Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What's a President Gotta Do to Be Called a Conservative These Days?

Donald Trump's conservative credentials have been disputed by all sides from the moment that he emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in the summer of 2015. The editors of the National Review denounced him as a "philosophically unmoored political opportunist" in a special anti-Trump issue early last year, while both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama characterized Trump as unfaithful to conservative principles during the 2016 general election. Trump's success in capturing the Republican nomination and then the White House prompted some observant analysts on both the left and the right to conclude that the Republican Party is no longer the party of conservatism and that a realignment of the entire American party system is now underway.

We are now two months past the presidential inauguration—and while there have been a number of surprises and unprecedented acts both large and small, the actual policies and personnel of the Trump administration have emerged with some clarity. What they add up to, at least so far, is as conservative a presidency as any in modern history. Trump has endorsed an orthodox conservative legislative agenda on taxes, regulation, and health care (including a major cut to Medicaid)—and has even apparently pressured Paul Ryan to revise the House health care bill in order to address objections from hard-line conservatives. His budget proposal calls for shifting billions of dollars from domestic discretionary programs to national defense, prompting opposition even from some conservative members of Congress. On foreign policy and immigration, Trump only differs from other Republicans to the extent that he has staked out positions further to their ideological right.

Trump's hiring and appointment record tells a similar story. His cabinet is filled with conservative stalwarts like Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, Ben Carson, and Betsy DeVos. Prior to his selection as Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney helped to depose John Boehner as Speaker of the House because he viewed Boehner as insufficiently devoted to conservatism. Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, is a Federalist Society-style conservative jurist. Top Trump aides Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are likewise firmly on the right end of the ideological spectrum, and palace-intrigue accounts of the Trump White House indicate that Bannon, Miller, and their allies nearly always prevail in internal disputes.

One reason for the strong right-wing character of the Trump administration is that a party, and even a presidency, is much bigger than one person. The Republican Party is increasingly controlled by ideologically-oriented politicians, activists, and media outlets, and Trump needs to work with, and maintain support from, his fellow partisans in order to govern. During the 2016 campaign, Trump sometimes promised to address policy goals that didn't fit within conservative doctrine—increasing public infrastructure spending, renegotiating trade deals, providing childcare assistance, lowering prescription drug costs—but few other Republicans, in Congress or elsewhere, share these priorities. Declining either to pressure his fellow partisans to modify their views or to build a bipartisan coalition with Democrats, Trump has yet to emphasize any of these issues since taking office.

Another explanation lies with Trump himself. There is little reason to believe that Trump is unshakably devoted to the tenets of conservative political philosophy as a personal value system. But Trump demonstrates two other characteristics that attract him to the pursuit of ambitious conservative policies: (1) a desire to project strength, decisiveness, and success by achieving large-scale—one might say "big-league"—political change; and (2) an eight-year-long resentful preoccupation with Barack Obama that has continued without abatement into the new administration, perhaps suggesting to the current president that any dramatic reversal of a policy supported by his predecessor is by definition a worthy and politically advisable act.

The gap between Trump's own public statements and his administration's actual issue positions is sufficiently large that some people are starting to wonder if Trump even understands the content of the legislation that he has endorsed and is pushing through Congress. Reporters are fanning out to the hamlets and hollows of Middle America to find Trump supporters of modest means who would be disadvantaged by the president's budget and health care proposals. How, wonders the Washington pundit class, can Trump possibly reconcile his populist appeal with his efforts to simultaneously enact a upper-income tax cut and revoke health insurance from millions of less fortunate Americans?

Trump might bet that voters will reward bold policy change for its own sake, regardless of its specific consequences. Or, perhaps, he retains confidence in his ability to successfully sell anything he does to a segment of the electorate that he once claimed was so loyal that it would still support him even if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue. It's also quite possible that he will deny responsibility for any unpopular provisions of the policies that he endorses, instructing voters to direct their blame toward Congress, the courts, or the federal bureaucracy.

Trump may be trapped between campaign rhetoric on one side and political realities on the other, but the entire Republican Party is in a similar predicament. The congressional GOP has also been forced to grapple with the challenge of suddenly fulfilling years of breezy promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act (and to replace it with an unspecified better, cheaper alternative) without spurring a popular backlash that could endanger its control of the legislative branch in next year's midterm elections. Today's health care debate is merely one example of a larger political problem that Republican leaders have faced for the better part of a century. Perennial conservative pledges to implement significant reductions in the scope of federal power are often frustrated by the inconvenient complication that even voters who say they don't like the government do like most of the specific things that the government actually does.

Trump the candidate was shrewd enough to recognize this fact, which is why he committed himself to maintaining current Social Security and Medicare spending levels while guaranteeing all sorts of other government-provided goodies to his supporters. But Trump the president will need to be even shrewder in order to escape voter anger for seeking to cut popular federal programs and benefits in contravention of his campaign-trail promises. The current occupant of the White House may be a newcomer to the conservative cause, but he has adopted its central ambitions as his own. Now he must reckon with the most formidable obstacles to its success.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

How the New Health Care Bill Confirms the Asymmetry of the Parties

Matt Grossmann and I write a fair amount about health care in our book Asymmetric Politics because it's a political issue that represents a particularly effective example of our main thesis: that the Democratic Party is organized as a coalition of social groups while the Republican Party is controlled by an ideological movement. Now that the House Republican leadership has released its health care reform proposal—the long-promised plan to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act—it is clearer than ever that the two parties are fundamentally different in character.

The Democratic Party is composed of a number of discrete social groups, each of which pressures party leaders to support and enact policies designed to ameliorate specific perceived problems faced by the group. For decades, Democratic constituencies have demanded that their party act to provide health care benefits to vulnerable populations—a goal that was addressed by the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, the Children's Health Insurance Program in the 1990s, and the Affordable Care Act in 2009–2010.

By and large, Democrats are less concerned about the mechanics by which a policy is implemented than they are about the real-world effects of that policy. For example, the Affordable Care Act did not reflect an overarching ideological vision for the nation's health care sector, but instead was designed to minimize disruption to the existing system (in order to increase its chances of passage through Congress) while extending insurance and other benefits to a greater proportion of the public.

Democratic leaders worked for years to negotiate compromises with a range of powerful stake-holders in order to develop a bill that had a chance of passing into law, in order to achieve at least a degree of policy-making success. Pragmatism, not purity, is the dominant style of governing among Democratic politicians, and even liberals within the party who preferred a single-payer system to the relatively inelegant Obamacare apparatus supported the legislation as a partial victory and the best realistic option available to address the practical concerns of their constituents—rather than torpedoing the entire effort in the name of ideological principle.

The Republicans, as one might observe these days, work differently. The bill that Paul Ryan and his congressional allies have released is not the product of extensive deliberation among interest groups, health care providers, or policy experts. Nor is it designed to achieve a particular outcome with respect to the quantity or quality of coverage available to the public. Instead, the legislation is primarily motivated by the goal of reducing federal involvement in the provision of health care to the extent that is politically possible, repealing the individual mandate (deemed unconstitutionally coercive by contemporary conservative ideology) and imposing significant cuts to the federal Medicaid program.

Much has been made of the fact that the House plans to begin legislative action on the Ryan bill without a score from the Congressional Budget Office estimating its total cost and projected effect on the number of Americans with health insurance. This decision supposedly reflects the desperation felt by Republican leaders to push the bill through the committee process as quickly as possible, as well as an expectation that the CBO's numbers, when they come, will indicate that the bill would cause a sizable rise in the proportion of uninsured citizens.

But the lack of interest in the CBO score also demonstrates what the central purpose of the bill actually is. For Democrats, the point of enacting the ACA was to increase the number of Americans who had health insurance, and any legislation that failed to significantly reduce the ranks of the uninsured was, by that standard, not worth passing. Validation from outside experts that the ACA would indeed fulfill the goal of coverage expansion was thus necessary in order to maintain party support.

Republicans, in contrast, are much more indifferent to the question of what effect their own replacement bill will have on the number of insured Americans. An unfavorable CBO score will be politically damaging, to be sure, but is less likely to influence their evaluation of the inherent merits of the legislation. (Reducing the size of the Medicaid program is fully consistent with the ideological objectives of the party—a feature, not a bug.)

Some liberals have responded to our characterization of the Republican Party as fundamentally ideological by arguing that Republicans don't really adhere to a coherent value system but rather merely do the bidding of wealthy citizens and big corporations. But the Ryan bill can't really be explained on that basis. The rich do benefit by receiving a large tax cut, but if Republicans only cared about that issue they would have chosen to pursue a politically easier path of merely cutting taxes on the wealthy while leaving health care alone. Similarly, it's far from clear that insurance companies are getting much out of the Ryan bill; in fact, the repeal of the individual mandate might well lead to a market "death spiral" that would raise insurance premiums and reduce the number of customers.

But perhaps the strongest current evidence in favor of our argument about the differences between the parties is the unique power of ideologically purist activists and pressure groups within the GOP. In what is surely the biggest political news of the day, one conservative organization after another—the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity—has announced its opposition to the Ryan bill, claiming that it doesn't go far enough in repealing the ACA and reducing the government's role in the provision of health care.

Of course, these groups' criticisms only make it more likely that Ryan's reform bill will fail and the ACA will remain in place, squandering a potential opportunity to move federal health care policy further to the ideological right. As we argue in Asymmetric Politics, it is time to devote more serious attention to the fact that the increasing power of the conservative movement and growing electoral success of the Republican Party over the past few decades have not yet come close to achieving the major retrenchment in domestic policy that the American right has been nominally dedicated to pursuing for most of the last century.

When Republican officeholders repeatedly shrink from risking the popular backlash that would naturally arise from large-scale implementation of their ideological commitments—note how the House GOP has acknowledged that simply repealing the ACA without replacement would invite electoral disaster—the unelected elements of the right respond by attacking them for betraying the Republican Party's conservative principles, threatening their defeat in primary elections and forcing them to make increasingly ambitious future promises that in turn are even more difficult to satisfy in practice. Regardless of where one's own sympathies might lie, observers across the political spectrum should be able to agree that this is not a fertile political environment for the prolific enactment of sound public policy.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Rand Paul Is Busy Blowing Up ACA Repeal. Is the White House Even Trying to Stop Him?

The election of Donald Trump may have been a game-changer in presidential politics, but on Capitol Hill things really don't look all that different. As the immediate euphoria inspired by the prospect of unified party government has started to wear off, congressional Republicans have gamely returned their attention to a problem that has vexed them for decades and especially for the past seven years: what do they do about health care? Existing confusion is mixed with new urgency, with the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act representing the party's first legislative priority and, according to its own strategic plan, a necessary step before Congress considers tax reform later in the year.

Republican plans to propose a detailed replacement for the ACA have always faced two major problems. The first is that it doesn't appear possible to develop an alternative policy framework that doesn't result in higher government costs, higher consumer costs, a reduction in the quality and quantity of care provided, or a combination thereof. As a party committed, at least in principle, to shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, Republicans understandably don't want to raise public expenditures above where they already are—but the alternative reform options would produce higher premiums and deductibles, less generous subsidies, and/or fewer Americans covered by insurance. None of these potential outcomes will strike the average politician as being particularly popular with the electorate.

The other problem is the existence of serious internal divisions within the congressional GOP. The 2016 election and its aftermath have temporarily eclipsed these conflicts from public view. But a sitting Republican speaker of the House was forced out of office less than 18 months ago by a rump faction of his own party, and there is no reason to believe that the dynamic that led to that extraordinary event has faded away completely.

Indeed, as Congress prepares to debate ACA repeal, we are seeing an all-too-familiar pattern emerging once again. The policy positions of the Republican congressional leadership are simultaneously under attack from two directions: from Democrats, who criticize them as unacceptably conservative, and from the Tea Party right, which characterizes them as not conservative enough. The House Freedom Caucus and like-minded Republicans in the Senate, supported by several key conservative interest groups, are now pushing for a reform bill that is far more "repeal" than "replace," and are threatening to join the Democrats in voting down any health care legislation that fails to meet their ideological demands.

These two problems merged on Thursday into a single bizarre scene in the Capitol building. Annoyed at leaks of previous legislative drafts that produced damaging headlines, Republican House leaders have decided to keep their latest health care reform proposal a secret from everyone except Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rumors that the secret plan was being guarded in a basement room in the Capitol prompted congressional critics to engage in a mock-treasure hunt to determine its location and contents. While some Democrats tried to get in on the fun, the chief detective on the case was Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who even played to the cameras by bringing along a photocopier in order to make a duplicate copy of any legislation he encountered. (The bill's whereabouts, if a draft indeed exists on paper, were not ascertained.)

Paul, a Tea Party ally, has already vowed to oppose any legislation that leaves large sections of the ACA in place, and such a rebellion would need to attract only two other Republicans—such as fellow right-wing purists Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah—to deny Republican leaders a majority vote for reform in the Senate.  As Paul has not only failed to endorse the leadership's repeal efforts but is now openly mocking them to Capitol Hill reporters, prospects for imminent passage of an ACA replacement seem rather remote at this point.

Paul knows full well that his behavior is making the passage of ACA repeal less likely; similar maneuvers by Tea Party types have doomed leadership-backed legislation repeatedly over the past 6 years. But now the White House is in Republican hands as well. For the first time in years, intra-party squabbling and acts of purer-than-thou symbolic position-taking can actually endanger the legislative program of a Republican president.

From what we can tell, there is apparently very little communication between Congress and the White House over policy, so that congressional Republicans have resorted to parsing the president's rhetoric in public speeches in order to divine his views on health care reform. But here is a Republican senator engaged in what looks like a public act of sabotage against one of Trump's biggest stated legislative goals—which immediately raises some curious questions. What, if anything, are the president and his advisors doing, or planning to do, about this ostentatious display of partisan independence? Will they devote any attention and energy to trying to whip Paul, or any other disaffected Republican, into line on ACA repeal? Or do they not actually care enough about the issue to bother?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

That Grover Norquist Quote Was Wrong Then...and It Just Keeps Getting Wronger

Back in early 2012, influential conservative interest group leader Grover Norquist delivered a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in which he addressed the then-raging Republican presidential nomination contest. "We are not auditioning for Fearless Leader," argued Norquist:

We don't need a president to tell us what direction to go; we know what direction we want to go. . . . The Republicans in the House have passed 24-plus bills that create jobs and opportunity and strip out regulations. We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. . . . [We just need to] pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become the president of the United States . . . [and] to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.

It's important to understand the context in which Norquist was speaking. The front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who was facing criticism at the time from hard-liners on the right for his previous departures from conservative ideological purity. Norquist was, in effect, giving a campaign speech on Romney's behalf, telling conservative activists that Romney's personal views or past record in office shouldn't trouble them because Paul Ryan and other congressional conservatives would be in charge of policy under a Romney presidency, and Romney would faithfully go along with their sweeping plans to reshape the federal budget and welfare state. (This was before Romney received the Republican presidential nomination and chose Ryan himself as his running mate.)

The Norquist speech was perfectly serviceable as a piece of strategic campaign rhetoric, but it is much less valuable as a characterization of how politics actually works. Unfortunately, the idea that the Republican-led Congress was a humming engine of policy change stymied in its objectives only by Barack Obama's veto pen received rather more credit than it deserved in the ensuing years, with the memorable "enough working digits" quip often quoted to suggest that the election of any Republican president would itself be sufficient to usher in a new conservative policy revolution.

Congressional Republicans from Ryan on down did their part to promote this view, as captured by this Washington Post curtain-raiser published on New Year's Day that portrayed the GOP as counting down the days until Trump formally took office in order to immediately begin the methodical implementation of an ambitious legislative agenda. But today, less than two months after the current session of Congress began and barely one month into Trump's presidency, several major policy items—repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, immigration reform, entitlement reform, and so forth—already face an uncertain future on Capitol Hill. Hopes are beginning to dim that the current Congress will indeed produce the bonanza of conservative policy achievements that Norquist envisioned.

So what went wrong?

The first problem with the Norquist quote was its substantial overstatement of the degree to which the congressional Republican Party was indeed a prolific font of policy-making. Congress in the Obama years was in fact quite unproductive in historical terms, and while Ryan in particular jealously guards his reputation as a self-described "policy guy," he prefers to lead by generating piles of "frameworks" and "summaries" rather than bringing specific legislative language up for votes on the House floor.

This approach can be successful at avoiding costly internal party fights and unpleasant trade-offs by effectively sweeping the annoying details and controversial aspects of policy change under the rug, but it has kept many key substantive questions from being resolved and has left the congressional GOP some distance away from the actual enactment of major legislation. Even the "Ryan budget" that Norquist singled out for specific praise in his 2012 speech relied on conveniently underspecified entitlement cuts to make its numbers work, which was hardly an accidental oversight by a party leadership that wishes to avoid politically inconvenient attacks on its long-term vision for Medicare and Medicaid.

Republicans did write and approve ACA repeal legislation that Obama vetoed in early 2016, but that too was a politically-motivated "message bill" intended as a campaign stunt rather than an actual test run for Republican health care policy-making—as confirmed by the fact that the Republican leadership is not planning to re-pass the same bill this year but has instead committed itself to an alternative strategy of "repeal and replace." Indeed, Republicans still don't seem to know what they want to do about health care nearly seven years after the ACA's passage, and increasingly deep divisions within the party are starting to threaten the prospect of fundamental reform surviving the legislative process this spring.

Even if the current Republican Congress were a bit more policy-oriented, however, the Norquist argument would still be deeply flawed as a characterization of how policy change has historically been enacted in the Untied States. There are several good reasons why Congress seldom takes the lead in enacting major legislation without significant presidential involvement. For one thing, some degree of internal disagreement is inevitable even if both congressional chambers are controlled by the same party—and only the president has the standing and capacity to resolve these disputes.

More fundamentally, members of Congress don't want to invest time and energy into developing legislation without the assurance of presidential support and political cover. Who wants to spend six months or more writing a bill, unavoidably casting some tough votes along the way, only to see it vetoed or its most controversial provisions disowned by the president? (Imagine how enthusiastic congressional Democrats would have been about passing the ACA if they thought Obama might blame them for including unpopular provisions like the individual mandate in the bill while taking credit only for the things voters like, such as coverage expansion and insurance regulations.)

Congress doesn't necessarily want the White House to boss it around or micromanage every detail, but presidential leadership in a larger sense is an absolutely necessary condition for effective legislating. And this is where Trump makes the congressional GOP's significant existing problems even worse.

Trump is habitually vague about his actual policy views on the major issues before Congress, from tax reform to health care. In part, this reflects Trump's limited personal familiarity with the substance of issues and (perhaps naive) apparent belief upon his ascension to the presidency that policy problems are easy to solve; his remark yesterday morning that "nobody knew that health care could be so complicated" inspired a mocking response in the media, but probably reflects a sincere realization that he's a bit out of his depth.

But Trump is also instinctively cagey, often demonstrating what seems to be a characteristic wariness of committing to specific policy objectives because of a fundamental fear that he's setting himself up for failure. What we've seen so far of the Trump administration also reveals it to be understaffed and inexperienced, with nobody apparently empowered to speak authoritatively for, or negotiate on behalf of, the president.

The result has been a blizzard of mixed signals. Republicans on the Hill still don't understand whether Trump will propose his own health care, infrastructure, or tax reform plans, what his major objectives are on these issues, what minimum provisions he will or won't accept, and which policies are his top priorities.

Presidential addresses to Congress, like tonight's event, are valuable opportunities for presidents to provide clarity on such matters. Publicly committing to a specific legislative agenda helps to convince Congress that the president is personally invested in its passage—and would thus share in the responsibility for any failure in enactment. Presidential agenda-setting does not guarantee legislative success, of course, but it is almost always a necessary condition for it.

For all of Trump's surface boldness and big talk, he has so far been a curiously risk-averse president when it comes to identifying specific policy objectives. But if Trump expects Congress to do the heavy lifting of policy-making and deliver him one bill after another on a platter, he is likely to wind up with few legislative achievements to show for his time in office. If he really does want to sign a lot of major legislation, a president needs a lot more than just the working digits to hold the pen.

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.