Thursday, December 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Debate Recap: Trump Coasts as Cruz and Rubio Tussle

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2015

Will Trump Realign the Republican Party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Conservatives Take Another Angle: Blame The Donald on Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 04, 2015

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

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

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

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