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.