Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Trump-Cruz Race? Not If the Media Can Help It!

The unexpectedly stubborn persistence of Donald Trump's lead in polls of Republican voters—both nationally and in virtually every state except Iowa, including New Hampshire—has begun to produce a perceptible change in the news media's coverage of the presidential horse race. While most analysts still don't believe that Trump will actually be nominated, the conventional wisdom has started to coalesce behind the notion that the competition will ultimately narrow to a two-candidate race in which Trump is one of the remaining contenders. At that point, whether because Trump finally reaches a limit to his appeal or because the entire Republican institutional apparatus mobilizes furiously to stop him, the remaining viable non-Trump candidate will, supposedly, be in good position to consolidate enough support to outdistance Trump in the delegate count.

Ted Cruz has been gaining over the past two months or so in national polls and, crucially, in Iowa, which is favorable terrain for his candidacy and probably a must-win state for him.  More than at any other point in the race so far, Cruz now looks like a serious contender for the Republican nomination. The prospect of the Republican professional and organizational leadership, which almost uniformly detests Cruz personally and views him as ballot-box poison in a general election, being forced to gamely fall in line behind the Texas senator in a desperate attempt to block an even more unthinkable Trump nomination has simultaneously led to expressions of horror among pragmatic conservatives on the right and outright chortling among some observers on the left.

There are reasons to conclude, however, that the race will not easily evolve into a showdown between Trump and Cruz. One important factor is the role of the news media in interpreting the results of early state contests. Candidates deemed to have "exceeded expectations" in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to gain a burst of positive media coverage that inflates their popularity in the next states to vote, even if they do not win outright (examples include George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008). Would-be nominees benefit from looking as if their campaigns are gaining momentum, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the media are giving them large helpings of positive coverage just as voters in subsequent states are tuning into the race and making up their minds.

It's fair to say that most members of the political media are uncomfortable, at best, with the prospect of a two-man race between Trump and Cruz. For the center-left mainstream press, both candidates are highly objectionable on grounds of policy, rhetoric, qualification, character, or all of the above. For much of the conservative media (Fox News in particular), as well as the Republican consultant class that influences Washington-based interpretations of Republican politics, a Trump-Cruz race is like being asked to select one of two passenger cabins on the Titanic. Even if they don't intentionally slant their coverage to attempt to influence the outcome, many journalists and commentators will be unconsciously open to any evidence that a third candidate remains viable and is gaining strength.

Let's say, for example, that Marco Rubio places third in Iowa, behind Cruz and Trump, with 18 percent of the vote. This was Howard Dean's showing in 2004, and was widely deemed such a disappointment that it proved fatal to Dean's campaign. In today's context, though, I think a large share of both the conservative and mainstream media would choose to interpret Rubio's performance in a very positive light. Stories about how Rubio was starting to catch on would start to appear. Voters in New Hampshire and other states would be told that Rubio was gaining traction. He and his campaign staff would suddenly receive a lot of Fox News bookings. Pundits would openly breathe sighs of relief that someone had appeared in time to save the Republican Party from itself. In such an environment, it's easy to see how Rubio could benefit more from coming in third than Cruz could from winning Iowa—especially if Cruz's margin of victory is smaller than the pre-caucus polls predict, thus failing to meet expectations.

None of this is guaranteed—Rubio has to put together an effective campaign to be in position to capitalize on any potential advantage, and the latest round of warnings about the health of his campaign organization are worth paying attention to. But the fact remains that a lot of people with direct access to voters' eyes and ears will be rooting against a Trump-Cruz race early next year, and will be quite likely to reward any other plausible nominees by advancing a generous interpretation of their electoral performance.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Debate Recap: Trump Coasts as Cruz and Rubio Tussle

The latest round of polls shows Donald Trump in as strong a position as he's ever been among national samples of Republicans, although Ted Cruz appears to have caught up to him in Iowa, home of the nation's first delegate selection event. One might expect that Trump, as the leading candidate, would therefore attract the bulk of attacks from rival candidates in Tuesday's debate—and that Trump might in turn direct fire at Cruz, who now represents a major threat to his chances in the Iowa caucus.

Instead, Trump sailed through the debate without becoming the target of sustained criticism from the rest of the field. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul took shots at Trump—Bush in particular cannot contain his open exasperation with Trump's antics, and clearly finds Trump's ascendance to be maddeningly incompatible with his own theory of the universe—but neither man has the popularity or credibility with the conservative base of the Republican Party to draw much blood, and Trump simply swatted them away. But Cruz, and to a lesser extent Marco Rubio, passed up several opportunities to attack Trump (Cruz was openly invited to do so by the moderators near the end of the debate), even though they are currently Trump's main rivals in the race. For his part, Trump returned the favor by disowning his own previous description of Cruz as a "maniac" when it was raised by a questioner.

Rubio and Cruz preferred to train their fire on each other. Cruz criticized Rubio on immigration (from the ideological right), while Rubio criticized Cruz on surveillance and military policy (ditto). As these policy stances represent each candidate's most notable departure from conservative doctrinal purity, the attacks were hardly a surprise, and these issues will probably continue to be raised as long as Cruz and Rubio remain in the race.

It seems likely that Rubio and Cruz subscribe to a similar strategic view of the nomination contest as it currently stands. If Trump is destined to fade, they reason, there is little advantage in attacking him now, since he will leave a large chunk of Republican voters up for grabs who will likely be reluctant to transfer their support to a candidate who had criticized their former hero. If Trump is not destined to fade, then both Rubio and Cruz want to be left standing as the primary non-Trump alternative in the race as the field narrows after Iowa and New Hampshire. Under either scenario, strategy dictates that they attack each other rather than the front-runner, who thus winds up getting something of an easy ride even as he continues to top the field.

At some point down the road, the strategies of Rubio and Cruz may diverge. The chief difference between their positions is that Iowa is probably a must-win state for Cruz, whereas Rubio only needs to finish respectably there. If Cruz is unable to pull away from Trump in Iowa, he may be forced to revoke his current non-aggression pact with Trump (and, if Cruz does start to pull away, Trump may abandon it himself). For now, however, we are left with a leader in the polls who is facing attacks not from the other top-tier candidates, but from those who are struggling to gain any traction whatsoever. As Trump remarked contemptuously on Tuesday in response to Jeb Bush's gibes, "I'm at 42 [percent], and you're at 3." A mean thing to say, perhaps—but not an inaccurate one.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Will Trump Realign the Republican Party?

Matthew Continetti argues today that the potential nomination of Donald Trump would likely result in a wholesale realignment of the Republican Party. "The future of the GOP as we know it is in question," he writes, and Trump as nominee "would alter the character of the Republican Party in a fundamental way." In Continetti's view, Trump would replace the free-market, free-trade, pro-immigration conservatism of Ronald Reagan with a more nationalistic, isolationist, protectionist brand of politics that placed less emphasis on reforming or cutting domestic entitlement programs.

I think the article probably overstates the degree to which Trumpism is inconsistent with existing conservatism rather than an amplified form of its populist side, but I'm more interested in addressing the question of whether Trump's nomination would produce a wholesale, long-term change in the Republican Party. There are reasons to be doubtful.

Continetti makes his case by citing three historical parallels of presidential candidates who, he says, produced an ideological and coalitional change in their parties: Barry Goldwater in 1964, who led the takeover of the GOP by the modern conservative movement; George McGovern in 1972, who reflected the rising clout of racial minorities, feminists, Cold War doves, and cultural liberals within the Democratic Party; and Reagan in 1980, who benefited from the newfound political mobilization of the religious right and who established supply-side economics and moral traditionalism as essential components of the Republican creed.

But I'm struck by how different these examples are from Trump. Goldwater, McGovern, and Reagan were all the products of much broader movements that spent years pressing for influence within their home parties—laying intellectual groundwork, recruiting activists, gaining control of party institutions, persuading party-aligned voters. The presidential candidacies of these three men, while historically important, represented the flowering of a wider political mobilization that predated them and, crucially, had the capacity to survive the loss (in the first two cases) or departure from office (in the third case) of their presidential champion. (Democratic national leaders also moved away from McGovernism almost immediately, reverting to a strategy of attempting to contain the influence of liberal ideologues within the party.)

The Trump movement, in contrast, is all about Trump. His followers are devoted to him personally more than to any particular ideological tradition. They were not well-organized politically before his arrival, and they are unlikely to remain so after his defeat. There is no "Trump faction" among Republicans in Congress or in the party organizations that could take up the mantle if Trump himself is not elected, nor is there likely to be. Trump is certainly an important factor in this election, and is useful in revealing the political predispositions of a large portion of the Republican popular base, but he does not represent the mobilization of a political movement so much as the culmination of right-wing media influence over the Republican Party at the expense of its elected and organizational leadership.

If he were to be nominated, most of the GOP would make temporary peace with him, but he would be likely to lose (perhaps badly), giving the rest of the party leadership an easy way to write him off and return to their existing political objectives once the election is over. Perhaps a better historical comparison for Trump is Ross Perot, another rich businessman and political outsider who tapped into a significant popular sentiment and, for a time, appeared to some as a potentially revolutionary political figure, but whose "movement" was ultimately more about himself than the ideas on which he ran, and who showed no interest in doing the hard work and building the relationships with other actors necessary to sustain a lasting influence in politics.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Conservatives Take Another Angle: Blame The Donald on Obama

Yesterday, I addressed the ways in which the consensus self-definition of the Republican Party as a vehicle for conservative principles complicates the attempts by anti-Trump party members to beat back his candidacy. Simply calling Trump an extremist implicitly suggests that he stands to the ideological right of his critics, but few Republican leaders or conservative commentators want to be caught to the left of anybody—especially during the party's current, Tea Party-roiled state in which more-conservative-than-thou arguments often seem to carry the day. (It would also make them sound an awful lot like the liberals who are currently bashing Trump over his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim proposals.)

One alternative tactic, adopted yesterday by Paul Ryan, is to suggest instead that Trump is not a true conservative at all. According to this view, Trump and his policies are therefore by definition ruled out as deserving of the party's support. This argument has yet to show much promise, however, in stopping Trump's rise among Republican voters.

Today, the Wall Street Journal editorial page takes another tack. The meat of the piece is a direct criticism of Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, which the Journal finds both counterproductive to the fight against terrorism and, euphemistically, certain to "face constitutional scrutiny." But this volley against Trump is wrapped at both ends inside a denunciation of Barack Obama's administration, which the Journal holds directly responsible for Trump's rise. "The oldest truism in politics," says the Journal, "is that demagogues flourish in the absence of leadership."

This particular anti-Trump argument is echoed by Ben Domenech at the Federalist, who treats Trump's candidacy as the "greatest political legacy" of Obama's presidency, such that a piece critical of Trump is entitled "Welcome to Barack Obama's America." Domenech views Obama's failures as extending beyond foreign policy and the war on terror to encompass the erosion of faith in government and even the rise of political correctness—a line of argument extended further in the same publication by Rubio advisor Paul David Miller, who accuses "progressivism" itself of provoking a Trump-led backlash that Miller sees as threatening the health of the Republican Party.

[UPDATE: Even Jeb Bush got in on the fun this afternoon:]

If you want to trash Trump but don't want to sound like a lefty, the "blame The Donald on Obama" approach has an obvious appeal, regardless of its underlying validity. One pictures a group of anti-Trump Republicans at the White House gates, shaking fists that clutch Trump's current poll numbers, yelling "Look at what you're making us do!" at the president inside.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Why the "Trump's Not a Conservative" Gambit Is Getting Another Try

Matt Grossmann and I have a research project (book manuscript in progress!) in which we argue that the Democrats and Republicans are fundamentally different kinds of parties. We view the Republican Party as the vehicle of an ideological movement—the conservative movement—while the Democratic Party is instead a coalition of discrete social groups, in which ideology plays a role but is not the party's defining purpose.

One of the many manifestations of this asymmetry is the shared assumption by virtually all of the Republican Party's leaders—including both elected officials and unelected activists, interest groups, and media figures—that the party exists to advance conservative principles. If a policy position, initiative, or political candidate is conservative, Republicans should properly be for it/him/her; if it/he/she is not conservative, all Republicans in good standing should rise in opposition. Republicans may sometimes disagree among themselves about which policies are conservative, or about which strategies and tactics are most appropriate for furthering conservative principles in a given situation, but the party has reached a virtual consensus that the advancement of conservatism is its fundamental reason for being.

This attribute of Republican politics has allowed the conservative movement to achieve a great deal of political success over the past 50 years of American history. But there are drawbacks. Venerating conservative principles can make it difficult to define limits to any rightward push within the party. The most popular play in the Republican primary playbook is always to label your opponent as insufficiently conservative, which creates an incentive for politicians worried about being attacked from their right flank to maneuver themselves further and further towards the conservative pole—or risk losing to more extreme opponents who may be vulnerable to defeat in general elections, like failed Republican Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Richard Mourdock.

For those Republicans who view the rise of Donald Trump with alarm or outright panic—whether because they disagree with his views, because they believe him to be an unqualified and potentially dangerous president, or because they worry that his nomination will prove disastrous for the party—one of the biggest challenges so far in the campaign has been the identification of a line of attack that effectively punctures Trump's popular appeal within the mass base of the GOP. Instinctively, many Trump critics within the conservative movement have attempted to claim that Trump is not a true conservative—and is therefore by definition undeserving of Republican support. The advantage of this line of argument is not only that it might prove effective in dissuading Republican voters from backing Trump, but also that, whether ultimately convincing or not, it preserves the critic's position as a conservative in good standing, while a "Trump's too far to the right" message renders the speaker vulnerable to the charge that he or she is merely a squishy moderate.

Today, House speaker Paul Ryan was asked about Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from travel to the United States. Ryan surely views Trump as a horror show for the GOP. Tellingly, however, he chose to characterize Trump's plan not just as extreme or un-American but also as "not conservatism." This argument has not yet succeeded in persuading Trump's supporters, but in Republican circles, it's the most damning attack one can make on a policy—or a candidate.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The "Vote No, Hope Yes" Caucus Gets a Scolding from House Leadership

In a development that should shock no one, new House speaker Paul Ryan has inherited exactly the same dilemma that bedeviled now-former speaker John Boehner: how to keep the government running without Republican hard-liners poking him with pitchforks. Congress must appropriate money in order for the government to function, but Republican members of Congress don't like to vote for appropriations bills because they're full of things that a potential primary challenger can attack them for supporting—especially since any legislation must be acceptable to Barack Obama in order to be signed into law. This dynamic repeatedly forced Boehner to bring up spending bills at the last minute, often under threats of imminent shutdown or default, and pass them with most Democrats voting yes and most Republicans voting no—a violation of the "Hastert Rule" norm restricting floor access to measures with a support of a majority of the ruling party.

The result is a textbook case of a collective action problem. Most Republicans agree that a government shutdown is a bad idea that will hurt their party. Individually, however, they believe that opposing the bill is good politics for themselves. Thus the rise of the "vote no, hope yes" caucus—or, in the words of Homer Simpson, the "Can't Someone Else Do It?" coalition—of Republicans who want these bills to pass even as they personally refuse their support. Of course, this is free-riding to a degree; if no Republicans voted in favor, the bills would fail, so the vote-no-hope-yes group is receiving the benefit of averting a shutdown while letting any political cost fall on their yea-voting colleagues. This behavior prompted a scolding from House Republican whip Steve Scalise, who recently circulated a memo to House Republicans complaining that “Too many in our conference are falling into the pattern of voting no on tough bills while actually hoping the bill passes because they know that the outcome will be even worse if the bill fails.”

Ryan ascended to the speakership while pledging a return to regular order and by assuring the House Freedom Caucus that he would not cut them out of policy-making. He's arguing now that these promises shouldn't apply to the current spending bill, which executes the overall budget plan negotiated by Boehner on his way out the door. On the other hand, the arch-conservatives aren't making things easier for him either, as they are proposing and supporting a number of policy riders that would cause Democratic support to disappear if they were actually included in the law—even though many of them will vote against the overall bill whether or not the riders are included. Ryan clearly enjoys much more good will among the hard-liners that Boehner had by the end of his speakership, and it's likely that he will resolve these matters before the government is scheduled to shut down. Clearly, however, the basic dynamics that caused Boehner such grief have not been fundamentally affected by his departure.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Voters Won't Care About Trump's Truthfulness Unless Politicians Care

Jay Rosen has written a thoughtful analysis regarding the apparent invulnerability of the Trump campaign to the traditional gauntlet of media fact-checking. Rosen argues—in response to other journalists quoted at the beginning of the piece—that the press has not necessarily become less powerful than before; instead, he contends, the existing limitations of the media's ability to shame politicians and campaign consultants into remaining (relatively) truthful have been exposed by a candidate who uniquely violates the standard norms of campaign conduct. Attempts by journalists to referee Trump's claims have, says Rosen, simply failed to breach a brazen indifference to reality that is without precedent in modern politics. Because Republican voters are already unlikely to trust the "mainstream media," efforts to fact-check Trump simply seem to validate his accusation that he is the victim of hostile journalists.

This seems fairly convincing, but I think there's another angle here that's important. It's difficult for journalists to successfully call politicians on their incorrect or misleading claims in the absence of political opponents who are doing the same. If prominent members of the opposite party (or, in a primary election, rivals within the same party) are not either leading or echoing any public charges of insufficient veracity, such accusations are unlikely to stick—especially because journalists soon become uncomfortable with banging on about an issue that even a politician's natural enemies don't seem to treat as damning. (The standard manner of structuring these news stories is the form "X's Behavior Raises Questions," which requires the authors to specify in whose minds these questions are being raised—preferably, not just their own.) On the Republican side, some conservative media figures may enjoy sufficient credibility with their audience to inflict damage on a candidate in the absence of criticism from fellow politicians, but it is unlikely that the "mainstream" press has such influence within the GOP.

To me, what makes Trump different is not that he is less truthful than other candidates but that he has attracted remarkably little direct criticism from other Republicans despite his consistent lead in the polls (with the exception of Carly Fiorina and John Kasich, but neither is prominent or popular enough to generate much attention at this stage). In part, this is because some of his statements would be politically inconvenient for other Republicans to dispute without calling their own conservative credentials into question (e.g. his negative characterizations of immigrants and Muslims). His rivals also appear to view his candidacy as likely to fall of its own weight, and they want to be in position to corral his supporters for themselves when it does—which would presumably be harder to do if they antagonize him now. Though Trump's behavior reliably scandalizes commentators and activists on the left, even elected Democrats have mostly held their fire so far—after all, it's not in their party's interest to puncture the Trump bubble before he actually becomes the Republican nominee.

In the competitive world of politics, it is rare for a candidate to rise as far as Trump has in the polls without withstanding a sustained line of criticism from other politicians. But here we are. Trump may be an unusual case, but so is a strategic environment in which few trailing candidates perceive an incentive to aim sharp attacks at the leading contender. If he is still ahead in January, however, desperation will set in among the rest of the Republican presidential field (to say nothing of the vast majority of the national party leadership). At that point, voters may start to hear a lot more about his apparent problems with the truth.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How Do You Attack Ted Cruz in a Republican Primary?

A month or two ago, Marco Rubio became the hot, in-the-know pick to win the Republican presidential nomination. This week, it's Ted Cruz's turn to graduate from also-ran to leading contender in the collective judgment of the news media. He seems to be rising in the Iowa polls, apparently at the expense of Ben Carson, and a number of analysts have started to take him seriously as a potential nominee (see Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Paul Waldman in the Washington Post, Rich Lowry of the National Review in Politico, and Andrew Romano at Yahoo News). As I explained last week, Cruz probably needs a strong Iowa performance in order to have a shot at the nomination, which makes his rise in Iowa particularly welcome news for his presidential ambitions.

These analyses do a good job of cataloguing Cruz's various political and organizational strengths. One of his most formidable assets in a riled-up Republican Party is a well-cultivated reputation as the purest of the pure conservatives. Most of Cruz's energy since landing in Washington has been devoted to creating rhetorical and procedural mayhem, incessantly charging the leadership of his own party with ideological infidelity and political cowardice in the face of the Obama-led Democrats.

For Cruz's rivals, his current bump in the polls presents an unusual challenge. Some Republican elites, and undoubtedly most of the party's strategists and consultants, view Cruz as too conservative or too divisive to win a general election, but many other Republicans deny the existence of a tradeoff between ideological purity and electability. (After all, didn't conservative hero Ronald Reagan win two national landslides?) The most common go-to move in Republican nomination politics is to attack your opponent for being insufficiently, not excessively, loyal to the conservative cause. But that's a difficult charge to make stick in this case, given Cruz's persona and record in office.

This Politico article about an anti-Cruz ad run by a 501(c)4 aligned with Rubio suggests that Cruz's opponents may try anyway. The Rubio backer funding the ad campaign, a man named Sean Noble, explains to reporters that he views Cruz as unelectable, presumably because of Cruz's hard-line, confrontational style of politics. But this argument is not contained in the ad itself, which instead attacks Cruz for voting to restrict bulk data collection by the NSA and therefore "leading from behind" in the war on terror à la the hated Barack Obama. In today's Republican Party, apparently, even Ted Cruz will be forced to answer to the charge that he is just not conservative enough.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Iowa: The Cruz-cial State

(I'm sorry about the headline. Well, a little bit sorry. Maybe.)

Politico reports today on the efforts of the Cruz campaign to build a strong organizational infrastructure in Iowa, drawing heavily on existing networks of evangelical Christian churches, leaders, and activists. With Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal now out of the race, and with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee—who each rode strong support among Iowa social conservatives to victory in 2012 and 2008, respectively—struggling to break through this time, the Cruz campaign recognizes an opportunity to consolidate the evangelical vote behind its candidate. Ben Carson is a current favorite of many Iowa evangelicals, but Cruz is hoping that Carson's campaign will fade as the caucuses approach, and that his relative lack of organization on the ground in Iowa will prevent him from turning out his vote effectively.

Cruz is being smart here. Aside from the aforementioned Huckabee and Santorum (who don't appear viable in any event), no other current Republican candidate needs to do well in Iowa as much as Cruz does. Cruz's brand of aggressively conservative politics, with a strong emphasis on social traditionalism, is not a natural fit for the non-evangelical, relatively secular New Hampshire Republican electorate—the article reports that he is forming a "national prayer team," for example, which I don't recall the Romney or McCain campaigns doing—and the New Hampshire primary is thus one of the biggest obstacles standing between Cruz and the nomination. Huckabee and Santorum, like Pat Robertson before them, exceeded expectations in past years by performing well among the evangelicals of Iowa, only to stall out once competition shifted to the very different political culture of the Granite State.

Cruz has advantages that these other candidates lacked—he is less reliant on social conservatism as the primary basis of his popular appeal, and he will undoubtedly be better funded, better prepared, and better organized—but it is hard to see how he runs strongly in New Hampshire unless he does very well in Iowa, and if he doesn't do well in either state, history suggests that he has little shot at the nomination. His main rivals—Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich, and even Trump—could all conceivably bounce back in New Hampshire after a loss in Iowa, but a bad night for Cruz in Iowa would severely, perhaps fatally, damage his campaign. Thus Cruz is right to invest heavily in Iowa; it's a crucial test of his presidential chances.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why Ted Cruz Wants to Fight Barack Obama

While overseas at an international summit, Barack Obama made some dismissive remarks yesterday about Republican presidential candidates' positions on the admittance of Syrian refugees to the United States in response to the Paris terrorist attacks. "Apparently they're scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion," Obama said. "At first they were worried about the press being too tough on them in during debates. Now they're worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn't sound very tough to me."

Obama was clearly referring to multiple Republicans; if his remarks responded to any particular candidate, it was Chris Christie, who had earlier explicitly ruled out accepting "orphans under the age of five" for resettlement in America. Today, however, it was Ted Cruz who acted as if Obama had attacked him personally. "Mr. President, if you want to insult me, you can do it overseas, you can do it in Turkey, you can do it in foreign countries," Cruz said. "But I would encourage you, Mr. President, [to] come back and insult me to my face."

It seems clear from his statement that Cruz was ready to jump on any opportunity to start a fight with Obama, even if Obama had failed to do him the favor of mentioning him specifically. I have previously suggested that the popularity of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the current Republican nomination race is a reflection of the formidable power of anti-Obamaism in the contemporary GOP. Cruz's potential path to the nomination almost certainly requires attracting a significant fraction of the Republican vote that is currently parked behind Trump and Carson, so it is in his particular interest to distinguish himself as an Obama antagonist in order to appeal to those voters if and when the Trump and Carson candidacies fade. 

Of course, Cruz has not exactly been complimentary of Obama before today, but most of his energy since entering national politics has been devoted to fighting other Republicans, not Democrats. It will be interesting to see if today's remarks represent a larger shift in campaign strategy, with Cruz attempting to claim the mantle of the party's most anti-Obama candidate. If Obama wants to increase the probability that Cruz wins the Republican nomination, next time he'll attack the senator by name.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Unusual Governor's Race in Louisiana

I direct the attention of anyone entertained by political spectacle to the Louisiana governor's race, where the Republican candidate, U.S. Senator David Vitter, has struggled to untangle himself from his implication in a prostitution scandal a few years back. His Democratic opponent John Bel Edwards has not erred on the side of subtlety in attacking Vitter, who is charged in this ad with literally choosing "prostitutes over patriots":

But now Vitter is counter-attacking, accusing Edwards of skipping a debate over family values in order to party at a "risqué club":

On Saturday, Louisiana voters will render their judgment on this critical referendum.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Democratic Debate Recap: Sometimes, Nothing Much Happens

The relatively uneventful Democratic presidential debate on Saturday night, occurring amidst a relatively uneventful Democratic presidential nomination contest, left political analysts with a limited supply of hooks upon which to hang their post-game stories. The New York Times account reported that Hillary Clinton was "pummeled" by Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, but if so, it was the most polite political pummeling in history. While Clinton was indeed a target of criticism—naturally so, given her front-runner status—none of it was particularly unexpected or harsh. If anything could interrupt Clinton's march to the nomination, it is unlikely to be an attack from either of her rivals on the debate stage.

Scrounging for a larger relevance to the event, several purveyors of Washington wisdom have suggested that Clinton made some remarks that might haunt her in a general election, including her invocation of 9/11 in response to the charge from Sanders that she is a captive of Wall Street, as well as her expression of sympathy with today's student protestors by noting that she was a child of the 1960s. But it's difficult to imagine either statement having much resonance a month from now, much less a year from now. The Republican Party, unlike Bernie Sanders, is not likely to attack Clinton for being too cozy with the financial industry, and any explicit suggestion that she is too old to be president is certain to backfire. In truth, this debate will come and go without leaving a lasting effect on either the nomination or the general election, and there's no dishonor in saying so.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Dear Conservative Media: Please Destroy Trump and Carson. Love, the Republican Leadership.

This Washington Post article on the state of the Republican race from the "insider" perspective has attracted considerable comment over the past two days. It offers a portrait of nervousness, bordering on panic, among the Republican "establishment" (meaning veteran elected officials, consultants, and fundraisers) about the tenacious polling leads held by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who are seen as potentially disastrous candidates for the party, if not the entire country:

“We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,” [an anonymous] strategist said. “It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”

The now-familiar trial balloon of a "draft Mitt Romney" campaign is floated once again, probably an exercise in wishful thinking by a Romney friend or two. (Paul Ryan would actually have been a much more logical candidate for such a last-minute rescue mission, had he not already performed an identical service for the House Republicans. Due to nettlesome constitutional restrictions, Ryan can only save his party in one branch of government at a time.)

The actual probability of a Trump or Carson nomination remains quite low, and the article reflects the fact that many politicos spend a lot of time obsessing about unlikely worst-case scenarios. But the piece does raise a legitimate question: if Trump and Carson are to lose their current perches atop the Republican presidential field, how will their current supporters be convinced to change their minds? With so many Republicans in the race, a serious collective-action problem exists (since any individual candidate launching attacks is likely to face some backlash for doing so, merely benefiting the other contenders). In addition, the "wise old men" of the Republican Party lack the credibility today among fervent conservatives to successfully make a case against the likes of Trump or Carson, which might only reinforce the claims of the outsider candidates that they are being persecuted by an ideologically co-opted Republican "establishment."

The solution to this problem is clear enough: conservative authorities whom Republican voters trust need to explain to them that Trump and Carson are bad news for the party. Since few Republican elected officials currently attract such trust among a suspicious party base, the obvious answer lies elsewhere, among the ranks of prominent conservative figures in the news media. Because conservative media served as the launchpad for the Trump and Carson candidacies in the first place, this is not a guaranteed outcome—thus explaining the nervousness among the Post's interviewees. But as the primaries draw closer, it is very likely that the coverage of Trump and Carson in the right-of-center media becomes increasingly skeptical, reflecting many conservative elites' aversion to the political risk that either man's actual nomination would create.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Post-Debate Analysis at the Monkey Cage

I have a piece up at the Monkey Cage today, explaining why some Republican candidates bashed Hillary Clinton more than others in last night's pair of debates.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Is Marco Rubio Another Todd Akin?

Today's New York Times contains an article reporting that Right to Rise, a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush's presidential candidacy, is developing a plan to launch a wave of attacks on Marco Rubio, an ex-political ally of Bush's from Florida who is now pulling ahead of Bush in the 2016 Republican nomination race. It's hard to conclude from the evidence presented that Bush's supporters have built a strong case against Rubio, whom—as the piece documents—Bush treated as a prize protégé for years before their presidential ambitions began to clash. Many of the complaints against Rubio represent mere personal pique, smacking of a who-does-he-think-he-is attitude that simply assumes that the younger man is bound by a type of filial duty to defer to his former political mentor. But even if Jeb Bush views the presidency, or at least the Republican nomination, as automatically his by right, there is little reason for such an assumption to be respected by any other Republican.

One element of the article that has received particular attention today is the detail that Right to Rise has produced what the Times calls a "provocative video" arguing that Rubio's "hard-line stand against abortion" renders him unelectable if nominated. At first glance, this seems like another bumbling political mistake from a flailing presidential campaign. Do Jeb Bush's allies really expect to win the Republican nomination by openly running to Rubio's, or anyone else's, political left on abortion? The tradeoff between ideological purity and real-world electability that many Democrats perceive is not equally accepted in the Republican Party, except among a small group of pragmatic-minded political consultants and donors—if anything, many conservatives view the Reagan presidency as proof that unswerving devotion to principle is electorally advantageous—and there is no obvious way for Bush or Bush-aligned groups to raise the issue without reinforcing the existing suspicions of many Republican activists that he is a bit of an ideological squish.

In its own awkward manner, however, the Bush crew has hit on an important question worthy of careful consideration by Republicans. Traditionally, most otherwise "pro-life" Republican candidates (including the last five presidential nominees) have recognized exceptions to a proposed ban on abortions for circumstances in which the pregnancy occurred as a result of rape or incest (and, in some cases, if the health of the woman were to be at permanent risk). Rubio, however, does not support these exceptions.

Rubio's position is a potential political liability in two respects. First, the rape-and-incest exceptions are popular among the public, even among citizens who identify as pro-life, and opposing them may thus place a candidate at a disadvantage in a general election. Secondly, two Republican Senate candidates were defeated in 2012 in normally Republican-leaning states after mounting poor rhetorical defenses of their own no-exceptions abortion views. Todd Akin of Missouri gained national attention for telling an interviewer that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” Soon afterward, Richard Mourdock of Indiana stated during a televised debate that "I came to realize life is [a] gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” After the election, many strategically-minded Republicans pleaded with their own party's politicians to stop talking about rape lest they inflict further political damage.

Rubio is a much more canny and fluid candidate than either Akin or Mourdock, and he may well retain an ability to deflect criticisms of his position without succumbing to the clumsy arguments that cost his party two Senate seats in red states three years ago. There is no doubt, however, that a Rubio nomination will provoke the Democratic opposition into visibly and repeatedly attacking what it will view as a significant political vulnerability. Rubio is currently the trendy pick to be the next Republican nominee for the presidency, and Republicans should be aware before the process is complete that choosing him effectively signs them up for a 2016 election in which a major topic of debate will be the permissibility of abortion under conditions of rape. They will thus be counting on Rubio to handle an issue that holds demonstrable political danger much more deftly than Todd Akin did.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Bernie Sanders's Calculation and Howard Dean's Revisionism

This BuzzFeed article on the state of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign received a fair amount of attention late last week. It is certainly a revealing look into some of the challenges faced by Sanders strategists as they decide on the next steps for their campaign. But the piece also contains some arguments that strike me as worth examining further.

The framing here is so well-worn—will a political "outsider" remain true to his principles, or will he compromise his cherished ideals in order to gain a chance at power?—that it should provoke a certain amount of instinctive skepticism in the reader. We are told that such thoroughly unremarkable steps for a presidential campaign as hiring a professional pollster and running television ads that refer to the candidate as an "honest leader" are risky moves for Sanders because they constitute the "trappings of a traditional politician." Clearly, the press is on the lookout for any scrap of evidence to suggest that Sanders is not indifferent to political calculation—but unless he is reneging on a previous pledge to ignore professional strategic advice or to portray himself in a flattering manner, it is unclear why engaging in these particular activities represents a notable departure for his campaign.

A truly egregious example of spin run amok, however, is the retconning of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign engineered by former aides to Dean—a brazen rewriting of history that lies unchallenged within the article itself. To hear the Dean crew tell it today, their man was a happy warrior who was reluctantly drawn into personal conflict with a desperate Dick Gephardt in the days before the Iowa caucuses, which ultimately doomed his candidacy by making him appear like an "ordinary politician" (thus somehow precipitating his decisive defeat at the hands of fellow ordinary politicians John Kerry and John Edwards). Ex-Dean and Obama staffer Ben LaBolt told BuzzFeed that “a contested back-and-forth over votes and character feels like politics-as-usual to voters. When you’re running as a different candidate who wants to start a revolution rather than effectively manage the political process, that does brand damage.”

In reality, the provocation of a "contested back-and-forth over votes and character" is an unwittingly but remarkably apt characterization of Dean's entire presidential campaign from start to finish. Dean spent all of 2003 repeatedly blasting away at his major rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, in particularly sharp terms and often by name, over their votes to authorize the Iraq War on the floor of Congress, while suggesting over and over again that his opponents were not only advocates of deeply flawed policy but disloyal Democrats who lacked the courage to stand up to George W. Bush. (Dean was even forced to apologize to John Edwards at one point after falsely claiming that Edwards had been publicly duplicitous about his Iraq views.) This attack-dog style was highly effective in transforming Dean into a serious contender, and even a consensus front-runner by the end of 2003, after initially appearing to be a second-tier candidate. Though his strategy ultimately proved insufficient to deliver Dean the Democratic nomination, it is hard to see how an alternative Mister-Nice-Guy approach would have served him any better, and the insinuation that Dean's defeat was really Dick Gephardt's fault smacks more of a long-held grudge than objective political analysis.

If we are compelled to rely on tropes from dramatic tragedy in order to make sense of electoral politics, the Faustian bargain is probably less applicable here than a kind of irony in which the protagonist's tragic flaw is merely the flipside of his or her greatest strength. The identical qualities that made Dean and Sanders attractive to their factions of fervent supporters have also worked to limit the breadth of their appeal within the Democratic Party, to say nothing of the larger electorate. Political consultants and other campaign professionals tend to resist this line of thinking, as it suggests that they cannot necessarily strategize their way to victory. But Sanders's (modest) chances of winning the 2016 nomination depend on a large array of factors that weigh much more heavily than the question of whether or not he begins to criticize Hillary Clinton more frequently on the campaign trail.

The BuzzFeed piece on Sanders concludes that "shifting between outsider iconoclast, hard-nosed politician, and back again, is easier said than done." The authors obviously mean to say that they perceive the persona of "inspiring idealist" to be fundamentally incompatible with that of "vocal critic of one's opponents." An iconoclast, however, is literally someone who destroys sacred images and totems, which suggests, in part, a certain hardness of nose. Regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders explicitly mentions Hillary Clinton in his ads or stump speeches, he is openly challenging her position as heir apparent in the Democratic Party. If his support has begun to stall, perhaps the reason is simply that the basic premise of his candidacy simultaneously attracts enthusiasm among a significant minority of Democrats while failing, at least so far, to convince the remaining majority. His campaign thus faces less of a strategic dilemma than an unfavorable political reality.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Another Speaker Promises "Regular Order"? This Time For Sure!

Quote #1: "We need to let every member contribute, not once they earn their stripes, but now. The committees should take the lead in drafting all major legislation: If you know the issue, you should write the bill. Let's open up the process. In other words, we need to return to regular order."

Quote #2: "We need to stop writing bills in the speaker’s office and let members of Congress be legislators again. Too often in the House right now we don’t have legislators; we just have voters. . . . That’s not right. We were each elected to uphold the Constitution and represent 600,000-odd people in our districts. We need to open this place up, let some air in. We have nothing to fear from letting the House work its will–nothing to fear from the battle of ideas. That starts with the committees. The result will be more scrutiny and better legislation."

Quote #1 is from Paul Ryan, October 29, 2015, upon being elected to the speakership. Quote #2 is from John Boehner, October 25, 2010, just before winning a Republican majority in the House that would make him Ryan's predecessor as speaker.

During his ascent to the speakership of the House, Ryan has been making assurances that he will be a different kind of speaker than Boehner. Since most House Republicans seemed to like Boehner's governing style just fine, this is perhaps a surprising pledge to make. But it is largely aimed at satisfying the demands of the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-line conservative faction that chased Boehner from office and that was initially cool to a Ryan speakership until he won them over in a personal meeting.

One of the chief complaints made by Boehner's critics was that he often circumvented "regular order"—the textbook system of lawmaking in which bills written and debated in committee are reported to the floor by majority vote for consideration by the entire House. Ryan reiterated at his first press conference as speaker that he would return to this traditional process, rather than the increasingly frequent alternative scenario in which legislation written by the leadership is sent to the floor directly, often under a short deadline in an atmosphere of crisis. “Every mem­ber will have a chance to re­view each bill and give their in­put on their pri­or­it­ies. We have nev­er done this be­fore, but that is how we should work and from now on, that is how we will work,” Ryan told the press. In fact, he said that he would be willing to risk the failure of his own favored legislation on the floor rather than use his procedural power to strong-arm his fellow members.

It is worth remembering that Boehner, too, promised to observe "regular order" when he became speaker in 2011. He was unable to deliver on this promise because Republican-controlled committees often failed to agree on legislation, especially appropriations legislation—usually because a faction of purist conservatives refused to support spending bills developed by mainstream Republican committee and subcommittee chairs. With the Democratic minority also voting no, these bills would thus lack the majority support in committee necessary to move them to the floor. Since any final agreement on government funding ultimately required support from Senate Democrats and the Obama White House, Boehner usually chose to hammer out a bipartisan compromise first, then bring it back to the House for approval—where it usually passed on the floor with mostly Democratic votes.

Ryan surely understands that Boehner adopted this approach not because he yearned to rule the House with an iron fist, but because it was the only practical way to fund the government and avoid shutdowns or other crises given the current state of the House Republican Party. So why is he making a promise that seems so unlikely to be fulfilled? Maybe Ryan believes that he possesses unique powers of persuasion that will engender agreement and compromise among Republicans, allowing for a much smoother operation of the committee system. Or, alternatively, he adopted this pledge in order to gain the speakership, and will hold to it until its failure is so immediately apparent to all concerned that most of his fellow Republicans will openly plead with him to do things Boehner's way—in which case he will "reluctantly" agree that, though he's very sorry it came to this, he has no choice but to dispose of regular order once again, leaving the next speaker with the opportunity to make the very same promise that he and Boehner did.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Who's Winning the Culture War?

This Atlantic piece by Molly Ball—headlined "Are Liberals Losing the Culture Wars?"—interprets the results of scattered off-year elections around the nation this week as a collective sign of popular backlash to cultural liberalism. Among the evidence cited was the election of a gay marriage opponent to the governorship of Kentucky, the defeat of an Ohio ballot initiative providing for the limited legalization of marijuana, the defeat of a referendum in the city of Houston that would have enhanced the rights of transgender people, and the defeat of a (scandal-ridden) San Francisco sheriff who "had defended the city’s sanctuary policy after a sensational murder by an illegal immigrant."

So are liberals losing the culture wars? Here's a test: imagine a political expert being told in 1990, or even in 2005, that the highly-contested political issues of the 2015 elections would include the following: whether marijuana should be legalized, whether the government should ban discrimination against transgender people, whether a recent Supreme Court decision mandating the right to same-sex marriage in every state should be accepted, and whether or not immigration law should be enforced on illegal immigrants. Would the expert conclude, based on this vision of the future, that the nation was about to move in a culturally conservative direction? Or, instead, would it seem as if substantial leftward political and social change was about to occur, such that positions and policies that were once unthinkable as bases of serious partisan-ideological contestation had entered the realm of legitimate national debate?

Personally, I think the latter. Public opinion is not moving leftward on every social or cultural issue (abortion attitudes, for example, seem to be very stable over time), but the significant increases in public support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization over the past decade are undeniable. Neither position will win majority support in every electoral constituency—is it really big news that same-sex marriage remains unpopular in Kentucky, of all places?—but the trajectory of opinion change, and in many cases an accompanying policy change, is clear regardless of the results of this week's elections.

Liberals can and sometimes do push too far too fast, and may even suffer a serious electoral backlash at times for their support of an increasingly ambitious cultural agenda. Over the past 25 years, Republican candidates have reaped significant electoral benefits among the socially conservative inhabitants of the South and rural West due to the rising salience of cultural issues. But it is important not to judge the current state of the culture war solely from the outcomes of elections without recognizing the dramatic shift in the policy battleground upon which this war is now often being fought.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Changing Partisan Preferences of Asian-Americans

An interesting article by  of Vanderbilt points out that Asian-Americans have collectively shifted from a predominantly Republican to a predominantly Democratic voting group over the past 20 years. According to exit polls, Asian-Americans voted nearly 2-to-1 for George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton in 1992, but gave 73 percent of their votes to Barack Obama in 2012.

This is a striking and historically unusual partisan swing over just a few elections. Mo argues that Asian-Americans' decisive shift toward the Democrats reflects a negative response to anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism messages from conservative elites, compounded by personal experiences of social prejudice and exclusion, which have engendered anti-Republican attitudes despite Asian-Americans' collectively prosperous economic status.

Asian-Americans represent only about 4 percent of the national electorate, and are disproportionately concentrated in California and other non-competitive states. Their increasingly pro-Democratic partisan affinities are therefore not likely to be electorally pivotal in the immediate future. But this trend is one piece of a larger evolution in the social coalitions of the parties that has occurred over the past several decades, as the increasing identification of the Republican Party with the political views and cultural traditions of the white South has caused ripple effects in the partisan alignments of Americans elsewhere in the nation as well.

Monday, November 02, 2015

The RNC, the Debates, and the Limits of Party Control

After the 2012 election, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus acted on behalf of the RNC to seize control over the schedule of pre-nomination debates among Republican candidates. More than 20 televised debates had occurred in 2011 and early 2012, as publicity-hungry candidates had agreed to appear at virtually any event organized by a media outlet that could assure them of public attention. Priebus responded to this explosion of debates by enacting a party rule requiring all debates to be endorsed by the RNC and produced with its assistance, cutting the number of official events by about half for the 2015-2016 campaign season. Any candidate appearing at an unauthorized event would be banned from participating in the official debates, thus compelling candidates who might otherwise seek to maximize their visibility to respect the limited number of events recognized by the national party.

This new rule subjecting all debates to RNC approval was sold to conservatives as a way to prevent overly liberal media outlets or moderators from contaminating the Republican nomination process. (Many Republicans had been dissatisfied with the fact that MSNBC had sponsored a Republican debate in 2012 while former Bill Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos had moderated a debate aired by ABC.) But it seemed clear that the reform plan enacted by Priebus was in fact primarily motivated by the belief, buttressed by the conventional wisdom of the time, that the long sequence of debates in 2011-2012 had ultimately damaged the Republican Party's chances in the 2012 general election, and that a shorter, more controlled debate schedule would reduce the future influence within the GOP of ideological purists unconcerned with electability.

Secondary candidates like Herman Cain had demonstrated the capacity in 2011 and 2012 to gain public attention through the debates that encouraged other candidates to position themselves farther to the ideological right in order to compete, which threatened to limit their appeal to voters outside the party once the nomination contest had ended. In particular, Mitt Romney's remarks advocating "self-deportation" as an immigration policy, which occurred in a Republican primary debate on January 23, 2012, were blamed in retrospect for Romney's poor showing among Latino voters in his November contest with Barack Obama—which in turn was widely believed to have significantly contributed to Romney's loss to Obama in the electoral college. (After the election, Priebus described Romney's immigration rhetoric as a "horrific" mistake that "hurts us" as a party.)

The RNC's assertion of control over the debate schedule was often portrayed at the time as a cunning move that reflected Priebus's procedural savvy in pursuing the goal of a Republican presidential victory in 2016. Over the past few days, however, the risks of Priebus's strategy have become increasingly clear. Once the RNC exercises influence over the timing, moderators, formats, and media sponsors of the debates, the party effectively shares responsibility for any aspect of each and every event that inspires dissatisfaction among candidates, campaign advisors, party activists, and other participants or observers.

During the Republican presidential debate last Wednesday, several candidates accused the CNBC moderators of asking slanted or inaccurate questions, provoking a vocal response from the audience and a round of post-debate accusations by conservatives that the network was biased against Republicans. Feeling some heat for having approved CNBC as a participant in the round of party-authorized debates, Priebus responded by hurriedly canceling the debate scheduled for February 26, 2016, which was to have been produced as a joint venture between NBC and the Spanish-language network Telemundo.

A number of candidates seized this moment of political weakness to make additional demands of the debate organizers and the RNC itself. Ben Carson wants the candidates to deliver opening and closing statements. Lindsey Graham, now stuck in the undercard debates due to his low position in the polls, wants a promotion to the big time. Ted Cruz wants the debates to be moderated by admirers of his in the conservative media universe. Because the debates are not, and cannot be, organized in order to provide the greatest potential strategic benefit to every individual candidate, such gripes are commonplace in every election—but the national party's newly central role in the production of the debates made it a natural target of candidate frustration this year, which forced Priebus to scramble awkwardly to assuage the contenders' various complaints before the candidates banded together to effectively cut the RNC out of the debate-planning process.

The RNC has gotten itself entangled in a bit of a mess. The national party leadership's (understandable) goal of maximizing the probability that the nomination process produces a legitimate and competitive Republican presidential standard-bearer inherently clashes with the interests of unviable or unelectable candidates—who constitute a clear majority of the current field—as well as conservative purists who wish to use the debate process to enforce strict ideological discipline on the eventual nominee. Under the American system of presidential nominations, the formal party organizations are constrained in their ability to dictate the mechanisms of candidate selection; the perpetual conflict between the national committees and individual states over the scheduling of primaries and caucuses is another, more familiar example of this limitation.

Priebus can't admit it publicly, but a series of debates hosted by mainstream media moderators who occasionally provoke candidates to rail against tough "liberal" questions benefits the cause of electing a Republican president more than debates moderated by friendly ideologues who merely encourage candidates to compete among themselves to win the favor of outspoken conservative activists. Yet a national party that is complicit in exposing its presidential candidates to questioning that many Republicans view as biased or unfair will predictably find itself a primary target of the resulting backlash. Priebus tried to be clever, but he turned out to be just a little too clever.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Why Did Bernie Sanders Vote for the Budget Compromise?

You may have been sleeping, but the Senate voted overnight to approve the budget agreement hammered out earlier this week by the White House and congressional leadership. There will be no debt default, no government shutdown (assuming Congress can pass an omnibus appropriations bill in December—but since overall spending levels have already been agreed to, that seems quite likely), and no sudden surge in Medicare Part B premiums.

While the budget deal is the product of negotiations between the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate along with the president, the voting patterns on final passage in both congressional chambers have been markedly asymmetrical. The deal received unanimous support from Democrats in both the House and Senate, while 66 percent of Senate Republicans and 68 percent of House Republicans voted no. All three Republican senators now running for president voted against the deal; Rand Paul mounted a (brief) filibuster, while Ted Cruz gave a speech blasting the Republican congressional leadership that referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as "the most effective Democratic leader in modern times."

In the current phase of Republican Party politics, it has become commonplace for most congressional Republicans to vote against an agreement negotiated by their own elected leaders, and for Tea Party-identified senators like Cruz and Paul to seize the opportunity to accuse those leaders of betraying conservative principles. But there is another candidate running for president this year on a platform of maintaining ideological purity and eschewing compromises that give away too many concessions to the other side. You know who I mean. The guy with the hair. No, the other guy with the hair.

So why didn't Bernie Sanders run his own version of a Ted Cruz play and vote against a deal that was endorsed by the conspicuously non-socialist likes of McConnell, John Boehner, John Cornyn, and Paul Ryan? Politico reported today that some congressional Democrats were worried that Sanders might do just that, rallying progressive activists against the budget agreement due to its modest cuts to entitlement programs.

But such a move would carry risks for Sanders. In particular, it would set him up in explicit opposition to a legislative accomplishment of the Obama administration. Sanders's presidential campaign is built on a critique of the contemporary Democratic Party that implicitly faults Obama for insufficient devotion to liberal ideals, but Sanders has been very careful to avoid openly repudiating the incumbent president. Given Obama's very high approval rating among Democrats, Sanders needs the support of Obama fans to have any shot at the nomination, so there is little incentive for him to pick such a fight. (Note that Cruz is on much safer political ground when he attacks his own party's congressional leadership; one recent poll found that Mitch McConnell had a 14 percent approval rating among Republicans.) If anything, Sanders may feel the need to rein in his gadfly reputation a bit in order to reassure Democrats of his own loyalty to a party of which, after all, he is not a formal member.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Debate Recap: Rubio Scores Over Bush on Silly Non-Issue

The news media decided that Marco Rubio was the winner of last night's debate, and Jeb Bush the hands-down loser, after only about 25 minutes had elapsed. A CNBC moderator asked Rubio about a Florida newspaper's complaint that he had missed too many votes in the Senate while campaigning for president. Rubio responded—in a well-prepared counterattack—by accusing the newspaper in question, and the news media in general, of holding him to a stricter standard than previous Democratic senators, such as Barack Obama, who had similarly spent time away from Washington while seeking the presidency.

Fellow Floridian Jeb Bush seized the moment to join in on the criticism, arguing "as a constituent" that Rubio should resign if he could not even fulfill a Senate schedule that Bush characterized as a "French workweek"—referring to the fact that most votes in Congress are held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in order to accommodate weekend travel to home constituencies. Rubio was clearly expecting both the original question and Bush's pile-on, and his jibe back at Bush—"Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you"—was widely scored as a TKO in the news media.

In a bizarre and unsatisfying debate run by an assortment of moderators who alternated sneering "gotcha" questions with hand-wringing apologies when candidates inaccurately pushed back on legitimately tough challenges, the question to Rubio did not stand out as particularly egregious in comparison. Even so, it is a fairly ridiculous line of critique. The United States has an electoral system that requires presidential candidates to spend many months building active campaigns across a sprawling and populous country. Any sitting inhabitant of political office—even an incumbent president running for a second term—will necessarily balance the duties of his or her current position with the requirements of a serious national presidential campaign.

There is no evidence that Rubio's presidential candidacy is either hurting his Florida constituents or causing any floor votes in the Senate to turn out differently due to his absence; charging him with abandoning his responsibilities is a bit of a cheap shot that should be below the standards of newspaper editors, CNBC moderators, and fellow candidates alike. (Bush's crack about the Senate's workweek is similarly infantile; as he knows full well, votes are scheduled to allow senators to spend a maximum amount of time back in their home states, lest they be accused of having "lost touch" or "gone Washington." Whatever else one might think about Congress, the implication that it is anything other than a 7-day-a-week job is completely inaccurate.)

If Bush's presidential candidacy is damaged because Rubio got the better of him in their tussle over the importance of an A+ congressional attendance record, it merely serves him right for attacking "his" senator over such a silly issue. But the moderators should also share some blame for wasting time on a question that they know—or certainly should know—is neither important nor fair.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

John Kasich's Risky Move

Yesterday, Ohio Governor John Kasich publicly expressed exasperation with the state of a Republican presidential nomination contest in which he is currently a secondary candidate:

"I've about had it with these people," Kasich said at the rally in Westerville, Ohio. "We got one candidate that says we ought to abolish Medicaid and Medicare. You ever heard of anything so crazy as that? Telling our people in this country who are seniors, who are about to be seniors that we're going to abolish Medicaid and Medicare? . . . We got one person saying we ought to have a 10 percent flat tax that will drive up the deficit in this country by trillions of dollars" and there's another challenger in the field who "says we ought to take 10 or 11 [million] people and pick them up — I don't know where we're going to go, their homes, their apartments — we're going to pick them up and scream at them to get out of our country. That's crazy. That is just crazy."

Given the leading position that Donald Trump and Ben Carson currently hold in the polls, as well as their unorthodox positions on certain issues, it is natural for other candidates to attack them—even if not by name. And there are no doubt plenty of Republicans who share Kasich's point of view; abolishing Medicare is unlikely to be a winning issue even in a Republican primary. But the rest of Kasich's remarks are more newsworthy:

"We got people proposing health care reform that's going to leave, I believe, millions of people without adequate health insurance," Kasich says. "What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?"

Kasich has moved here in a few sentences from criticizing Trump and Carson to criticizing the party and ideological movement in which Trump and Carson are, at the moment, popular figures. He does not argue that Trump and Carson are not true Republicans because they are not conservative enough—the most common criticism lodged against them from within the party, especially in Trump's case—but rather that the party and the movement have gone too far in the other direction and become disconnected from political reality. It's hard to know exactly what Kasich means by his reference to health care reform; he could be talking about Carson's position alone, but he could also be construed as questioning the broader support among many of his fellow candidates for repealing the Affordable Care Act—the primary policy goal of the Republican Party and conservative movement over the past 5 years, after all—without proposing a replacement plan that would cover the same number of people.

In the short term, Kasich may benefit from the attention that his remarks will receive, especially if he continues to voice these objections during tonight's debate and in the future. Kasich may even succeed at breaking out of the large field of also-rans to become the preferred candidate of moderate and pragmatic Republicans. But it is hard to imagine the GOP ultimately choosing a presidential nominee who has openly expressed such a critical view of both the party and the conservative movement that he seeks to lead. Though Trump and Carson may fade, the primary electorate that now supports them is unlikely to muster enthusiasm for a candidate who shows such limited sympathy with the sentiments that now attract so many Republicans to the prospect of revolutionary policy change.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Three Reasons Why There Are So Many Republican Governors

A recent analysis by Matthew Yglesias notes that the current Democratic hold on the White House masks much deeper partisan weakness at the congressional and, especially, state level. Republicans currently control both the governorship and state legislature in fully half (25) of the states, while just 7 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) remain under unified Democratic rule. (In the remaining states, power is divided between the parties.) Yglesias concludes that the Democrats are in "deep trouble" as a party and need to formulate a strategic plan to regain electoral strength in non-presidential contests. In response, Phil Klinkner argues that such trends simply reflect the historical tendency of the president's party to suffer significant losses in midterm elections; if and when Democrats lose the presidency, they will likely make compensatory gains at the state level.

There is much to say about this topic, but I will focus today on the partisan control of state governorships, where Republicans hold a pronounced advantage. There are currently 31 Republican governors, just 18 Democrats, and one independent (Bill Walker of Alaska, who was elected with Democratic support). Three main reasons explain why 62 percent of the states are now governed by members of the GOP:

1. There are more red states than blue states, and especially more deep red states than deep blue states. The Cook Partisan Voting Index, a measure of state partisanship that denotes how many more percentage points a state voted in either the Democratic or Republican direction than the national outcome in the last two presidential elections, reveals that 21 states are more Republican than the nation as a whole by a margin of more than 5 points; 13 of these states are more than 10 points redder than the national electorate. By comparison, just 12 states have a Cook PVI of more than 5 points in the Democratic direction, only 4 of which (Hawaii, New York, Vermont, and Rhode Island) are more than 10 points bluer than the nation itself.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, states often departed from their normal partisan alignments in presidential elections when choosing governors and other state officials—especially in the South, where substantial Democratic strength in state politics endured long after the region shifted decisively toward the GOP in presidential contests. But American voters are now highly likely to support the candidates of a single party across multiple elective offices, and the growing partisan polarization of state-level electoral outcomes has produced a flotilla of securely red states stretching across the South and interior West. For example, Republican voters in states like Nebraska, Wyoming, and Kansas once crossed party lines to elect Democratic governors with some regularity, but this tendency has become rare in the strongly partisan contemporary electoral climate.

2. Most purple states swung to the Democrats in 2008 and 2012, but to the Republicans in 2010 and 2014. The nation's most politically competitive states, almost all of which narrowly supported Obama in both of his presidential victories, largely shifted in the opposite partisan direction when their own governorships were up for election two years later, in a manner consistent with Klinkner's description of a thermostatic reaction against the presidential party. (The weak national economy that benefited Obama in 2008 also surely contributed to the 2010 losses of numerous incumbent state-level Democrats who had been swept into office by the anti-Bush wave of 2006.) In the 2010 midterms, Republicans defeated or succeeded sitting Democratic governors in the purple states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Iowa while narrowly retaining the Florida governorship as well; except for Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, who was damaged politically by accusations of receiving improper gifts and by his maladroit handling of the Penn State football scandal, all of these new Republican governors won second terms in 2014—buoyed in part by the same economic recovery that had assisted Obama's reelection two years before.

3. Republicans found good electoral fortune in blue states. Sometimes sheer luck simply favors one party or the other at any given time. For example, Democrats achieved a filibuster-proof Senate majority in 2009, which was ultimately critical to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, by exploiting what later turned out to be a tainted criminal conviction secured by prosecutorial misconduct in Alaska and by winning a statewide recount in Minnesota by a margin of 0.01 percent. More recently, Republicans have enjoyed the opportunity to run against an unusually high number of unpopular Democratic incumbents or weak Democratic challengers in traditionally blue states, including Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Anthony Brown in Maryland, Jon Corzine in New Jersey, and Pat Quinn in Illinois. In addition, left-leaning Maine has twice elected Tea Party Republican Paul LePage to the governorship by a popular plurality due to the presence of a spoiler candidate who split the Democratic vote in both 2010 and 2014.


Reasons 2 and 3 for the Republican gubernatorial advantage almost certainly reflect temporary factors that will swing back in the Democrats' favor sooner or later. Popular Republican incumbents in purple states will be termed out of office, Democratic candidates will improve in quality (or it will be the Republicans' turn to squander a series of winnable races by selecting especially unattractive nominees, as they may have done this year in Kentucky and Louisiana), and an eventual Republican presidential administration will provoke a midterm backlash that will benefit the Democratic opposition. It is the first factor—the preponderance of red states over blue states—that represents the most serious long-term obstacle to majority Democratic control of state governorships. The political "reddening" of the South and interior West over the past 25 years is primarily due to the prevailing cultural conservatism of these regions' inhabitants, which has increasingly bolstered popular support for the Republican Party up and down the ballot. The suggestion that national Democratic leaders do what they can to remedy this serious electoral vulnerability is no doubt sensible; assuming that they are unlikely to renounce their party's increasingly liberal positions on social issues, however, it may be hard to find a simple solution to the Democrats' red-state blues.

Monday, October 26, 2015

An Obama-centric Theory of the Republican Presidential Race So Far

This National Review Online piece by Henry Olsen compares Jeb Bush to Rip Van Winkle. Olsen argues that Bush's presidential campaign seems be run out of a playbook that is at least ten years out of date. By advocating generous tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, a greater federal involvement in public education, comprehensive immigration reform, and interventionism abroad, Jeb is running a 2000-era race in a 2015 world. "America has changed," writes Olsen, and Bush's "difficulties are directly tied to his inability so far to adapt to the changed environment."

In particular, the part of America known as the "Republican Party" has changed. "Republicans, even those in the somewhat conservative camp whose votes are key for anyone to be nominated, are angry," observes Olsen. "They want someone who can lead, and that means they want someone who can articulate conservative principles and take the fight to the Democrats. Bush’s steady, Mr. Nice Guy persona is totally genuine, but it seems out of step with the demands of a now-volatile GOP electorate."

Who are Republicans so angry at? Olsen doesn't dwell on this point, though the answer is clear enough: Barack Obama. Many rank-and-file Republicans are dissatisfied with their own party leaders too, of course, but this is partially a manifestation of their anti-Obama anger; they hold Republican officeholders responsible for losing to Obama in two national elections and for failing to prevent him from implementing a liberal policy agenda. In response, most Republican candidates are running on a platform of repealing as much of the Obama presidency as they can, from the Affordable Care Act to "deferred action" to the Dodd-Frank reforms to the Iran nuclear agreement.

The unexpected success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in polls of Republican primary voters is usually interpreted as a widespread clamor for "outsider" candidates. But these two figures also stand out in another, less-appreciated way. More than any other candidates in the race, both Trump and Carson have built their political personas around pure opposition to Obama. Trump's extended engagement with national politics began several years ago as an anti-Obama crusade; he even sponsored a fact-finding mission to Hawaii in 2011 meant to dig up evidence of Obama's fraudulent birth records (which was never heard of again). Carson's appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2013, when he criticized the ACA and other Obama policies in front of the president, elevated him immediately to the status of a national conservative hero.

Jeb Bush certainly hasn't been leading any kind of charge against Obama for the last eight years, and that absence alone allows his conservative bona fides to remain open to question. He appears to have no particular interest in picking fights with Obama or defining himself politically in opposition to the incumbent president—or anyone else, for that matter, except perhaps Trump. (In contrast, Mitt Romney began his 2012 campaign by promoting a book whose title, No Apology, signaled his anti-Obama message by serving as a rejoinder to what conservatives dubbed an international "apology tour" by Obama.) Though Bush's tonal mismatch with the rest of the contemporary GOP may hurt his chances in the Republican primaries, Jeb can take solace in at least one dodged bullet: at least he never gave Obama a hug.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Linc, Jeb, Hillary, and the Limits of Dynastic Politics

The three top stories of the day so far in the political media:

1. Continuing morning-after analysis of Hillary Clinton's marathon appearance yesterday in front of the House committee investigating Benghazi.

2. Reports that Jeb Bush's presidential campaign is facing a cash flow shortage that has forced it to cut staff salaries by 40 percent or more.

3. Former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee's withdrawal from the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination race.

Is there a common thread here? Let's see!

Political dynasties have existed in America since the days of John Quincy Adams, but the issue of dynastic politics has come to the fore lately due to the strong likelihood that the Democratic Party will nominate the wife of the nation's 42nd president for the presidency next year, while one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination is the son of the 41st president and the brother of the 43rd. In general, pundits have greeted the prospect of either a Hillary Clinton or a Jeb Bush nomination with a palpable lack of enthusiasm, and the possibility that both candidates might advance to a face-off in the general election next fall often prompts the news media to wonder what such a choice "would say about America" (the implied answer: nothing good).

There's no doubt that it helps a candidate to be part of a popular political family, and this advantage can bolster the electoral fortunes of certain political heirs who do not exhibit the full range of qualities we might otherwise wish our leaders to display. (The travails of certain nth-generation Kennedys and Tafts serve as fodder for warnings about the risks of flocking to famous names.) As such, dynastic politics can be viewed as anti-meritocratic, and even anti-democratic, with the word itself implying hereditary rule by other means. Lincoln Chafee, to take one example, seems like a nice enough guy who probably would not have made it to the Senate without the fact that his father John Chafee was a distinguished and popular senator from a small, insular state. The younger Chafee was in fact appointed to fill his father's seat upon the incumbent's death, later winning election on his own for a full term.

Compared to running for Congress or governor, however, presidential politics is so complicated, difficult, and scrutinizing that family ties or reputation only go so far. Linc Chafee's somewhat unexpected presidential campaign quickly revealed his devastating limitations as a national political figure, from his strange announcement speech to his weak showing in last week's Democratic debate. He understandably received virtually no public or financial support, and the news today that he is dropping out of the race is hardly a surprise.

As for Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, although family relationships have significantly benefited their careers in the past, their ability to survive in the unforgiving climate of presidential politics requires not just the right name but substantial political talent as well. While the press has made much of her supposedly shaky campaign over most of the summer, Clinton's assured performance throughout a long day of often-hostile questioning on Thursday received positive reviews in the news media, with even Republicans acknowledging the capability of her performance—coming after a debate in which she similarly impressed commentators and Democratic voters alike. She is not without political weaknesses, some of them substantial, but neither is her status as the near-certain Democratic nominee simply a reflection of her husband's fame and popularity.

Jeb Bush, in contrast, has so far proven to be a less appealing presidential candidate than many expected—leading, in part, to the fundraising difficulties that are now forcing him to cut back on staff—which further underscores the fact that his older brother George W. Bush was not only the privileged son of a president but an extremely skilled politician in his own right whose success on the national stage was by no means accidental. Jeb may share bloodlines with two presidents, but he will need much more than that to win the support of Republican voters. That sounds less like hereditary succession and more like democracy in action.