pressure as coming from the extremes, not the center, and act accordingly. Moreover, the lesson that the Freedom Caucus will draw from the events of the past two weeks is that the demands of purist conservative holdouts are likely to be satisfied in the end, while moderates and pragmatic conservatives will cave rather than risk blame for obstructing the policy agenda of party leaders. A national rout in 2018 might call this rationale into question, but for now the typical Republican official views energized conservatives, not moderate swing voters, as occupying the pivotal position dictating his or her own personal electoral future.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Importance of Trump's First Hundred Days

The historically productive first weeks of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency left American politics with a tradition of news media-led retrospection at the hundred-day mark, reached Saturday by the Trump administration. Given that no subsequent president has been able to match Roosevelt's remarkable record of immediate prolific policy accomplishment, there is a certain arbitrary—and even perhaps unfair—element to exercising collective judgment on the new chief executive only three months into a four-year term. On the other hand, the "honeymoon" at the start of an administration is generally a favorable period for the enactment of presidential initiatives, and presidents have often found that the sledding, especially on Capitol Hill, only grows more treacherous over time.

Rather than simply declaring the hundred days either a success or a failure and then moving on, it is perhaps more appropriate to take the opportunity to review what we have learned about the new president since January 20. Trump is an especially apt subject for examination in this way. He came into the office without the experience or political style of a normal national leader, and his election generated a wide range of expectations across partisan and ideological lines about what kind of president he would turn out to be.

It's safe to say at this point that Trump is not the political savant envisioned by some of his supporters, and even by members of the press corps who were impressed by his unlikely election. Despite his promises to the contrary during the 2016 campaign, Trump has not shown the ability to resolve the nation's most pressing problems via a unique combination of negotiating savvy and tough-minded dedication. One insider account after another portrays the president as totally at sea in the White House, with top members of Trump's own staff privately conceding that he lacks an elementary grasp of either policy or congressional politics. Previous suggestions that he would assemble an all-star team of "the best people" to provide assistance and advice have similarly been discarded in favor of the installation of a skeleton crew of professional partisans and assorted personal loyalists, who seem to spend as much energy jockeying for presidential favor and trashing each other in the press as they do carrying out the tasks of governing.

At the same time, much of the criticism directed toward Trump from the left prior to Inauguration Day has also not been borne out by his performance in office. Warnings that Trump's ascendance to power signaled a potential threat to democracy itself were commonplace among left-of-center analysts during the campaign and transition period. But one regular attempt to catalog worrying signs of impending authoritarianism has come to seem self-refuting, unless such items as "13. Trump dropped his campaign promise to let Medicare negotiate bulk discounts on prescription drugs" and "5. Trump hosted a disastrous Easter Egg Roll" indeed contain sinister echoes of Franco and Mussolini. (Also: the Easter Egg Roll was not actually disastrous, even if Beyoncé didn't show up this year.)

The Trump presidency has been more conventionally Republican than advertised—largely abandoning the departures from traditional conservative doctrine that gave the Trump candidacy a tinge of economic populism—and has proven less effective so far in achieving major change than either supporters or (most) opponents assumed. Rather than consolidating executive power to rearrange the international order, dissuade corporate America from outsourcing jobs, or oppress and intimidate political enemies, the new president has devoted much of his attention to monitoring daily television coverage of his administration and idly complaining about its perceived unfairness. Decisions about legislative business and other substantive matters are often delegated to subordinates or avoided altogether.

When combined with a divided congressional majority—and unified minority—this adds up to an administration characterized by significant political and institutional limitations. Trump's personal defensiveness and penchant for boastful exaggeration, traits that have been adopted by members of his White House staff, project insecurity more than calm command and arise in private meetings with other political leaders as well as public communications. Despite an unusual preoccupation with his personal popularity, the new president has yet to convince a majority of citizens to approve of his job performance at any point since taking office, further reducing his influence over Congress and encouraging critical assessments from members of the news media who would otherwise defer to Trump as an authentic voice for the concerns of middle America.

Presidents, and presidencies, can and do evolve over time. It's premature to draw anything more than tenuous conclusions about the governing style and capacity of the new administration just three months into its existence. On the other hand, media observers have been hyper-sensitive to any signs of a more knowledgeable, even-tempered, or "presidential" Trump ever since he started his campaign 21 months ago, but have so far only sounded what turned out to be false alarms. Trump may indeed change his ways in the future. So far, however, there's little reason to expect the next hundred days to be much different from the first.

Finally, it's time for some personal stock-taking. Last January, I was asked by the Boston College public affairs office, along with a number of academic colleagues across several disciplines, to share brief remarks about Trump's first hundred days. Here's what I wrote:

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how the Trump administration will operate in practice. Compared to previous administrations, the incoming president’s policy priorities are not well defined and the lines of decision-making authority within the White House remain unclear. Because the new president and vice president, most senior presidential advisors (including the new White House chief of staff), and much of the cabinet all lack substantial experience in the executive branch, the early months of the Trump administration will produce an elevated risk of ineffectiveness, substantive and procedural confusion, and potentially serious errors in governing.
It is already clear from both the 2016 campaign and the post-election transition period that the new president places great importance on receiving positive press coverage, identifying and citing indicators of personal popularity, and exacting revenge against perceived enemies. These are likely to be the major day-to-day objectives of his administration – absent an immediate crisis that directs attention elsewhere – and presidential decisions about policy and personnel may well be viewed primarily through their ability to further one or more of these goals.

I'd still stand behind these words. But I am struck in retrospect by the lack of energy that Trump has devoted to using the presidential bully pulpit to mobilize popular support and pressure political opponents (of both parties), and by his limited success in finding creative and politically useful ways to attract public attention. The deficiencies so far of Trump-the-policy-maker are, to me, hardly a shock. It's Trump-the-media-tactician whose ineffectiveness is one of the most surprising developments of the first hundred days.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Interview about Asymmetric Politics with Salon.com

I was recently interviewed by Paul Rosenberg of Salon.com about how the view of party differences that Matt and I propose in Asymmetric Politics applies to recent political events, including the rise of Donald Trump, the failure of the Republicans' health care reform plan last month, and the challenges facing the Democrats. You can find an edited version of our conversation here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Kansas Election and the Stability of American Electoral Politics

American politics over the last 25 years or so seems as if it's a roller coaster of sudden and unpredictable plot twists, each more improbable than the last: the ascension of a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in four decades; the impeachment of a sitting president; a national election decided by the idiosyncratic design of punch-card ballots in a single Florida county; a coordinated series of major terrorist attacks on American soil; two long and unresolved wars; a catastrophic economic crisis; the election of the first black president in history—followed immediately by the election of Donald Trump to the same office. The fortunes of the two parties have appeared to reverse with whiplash-inducing rapidity multiple times over this period, with neither side managing to establish an enduring hold over the affections of an impatient and dissatisfied electorate.

Pull back to a wide-angle shot, though, and our current political climate actually exhibits considerable stability. The following regularities (I don't view them as "rules," which would imply assuming an indefinite permanent validity) have largely held across the entire period from 1994 to the present, and certainly since 2000 or so:

1. The two parties are closely matched at the national level in both presidential and congressional elections.

2. The vast majority of voters are consistently loyal to a single party in both presidential and congressional voting.

3. Most individual states and congressional districts are securely and predictably Democratic or Republican in national elections.

4. However, because of #1 above, a national "wave" in favor of a single party can easily reverse control of the presidency or either house of Congress, flipping pivotal swing states and districts from Democratic to Republican (or vice versa) and even producing scattered upsets in normally safe partisan strongholds elsewhere in the nation.

5. These "waves" commonly form as a backlash against unified control of the federal government by the party in power, which tends to simultaneously alienate swing voters and disproportionately mobilize angry members of the opposition party to show up at the polls or to run for office themselves.

6. Many citizens treat their congressional vote as a referendum on the national parties and party leaders, rather than as a choice between the personal attributes of the individual candidates on the ballot.

With these six regularities in mind, let's turn to the results of Tuesday night's special election in Kansas. This was a "deep red" congressional district—by any metric, one of the 100 most Republican seats in the country—and, as we might expect, the Republican candidate won (see #2 and #3 above). However, the margin of victory was only about 7 percentage points, even though the Republican nominee was a statewide elected official while the Democrat was a political unknown who was outspent and out-organized (see #6). The closeness of the result suggests that the electoral climate has worsened considerably for Republican candidates since last November, in large part due to the disastrous first weeks of the Trump presidency (see #5 and #6).

If we compare the Kansas results to the previous general election, they appear to represent a dramatic shift in the political order over just a few short months. But if we place them in a wider context, they seem much less surprising—if anything, somewhat predictable. Even the political professionals at the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fell prey to this ultra-short-term thinking, dismissing the electoral chances of their party's congressional nominee based on the results of the 2016 election and its immediate predecessors, and thus failing to invest the organizational and financial resources in Kansas that might have made the outcome closer still.

Should they—or we—really have been all that surprised? By every conceivable indication, the Trump presidency is poised to be a massive electoral albatross for Republican candidates from coast to coast—and there is, at this stage, little reason for the party to hope that he will rectify his governing problems in time for next year's midterm elections. Whether or not Republicans actually cede control of the House in 2018 (see #1 and #4), it is near-certain that they will lose a substantial number of seats unless a major rebound occurs in the president's perceived job performance. But let's not be shocked—a newly successful congressional Democratic Party would not be a sudden departure from the patterns of recent history. Rather, it would be yet another regular occurrence in our predictable political age.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Will Bannon Stay? Will He Go? It Actually Won't Matter Much

We have yet to reach the three-month anniversary of Donald Trump's inauguration, yet a death watch has already started in Washington over the White House tenure of Trump advisor and chief strategist Stephen Bannon. This development was precipitated by a single publicly-confirmed fact—Bannon's abrupt removal from the National Security Council—but a host of on-background quotes in the press have attested to Bannon's falling star, further fueling the intrigue of the week.

Bannon, a former Hollywood producer who migrated to the Trump campaign last August from the bare-fanged conservative website Breitbart, has the kind of unconventional biography for a political aide that invites particular fascination—as does his cultivation of a shadowy, Master of Darkness persona. Gossip about who's in and who's out in the scene around Trump also understandably attracts interest, and Bannon's identification with the ethno-nationalist "alt-right" movement aligned with Trump ensures that his departure, if and when it comes, will have a real symbolic meaning. But it's unlikely to affect the political trajectory of the Trump presidency to any significant degree.

Substantively, Bannon differs from the average Republican political advisor by emphasizing economically populist messages and policies on jobs, trade, and domestic infrastructure, combined with an even more aggressive opposition than other Republicans to immigration (both legal and illegal) and international alliances. This combination of positions, along with a more general "anti-establishment" attitude, has been collectively viewed as defining Trumpism as distinct from regular American conservatism.

Since taking office, however, Trump has addressed immigration fitfully and the other issues hardly at all. He has turned responsibility for setting his presidency's legislative agenda over to the Republican congressional leadership, which chose to pursue deregulation, ACA repeal (now in indefinite limbo), and comprehensive tax reform while making decidedly unenthusiastic murmurs about tackling an infrastructure bill or funding a wall along the Mexican border. It's difficult to detect Bannon's hand in most of the events of the past two months, after he took the lead in devising the "travel ban" executive order that was soon blocked in federal court (as was its replacement). Even last week's airstrike in Syria seems inconsistent with Bannon's worldview, and reports indicate that it occurred over his opposition.

Redefining the Republican Party, restructuring the international order, achieving the "deconstruction of the administrative state": these are exceedingly ambitious aims that are likely to frustrate even a competent and dedicated presidential administration. They certainly can't be accomplished, even partially, between rounds of golf or during the commercial breaks of "Fox and Friends"—or by delegating the real work to Congress or mid-level White House staff.

There was probably a time, in the immediate wake of the election when Washington was in a state of paralytic shock, when Trump and Bannon could have imposed substantial change on the political system, if they had acted quickly and effectively. But that window is now closed, probably for the rest of Trump's presidency. Poll numbers have slumped, mistakes have added up, key executive-branch positions have gone unfilled, and other political actors have perceived—and in some cases been told outright—that the new president cares more about "wins" and favorable publicity than the content of the policies implemented by his administration. This last admission is particularly damaging, since it signals to other elites that they should not take Trump's stated positions seriously—and gives them every reason to insist on policy demands of their own in exchange for political support (a tactic adopted by the House Freedom Caucus on the issue of health care).

Trump may rebound politically in the months and years to come, but it's hard to see how the larger ambitions of the "America First" policy program can be fulfilled, at least in the domestic sphere—and therefore, unclear what particular value Bannon provides by sticking around. (His removal from the NSC seems to answer the question of what future influence Bannon will have on foreign policy, even if he remains in the White House.)

At the same time, Trump's not necessarily much better off without him. An experienced, realistic, politically astute chief advisor is something this presidency needs desperately. By all accounts, however, the main rival to Bannon for Trump's favor is the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who may not represent an improvement on any of these scores and whose family ties give him more protection, and less restriction, than Bannon was ever likely to have. Trump may be merely trading frustration in the pursuit of one set of objectives for similar ineffectiveness in the fulfillment of other, equally implausible goals.

Bannon's marginalization is likely to be widely cheered in Washington, and it will be natural for critics to treat him as a personification of Trump's rocky first months in office—the Mack McLarty of the 21st century. But this view ignores the importance of the pre-existing dysfunction within the congressional Republican Party, as well as the degree to which Trump's sliding political standing also reflects his swift abandonment of economic populism to embrace Paul Ryan's agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the rest. It's not only Bannon's alt-right that has caused Trump grief; the plain old regular right is, for him, just as much of a problem.