Friday, January 29, 2016

Debate Recap: Important Things That Went Unsaid

Last night's Republican debate was perhaps the least strategically interesting of the season, and not just because one of the more strategically interesting candidates declined to attend. With a few minor exceptions, the remaining candidates did not engage each other extensively, and the moderators frequently lobbed single questions at specific candidates before moving on without asking others to respond. Marco Rubio continues to be engaged in a two-front war with Ted Cruz on one side and Jeb Bush on the other, but that was already obvious before the debate (especially for those of us living in a media market that encompasses the state of New Hampshire; if you thought you'd never see an ad suggesting that Cruz was actually a closet socialist, prepare to be surprised).

One brief moment, however, struck me as revealing—not about any of the candidates in particular, but with respect to the Republican Party as a whole. Bret Baier asked Chris Christie about his plans to cut federal spending, noting that many Republicans promise to shrink the size of government on the campaign trail but fail to do so once elected. "Can you name even one thing that the federal government does now," Baier asked, "that it should not do at all?"

Christie adroitly chose to answer by pledging to eliminate federal funding of Planned Parenthood, a currently popular conservative objective, and responded to Baier's followup query of "anything bigger than that?" by arguing that nothing could be bigger than "thousands upon thousands upon thousands of children being murdered in the womb." But Baier's question raised perhaps the central chronic difficulty that Republican politicians face: how to fulfill conservative demands for a smaller, less onerous government without cutting programs and policies that most voters like, and Christie's answer did not fully address this dilemma. (Whatever the other merits of defunding Planned Parenthood, doing so will not itself balance the budget.)

Even Ted Cruz, who portrays himself as the conservative conscience of the Senate, responded to a subsequent Baier question about health care by sidestepping the issue of whether his plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act would deprive millions of Americans of the coverage expansion provided by the law. Cruz mentioned several conservative health care reform ideas—selling health insurance across state lines, expanding health savings accounts, severing insurance from employment—but policy experts do not believe that these measures would expand coverage to most of the citizens who gained insurance under the ACA. Cruz, too, recognizes the political dangers that lurk in committing oneself too explicitly to the revocation of existing government benefits.

It's too bad that this debate, just like most of the other Republican debates this year, devoted so little time to the issues of taxes, spending, health care, and other forms of domestic policy, given their centrality to the interests of voters and the actual responsibilities of the federal government. But if the current rise of ideological purism in the Republican Party is at least partially due to the gap between the ambitious campaign promises and modest governing record of GOP officeholders, the current set of candidates seems unlikely to resolve this tension by applying their general anti-government rhetoric to the specific government programs that constitute the bulk of the federal budget.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Donald Trump, Media Darling

Last night, Donald Trump abruptly pulled out of Thursday's Fox debate. Moreover, he did so via a statement that included references to his best-selling book and the amount of his net worth, characterized the candidate as "an extremely successful person" who was "show[ing] guts" merely by deigning to run for president, and actually, literally included the sentence "Roger Ailes and Fox think they can toy with him, but Mr. Trump doesn't play games."

I'm trying to think of any candidate in the history of American politics who could get away with anything close to a stunt like this without the press either ripping him to bits or measuring him for a straitjacket. Sure, some people mocked Trump online for being scared of facing Megyn Kelly, or played "get-a-load-of-this" with some of the passages in his statement, but it's getting impossible to ignore the mismatch between the outlandishness of Trump's behavior and the degree of acceptance in the media. Trump's sustained popular success has scrambled the minds of the press to such an extent that the ordinary rules of coverage simply don't apply. Imagine the media response if Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush ever acted once like Trump does as a matter of course.

It's easy to see why Trump is treated differently. Trump's antics are entertaining. He's a once-in-a-lifetime political phenomenon. His continued lead in the polls has dramatically exceeded expectations (always a good formula for positive news coverage). In fact, his performance at this stage of the race has so throughly contradicted conventional wisdom that some in the media seem to hold him in awe as a genius who has discovered previously unknown laws of the political universe.

It's not the job of the press to stop Trump, or to try to influence the outcome of the nomination process on behalf of any candidate. But he's sure getting a pretty easy ride these days compared to the competition, thanks simply to the results of the polls he is so fond of quoting.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is It Better to Try and Fail Than Not to Try at All? Not in Politics!

With apologies to my friends and colleagues in the Party Decides camp, you don't need a bunch of political scientists to tell you that most Republican leaders would rather see their party nominate someone other than Donald Trump for president. If the resiliency of a front-running Trump campaign is the shock of the year in American politics, surely the second-biggest surprise is the response of the Republican regulars—or rather, like the dog that didn't bark in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, the non-response. Trump seemingly represents a potentially serious threat to the party's interests in nearly every conceivable fashion, from his idiosyncratic policies to his controversial rhetoric to his debatable qualifications for the office he seeks. Yet Republican senators, governors, and other elected leaders have not collectively mobilized to counter Trump's ascent, even as the first events of the primary season rapidly approach.

The currently trendy interpretation of this apparent indifference to, or even acceptance of, Trump's rise is that it reflects Washington Republicans' white-hot hatred of Ted Cruz. Recent news stories like this one and this one, in which various Republican graybeards like Bob Dole, Trent Lott, and Rudy Giuliani express a preference for Trump over Cruz, have been treated as a remarkable indication of Cruz's unmatched unpopularity among party regulars and the dim view that they take of the Texan's chances in a general election—to the point that they regard the unknown quantity of Trump as worth the risk in comparison. Perhaps these figures view the nomination as already narrowing to a Trump-Cruz race and have reluctantly thrown in their lot with Trump as the lesser of two evils; more likely, they are merely trying to build Trump up temporarily in order to dispose of Cruz in Iowa and New Hampshire, ultimately increasing the odds of a more traditional nominee such as Rubio, Bush, or Christie.

But if Cruz were not in the race, or not a threat to win, would party regulars have already mounted a broad anti-Trump offensive? There are reasons to be skeptical. Veteran Republican officeholders have faced relentless attacks from the Tea Party and other rebellious purists over the past several years, absorbing considerable damage: the Republican speaker was pushed out of office, the House majority leader was defeated for renomination, fully one-third of the Republican senators who sought re-election between 2010 and 2014 were held to 60 percent of the vote or less in their state primaries (with three losing outright), and non-incumbent congressional candidates favored by national party organizations such as Mike Castle and Sue Lowden were upended by Tea Party opponents.

Republicans in Washington may feel as if they have enough trouble convincing GOP voters to support their own campaigns without attempting to influence the outcome of the presidential contest as well. And a failed intervention into presidential politics comes with a serious potential cost, risking future retribution from supporters of disfavored candidates—or even the candidates themselves. Moreover, while in other contexts it is rational to attempt to prevent a potentially disastrous event even if the chance of victory is low, most politicians do not like to risk looking ineffective by throwing their influence around unsuccessfully unless they believe that they will be rewarded for doing so. Regardless of what our parents may have told us, in politics it can be worse to try and fail than not to try at all.

In the roiling, chaotic state of the contemporary Republican Party, officeholders face more than the usual amount of risk in taking sides in internal disputes. Though one might assume that the viability of the Trump and Cruz candidacies would prompt party leaders to act immediately in order to attempt to steer the race to a superior rival, the proportion of top Republicans making formal candidate endorsements is lower this year than in elections past. If the race ultimately comes down to either Trump or Cruz against a more conventional alternative candidate, and if the alternative appears to have a serious chance of prevailing, we might see an coordinated effort at that stage by Republican members of Congress, governors, and other well-known figures to nudge the race in their favored direction. Until then, the risk-averse calculus of politics suggests that personal interests are often better served by staying on the sidelines, even if the result is a battle between Trump and Cruz or an unobstructed Trump march to the nomination.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It Sure Looks Like Bernie Sanders Thinks He Can Win

Since he entered the Democratic presidential race last year, Bernie Sanders has been described by most media observers as a protest candidate pursuing a symbolic campaign rather than as a plausible nominee actually running to win. Naturally, the decision of an avowed socialist to challenge prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton at the age of 74 for the nomination of a party of which he is not even a member did not appear to be the product of calculated presidential ambition. Portraying Sanders as an idealist merely attempting to use the spotlight provided by a national campaign to gain some attention for his views on Wall Street and entitlement programs, and to thereby achieve a modest influence over the Democratic Party's economic policy, was arguably treating him more charitably than to suggest that he actually harbored delusions of victory.

Recently, however, the tone of media coverage has begun to change. Sanders has attracted a sufficient level of support that he appears to have a good chance of placing first in at least one, and possibly both, of the two earliest contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has achieved unexpected success in fundraising, performed credibly in debates, and exposed a visible limit to the enthusiasm among Democratic voters for another Hillary Clinton candidacy. With journalists perennially hungry for a real horse race—and often liable to be somewhat ungenerous to Clinton—the media have started to treat Sanders a bit more like a serious contender, even if his actual chances of nomination remain fairly remote.

Of course, more coverage means more careful scrutiny, as well as a more extensive series of questions about the entire range of subjects that a presidential nominee is expected to command. For Sanders, who often appears uncomfortable when the topic of conversation drifts from his comfort zone of economics and political reform, this development carries a new set of risks, as several events over the past few days demonstrate. First, a group of Democratic-aligned foreign policy experts released a statement via the Clinton campaign blasting his comments about Iran and ISIS in Sunday's debate. Next, widely-read author and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic criticized Sanders for opposing reparations for African-Americans, charging him with failing to live up to the same level of left-wing idealism on racial justice as he does on health care and financial regulation. Yesterday, Sanders characterized Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, both of which endorsed Clinton for president, as "part of the [political] establishment" that he is "taking on" with his candidacy, provoking negative comments from feminists online and a critical response from Clinton herself.

We'll probably hear a lot more about this last controversy, as Sanders has handed a Clinton campaign desperate to convince Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats of its liberal bona fides an easy opening to portray him as neglecting social issues in his crusade against economic inequality. Off-the-cuff remarks can be overanalyzed (though the Sanders campaign is standing by them today) but the most revealing aspect of Sanders's comments might be the obvious annoyance they conveyed. If Sanders were in fact merely running a narrowly-focused protest campaign to direct public attention to the plight of the economically underprivileged and the need for a more stringent banking regulation regime, one would think that he wouldn't care much about the fact that these groups, concerned with a different set of issues altogether, would endorse Clinton over him.  

But Sanders instead seems genuinely upset that he failed to receive their support. Maybe, in fact, he thinks that he can win after all. If so, he may wind up running a more aggressive campaign against Clinton than a candidate would who simply wishes to promote his issue agenda.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Debate Recap: Who's the Better Liberal? Who's the Better Democrat?

Hillary Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, and nothing that occurred during last night's debate threatened her overwhelming lead in the race. Yet the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a genuine threat to win Iowa and New Hampshire, according to recent polls, serves as a visible symptom of a latent problem that her campaign seems to be facing this year. Opinion polls show that Democratic voters almost uniformly view Clinton favorably and are impressed with her accomplishments, yet there seems to be a limit to the party's collective enthusiasm for her campaign. Sanders has emerged as a convenient vehicle for many Democrats to register this sentiment; one gets the impression that a significant share of his supporters do not expect him to win and may not even wish to see him nominated, but have temporarily seized on his candidacy as a means of raising a little hell at the expense of Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party.

Clinton is not a new face on the national political scene (or even a first-time presidential candidate), her biggest strengths are qualities such as experience and tenacity that do not often inspire passion in the electorate, and she is neither a dynamic orator nor in position to claim the mantle of ideological purity. Her campaign has attempted to whip up excitement among Democratic voters for the prospect of a female president—my impression is that this theme has been explicitly evoked more frequently this time around than it was in 2008—but it's fair to say that they have found only limited success. How, then, can Clinton mobilize the Democratic faithful in Iowa and New Hampshire to turn out in the cold and dark to support her? How can she coax some of the voters now flirting with Sanders back into the fold?

One option would be to stress electability. The Clinton campaign is running an ad in New Hampshire (perhaps Iowa too) that does just that, displaying a series of unflattering clips of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz et al. before warning the viewer that Hillary Clinton is the one Democrat who can keep these scary Republicans out of the White House. She has also suggested at times that she is better equipped than Sanders to actually succeed in enacting her agenda as president. Yet these arguments, however valid, are similarly unlikely to inspire enthusiasm among the most committed Democrats. "Hillary: The Best We Can Do, So Grow Up and Deal With It" is not a tremendously appetizing implicit slogan.

Last night, Clinton started to move toward a somewhat new approach, and I would be surprised if we don't see it continue through the upcoming weeks. In contrast to Sanders's persona as the purest liberal on the stage, she repeatedly portrayed herself as the better Democrat. At several points, she suggested that her policies rendered her the true heir apparent to both Bill Clinton (naturally enough) and Barack Obama, even reaching back to Harry Truman to describe the enactment of the Affordable Care Act as the culmination of a decades-long Democratic commitment to the expansion of health care access that Sanders would be at risk of squandering with his single-payer proposal.

Sanders has had a long career in Congress serving as a lonely left-wing conscience who refused formal identification with the Democratic Party, and his record of directing criticism at past and present members of the Democratic leadership may provide more fodder for the Clinton campaign in the coming days. (Last night, Clinton accused Sanders of supporting a potential primary challenger to Obama in 2012; Sanders responded by insisting that he and Obama had campaigned for each other over the years but did not refute the specific charge.) Clinton and her advisors may decide that, while the candidate herself may not always inspire passion in the hearts of Democratic voters, their best bet is to increasingly associate her with partisan heroes who do engender such enthusiasm—especially the current occupant of the White House.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Debate Recap: Republicans Agree That Trump's For Real

Now that academic winter break is coming to an end (spring classes here at BC start next week!), Honest Graft returns from its hiatus with a look at Thursday night's Republican debate. As usual, I'll leave questions about which candidate "won" or "lost" to others and focus on what the candidates' behavior reveals about their strategic calculations and views of the race. Presidential nominations are among the most procedurally and strategically complex aspects of American politics, which makes them among the most fascinating. I dare say that this particular election confirms that nobody—not even political scientists!—has this process completely figured out.

Last night's debate was characterized by a series of one-on-one exchanges between candidates that clearly demonstrated where the lines of conflict currently stand. Trump and Cruz, now fighting for first place in Iowa, attacked each other early in the proceedings. Trump's recent suggestions that Cruz is constitutionally ineligible to be president guaranteed that the issue would come up, giving Cruz an opportunity to air grievances of his own in response. Among Cruz's charges was that Trump was only starting to raise the question now because Cruz was gaining on him in Iowa—an accusation to which Trump, whose open candor about his obsession with the results of public opinion polls is among his most characteristic features, readily pled guilty. But Trump was ready to throw how-dare-you indignation right back at Cruz over the Texan's dismissal of his "New York values," invoking 9/11 in a politically adept manner that suggested he was prepared for Cruz's attack.

Marco Rubio, meanwhile, continued his two-front battle against both Cruz and Chris Christie, accusing the former of inconsistency on immigration (and of promoting an unfair tax plan) and the latter of RINO squishiness on an array of issues. Jeb Bush and John Kasich did not engage directly with each other, but both attempted to position themselves as the thoughtful alternatives to Trump (leading to yet another half-hearted Bush attack on Trump that failed to draw much blood, seemingly a staple of the Republican debates this election). And then there was Ben Carson, who was mercifully left alone by the other candidates as he continued his quietly fading campaign.

Trump's persistent lead in the polls has been dismissed by some skeptics as a mostly an artifact of his superior name recognition at this stage of the race, or, alternatively, as a product of excessive media coverage of his various hijinks. But the behavior of the other major candidates demonstrates that they believe Trump's support to be based on a genuine attraction among Republican primary voters to his campaign message and policies. The dark rhetoric about an America in danger of disappearing forever, the ad hominem attacks on Barack Obama as a "child" and vows to "kick his rear end," the warnings about the threats posed by immigrants in general and Muslim refugees in particular—these are all elements of Trumpism that have increasingly been adopted by the other Republicans running for president. Whether or not Trump himself ultimately runs a strong race once the actual voting begins, it is already clear that he will have a visible effect on the 2016 election.