Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump and the Myth of the American Presidency

Most political scientists view the American political system as a dense set of interlocking rules, institutions, and actors that interact in complicated and ever-evolving ways. This web of power derives much of its complexity from the fact that the United States is, distinctively, both a separation-of-powers system and a federal system. Our politics not only encompasses many different independent positions and levels of authority but also provides multiple access points for individuals and groups outside the formal structure of the government—including advocacy organizations, media sources, and mobilized citizens—to exert influence over its operations. Even scholars who devote their careers to studying one element of this system—Congress, courts, voters, interest groups, and so forth—must constantly account for the ways in which their subject of interest is affected by the other components of the system.

American citizens acquire in grade school the familiar factual knowledge that their government has three separate branches and a federalist structure. In practice, however, popular attention to the subject of politics focuses overwhelmingly on the office of the presidency and the individuals who hold it—or who seek it during a drawn-out campaign process that lasts for nearly half of the presidential term. Citizens have invested the presidency with meaning and expectations that far exceed the capacity of even its most resourceful inhabitants to fully satisfy, ignoring both the very real limitations of the president's ability to implement major change and the key roles played by other political actors and by the institutional framework of the constitutional system itself.

The campaign that just concluded only further widened the chasm separating the actual presidency from its role in the American imagination. Popular and media attention focused on the race to the White House to the exclusion of all other electoral competition; candidates for the Senate and other important offices only received national press coverage when they said or did something that related to one or both of the presidential nominees. To a greater extent than any candidate in memory, Donald Trump portrayed the presidency as a position of unrestricted power from which he could not only impose sweeping change on national and world politics—singlehandedly bringing back the steel industry from overseas, building a border wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it—but even reverse unwelcome trends in American culture ("When I'm president, we're going to say Merry Christmas again!")

Hillary Clinton was by contrast relatively cautious about over-promising on policy and keen to avoid appearances of grandiosity, reflecting both her own instincts and her understanding of the limitations of the presidency as well as its power. When discussing this or that political issue, Clinton would frequently pledge if elected to do "everything I can" to address the concerns of her audience—a promise to try rather than a promise to succeed.

Yet Clinton, too, ultimately wound up running a campaign that treated the presidency more as an abstract symbol than a position of executive responsibility. She attempted to benefit from popular disapproval of Trump's personal behavior by arguing that he would be a poor role model for the nation's children and would represent a victory for the forces of bigotry and misogyny. Democrats and Republicans came to share the view that the 2016 election did not merely present a choice between two very different visions for what America should be, but forced the electorate to determine which of two possible futures the nation would indeed have—with one path permanently selected and the other foreclosed.

Since the election less than two weeks ago, the nation has experienced an eruption of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim speech and behavior—all presumably fueled by the perception that Trump's ascension to the presidency represents a larger impending transformation of American society (notwithstanding the narrowness of Trump's victory nor his failure to receive a plurality of the national popular vote). These incidents have not been limited to the Trump-friendly regions of the nation; even those of us who live in the "deep blue" precincts of the metropolitan coasts have experienced the same trend. The presumption behind much of this behavior is that America under Trump will look fundamentally different from America under Obama or (hypothetically) Clinton.

As some of his most ardent supporters envision a wholesale change in the social order, Trump himself has spent the same two weeks reckoning with the limits of the office he is poised to occupy. Evidence has surfaced of a rocky transition process and a president-elect who seems more interested in looking after his business interests and engaging in amateur television criticism than in staffing the executive branch. He has also begun to walk back some of his key campaign promises; anyone actually expecting Trump to immediately begin mass deportations, build a border wall, or throw Hillary Clinton in jail once he assumes office is about to be very disappointed.

Most scholars agree that the modern presidency rewards preparation. The most successful presidents have prioritized hiring highly competent subordinates who share a common policy agenda, have placed them at key positions of power, and have moved quickly to take advantage of the honeymoon period at the start of a new president's term, when his popularity and political influence are usually at their peak. It is not at all clear that Trump is equipped to begin his term in office two short months from now with the institutional capacity of the executive branch running at full speed.

We are left, then, with the prospect of an ever-widening divide between the growing symbolic power of the presidency in the American popular imagination and the stubborn reality that the president is merely one element of a political system that often resists bending to his will. All presidents have chafed against the limitations of the office, but Trump's combination of rhetorical ambition and practical inattentiveness presents a particular challenge to the new administration. The news media, which has contributed greatly to propagating the myth of the all-powerful presidency, will reliably cover American politics for the next four years almost exclusively through a Trump-centered lens, which will have the effect of further magnifying his failures as well as his successes. If the president cannot even claim control over Congress and the bureaucracy, what are his chances of making us all say Merry Christmas every December?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Princeton Podcast on Asymmetric Politics

Yesterday, Matt Grossmann and I talked with Julian Zelizer and Sam Wang of Princeton University about our new book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. You can hear our conversation on the latest edition of their podcast, Politics and Polls.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Podcast Interview

Yesterday I talked to Marc Chavannes of the Dutch podcast The Correspondent about the American elections of 2016. You can listen to our conversation here.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Think Politics Will "Get Back to Normal" After Tuesday? This IS the New Normal!

We've reached the stage of the presidential campaign in which everyone who's either a participant or a close observer has reached a state of complete mental overload. Colleagues, friends, and students have frequently remarked over the past week or two that they are desperate for the election to be over. This is especially true of Clinton supporters of my acquaintance, who nurture (perhaps unrealistic) hope that Trump and Trumpism will face a popular rejection on Tuesday that will expel both the man and his brand of politics from the American party system.

Given everyone's frayed nerves, it seems almost sadistic to suggest that less will change after the election that many might wish. If Trump somehow manages an upset, of course, the fallout will be unprecedented—even more so now that the events of the past few weeks have set Democrats up to view such an outcome as an effective hijacking of American democracy by the Russians and the FBI.

The more likely outcome remains a Clinton victory, though by less-than-landslide proportions. But here, too, the potential for political combustion is enormous. The entire Republican popular base is poised to go ka-BOOM in response to the ascension of President Hillary, and Republican leaders will see no choice but to ratchet up the vehemence of their opposition to a level that will even exceed that of the Obama years. For the duration of his presidency, many Republicans have viewed Obama as an arrogant Marxist incompetent who hates America and all that it stands for; they think all those things of Clinton, too, but add to them the belief that she is also a criminal who belongs in prison. The race among Republican members of the House of Representatives to be the first to file articles of impeachment against her promises to be a competitive one, and the GOP congressional leadership will face considerable pressure to engage in even-more-frequent acts of dramatic—and high-risk—confrontation.

We already know what the biggest fight will be. It hasn't received a great deal of attention in an all-Trump-all-the-time campaign, but the vacancy on the Supreme Court promises to serve as a particularly bloody partisan battlefield once the election is over. If the Republicans hold the Senate, it is likely that they will prevent Clinton from filling the Scalia seat for the entire four years of her term. While this would be an unprecedented act, there is simply no political or ideological incentive for any Republican senator to allow the confirmation of a fifth liberal justice. (Democratic hopes that the blockade of Merrick Garland would prove electorally costly to swing-state Republican senators this year seem to have gone unfulfilled, only increasing the likelihood of indefinite GOP obstruction.)

If the Democrats gain a majority in the Senate, the working assumption is that they will jam Garland, or a replacement Clinton nominee, through the chamber on a party-line vote. This is probably correct, but the political cost and pain involved is underappreciated. Any Democratic majority in the Senate is likely to be very narrow—it could even hinge on the vice president's role as a tiebreaker—and dependent on a few pivotal electorally vulnerable senators from normally Republican states, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

These Democrats will need to join with their more liberal fellow partisans not only to confirm the fifth liberal justice, but to invoke the "nuclear option" preventing a Republican filibuster of the nomination. This involves not changing the formal rules of the Senate—a process that is itself subject to the filibuster—but using a parliamentary point of order, sustained by a simple majority, that the cloture rule does not properly apply to Supreme Court nominations. (The previous use of the nuclear option in 2013 removed the filibuster for lower court candidates but left it intact for the Supreme Court.)

Regardless of what one thinks about the filibuster rule or its increasing use by the Senate minority, removing it by brute partisan force rather than via the normal procedures for modifying chamber rules adds fodder to what will be fierce Republican charges that the whole thing is an illegitimate power grab. If Democrats take majority control in January, they will face the choice of whether to invoke the nuclear option preemptively or wait until Republicans actually filibuster Clinton's Supreme Court nominee. There is some logic to ripping the Band-Aid off quickly, but red-state Democratic senators may prefer to wait for weeks or even months, giving Republicans the opportunity to amply demonstrate their intransigence before "reluctantly" concluding that the nuclear option is an appropriate response.

All of this will play out in an atmosphere of unconstrained partisan-ideological rancor. The stakes are indeed high—the formation of a liberal majority on the Court for the first time in 40 years is understandably unacceptable to pro-Trump and anti-Trump conservatives alike, while simultaneously representing an important potential legacy for a Hillary Clinton presidency that is likely to be prevented by congressional gridlock from enacting its major legislative priorities.

The election next week will resolve some important questions; the difference between the two presidential candidates is in many respects the biggest in living memory, and one will be president while the other one won't. But the acrimonious nature of party politics in the United States may only be reinforced by the outcome on Tuesday. Once the results are in, many Americans will return to their "normal" routine of only intermittent attentiveness to the world of politics. But those who continue to follow the daily march of events cannot count on the end of the campaign to provide a respite from the perpetual partisan battle.