Monday, September 28, 2020

If We Must Have Debates, Let's at Least Make Them Smarter

The closest that this blog comes to a pose of assertive contrarianism is its consistently dismissive attitude toward the staging of televised debates in presidential campaigns. Debates are a well-established quadrennial tradition that are often treated as sacred rites of civic virtue; self-righteous outrage predictably ensues upon any suggestion that a candidate might or should refuse to participate. The political world is filled with people who are invested in puffing up debates, many of whom were no doubt captains of their high school debate teams. But there's a pretty strong case that their actual value to the democratic process is often zero and sometimes negative. 

There are two main problems with debates. First, they are framed in advance as valuable exercises in political deliberation and public edification even though they are actually treated as a form of entertainment and as one more arena of partisan competition. Second, the media commentators whose interpretations affect public perceptions of the outcome often decide who "won" and who "lost" on fairly silly grounds. Cracking a pre-written joke, sighing into a microphone, having too much on-camera energy or not enough—are these really the moments upon which the leadership of the nation should properly turn?

If debates are here to stay, which they are at least until a future candidate is bold enough to boycott them, they could at least be smartened up a bit. Here are three specific areas that could badly use improvement:


1. Before the debates: ignore campaign spin. 

When it comes to debates, media commentators not only admit to being influenced by campaign spin, but even judge the performance of the candidates against the prior claims of their opponents. For this reason, the Trump campaign's repeated attacks on Biden as mentally enfeebled—often accompanied by suggestions that the debates will dramatically expose his incompetence—strike some analysts as a serious strategic error that will make it easy for the media to declare Biden the winner. Since Trump has suggested that Biden can't make it through a 90-minute live event without embarrassing himself, or at least without the use of surreptitious pharmacological assistance, he has presumably set a very low bar for his opponent to clear.

Maybe Trump didn't play the spin game well. So what? There's no good reason why independent observers' judgments about debate performance should be shaped by whatever the nominees or their flacks say beforehand. (And note the recent Washington Post story quoting anonymous Democratic sources trying to lower expectations in their own way by claiming to worry about Biden losing his temper in response to Trump's provocations.) The excessive importance of prior "expectations" means that debate participants are often not compared with each other, but are judged instead against the caricatures of themselves that already exist in the minds of media analysts. Indeed, if Trump were simply to behave 30 percent less combatively than normal tomorrow night, he would earn some of the best press coverage of his entire presidency even if his performance were otherwise unmemorable.


2. During the debates: ask questions designed to illuminate important subjects for voters, not just play gotcha with candidates.

Debate moderators sometimes fall into the practice of choosing what they think of as "tough" questions: questions that try to catch a candidate in some kind of exaggeration or hypocrisy, or that effectively restate whatever attacks the opposition is making at the time. There is a place for such questions. But they seldom produce interesting responses, in part because candidates anticipate them and rehearse a deflection, and the debate can easily become stuck on a topic that doesn't ultimately have much to do with the job the participants are seeking.

Intended "gotcha" questions should be better balanced with more open-ended, less overtly antagonistic questions that invite candidates to envision the future as well as defend their past, and that focus as much as possible on the presidency's actual powers—which are more expansive in the realms of foreign policy and public administration than in the well-trod ground of legislator-in-chief—as well as its limitations. If debates are to be a kind of public job interview in which the audience actually learns something about the applicants that is relevant to their potential future responsibilities, the questions need to reflect what the job actually is. And any "fun" or "unconventional" question—"what do you do to relax?" or "can you say something nice about your opponent?"—is always an insulting waste of time, a smarmy condescension to Middle America in the guise of artificial folksiness. (Whenever regular citizens have the opportunity to address presidential candidates, they nearly always ask questions that are serious and policy-focused.)


3. After the debates: coverage should focus on what was said, not how it was said.

The history of debates is strewn with supposed candidate gaffes, but very few of those identified by media critics involve truly troubling mistakes—the misstatement of an important fact, the outright smear of an opponent, an insensitive remark directed towards a social group. From Richard Nixon's physical appearance to Mitt Romney's inelegantly-phrased description of his governorship's female staff recruitment efforts, nearly all of the best-remembered debate "blunders" over the years remain firmly at the who-really-cares level of substantive importance. Even the ability of a candidate to recover from a "bad" performance in one debate with a "good" showing a week or two later, as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all did in their re-election campaigns, merely proves how unreliable it can be to judge potential presidents based on their personal demeanor in any particular circumstance. Besides, we already know plenty about what kinds of people these candidates are. Let's focus on what they say they will do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

2020 Has Quietly Become Another "Year of the Woman"

The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for election every two years. But congressional elections tend to lead the news only every other cycle, when there isn't a concurrent presidential contest. James Madison may have believed that the "legislative authority necessarily predominates" over the executive, but most Americans don't seem to behave accordingly; a development or trend in congressional politics that would be treated like a big deal in a midterm year will always receive much less attention if it happens to coincide with the selection of the president.

In 2018, the leading story of the congressional midterms was the anti-Trump backlash that handed control of the House of Representatives to the opposition Democrats. The "resistance movement" widely credited with fueling the Democratic victory was distinctively female in its complexion—not only among voters and activists but also at the level of the candidates themselves. A record number of women sought public office in 2018, and a record number were elected to Congress.

Though it hasn't received the same degree of notice this time around, the records broken in 2018 will be broken again this year. With yesterday's Delaware primary election marking the end of the congressional nomination season, the numbers are now available to make full historical comparisons. Among Democrats, 48 percent of all House nominees in 2020 are women, exceeding the all-time high of 42 percent set in 2018. And for the first time in history, a majority (58 percent) of non-incumbent Democratic nominees are women.

An even bigger change has happened on the Republican side this year. The mobilization of women was a single-party phenomenon last election, but now it's become bipartisan. The share of female Republican House nominees grew from 13 percent to 23 percent between 2018 and 2020, and the share of women among non-incumbent nominees surged from 18 percent to 33 percent—not only easily outpacing any previous election for Republicans, but even exceeding the Democratic rate in every year before 2018.




The picture in Senate and governors' races is less dramatic, but still shows an upward trend over time in both parties. The total number of female Democratic nominees declined a bit between 2018 and 2020, but that reflected a more heavily male class of sitting senators seeking re-election this year; the share of women continued to rise slightly among non-incumbent Democrats. In the Republican Party, 2020 did not produce the same abrupt spike in Senate and governors' contests that it did in House elections, but the party still narrowly set an all-time record with women constituting 19 percent of all nominees (up from 17 percent in 2018).





Most female congressional candidates won't win in November, since most non-incumbent nominees suffer defeat regardless of gender. Even so, it's likely that there will be a modestly higher number of women in the 2021–2022 Congress than there are today, especially since Republican women are sure to increase their representation in the House from the mere 13 now serving. With the possibility of a first-ever female vice president winning office as well, 2020 could quietly turn out to be the biggest electoral "year of the woman" yet.

Monday, September 14, 2020

If Trump Has Money Problems, They Won't Matter Much

Several prominent media reports emerged over the past week or so telling a similar story: the Trump re-election campaign is in financial trouble. On September 7, the New York Times warned of a "cash crunch" due to "squandered costs" that was forcing the Trump campaign to "slash" its advertising budget. Three days later, a Washington Post story used similar language, describing a campaign "facing tough budgetary decisions down the stretch" that has Republican strategists "alarmed" as "Democrats take over the airwaves." Politico suggested that Trump was compounding this apparent disadvantage by misdirecting his funds to target the already supportive national audience of Fox News Channel, allowing a Biden advertising barrage to court swing voters in swing states without sufficient contestation.

These articles all adopt a "WARNING: Crisis in Progress" tone that runs a bit ahead of the specific facts provided. A careful reading of the evidence reveals that the Trump campaign is far from broke (in fact, Trump raised $200 million in August, a historically staggering sum). What's really happened is that Trump's anticipated financial advantage has disappeared because Trump spent a chunk of money early in the race that is naturally unavailable to him now, and because his opponent has found even greater recent fundraising success (Biden raised over $350 million in August, a historically staggering-until-you-fall-over sum).

It's true enough that Biden is currently outspending Trump on swing-state television. But these reports also suggest that Trump's newly-installed campaign manager Bill Stepien has made the strategic decision to save money for a final barrage later in the race. Perhaps this choice is somewhat born of necessity; if the Trump campaign had no realistic limits on its financial resources, it would presumably be matching Biden right now. However, that doesn't mean the strategy will fail. Trump had an overall financial disadvantage in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton, but his campaign actually outspent hers on television ads from mid-October onward and received considerable last-minute help as well from Republican-aligned super PACs.

The articles are also peppered with examples of supposedly wasteful expenditures by the Trump campaign. But $150,000 for airplane-towed aerial banners or $100,000 for cell phone security containers, whatever their usefulness or lack thereof, are petty cash-level sums in an operation on track to raise and spend well over a billion dollars in total. These factoids must be viewed within a particular context: there has been a change in leadership within the campaign, and the current Stepien-led regime has every reason to plant unflattering tidbits in the press about the decisions made during the tenure of predecessor Brad Parscale. If Trump makes a comeback in the final weeks, Stepien and company will gladly take credit for turning around the ship; if Trump loses, they will be happy enough to suggest that Parscale left them an unsalvageable wreck.

Even if Trump does face a financial disadvantage from now until November, this is very unlikely to be an election decided by money—especially his money. Most Americans' opinions about the incumbent, whether pro or con, are so strongly held that they will be very resistant to being swayed by advertising, and ad messages must compete with news media coverage to serve as information sources for the remaining bloc of undecided voters. Though he is being outgunned on the airwaves at the moment, Trump has already spent a lot this year on ads in both the television and digital realms, and these efforts didn't seem to exert a measurable effect on the horse race. The main Republican lines of attack since Biden became the apparent Democratic nominee in March haven't significantly damaged Biden's vote share or personal favorability rating, so it's not clear that putting more ad dollars behind the same message would make much of a difference.

Campaigns running consistently behind in the polls are always subjected to press coverage portraying them as organizationally incompetent, just as the strategists behind victorious candidates are always celebrated as political geniuses. Four years ago, media story after media story chronicled the chaotic, amateur-hour nature of the sure-loser Trump campaign (in contrast to the confident, professional Clinton operation) up until late in the evening on the night of the election, when commentators suddenly discovered that the Trump crew had been smarter and savvier than the Clinton team all along. It's obvious enough that Trump's second presidential campaign, like his first, has squandered advantages and misallocated resources. But elections are rarely decided by these factors, and it's hard to make the case that any significant share of voters won't have become very familiar with Donald Trump's campaign message by the time they cast their ballots.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

2020 Republican National Convention Recap

This week's Republican convention did an especially efficient job of encapsulating the current state of the party after four years of Donald Trump's leadership. In terms of the roster of speakers and the venues at which they spoke, the convention reflected how much the party has become a personal extension of Trump. Among the usual appearances by up-and-coming politicians and regular-citizen testimonials, a long succession of members of the reigning court—including a deputy chief of staff, press secretary, assistant to the president, counselor to the president, personal attorney of the president, and seven Trump family members—dominated the schedule, while the White House itself served as the backdrop to the addresses of both of its current adult occupants.

But the words of these speeches showed how much Trump's consolidation of power within the party has been accompanied by his adoption of its existing ideological commitments. Speaker after speaker at this week's convention reinforced standard Republican themes: small government, social traditionalism, veneration of the military and law enforcement, and attacks on "socialism," the "radical left," and the news media. Even the president's children, who might have been expected to spend their stage time sharing family anecdotes intended to create favorable personal impressions of their father, concentrated instead on delivering familiar conservative rhetoric. The occasional heterodoxies of the 2016 Trump campaign, which convinced many pundits and voters at the time that he was pulling the Republican Party to the left on economic policy, are no longer evident.

If there was something a bit redundant about the Republican convention, beyond the repetitive format forced in part by COVID-related restrictions, it stems from this presidency's unprecedented day-to-day domination of the political world over the past four years and the volume of coverage it already receives in both the mainstream and conservative media. Even enthusiastic supporters already have many other avenues of constant exposure to communication from Trump and his staff, and the campaign chose not to use their candidates' acceptance addresses, or the convention in general, to make much news.

It's hard to remember another presidential campaign in which concrete proposals and potential legislative initiatives have played such a minor role. Democrats have plenty of ideas for policy reform, as usual, but they did not make them the centerpiece of their public message in last week's convention; Biden's acceptance address mostly omitted the traditional "laundry list" of issue-specific domestic appeals in favor of a narrower focus on denouncing Trump as a threat to American values and mismanager of the COVID response. But the Republican convention was even more devoid of a vision for the next four years that centered on the actual powers and responsibilities of the president, as opposed to its frequent expression of emotionally charged but mostly symbolic opposition to the media, national anthem protests, destruction of local statuary, and "cancel culture." In the midst of an ongoing national economic and public health crisis that requires active, competent management to address effectively, it's remarkable that our national debate at this moment isn't more concerned with each candidate's specific plans and capacities to solve the immediate, life-threatening problem that the nation continues to face.

Monday, August 24, 2020

"Many People Are Saying" Trump's Republican Party Doesn't Stand For Anything...But They're Wrong

Did you hear that the Republicans aren't writing a traditional platform this year? Did you read that the party has only approved a resolution pledging to "enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda"? Did you happen to catch the quote in today's Politico story from veteran GOP congressional hand Brendan Buck, who quipped that his party has come to stand solely for "owning the libs and pissing off the media"?

Whether you're a never-Trump conservative shaking your head in mourning or a never-Trump non-conservative chortling with schadenfreude, the idea that the GOP has been reduced to a content-free cult of an ideology-free personality has an irresistably appealing emotional truth. The problem is that it doesn't have much factual truth.

Is there any confusion, or serious disagreement, over the Republican Party's current position on abortion? Or gun control? Corporate tax rates? Universal health care? Military spending? Environmental regulation?

Maybe the lack of a new platform in 2020 doesn't mean that the Republican Party is out of ideas. Maybe it shows that there is so much consensus within the party around the ideas it already has that few activists see the benefit in pressing for more internal debate.

The popular story that the Republican Party now revolves around Trump is true enough. But it often leaves out the point that Trump has won this power in part by adopting the party's existing substantive commitments. In terms of both policy and personnel, the Trump presidency is the most consistently conservative administration since Calvin Coolidge. Aside from the area of international trade (which has never been a defining issue for either major party in modern times), Trump governs in an ideologically orthodox fashion. And on some important subjects, such as immigration and international relations, he has helped to pull his party even farther to the right than it was before his arrival.

So where does the myth come from that Republicans don't stand for anything any more?

One clue comes from the types of people who seem the most invested in this argument. Today's Politico piece, which quoted Buck approvingly amidst a larger thesis that the Republican Party has abandoned any coherent animating philosophy, was written by Tim Alberta, an alumnus of the leading conservative journal National Review. Alberta's perspective is common among elite conservatives who dislike Trump: conservatism is good and Trump is not, so a Trump-led GOP is by definition a party that has forsaken its ideals.

It's true enough that Trump does not speak, or carry himself, like a National Review conservative. But that's because Trump is a Fox News conservative, not because he isn't a conservative at all. He has little interest in conservatism either as an intellectual movement built on abstract principles or as a set of moral and personal virtues, so conservative thinkers who do view their cause in such a manner naturally find it difficult to admit him to their ranks. However, the last four years have shown that most Republican voters trying to figure out what, or who, is and is not conservative pay a lot more attention to Sean Hannity's or Rush Limbaugh's thoughts on the subject than they do to Ramesh Ponnuru's or George F. Will's.

In the end, there's nothing new about the argument that the Republican Party has wandered away from true conservatism. This refrain was sounded in the later years of George W. Bush, in the final days of the Gingrich speakership, during the administration of the senior George Bush—even, at times, in the era of the otherwise sainted Reagan presidency. The conservative project of shrinking the size and role of government while simultaneously reversing leftward cultural trends is simply very difficult to achieve in practice, even when Republican politicians are in power and rhetorically committed to the cause. Donald Trump has pushed federal policy in a conservative direction across a broad spectrum of specific issues to the approval of nearly all of his fellow Republicans. That's what the Republican Party stands for, and if it wins another term, that's what it will do for another four years.

Friday, August 21, 2020

2020 Democratic National Convention Recap

Political scientists tend to like conventions more than media figures do. One reason is that journalists, whose souls are stirred most of all by the dramatic and the unexpected, are easily bored and annoyed by the packaged, stage-managed production of modern conventions, where the nomination outcome is pre-ordained and party leaders labor to hide any internal divisions or other juicy stories from public view. (Clint Eastwood's famously bizarro empty-chair routine got so much media attention at the 2012 Republican convention largely because it was a rare moment of true spontaneity.)

But another reason is that political scientists tend to like parties more than media figures do, and national conventions are above all party affairs. The nature of this year's conventions means that they can't serve as physical gatherings of the parties' human infrastructure—a real loss, even if the virtual version is a slicker and snappier experience for viewers on television. But they are still important as a unique window into how each party defines itself, and how that definition changes from one election to the next.

In most respects, the Democratic Party we saw on display this week was a familiar animal—above all, a varied coalition of social groups. Unsurprisingly, given the current climate, the topics of racial and gender equality were not only implicitly primed by the presentation of a demographically diverse succession of participants, but were also frequently invoked in speeches and voiceovers. Democrats also handed over key speaking slots to the first families of the party—the Obamas and Clintons, with a briefer but equally inevitable Kennedy appearance as well—and exploited their permanent representational advantage within the community of popular entertainment-industry professionals.

But there were also unmistakable signs of change. If the typical persuadable voter in the minds of party strategists 20 or 30 years ago was a small-town, church-going wage earner who goes hunting on the weekends, today it's more like a suburban small-business owner with Lean In on the coffee table and BeyoncĂ© on Spotify. Democrats' former defensiveness about associations with cultural liberalism is no longer a visible element of the party's national message, and subjects that party leaders were once somewhat reluctant to discuss—gun control, feminism, LGBT rights, illegal immigration—are now central elements of its public appeal. So while Joe Biden might have been seen in the primaries by supporters and detractors alike as a kind of throwback figure representing bygone days, the campaign he's wound up running is very much a reflection of the Democratic Party's present course.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

More on the Vice Presidential Selection of Kamala Harris

I have a new piece today in the New York Times that focuses on what the selection of Kamala Harris tells us about Joe Biden. Over the course of his long political career, I argue, Biden has always been a man of his party. He thus was unsurprisingly sensitive to pressure (or encouragement, if you prefer) from within Democratic circles to choose a woman, especially a black woman, and especially Harris. And the undeniable similarities and parallels between the figures of Harris, now very much Biden's political heir apparent, and Barack Obama merely underscore the extent to which the Democratic Party is still forged in Obama's image.

There wasn't enough room for me to touch on it in the piece, but it's become clear that Biden's organizational ties to the institutional Democratic Party are also very strong—probably stronger than those of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. For example, while Obama mostly disdained and neglected the Democratic National Committee, preferring to build his own personal voter outreach structure (ultimately called Organizing for America), the Biden campaign seems to be closely integrated with the DNC and much more invested in its success. And the retrospective accounts of his vice presidential search process that are starting to pop up in the press all describe a very extensive and elaborate intelligence-gathering operation designed to synthesize input from a wide array of party actors and stakeholders.

Here are a few other final thoughts as another round of veepstakes draws to a close:

1. It's not entirely clear from the reports I've seen whether Harris was the front-runner from the beginning. But it does seem obvious that a decision was made fairly early in the process to prioritize black women and—critically—to leave other party members and the press with the same impression. Once you've signaled that you're so interested in a black running mate that you're considering multiple non-traditional picks like Susan Rice, Karen Bass, or Val Demings, you'd be running quite a risk of disappointment by settling on, say, Gretchen Whitmer instead.

2. This strategic framing by the Biden campaign is one of the reasons why the Harris pick has been described as "safe" and "obvious." She's certainly the safe choice in comparison to Rice, Bass, or Demings. But a campaign that had floated a different mix of finalists might not have produced the same response.

3. One of the important issues that this search process has demonstrated is the underrepresentation of women, especially women who aren't white, in the traditional vice presidential (and presidential) feeder offices. Harris is one of only two black women who have ever been elected to the Senate in American history (Carol Moseley-Braun, who served one term from Illinois in the 1990s, is the other), and no black woman has ever served as a state governor. In our current political moment, the demand for national elected leaders who are not white men—at least on the Democratic side—is exceeding the ready supply. If Biden had ruled out Harris, for whatever reason, he would have been faced with a real dilemma, forcing him to relax either his preference for a black running mate or the normal perceptions of the appropriate credentials for presidential office.

4. The press has made a lot of hay out of the Trump campaign's incoherent set of attacks on Harris as it simultaneously attempts to paint her, like Biden, as both a radical anti-police anarchist and an overly punitive agent of the carceral state. But my guess is that the bulk of Republican messaging, in paid advertisements and surrogate talking points, will emphasize the former claim, with the latter saved for a few targeted social media communications intended to decrease turnout on the left. As with much else in politics, follow the money: tweets are free, but TV ads are expensive.

5. The vice presidential selection is always good for a few days of media frenzy in an otherwise slow summer week for news, but it's worth remembering that running mates normally fade into the background as the fall campaign heats up (with one historical exception that is, above all, a cautionary tale). And the next VP debate to have an important effect on the presidential race will be the first one ever.