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.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

So What Did Paul Ryan Give the House Freedom Caucus?

When Paul Ryan enumerated his conditions for pursuing the speakership in front of the assembled House Republican Conference on Tuesday night, one in particular seemed certain to provoke objections from the hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus: a requirement that the House amend its rules allowing the speakership to be vacated via a simple majority floor vote, in order to make it more difficult for a coalition of minority party members and dissatisfied members of the majority to remove a speaker mid-session. Since several conservative purists had been threatening to employ this provision to depose John Boehner in the weeks before Boehner announced his resignation, Ryan's demand seemed unlikely to win acceptance among the membership of the House Freedom Caucus, even as Ryan simultaneously claimed that he would only stand for speaker if he received the endorsement of the HFC as well as the rest of the major Republican party caucuses. Indeed, the immediate response to Ryan's conditions among members of the HFC was skeptical at best, and for good reason—they were effectively being asked to give up procedural power with no guarantee of receiving anything in return.

Yet after Ryan met personally with the HFC last evening on Capitol Hill, the purists' attitude had changed considerably. Ryan emerged from the meeting with the support of more than two-thirds of the HFC members—not enough to receive the group's official endorsement, but more than enough to ensure that he would face an easy path to the speakership without any active opposition within the party. What did Ryan tell the HFCers that won them over?

This Politico article and this Newsweek piece shed light on the matter. Among the promises made to the HFC were the following:

1. Ryan would not advance immigration reform legislation for the remainder of the 2015–2016 session of Congress.

2. He would respect the "Hastert Rule" norm, under which legislation is brought to the floor only if it receives support from a majority of the majority party.

3. He would work to return to "regular order," in which legislation follows the textbook process of emerging from the committee system (rather than being introduced directly to the floor by the leadership), with open rules allowing further amendments on the floor.

4. He would pursue various changes to the internal rules of the Republican conference that would weaken the power of the speaker to control the process of assigning members to committees.

The first promise is fairly trivial—this already did not look like a Congress that was about to take action on immigration—but easy to fulfill. But what about the others?

As Ryan surely knows, the violations of the Hastert Rule and regular order that have occurred under the Boehner speakership have been necessary in order for the House to pass essential legislation such as funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. Boehner, too, pledged to return to regular order, but was ultimately stymied by the problem that appropriations bills written by mainstream Republicans would often become stuck in committee, opposed by a both-ends-against-the-middle coalition of Democrats who preferred a more liberal policy and purist Republicans who favored even deeper spending cuts. Since final legislation could only be enacted with the acquiescence of Senate Democrats and President Obama, Boehner opted to negotiate agreements with the Senate and White House first, bringing them back to the House for consideration thereafter (and often passing them on the floor with more Democratic than Republican support).

The Freedom Caucus members not only want to further empower a committee system in which they can often exercise an effective veto over legislation (despite their minority status within the Republican Party at large), but are also pushing for even more representation on powerful committees—as well as protection from internal GOP reprisal for voting however they wish. Ryan clearly convinced many of them of his sincerity in sharing these goals. But it is difficult to see how he could be an effective speaker by giving in to their requests, and his assurances Tuesday night fell short of formal commitments to enact any specific reform or rules change. Can he achieve his stated demand to amend the motion-to-vacate rule without being forced to trade away formal powers elsewhere?

Above all, what Ryan seems to have given the House Freedom Caucus is something else that its members have seemed desperate to acquire: personal respect. It is clear from both of the above articles that Ryan spoke sympathetically to the HFC, signaled that he took their ideas seriously, even flattered them a bit. After several years under Boehner in which the hard-liners felt as if they suffered constant contempt and isolation, this approach seems to have gone a long way toward inspiring enthusiasm for a Ryan speakership among initially skeptical purists. But it's unclear how long such friendly gestures can allow Ryan to maintain HFC support while simultaneously managing the institution of the House—a task that proved impossible under his otherwise able predecessor in the speaker's chair.

UPDATE: Ryan is now backing down from his demand that a change in the motion-to-vacate procedure be enacted immediately by the House, suggesting that he wants to institute it down the road in exchange for internal Republican Party reforms sought by the HFC. Unless he can keep laying on the charm, the probability that he will eventually wind up facing the same procedural threats as Boehner just jumped up a few notches.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Paul Ryan Still Doesn't Really Want to Be Speaker

Paul Ryan is no dummy. After watching John Boehner bail out of the speakership in the middle of a congressional session and second-in-command Kevin McCarthy abruptly fail in his bid to succeed him—in both cases, due primarily to opposition from the bloc of conservative purists known as the House Freedom Caucus—Ryan's immediate instinctive response to suggestions that he run for speaker himself was a rousing "no thanks." Ryan appeared to understand all too well that Boehner's successor, no matter how initially well-liked and unimpeachably conservative in reputation, would soon become the target of unrelenting criticism from within the Republican Party for carrying out the routine tasks (negotiating budget agreements with Obama, preventing default on the national debt) required to keep the government functioning without crisis. His refusal to abandon his post atop the House Ways and Means Committee—along with, in all likelihood, any future ambition to seek the presidency—in order to subject himself to such treatment was not only understandable, but revealed a respectable degree of political sense. 

Over the past two weeks, Ryan has been deluged with pleas from fellow Republicans, both within and outside the House (and including Boehner himself), to reconsider his position. Yesterday, he softened a bit, telling the House Republican Conference that he would accept the speakership if four conditions were met:

1. He would play the role of a "visionary" on behalf of a party that advanced its own positive policy agenda. (Presumably, this means that he would be a big-picture speaker who left the care-and-feeding-of-members responsibilities to the rest of the Republican leadership team.)

2. The House would change its rules, in part to make it more difficult for a majority of members to unseat a speaker in the middle of a term.

3. He would be guaranteed a clear path to the speakership without organized opposition from within the Republican conference.

4. He would concentrate on strategy and media visibility while shouldering less of the fundraising duties traditionally borne by the speaker, in order to spend more time with his young children.

By normal political standards, these are fairly stringent demands to make in order to accept a powerful and prestigious office. Of course, these are not ordinary times. Nearly the entire Washington community, including most Republicans, now views Ryan as the indispensable man—the only person able to steer the House GOP, and with it the entire Congress, away from an imminent governing disaster. According to this now-prevalent perspective, Ryan's demands are barely demands at all; they are sensible, even necessary, and—in the case of his stated desire to tend the home fires with his family instead of jetting around the country every weekend to attend fat-cat fundraisers—heartwarmingly admirable.

But let's be clear: Ryan is proposing an old-fashioned political deal from a position of perceived strength—and, as in many negotiations, his strength is a function of his willingness to walk away from the table. In exchange for the above numbered concessions, which both increase the power and ease the burdens of the speakership, he is offering his party the following: himself. Most Republicans, increasingly desperate, will gladly agree to such a trade. Yet it is less immediately apparent why Republicans who don't necessarily view Ryan as the lone savior of the GOP—presumably including most of the Freedom Caucus—would commit to this arrangement (which would deprive the purist faction of its primary procedural leverage) rather than explore alternative speaker candidates. After all, the usual pattern is for the purists to force the party to creep up to the edge of chaos (and even fall over the edge, as in the 2013 shutdown) in order to convince Tea Party activists and other supporters of their commitment to conservative principles.

Ryan is probably assuming that his conditions will not be met. Many Republicans have been telling him that he had a responsibility to save his party; if his terms are not accepted, he will be able to say that he tried but was blocked by the unreasonable Freedom Caucus (whose members seem quite aware that they are being set up to take the blame if Ryan backs out). Ryan is not averse to portraying himself in heroic terms. He told reporters last night that "My biggest worry is the consequence of not stepping up, of having my own kids ask me, 'When the stakes were so high, why didn't you do all that you could do? Why didn't you stand and fight for my future when you had a chance to do so?'" However, the fact that Ryan is only willing to take on such a supposedly crucial fight after winning substantial personal accommodations strongly suggests that he'd still much rather let somebody else lead the charge.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why Jim Webb Won't Lead an Independent Movement

When a presidential candidate whose campaign is going nowhere formally withdraws from the race, his or her announcement always produces an audible expression of relief in the press corps. Few circumstances produce human discomfort quite like finding oneself in the company of someone who appears to blithely deny an obvious and unwelcome truth, and the conventions of American elections require a certain pretense of fair-mindedness in news coverage which compels reporters to mute their dismissal of the unrealistic ambitions of also-rans. The scorn directed at no-hope candidates who stumble around the stage of a debate, as Lincoln Chafee did last week, often represents a boiling-over of simmering media contempt directed at people whose unjustified pursuit of high office seems only to be wasting everybody's time.

Today, former Virginia senator Jim Webb announced that he was abandoning his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Since Webb was a thoroughly unsuccessful candidate with no public support or serious source of funds, little apparent dedication to campaigning, and a visibly ill-fitting relationship with the rest of the Obama-era Democratic Party (to which Webb himself referred in his press conference this afternoon), his withdrawal represented an acknowledgment of reality that slightly enhanced the overall level of logical consonance in the world, and—perhaps for that reason—he seems to have attracted more media attention getting out of the race than he did getting in. Webb also managed to perk up a few ears by implying that he would consider leaving the Democratic Party to run as an independent candidate in the general election, mentioning the substantial fraction of voters who identify with neither party and suggesting that Democratic and Republican nomination contests could leave a number of voters dissatisfied with their electoral options next November.

There are many reasons why an independent or third-party candidacy is unlikely to succeed. Most nominal independents are in fact "closet partisans" who are more likely to support their favored major party than defect to an alternative. The "spoiler effect" in winner-take-all elections dissuades voters from abandoning a Democratic or Republican candidate for fear that they will merely help elect the opposition major-party nominee. Independent or moderate voters who don't agree with the doctrine of either major party don't necessarily agree with each other either, making it difficult to unite them around a single policy platform.

Putting those obstacles aside for the moment, however, Webb seems like a particularly unpromising candidate to lead such an effort. His independence is not merely partisan or ideological—which could link him politically to millions of other Americans—but personal: a caucus of one. He appears to hold a congenital resistance to the process of collective accommodation or collaboration, projecting an odd, prickly intensity that is a very rare quality among successful politicians.

Webb's failure to fit the usual political mold has, along with his impressive biography, worked to his advantage at times in the past, but he seems out of place in a public competition that requires constant glad-handing and sustained exposure to the press; given a unique opportunity to introduce himself to voters in last week's Democratic debate, Webb spent much of his time complaining about the lack of attention that he received from the moderators. Considered a loner in the Senate (which he departed after a single term), Webb doesn't appear likely to serve as the architect of a larger political movement. His mix of policy views and tenure as a member of both parties give him some credibility as the carrier of a pox-on-both-houses message, but his personality does not suggest likely success either as a candidate or a potential president.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Please Just Call Me Jeb. “Mr. Bush” Is My Brother's Name!

Because most New Hampshirites watch Boston-based television, those of us on the other side of the Massachusetts state line receive all of the TV advertising associated with the New Hampshire primary but none of the first-in-the-nation voting power. For most of my fellow Bay State residents, this is undoubtedly a lose-lose proposition. But as a political scientist who's interested in the campaign strategy that political communications reveal, I enjoy seeing the ads—at least for the first few repetitions.

This is a purely anecdotal observation, but other than a scattering of pro-Hillary Clinton spots, an occasional Lindsey Graham promotion, and a fairly heavy recent barrage on behalf of John Kasich that now seems to have died out, my impression is that the paid airwaves in New England have been dominated for months by Right to Rise, the super PAC working to elect Jeb Bush. But you’d barely know the candidate’s full name just from the ads themselves, which nearly always refer to their subject simply as “Jeb”:

As Jeb Bush is neither a female pop star nor a Brazilian soccer legend, the omission of his surname is unusual—and hard not to notice, especially on repeated viewings. It is clear that the super PAC's ad-makers, probably following the lead of opinion surveys and focus group participants, have acted to minimize the explicit priming of Bush family ties when courting Republican primary voters. But this ostensibly clever tactic openly telegraphs a palpable defensiveness. The attempt by media consultants to create a “Just Jeb” persona merely reinforces Jeb Bush's obvious discomfort with discussing the George W. Bush presidency in public appearances and interviews. Since few things provoke journalists to push harder more than a politician's visible expression of unease, this pattern has merely egged on the news media.

When he entered the 2016 presidential race, Jeb Bush gambled that he could mount a formidable campaign by running on his record as governor of Florida—a tenure in office that ended nearly nine years ago—while simultaneously avoiding or finessing the question of whether his candidacy represented a potential third term for his brother's policies (and if not, why not). There was an understandable political logic at work: a faction of conservative politicians and activists had come to express dissatisfaction with his brother's record of expanding government services and spending, while a majority of the broader electorate disapproved of the nation's economic and military performance under George W. Bush's leadership. But the price of this approach has been an enduring cloud of perceptible awkwardness that threatens to envelop Jeb unless and until he wins the presidency on his own.

The media's awareness of this conundrum—and hair-trigger sensitivity to the day-to-day musings of one Donald J. Trump—has led to substantial coverage over the past week of Trump's attacks on George W. Bush's national security record and Jeb's aggressive defense. Fortunately for Jeb, this is relatively safe political turf to fight on (and his campaign's decision to release a video and mount a fundraising appeal responding to Trump seemingly confirms that he doesn't see a political danger in keeping the story alive). It's hard to imagine Trump's complaints about the failure to prevent 9/11, which sound a lot like arguments made by liberals, resonating strongly with Republican voters. While Jeb might prefer to avoid mentioning his brother at all for the next thirteen months or so, he'd surely rather defend the war on terror in a Republican nomination fight than, say, No Child Left Behind. Other analysts have credited Trump with exhibiting impressive political acumen here, but it's more likely that he's chosen the wrong issue with which to exploit Jeb's very real fraternal vulnerability.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Jeb Bush and the Soft Bigotry of High Expectations

This Washington Post piece, pointedly headlined "No More ‘Shock and Awe,'" is a particularly illustrative example of the power of "expectations" in shaping news media coverage of campaigns, especially presidential primaries. The Post describes Jeb Bush's campaign as struggling both in the polls and at the task of fund-raising, quoting several Bush supporters (mostly anonymously) and unconnected Republicans as expressing surprise and disappointment at the candidate's middling performance. Instead of being an "unstoppable juggernaut," says the article, Bush has "effectively cemented his status as just another aspirant."

Bush and his advisors hoped, and even expected, to have more money and higher poll numbers at this stage of the campaign, and the article surely reflects a very real sense of dissatisfaction among his supporters and donors about the current state of the Republican race. But is Bush really just another candidate? I would guess that nearly all of his rivals would gladly trade his current level of money and support for their own, and his position looks even stronger if one heavily discounts the probability of Trump, Carson, or Fiorina—the three candidates now consistently leading Bush in the polls—actually winning the nomination.

Bush has clearly underperformed the predictions of the political class thus far, but "weaker than expected" is not the same as "weak." The case for panic is undercut by the quoted claim of an anonymous "top Bush fundraiser" that "the [poll] numbers are beginning to get hard," which is a silly thing to say four months before the first states begin to vote. There's also a certain incoherence to the roster of complaints documented in the Post article; we are told both that Bush has had problems raising money and that he's raised plenty of money (especially when his associated super PAC is included) but that these ample funds won't help him win popular support because of his other flaws as a candidate.

Regardless of accuracy or logical consistency, however, the interpretation of campaign developments by the news media can exert a significant effect on the judgments of voters, and endless headlines lamenting a struggling Bush campaign can threaten to become self-fulfilling prophecies. At the same time, there's more than enough time left before the voting begins in February for Bush to convince donors and pundits alike that he has turned his campaign around and is making a comeback. Once expectations have been lowered, after all, they become easier to meet.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

How the Constitution Defeated John Boehner (and Kevin McCarthy)

John Boehner announced his resignation as speaker of the House of Representatives last month in the face of a threat from a bloc of renegade Republicans to depose him unless he demanded, in exchange for avoiding a government shutdown, that Planned Parenthood be prevented from receiving federal funds. Heir apparent Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, abruptly withdrew from the race to succeed Boehner last week after acknowledging that he lacked the votes to win the speakership on his own. Washington now awaits Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan's final decision about whether to run for speaker himself, with no obvious alternative choice in the wings should Ryan decide to pass. (Boehner has announced that he will stay in office until a replacement is chosen.)

Both Boehner and McCarthy are victims of the constitutional provision that creates the office of speaker and specifies that the position be filled by the entire House. The requirement under the current rules that a single candidate must receive an overall majority of the vote on the floor of the chamber (218 of 435 members), counting Democrats as well as Republicans, gave Republican dissenters the procedural leverage to force Boehner out and prevent McCarthy's ascension. With 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats in the current House, a candidate for speaker can lose no more than 29 Republican votes, placing the rump faction in a pivotal position even though it represents, by all accounts, less than 10 percent of the total House membership.

Much of American politics today can be fairly characterized as the product of a polarized party system straining against a constitutional structure intentionally designed to operate without—and even frustrate the emergence of—strong parties: government shutdowns and near-shutdowns, threats of debt default, unfilled judicial vacancies. But Boehner's exit and McCarthy's withdrawal represent another example of venerable constitutional provisions colliding with our modern party politics in a way that produces unintended and perhaps unwelcome results. No other party leader in either house of Congress is subject to a vote of the entire chamber; instead, the responsibility for filling these other offices lies firmly in the hands of the majority of either Democratic or Republican members—who, in the case of House Republicans, continue to support Boehner and would have selected McCarthy to succeed him.

There are potential workarounds short of amending the Constitution. The House could adopt a rule providing that the speaker be elected by plurality rather than majority vote. In this case, the Republican majority is sufficiently large that either Boehner or McCarthy would likely win such a vote even without the support of the rump Republicans. If the seat margin between the parties were narrower or the renegade faction larger, however, a unified minority party could elect a plurality speaker over the votes of a divided majority. It is therefore unlikely that any future House majority would agree to such a reform.

Alternatively, the office of speaker could be made purely ceremonial, with procedural authority devolving to the majority leader. This would more or less mirror the Senate, where the vice president's constitutionally-specified role as presiding officer is not accompanied by substantive power (except for the right to vote in case of a tie, also mandated by the Constitution) and where the leader of the majority party, chosen solely by his or her fellow partisans, cannot be deposed by a cross-party alliance on the floor.

The Constitution remains a "living document" in part because its various provisions interact in fluctuating ways with a constantly evolving political environment. As long as House members consistently respected the norm that the membership of each party provided automatic support to that party's chosen leader when voting for speaker on the floor, the fact that the speaker was technically elected by the entire chamber was a procedural curiosity with little political importance. Now that a critical mass of members is threatening to discard this norm, the need for a candidate to personally assemble 218 votes to gain (or hold) the speakership becomes critical to the operation of Congress—and thus the federal government. Just ask John Boehner.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Democratic Debate Recap: Still Obama's Party

A few days, ago, the New York Times published a debate preview with the headline "A Likely Debate Highlight: Democrats' Distance from Obama" which argued that last night's event would demonstrate that "it's not Barack Obama's party anymore." "Democrats have developed a complicated relationship with their standard-bearer," argued the Times. "And that is especially true for those running for their party's nomination." The article recited a list of issues on which, supposedly, Democratic presidential candidates had broken with the policies of the current administration.

The actual debate played out quite differently. When Hillary Clinton—by media consensus the hands-down winner—was asked directly near the end of the event how her hypothetical presidency would differ from an Obama third term, she responded by noting that she, unlike the incumbent president, was a woman. True, but not exactly the dramatic policy distancing we were promised by the Times.

Though Clinton has attempted to distinguish herself from Obama on trade while seeking the 2016 nomination (without really saying anything that would constitute committed opposition to the TPP deal) and Bernie Sanders is positioned distinctly to the left of Obama (and, for that matter, almost every other Democrat) on certain economic issues, the debate instead confirmed the enduring popularity of Obama's politics among Democrats. Much of the policy agenda supported by the candidates running to succeed Obama—paid family leave, additional gun control measures, immigration reform, early childhood education—represent unfulfilled Obama objectives rather than a new direction for the party; were Obama constitutionally eligible to seek a third term, such initiatives would no doubt constitute much of his platform as well.

While the press likes to sniff around for hints of internal dissension, the leadership of the contemporary Democratic Party is, by historical standards, remarkably unified. The Obama presidency has played a central role in fostering this unity in two respects. On the one hand, Obama has demonstrated that a Democrat can win two national presidential elections without adopting the "triangulation" strategy favored by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, who distanced himself substantively and symbolically from traditional liberalism. On the other, the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has been electorally decimated during the Obama years within its traditional geographic constituencies in the Old South and rural Midwest and West, pulling the national party collectively to the left by attrition (and simultaneously plunging it into what may be long-term minority status in both houses of Congress).

The attempt by Sanders to engineer a further leftward shift by winning the nomination in 2016 is not likely to succeed, leaving Hillary Clinton to run a campaign that has adopted Obama's policy approach (and will attempt to reassemble Obama's electoral coalition) much more than that of her husband 20 years ago. This is still Obama's Democratic Party, even if it nominates another Clinton for president.