Friday, May 19, 2017

Trump Will Go When the Conservative Media Say It's Time to Go (Probably Never)

Donald Trump's presidency is barely four months old, but the events of the past week or so have seemed so explosively damaging to his position in the eyes of many observers that I spent part of my Tuesday morning on the phone with an Ottawa radio show explaining to Canadian listeners how the system of presidential impeachment works. It's not hard to understand why Trump has inspired a frenzy of "i-word" talk in Washington. His sacking of FBI director James Comey last week amid a federal investigation examining the Russian intervention into the 2016 election seemed more than a bit reminiscent of both Richard Nixon's attempt to obstruct an FBI probe into Watergate and Nixon's later firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, along with the top two officials of the Justice Department, in the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973. That Comey appears to have evidence demonstrating that he received personal pressure from Trump to end or limit the Russia probe has only further turned up the heat on a simmering scandal.

But while the Watergate parallels are undeniable, our current moment also bears resemblance to the early days of the process that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998–99. When the first reports of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and misleading sworn testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit emerged in the press, many pundits jumped to the conclusion that Clinton was finished as president, even predicting that he would be out of office within the week. Not only did Clinton remain to serve out his full term, but the revelation of the Lewinsky affair and Clinton's subsequent impeachment by the House of Representatives did not even put a dent in his job approval ratings (which actually increased over the course of the year). If Nixon's lesson is that messing around with an active law enforcement investigation ultimately leads to ruin for a sitting president, Clinton's experience teaches instead that what first looks like a catastrophic political problem can be transformed into a survivable, and even winnable, partisan fight (and, no less importantly, that media analysts sometimes lose their perspective in the midst of unforeseen events).

It's common for experts to say that impeachment is less a legal than a political process, but that observation can have several different meanings. First, it reflects that the constitutional language is brief and vague with respect to what presidential acts are properly considered impeachable offenses—"treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors"—and that interpretation of these terms falls in practice to the (elected) legislative branch rather than, as would otherwise be the case, the federal judiciary. Second, it takes into account that it's possible to imagine acceptable grounds for impeachment that are not technically against the law but violate the president's oath of office and deeply threaten the national interest (such as an abuse of the pardon power or excessive entanglement with foreign states). Third, it recognizes that debates over the impeachment and removal of a president are inescapably bound up in partisan and other "political" motivations; as in any other issue before the government, where you stand is, at least in part, a function of where you sit.

More broadly, the impeachment process is political because it involves the potential reversal of a national election. The question of democratic legitimacy is—properly, I think—central to discussions of impeachment. It is important for the stability and credibility of our system of government that such an act be widely viewed by the American public as an appropriate response to serious wrongdoing, not merely an exercise in partisan vengeance. And the public is not likely to come around to such a view quickly or easily.

It's easy to forget in retrospect how long the Watergate scandal lasted until Congress was ready to act on articles of impeachment—and how even then, Nixon's fate was not sealed until the release of the "smoking gun" tape that proved his involvement in the coverup from its earliest stages. Republican senators then abandoned Nixon's defense, concluding that even their own party's voters would accept his removal from office under such circumstances. In the Clinton case, neither impeachment nor conviction was supported by a majority of citizens. Republicans failed to convince the American people that Clinton deserved removal from office over what was widely understood as basically a sex scandal, or that their own motives in impeaching him rose above mere partisan warfare.

Many congressional Democrats, whose top leaders all served in Washington during the Clinton years, understand from that experience that looking too eager to yell "impeachment" before knowing all the facts can be politically risky, even as they must contend with a Trump-hating party base that will likely reward individual members who raise the question. And Republicans, of course, have no reason to entertain the notion at all. As much as they might privately mutter about Trump's behavior or wish that a snap of the fingers could deliver them a Mike Pence presidency instead, Republican members of Congress are not about to impeach a president of their own party. Debates over whether Trump's behavior rises to the level of an impeachable offense are certainly appropriate, but are at this stage purely academic.

What would it take for Republican support for Trump in Congress to crumble as Nixon's did in August 1974, forcing his premature departure from office? Republican politicians would not turn against Trump en masse without the support of a significant share of Republican voters, and Republican voters would only do so if persuaded by key members of the conservative media. This is not a wholly unthinkable scenario; conservative media figures have ultimately soured on every major national Republican politician in the post-Reagan era, and their enthusiasm for Trump will at least diminish substantially over his tenure in office if the mistakes and failures continue to pile up. But it's hard to imagine influential conservatives abandoning Trump for Pence unless the Republican legislative agenda runs completely aground and Trump proves fatal to the Republican Party's electoral standing in 2018. Even then, Republicans may well still resist actually joining together with Democratic opponents to support Trump's impeachment or removal from office.

So we're a long way away from impeachment proceedings being anything but a dimly hypothetical scenario. Congress could take other, less drastic steps to assert some control over Trump—perhaps starting with gaining some concessions to political normality in exchange for approving his executive-branch appointments—but the medium-term approach favored by the GOP seems to be "muddle through and hope things don't spiral too far out of control." From Republicans' point of view, that is quite possibly the best available option under the circumstances.

But it's still not a great place to be. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not popular enough to protect his party from potentially serious electoral backlash; unlike Nixon, Trump is not wounded enough to allow his party to help push him out the door and regroup with an untainted successor. Congressional Republicans find themselves in the middle of a political vise restricting their freedom of movement in both directions—and they, like Trump, aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Congressional Republicans Won't Abandon Trump Over Comey

Donald Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey this week might well be the single most damaging event so far of a presidency that has been defined by unrelenting chaos since its first day of existence. Sprung on the country with so little warning that even the White House's own press shop was caught completely unprepared to address the subject, the Comey sacking was accompanied by a public justification so completely implausible that Trump's own aides readily conceded its falsity to the press once guaranteed anonymity. It was immediately obvious that Trump's action was not motivated by a desire to avenge the unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton but was instead intended to squelch the FBI's investigation of his own campaign's ties with Russia—inspiring a plethora of comparisons to Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" and raising dark musings about obstruction of justice and other impeachable offenses.

Axing Comey was a bungle of multi-dimensional proportions. Trump may have been sick of hearing about Russia every time he turned on the television, but his "solution" to this particular problem merely ensured that cable news will talk about little else for weeks or more. Making enemies in the FBI also increases the probability that damaging information winds up leaking to the media, and any indication that pressure from the top has indeed attempted to curtail the Russia probe will set off a ten-ton explosion inside the Justice Department. It also makes the president look as if he is guilty of a serious offense—whether or not he actually is.

One might expect congressional Republicans to distance themselves as much as possible from the Comey affair, if only for the purposes of political self-preservation. With a few exceptions, however, party members have remained supportive of Trump's decision to fire Comey and dismissive of suggestions that the circumstances warrant the appointment of a special counsel or formation of an independent investigatory commission. House Speaker Paul Ryan characterized Trump's action as "an important command decision" and argued that "it was entirely within the president's role and authority to relieve" Comey. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly rejected Democratic calls for a special prosecutor on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, suggesting that the entire controversy was merely an exercise in partisanship.

It's likely that most Republicans in the House and Senate privately view the Comey firing as a mistake on Trump's part, and may even worry that the new president will continue to lurch from one self-made crisis to another over the next 18 months. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they think creating daylight between Trump and themselves would work to their own benefit. Republicans commonly view the successful mobilization of their own party's conservative base as the decisive factor in elections, rather than courting of the independent or swing vote. Under this theory, turning against Trump—no matter how much his behavior might justify it—only hurts the congressional party by reducing the enthusiasm of Republican voters for showing up at the polls in 2018 and 2020.

McConnell in particular believes that voters are persuaded more by partisan cues than by objective facts. His openly-acknowledged justification for preventing any bipartisan agreement on health care reform during the Obama administration was that bipartisanship "tend[s] to convey to the public that this is OK, they must have figured [the issue] out," resulting in broad popular support. In other words, voters are significantly more likely to approve of a policy endorsed by members of both parties than an identical policy over which Democrats and Republicans remain divided—which means that one's own party should avoid conceding ground to the positions adopted by its opponent whenever possible.

To McConnell, Republican support for any Democratic calls to investigate Trump would only signal to voters that Trump had indeed done something wrong, further reducing the president's public support and thus giving the Democrats even more of an advantage. Converting every Trump-related controversy into a partisan food fight instead allows Republicans to summon their base to rally behind them in yet another polarizing battle against the left. Since Democratic supporters are already likely to be highly motivated to turn out against Trump in the next two elections, Republicans are concerned about whether their own side will match their opponents' level of engagement.

Of course, this approach carries certain risks. The most obvious danger is that congressional Republicans could wind up chaining themselves more tightly to Trump just as he plummets off a political cliff. The lack of a meaningful difference between Trump and the rest of the Republican Party gives anti-Trump voters good reason to replace even personally popular Republican incumbents with Democratic challengers. Unless Trump finds a way to bolster his national popularity in the future, even a relatively energized Republican base may not be enough to protect the party against a wider popular backlash among Democrats and independents.

It's also quite possible that Ryan and McConnell would be better served in the long run by buzzing a warning pitch or two under Trump's chin at this stage of his presidency. Automatic party support for his various antics in office may only reinforce bad behavior on Trump's part, making future Comey-scale debacles all the more likely and dragging the entire party into an inescapable political morass. Occasional demonstrations of independence by congressional Republicans might have a constraining effect on a president with flawed knowledge, instincts, and judgment, encouraging him to consult with a wider array of interlocutors and steering him away from the most disastrous courses of action. Normally, party leaders' interests are not well-served by greater intra-party tension. But we are, at the moment, a fair ways off from normalcy.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

AHCA, Part II: The Pivotal Votes in the House GOP Are on the Right, Not in the Center

Many veteran politics-watchers have a model in their head that they use to understand both electoral competition and congressional policy-making. In this model, the policy preferences of politicians or voters are arrayed along a single ideological dimension stretching from a left (liberal) to a right (conservative) pole. Faced with a choice between two policies, each individual will reliably prefer the option that is located closest to his or her own ideal position on this spectrum.

Political scientists call this model a "Downsian" conception of politics (referring to its formalization in Anthony Downs's 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy) but even non-academics tend to accept its basic premises—which is why ideologically moderate candidates are generally viewed by political pundits as having a stronger chance of election in two-party competition than relatively extreme rivals. One important implication of Downian logic is that the median voters, or median legislators, on this ideological spectrum wield decisive political power, because they are strategically positioned to dictate the ultimate policy outcome. Thus we can end up with moderate policy even when moderates represent a minority of the total population of political actors.

When the Democrats were debating the ACA in 2009 and 2010, they had to pay attention to the demands of the moderate bloc because moderates held the pivotal votes in Congress. There could be 200 Democrats who favored a provision—like the public option—and 30 who opposed it, but the 30 could get their way over the wishes of the 200 because they could always threaten to join Republicans in a majority that would vote down any bill they viewed as too liberal. This is a familiar strategic environment for vote-counting party leaders, and jibes with the intuition of many political analysts.

But the House Republican Party does not really work this way. The members of the House Republican Conference who are the most liable to threaten defection—and to deliver on such threats—are the hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus. It was the Freedom Caucus that torpedoed Round 1 of the ACA repeal in March, on the grounds that the bill did not go far enough in a conservative direction. And it was the support of the Freedom Caucus this afternoon that allowed the second effort at repeal to narrowly squeak through the House, after winning concessions in the interim that pushed the bill further to the ideological right.

One might expect that satisfying the demands of the Freedom Caucus would doom the bill's support among Republicans representing politically marginal districts. But it turned out that while many of those members communicated great discomfort with its provisions, they were not willing to withstand the political blowback from within their own party by supplying the key votes to kill the bill.

The House GOP is thus in an unusual position in which the pivotal policy influence in the caucus lies on the party's right edge, not in its center. Thus the bill picked up greater support as it moved further in a conservative direction over time—a pattern that is directly inconsistent with traditional legislative logic. Even Republicans from competitive districts became more supportive of the AHCA as it shifted to the ideological right; while they were willing to pile on against the previous version once the Freedom Caucus had already vowed to block it, they were substantially less enthusiastic about courting conservative attacks by opposing the bill from the left once their own votes would prove decisive to the outcome.

It should be noted that the Republican Party's frequent rejection of Downsian logic extends to the electoral sphere as well. Rather than view voting for the AHCA as an unacceptable risk given the law's unpopularity among swing voters, many Republicans believed that they would court greater danger by failing to pass anything and thus demobilizing their own party base:

When a party defines itself as the agent of an ideological cause, it is almost inevitable that many elected officials will perceive political pressure as coming from the extremes, not the center, and act accordingly. Moreover, the lesson that the Freedom Caucus will draw from the events of the past two weeks is that the demands of purist conservative holdouts are likely to be satisfied in the end, while moderates and pragmatic conservatives will cave rather than risk blame for obstructing the policy agenda of party leaders. A national rout in 2018 might call this rationale into question, but for now the typical Republican official views energized conservatives, not moderate swing voters, as occupying the pivotal position dictating his or her own personal electoral future.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Importance of Trump's First Hundred Days

The historically productive first weeks of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency left American politics with a tradition of news media-led retrospection at the hundred-day mark, reached Saturday by the Trump administration. Given that no subsequent president has been able to match Roosevelt's remarkable record of immediate prolific policy accomplishment, there is a certain arbitrary—and even perhaps unfair—element to exercising collective judgment on the new chief executive only three months into a four-year term. On the other hand, the "honeymoon" at the start of an administration is generally a favorable period for the enactment of presidential initiatives, and presidents have often found that the sledding, especially on Capitol Hill, only grows more treacherous over time.

Rather than simply declaring the hundred days either a success or a failure and then moving on, it is perhaps more appropriate to take the opportunity to review what we have learned about the new president since January 20. Trump is an especially apt subject for examination in this way. He came into the office without the experience or political style of a normal national leader, and his election generated a wide range of expectations across partisan and ideological lines about what kind of president he would turn out to be.

It's safe to say at this point that Trump is not the political savant envisioned by some of his supporters, and even by members of the press corps who were impressed by his unlikely election. Despite his promises to the contrary during the 2016 campaign, Trump has not shown the ability to resolve the nation's most pressing problems via a unique combination of negotiating savvy and tough-minded dedication. One insider account after another portrays the president as totally at sea in the White House, with top members of Trump's own staff privately conceding that he lacks an elementary grasp of either policy or congressional politics. Previous suggestions that he would assemble an all-star team of "the best people" to provide assistance and advice have similarly been discarded in favor of the installation of a skeleton crew of professional partisans and assorted personal loyalists, who seem to spend as much energy jockeying for presidential favor and trashing each other in the press as they do carrying out the tasks of governing.

At the same time, much of the criticism directed toward Trump from the left prior to Inauguration Day has also not been borne out by his performance in office. Warnings that Trump's ascendance to power signaled a potential threat to democracy itself were commonplace among left-of-center analysts during the campaign and transition period. But one regular attempt to catalog worrying signs of impending authoritarianism has come to seem self-refuting, unless such items as "13. Trump dropped his campaign promise to let Medicare negotiate bulk discounts on prescription drugs" and "5. Trump hosted a disastrous Easter Egg Roll" indeed contain sinister echoes of Franco and Mussolini. (Also: the Easter Egg Roll was not actually disastrous, even if Beyoncé didn't show up this year.)

The Trump presidency has been more conventionally Republican than advertised—largely abandoning the departures from traditional conservative doctrine that gave the Trump candidacy a tinge of economic populism—and has proven less effective so far in achieving major change than either supporters or (most) opponents assumed. Rather than consolidating executive power to rearrange the international order, dissuade corporate America from outsourcing jobs, or oppress and intimidate political enemies, the new president has devoted much of his attention to monitoring daily television coverage of his administration and idly complaining about its perceived unfairness. Decisions about legislative business and other substantive matters are often delegated to subordinates or avoided altogether.

When combined with a divided congressional majority—and unified minority—this adds up to an administration characterized by significant political and institutional limitations. Trump's personal defensiveness and penchant for boastful exaggeration, traits that have been adopted by members of his White House staff, project insecurity more than calm command and arise in private meetings with other political leaders as well as public communications. Despite an unusual preoccupation with his personal popularity, the new president has yet to convince a majority of citizens to approve of his job performance at any point since taking office, further reducing his influence over Congress and encouraging critical assessments from members of the news media who would otherwise defer to Trump as an authentic voice for the concerns of middle America.

Presidents, and presidencies, can and do evolve over time. It's premature to draw anything more than tenuous conclusions about the governing style and capacity of the new administration just three months into its existence. On the other hand, media observers have been hyper-sensitive to any signs of a more knowledgeable, even-tempered, or "presidential" Trump ever since he started his campaign 21 months ago, but have so far only sounded what turned out to be false alarms. Trump may indeed change his ways in the future. So far, however, there's little reason to expect the next hundred days to be much different from the first.

Finally, it's time for some personal stock-taking. Last January, I was asked by the Boston College public affairs office, along with a number of academic colleagues across several disciplines, to share brief remarks about Trump's first hundred days. Here's what I wrote:

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how the Trump administration will operate in practice. Compared to previous administrations, the incoming president’s policy priorities are not well defined and the lines of decision-making authority within the White House remain unclear. Because the new president and vice president, most senior presidential advisors (including the new White House chief of staff), and much of the cabinet all lack substantial experience in the executive branch, the early months of the Trump administration will produce an elevated risk of ineffectiveness, substantive and procedural confusion, and potentially serious errors in governing.
It is already clear from both the 2016 campaign and the post-election transition period that the new president places great importance on receiving positive press coverage, identifying and citing indicators of personal popularity, and exacting revenge against perceived enemies. These are likely to be the major day-to-day objectives of his administration – absent an immediate crisis that directs attention elsewhere – and presidential decisions about policy and personnel may well be viewed primarily through their ability to further one or more of these goals.

I'd still stand behind these words. But I am struck in retrospect by the lack of energy that Trump has devoted to using the presidential bully pulpit to mobilize popular support and pressure political opponents (of both parties), and by his limited success in finding creative and politically useful ways to attract public attention. The deficiencies so far of Trump-the-policy-maker are, to me, hardly a shock. It's Trump-the-media-tactician whose ineffectiveness is one of the most surprising developments of the first hundred days.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Interview about Asymmetric Politics with Salon.com

I was recently interviewed by Paul Rosenberg of Salon.com about how the view of party differences that Matt and I propose in Asymmetric Politics applies to recent political events, including the rise of Donald Trump, the failure of the Republicans' health care reform plan last month, and the challenges facing the Democrats. You can find an edited version of our conversation here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Kansas Election and the Stability of American Electoral Politics

American politics over the last 25 years or so seems as if it's a roller coaster of sudden and unpredictable plot twists, each more improbable than the last: the ascension of a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in four decades; the impeachment of a sitting president; a national election decided by the idiosyncratic design of punch-card ballots in a single Florida county; a coordinated series of major terrorist attacks on American soil; two long and unresolved wars; a catastrophic economic crisis; the election of the first black president in history—followed immediately by the election of Donald Trump to the same office. The fortunes of the two parties have appeared to reverse with whiplash-inducing rapidity multiple times over this period, with neither side managing to establish an enduring hold over the affections of an impatient and dissatisfied electorate.

Pull back to a wide-angle shot, though, and our current political climate actually exhibits considerable stability. The following regularities (I don't view them as "rules," which would imply assuming an indefinite permanent validity) have largely held across the entire period from 1994 to the present, and certainly since 2000 or so:

1. The two parties are closely matched at the national level in both presidential and congressional elections.

2. The vast majority of voters are consistently loyal to a single party in both presidential and congressional voting.

3. Most individual states and congressional districts are securely and predictably Democratic or Republican in national elections.

4. However, because of #1 above, a national "wave" in favor of a single party can easily reverse control of the presidency or either house of Congress, flipping pivotal swing states and districts from Democratic to Republican (or vice versa) and even producing scattered upsets in normally safe partisan strongholds elsewhere in the nation.

5. These "waves" commonly form as a backlash against unified control of the federal government by the party in power, which tends to simultaneously alienate swing voters and disproportionately mobilize angry members of the opposition party to show up at the polls or to run for office themselves.

6. Many citizens treat their congressional vote as a referendum on the national parties and party leaders, rather than as a choice between the personal attributes of the individual candidates on the ballot.

With these six regularities in mind, let's turn to the results of Tuesday night's special election in Kansas. This was a "deep red" congressional district—by any metric, one of the 100 most Republican seats in the country—and, as we might expect, the Republican candidate won (see #2 and #3 above). However, the margin of victory was only about 7 percentage points, even though the Republican nominee was a statewide elected official while the Democrat was a political unknown who was outspent and out-organized (see #6). The closeness of the result suggests that the electoral climate has worsened considerably for Republican candidates since last November, in large part due to the disastrous first weeks of the Trump presidency (see #5 and #6).

If we compare the Kansas results to the previous general election, they appear to represent a dramatic shift in the political order over just a few short months. But if we place them in a wider context, they seem much less surprising—if anything, somewhat predictable. Even the political professionals at the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fell prey to this ultra-short-term thinking, dismissing the electoral chances of their party's congressional nominee based on the results of the 2016 election and its immediate predecessors, and thus failing to invest the organizational and financial resources in Kansas that might have made the outcome closer still.

Should they—or we—really have been all that surprised? By every conceivable indication, the Trump presidency is poised to be a massive electoral albatross for Republican candidates from coast to coast—and there is, at this stage, little reason for the party to hope that he will rectify his governing problems in time for next year's midterm elections. Whether or not Republicans actually cede control of the House in 2018 (see #1 and #4), it is near-certain that they will lose a substantial number of seats unless a major rebound occurs in the president's perceived job performance. But let's not be shocked—a newly successful congressional Democratic Party would not be a sudden departure from the patterns of recent history. Rather, it would be yet another regular occurrence in our predictable political age.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Will Bannon Stay? Will He Go? It Actually Won't Matter Much

We have yet to reach the three-month anniversary of Donald Trump's inauguration, yet a death watch has already started in Washington over the White House tenure of Trump advisor and chief strategist Stephen Bannon. This development was precipitated by a single publicly-confirmed fact—Bannon's abrupt removal from the National Security Council—but a host of on-background quotes in the press have attested to Bannon's falling star, further fueling the intrigue of the week.

Bannon, a former Hollywood producer who migrated to the Trump campaign last August from the bare-fanged conservative website Breitbart, has the kind of unconventional biography for a political aide that invites particular fascination—as does his cultivation of a shadowy, Master of Darkness persona. Gossip about who's in and who's out in the scene around Trump also understandably attracts interest, and Bannon's identification with the ethno-nationalist "alt-right" movement aligned with Trump ensures that his departure, if and when it comes, will have a real symbolic meaning. But it's unlikely to affect the political trajectory of the Trump presidency to any significant degree.

Substantively, Bannon differs from the average Republican political advisor by emphasizing economically populist messages and policies on jobs, trade, and domestic infrastructure, combined with an even more aggressive opposition than other Republicans to immigration (both legal and illegal) and international alliances. This combination of positions, along with a more general "anti-establishment" attitude, has been collectively viewed as defining Trumpism as distinct from regular American conservatism.

Since taking office, however, Trump has addressed immigration fitfully and the other issues hardly at all. He has turned responsibility for setting his presidency's legislative agenda over to the Republican congressional leadership, which chose to pursue deregulation, ACA repeal (now in indefinite limbo), and comprehensive tax reform while making decidedly unenthusiastic murmurs about tackling an infrastructure bill or funding a wall along the Mexican border. It's difficult to detect Bannon's hand in most of the events of the past two months, after he took the lead in devising the "travel ban" executive order that was soon blocked in federal court (as was its replacement). Even last week's airstrike in Syria seems inconsistent with Bannon's worldview, and reports indicate that it occurred over his opposition.

Redefining the Republican Party, restructuring the international order, achieving the "deconstruction of the administrative state": these are exceedingly ambitious aims that are likely to frustrate even a competent and dedicated presidential administration. They certainly can't be accomplished, even partially, between rounds of golf or during the commercial breaks of "Fox and Friends"—or by delegating the real work to Congress or mid-level White House staff.

There was probably a time, in the immediate wake of the election when Washington was in a state of paralytic shock, when Trump and Bannon could have imposed substantial change on the political system, if they had acted quickly and effectively. But that window is now closed, probably for the rest of Trump's presidency. Poll numbers have slumped, mistakes have added up, key executive-branch positions have gone unfilled, and other political actors have perceived—and in some cases been told outright—that the new president cares more about "wins" and favorable publicity than the content of the policies implemented by his administration. This last admission is particularly damaging, since it signals to other elites that they should not take Trump's stated positions seriously—and gives them every reason to insist on policy demands of their own in exchange for political support (a tactic adopted by the House Freedom Caucus on the issue of health care).

Trump may rebound politically in the months and years to come, but it's hard to see how the larger ambitions of the "America First" policy program can be fulfilled, at least in the domestic sphere—and therefore, unclear what particular value Bannon provides by sticking around. (His removal from the NSC seems to answer the question of what future influence Bannon will have on foreign policy, even if he remains in the White House.)

At the same time, Trump's not necessarily much better off without him. An experienced, realistic, politically astute chief advisor is something this presidency needs desperately. By all accounts, however, the main rival to Bannon for Trump's favor is the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who may not represent an improvement on any of these scores and whose family ties give him more protection, and less restriction, than Bannon was ever likely to have. Trump may be merely trading frustration in the pursuit of one set of objectives for similar ineffectiveness in the fulfillment of other, equally implausible goals.

Bannon's marginalization is likely to be widely cheered in Washington, and it will be natural for critics to treat him as a personification of Trump's rocky first months in office—the Mack McLarty of the 21st century. But this view ignores the importance of the pre-existing dysfunction within the congressional Republican Party, as well as the degree to which Trump's sliding political standing also reflects his swift abandonment of economic populism to embrace Paul Ryan's agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the rest. It's not only Bannon's alt-right that has caused Trump grief; the plain old regular right is, for him, just as much of a problem.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Goodbye, Polarization—Hello, Polarization and Factionalism

Most people agree that one of the biggest problems—if not the biggest problem—in American politics today is partisan polarization, and most of those people agree that one of the biggest problems with partisan polarization is that it produces lots of gridlock. The increasing ideological divergence between Democrats and Republicans in government, coupled with the parties' more frequent exhibitions of procedural hardball and shouty rancor, can easily appear to explain why Congress is not more legislatively productive, or why presidents' favored policy initiatives often founder before making it into law.

The main problem with this argument is that there was plenty of gridlock, and plenty of unrealized presidential ambition, long before polarization came along. In fact, one of the main arguments of the party reform proponents of the 1950s and 1960s was that the United States was cursed with a system of weak parties that lacked sufficient internal discipline to develop and enact an extensive platform of legislation to effectively address the concerns of the citizenry. Reformers claimed that making the parties more internally unified and more externally differentiated would lead to a more "responsible" party system that would better respond to the growing demands of modern society, enhancing both governmental efficiency and democratic accountability.

Today, we often look back at such arguments and smirk that reformers should be careful what they wish for. But is it really true that polarization itself has prevented the gears of government from turning? During the presidency of Barack Obama, Congress enacted a landmark health care reform initiative, a sizable economic stimulus package, a major financial regulation bill, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, aid to the American auto industry, the Budget Control Act, and a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Under Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, major legislative accomplishments included two significant federal tax cuts, the creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit, a substantial increase in federal aid to public K-12 education, the USA PATRIOT Act, bankruptcy reform legislation, a ban on partial-birth abortion, campaign finance reform, the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accounting regulation bill, the 2008 financial crisis response creating the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and authorizations of military force in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For both presidents, polarization offered benefits as well as disadvantages. Increasing partisanship indeed made legislating more difficult when control of the government was divided between the parties. But enhanced levels of party unity also helped leaders move bills through Congress during times of unified Democratic or Republican rule; 2001 and 2003–2006 (for Bush) and 2009–2010 (for Obama) were largely productive periods for president and Congress alike.

Based on the events of the past few weeks, Donald Trump is unlikely to enjoy the same degree of success as his predecessors. But Trump's problems so far have derived less from the existence of continued warfare between the congressional parties—though such warfare indeed remains—so much as from a serious, and perhaps fatal, divide within the Republican majority itself. The purist House Freedom Caucus recently led internal opposition to the leadership- and Trump-backed American Health Care Act that quickly forced the bill to be pulled from the floor of the House, and this intra-partisan conflict appears likely to extend to tax reform, appropriations, and other items on the Republican legislative agenda this year.

This unique combination of polarization and factionalism is particularly treacherous for the Republican leadership. Attempts to satisfy the policy demands of the Freedom Caucus not only tend to cost the GOP votes from its own center-right flank but also rule out winning over any Democrats, which is ordinarily necessary to pass legislation through the Senate.

On the other hand, conceding opposition from the Freedom Caucus and instead replacing their votes with support from the Democratic side of the aisle presents its own set of difficulties. The pro-Republican shift of the South and rural Midwest has reduced the ranks of Democratic moderates over the past seven years, especially in the House. Without the ability to easily pick off two dozen or so Blue Dog centrists, as Republican leaders were often able to do during the George W. Bush presidency, the GOP is more commonly forced to negotiate with the Democratic leadership—which in turn forces them to make concessions that are unpopular with their own party's members.

This is the trap that ultimately snared John Boehner: the Freedom Caucus and other purist conservatives denied him support on the House floor, which forced him to cut deals with Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, which then opened him up to criticism (from the Freedom Caucus, conveniently enough) that he had sold out his party and his ideological principles. But the consequences are more significant now that Republicans control both Congress and the presidency. Republican factionalism complicates leaders' attempts to enact even routine, must-pass legislation such as appropriations bills and federal debt ceiling increases, and might well prove thoroughly sufficient to obstruct more ambitious initiatives.

Why did this new internal divide arise in the congressional GOP? A complete answer is beyond the bounds of this post, but the most likely causes involve the rising influence of conservative media outlets over Republican politicians, the increasing ability of congressional members to raise money without help from party leadership, the declining importance of the congressional committee system (which reduces the ability of leaders to discipline their members), and the movement-wide eruption on the American right that followed the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Obama is gone, of course, but a factionalized congressional Republican Party remains. And the Trump presidency will find it difficult to heal these divisions. Trump has started to recognize the problem that the Freedom Caucus and other conservative holdouts cause him, but he doesn't seem to know what to do to solve it (issuing threats via Twitter is probably not the most effective response). He also exhibits limited interest in policy, lacks the benefit of government experience or knowledge of congressional politics (as do several of his top advisors), and has dropped to a public approval rating of about 40 percent after less than three months on the job. The conditions are not auspicious for the leader of the Republican Party to promote unity within its ranks—or to successfully pressure members of the opposition party into endorsing elements of his agenda. The biggest threat to Trump's legislative ambitions at the moment is not that partisanship is too strong but that it's not strong enough.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why Wasn't Obamacare Repealed? The Answer Is the Party, Not the President

The American Health Care Act, a.k.a. the House Republicans' plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, thudded to earth on Friday afternoon after Paul Ryan concluded that he lacked the votes to pass it and pulled the bill from the floor of the House. It's always big news when the ruling party fails to enact a major legislative initiative, and even more so just two months into a new presidency. Yet the ensuing media coverage, though extensive, nevertheless gives an incomplete—and perhaps even misleading—picture of how and why the AHCA imploded so quickly and spectacularly.

Most of the stories I've seen—especially on cable news—focus their attention on Donald Trump, portraying the bill's demise as primarily a failure of the president. This is hardly a surprise. Media coverage of American politics often revolves around the presidency while giving much less attention to other relevant institutions and actors, to the extent that citizens tend to overestimate the president's responsibility for outcomes and conditions.

Trump had also set himself up for a splash in the media dunk tank by spending the past year promising voters a health care plan that simultaneously expanded coverage and reduced costs, and by bragging that his unmatched skill at negotiation would easily overcome any remaining policy disagreements. Now that events have confirmed the widespread suspicion that both claims were pure fiction, journalists will not be shy about pinning the AHCA's failure on a president whom they already view as having a big problem telling the truth.

Over the past 24 hours, several inside accounts have been published that portray Trump as having blundered through meetings with congressional Republicans, exposing a lack of policy command and an empty desire to achieve an easy legislative "win" for its own sake rather than a demonstrated commitment to a particular set of substantive goals. Trump and his advisor Steve Bannon also apparently lectured and threatened Republican holdouts in ways that ultimately backfired in attracting support.

Those not inclined to solely blame Trump for the demise of repeal-and-replace—including the White House itself—have mostly aimed their shots at Ryan instead. Liberals who have rolled their eyes for years at Ryan's boy-genius reputation in Washington claim righteous vindication from this week's events, while some conservatives sympathetic to Trump have sought to shift responsibility to the speaker for drafting an unpopular and politically risky bill that could not make it through his own House.

While it's certainly true that both the president and the speaker made mistakes in handling the health care issue, it's inaccurate to portray the demise of the AHCA as primarily a consequence of individual failures of leadership or strategy. Replace Trump and Ryan with Marco Rubio and John Boehner, or Jeb Bush and Kevin McCarthy, and the results would almost certainly be more or less the same. The bill died so quickly, and was so far away from success when it did fail (remember, the House was by all accounts the easier lift of the two chambers), that the specific day-to-day behavior of the principal actors seems inadequate to account for the result.

The real obstacle to the passage of health care reform is the Republican Party itself, and any full reckoning with what just happened has to grapple with that fact. Nearly eight years of attacks on the ACA as a "government takeover" of health care, along with repeated promises to replace the hated Obamacare with an unspecified superior alternative, paid considerable electoral dividends but left the party committed to an unachievable policy goal. Republican leaders desperately sought to placate conservatives calling for a broad rollback of federal responsibilities and expenditures, but they simultaneously refused to acknowledge that satisfying these demands in practice would result in a reduction of coverage and a relaxation of popular regulations—which in turn would alienate swing voters and mobilize political opponents.

The national party has also become increasingly influenced, if not controlled outright, by unelected activists and news media personalities who gained considerable internal power during the Obama years by constantly criticizing Republican officeholders for insufficient ideological loyalty. This dynamic has, perhaps inevitably, resulted in the formation of a faction within the congressional GOP that plays to this constituency, even when doing so is counterproductive to legislative productivity or concrete policy achievement. From the Freedom Caucus in the House to the Ted Cruz-Mike Lee axis in the Senate, the existence of these self-appointed keepers of the purist conservative flame deprives the Republican leadership of a functional partisan majority on major legislation, and this obstacle has not been removed with the election of a Republican president.

Mainstream Republicans, Trump included, have viewed the entire health care policy domain most of all as a useful club with which to beat Democrats, while hard-line conservatives have likewise viewed it as a useful club with which to beat mainstream Republicans. The various partisan and electoral motives at play have often governed Republican behavior to politically successful ends, but few within the party have concentrated on the more difficult and less immediately rewarding task of first developing workable policy alternatives to the ACA and then investing substantial energy in building support for them among their colleagues.

Some critics have argued that the AHCA, a bill that was transparently pulled together in a matter of weeks with little expert input or elite support, ultimately failed because it was bad policy. Maybe so. But we should be wary of the ensuing implication that a "better" bill would have stood a stronger chance of passage in the House. It's fair to criticize Ryan for the legislation that he drafted and promoted, but he presumably believed its provisions would best reconcile the conflicting demands of swing-seat moderates and conservative purists. The revisions made in the final hours in a futile effort to attract greater support on the right suggest that opponents of the bill would not have been easy to satisfy even with a more thorough policy-making process.

Congressional Republicans' increasingly apparent challenges in reaching internal agreement on policy—which even Ryan was forced to publicly acknowledge yesterday—do not bode well for the rest of the party's legislative agenda, from tax reform to appropriations to the looming federal debt ceiling. Nor does the current chaotic state of the Trump administration, which will hardly be in the position to deliver much assistance to Ryan and Mitch McConnell in the exercise of their leadership responsibilities over the coming months.

Up to now, the news media and Washington community have treated Trump's shocking ascension within the GOP as a more-or-less random event—the hostile takeover of an otherwise sound party apparatus. But it's time to devote much more serious consideration to the question of whether its existing internal dysfunction left the contemporary Republican Party uniquely vulnerable to a Trump-led ambush. As any health care expert knows, an effective remedy for one's ills first requires a correct diagnosis.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What's a President Gotta Do to Be Called a Conservative These Days?

Donald Trump's conservative credentials have been disputed by all sides from the moment that he emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in the summer of 2015. The editors of the National Review denounced him as a "philosophically unmoored political opportunist" in a special anti-Trump issue early last year, while both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama characterized Trump as unfaithful to conservative principles during the 2016 general election. Trump's success in capturing the Republican nomination and then the White House prompted some observant analysts on both the left and the right to conclude that the Republican Party is no longer the party of conservatism and that a realignment of the entire American party system is now underway.

We are now two months past the presidential inauguration—and while there have been a number of surprises and unprecedented acts both large and small, the actual policies and personnel of the Trump administration have emerged with some clarity. What they add up to, at least so far, is as conservative a presidency as any in modern history. Trump has endorsed an orthodox conservative legislative agenda on taxes, regulation, and health care (including a major cut to Medicaid)—and has even apparently pressured Paul Ryan to revise the House health care bill in order to address objections from hard-line conservatives. His budget proposal calls for shifting billions of dollars from domestic discretionary programs to national defense, prompting opposition even from some conservative members of Congress. On foreign policy and immigration, Trump only differs from other Republicans to the extent that he has staked out positions further to their ideological right.

Trump's hiring and appointment record tells a similar story. His cabinet is filled with conservative stalwarts like Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, Ben Carson, and Betsy DeVos. Prior to his selection as Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney helped to depose John Boehner as Speaker of the House because he viewed Boehner as insufficiently devoted to conservatism. Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, is a Federalist Society-style conservative jurist. Top Trump aides Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are likewise firmly on the right end of the ideological spectrum, and palace-intrigue accounts of the Trump White House indicate that Bannon, Miller, and their allies nearly always prevail in internal disputes.

One reason for the strong right-wing character of the Trump administration is that a party, and even a presidency, is much bigger than one person. The Republican Party is increasingly controlled by ideologically-oriented politicians, activists, and media outlets, and Trump needs to work with, and maintain support from, his fellow partisans in order to govern. During the 2016 campaign, Trump sometimes promised to address policy goals that didn't fit within conservative doctrine—increasing public infrastructure spending, renegotiating trade deals, providing childcare assistance, lowering prescription drug costs—but few other Republicans, in Congress or elsewhere, share these priorities. Declining either to pressure his fellow partisans to modify their views or to build a bipartisan coalition with Democrats, Trump has yet to emphasize any of these issues since taking office.

Another explanation lies with Trump himself. There is little reason to believe that Trump is unshakably devoted to the tenets of conservative political philosophy as a personal value system. But Trump demonstrates two other characteristics that attract him to the pursuit of ambitious conservative policies: (1) a desire to project strength, decisiveness, and success by achieving large-scale—one might say "big-league"—political change; and (2) an eight-year-long resentful preoccupation with Barack Obama that has continued without abatement into the new administration, perhaps suggesting to the current president that any dramatic reversal of a policy supported by his predecessor is by definition a worthy and politically advisable act.

The gap between Trump's own public statements and his administration's actual issue positions is sufficiently large that some people are starting to wonder if Trump even understands the content of the legislation that he has endorsed and is pushing through Congress. Reporters are fanning out to the hamlets and hollows of Middle America to find Trump supporters of modest means who would be disadvantaged by the president's budget and health care proposals. How, wonders the Washington pundit class, can Trump possibly reconcile his populist appeal with his efforts to simultaneously enact a upper-income tax cut and revoke health insurance from millions of less fortunate Americans?

Trump might bet that voters will reward bold policy change for its own sake, regardless of its specific consequences. Or, perhaps, he retains confidence in his ability to successfully sell anything he does to a segment of the electorate that he once claimed was so loyal that it would still support him even if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue. It's also quite possible that he will deny responsibility for any unpopular provisions of the policies that he endorses, instructing voters to direct their blame toward Congress, the courts, or the federal bureaucracy.

Trump may be trapped between campaign rhetoric on one side and political realities on the other, but the entire Republican Party is in a similar predicament. The congressional GOP has also been forced to grapple with the challenge of suddenly fulfilling years of breezy promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act (and to replace it with an unspecified better, cheaper alternative) without spurring a popular backlash that could endanger its control of the legislative branch in next year's midterm elections. Today's health care debate is merely one example of a larger political problem that Republican leaders have faced for the better part of a century. Perennial conservative pledges to implement significant reductions in the scope of federal power are often frustrated by the inconvenient complication that even voters who say they don't like the government do like most of the specific things that the government actually does.

Trump the candidate was shrewd enough to recognize this fact, which is why he committed himself to maintaining current Social Security and Medicare spending levels while guaranteeing all sorts of other government-provided goodies to his supporters. But Trump the president will need to be even shrewder in order to escape voter anger for seeking to cut popular federal programs and benefits in contravention of his campaign-trail promises. The current occupant of the White House may be a newcomer to the conservative cause, but he has adopted its central ambitions as his own. Now he must reckon with the most formidable obstacles to its success.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

How the New Health Care Bill Confirms the Asymmetry of the Parties

Matt Grossmann and I write a fair amount about health care in our book Asymmetric Politics because it's a political issue that represents a particularly effective example of our main thesis: that the Democratic Party is organized as a coalition of social groups while the Republican Party is controlled by an ideological movement. Now that the House Republican leadership has released its health care reform proposal—the long-promised plan to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act—it is clearer than ever that the two parties are fundamentally different in character.

The Democratic Party is composed of a number of discrete social groups, each of which pressures party leaders to support and enact policies designed to ameliorate specific perceived problems faced by the group. For decades, Democratic constituencies have demanded that their party act to provide health care benefits to vulnerable populations—a goal that was addressed by the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, the Children's Health Insurance Program in the 1990s, and the Affordable Care Act in 2009–2010.

By and large, Democrats are less concerned about the mechanics by which a policy is implemented than they are about the real-world effects of that policy. For example, the Affordable Care Act did not reflect an overarching ideological vision for the nation's health care sector, but instead was designed to minimize disruption to the existing system (in order to increase its chances of passage through Congress) while extending insurance and other benefits to a greater proportion of the public.

Democratic leaders worked for years to negotiate compromises with a range of powerful stake-holders in order to develop a bill that had a chance of passing into law, in order to achieve at least a degree of policy-making success. Pragmatism, not purity, is the dominant style of governing among Democratic politicians, and even liberals within the party who preferred a single-payer system to the relatively inelegant Obamacare apparatus supported the legislation as a partial victory and the best realistic option available to address the practical concerns of their constituents—rather than torpedoing the entire effort in the name of ideological principle.

The Republicans, as one might observe these days, work differently. The bill that Paul Ryan and his congressional allies have released is not the product of extensive deliberation among interest groups, health care providers, or policy experts. Nor is it designed to achieve a particular outcome with respect to the quantity or quality of coverage available to the public. Instead, the legislation is primarily motivated by the goal of reducing federal involvement in the provision of health care to the extent that is politically possible, repealing the individual mandate (deemed unconstitutionally coercive by contemporary conservative ideology) and imposing significant cuts to the federal Medicaid program.

Much has been made of the fact that the House plans to begin legislative action on the Ryan bill without a score from the Congressional Budget Office estimating its total cost and projected effect on the number of Americans with health insurance. This decision supposedly reflects the desperation felt by Republican leaders to push the bill through the committee process as quickly as possible, as well as an expectation that the CBO's numbers, when they come, will indicate that the bill would cause a sizable rise in the proportion of uninsured citizens.

But the lack of interest in the CBO score also demonstrates what the central purpose of the bill actually is. For Democrats, the point of enacting the ACA was to increase the number of Americans who had health insurance, and any legislation that failed to significantly reduce the ranks of the uninsured was, by that standard, not worth passing. Validation from outside experts that the ACA would indeed fulfill the goal of coverage expansion was thus necessary in order to maintain party support.

Republicans, in contrast, are much more indifferent to the question of what effect their own replacement bill will have on the number of insured Americans. An unfavorable CBO score will be politically damaging, to be sure, but is less likely to influence their evaluation of the inherent merits of the legislation. (Reducing the size of the Medicaid program is fully consistent with the ideological objectives of the party—a feature, not a bug.)

Some liberals have responded to our characterization of the Republican Party as fundamentally ideological by arguing that Republicans don't really adhere to a coherent value system but rather merely do the bidding of wealthy citizens and big corporations. But the Ryan bill can't really be explained on that basis. The rich do benefit by receiving a large tax cut, but if Republicans only cared about that issue they would have chosen to pursue a politically easier path of merely cutting taxes on the wealthy while leaving health care alone. Similarly, it's far from clear that insurance companies are getting much out of the Ryan bill; in fact, the repeal of the individual mandate might well lead to a market "death spiral" that would raise insurance premiums and reduce the number of customers.

But perhaps the strongest current evidence in favor of our argument about the differences between the parties is the unique power of ideologically purist activists and pressure groups within the GOP. In what is surely the biggest political news of the day, one conservative organization after another—the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity—has announced its opposition to the Ryan bill, claiming that it doesn't go far enough in repealing the ACA and reducing the government's role in the provision of health care.

Of course, these groups' criticisms only make it more likely that Ryan's reform bill will fail and the ACA will remain in place, squandering a potential opportunity to move federal health care policy further to the ideological right. As we argue in Asymmetric Politics, it is time to devote more serious attention to the fact that the increasing power of the conservative movement and growing electoral success of the Republican Party over the past few decades have not yet come close to achieving the major retrenchment in domestic policy that the American right has been nominally dedicated to pursuing for most of the last century.

When Republican officeholders repeatedly shrink from risking the popular backlash that would naturally arise from large-scale implementation of their ideological commitments—note how the House GOP has acknowledged that simply repealing the ACA without replacement would invite electoral disaster—the unelected elements of the right respond by attacking them for betraying the Republican Party's conservative principles, threatening their defeat in primary elections and forcing them to make increasingly ambitious future promises that in turn are even more difficult to satisfy in practice. Regardless of where one's own sympathies might lie, observers across the political spectrum should be able to agree that this is not a fertile political environment for the prolific enactment of sound public policy.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Rand Paul Is Busy Blowing Up ACA Repeal. Is the White House Even Trying to Stop Him?

The election of Donald Trump may have been a game-changer in presidential politics, but on Capitol Hill things really don't look all that different. As the immediate euphoria inspired by the prospect of unified party government has started to wear off, congressional Republicans have gamely returned their attention to a problem that has vexed them for decades and especially for the past seven years: what do they do about health care? Existing confusion is mixed with new urgency, with the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act representing the party's first legislative priority and, according to its own strategic plan, a necessary step before Congress considers tax reform later in the year.

Republican plans to propose a detailed replacement for the ACA have always faced two major problems. The first is that it doesn't appear possible to develop an alternative policy framework that doesn't result in higher government costs, higher consumer costs, a reduction in the quality and quantity of care provided, or a combination thereof. As a party committed, at least in principle, to shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, Republicans understandably don't want to raise public expenditures above where they already are—but the alternative reform options would produce higher premiums and deductibles, less generous subsidies, and/or fewer Americans covered by insurance. None of these potential outcomes will strike the average politician as being particularly popular with the electorate.

The other problem is the existence of serious internal divisions within the congressional GOP. The 2016 election and its aftermath have temporarily eclipsed these conflicts from public view. But a sitting Republican speaker of the House was forced out of office less than 18 months ago by a rump faction of his own party, and there is no reason to believe that the dynamic that led to that extraordinary event has faded away completely.

Indeed, as Congress prepares to debate ACA repeal, we are seeing an all-too-familiar pattern emerging once again. The policy positions of the Republican congressional leadership are simultaneously under attack from two directions: from Democrats, who criticize them as unacceptably conservative, and from the Tea Party right, which characterizes them as not conservative enough. The House Freedom Caucus and like-minded Republicans in the Senate, supported by several key conservative interest groups, are now pushing for a reform bill that is far more "repeal" than "replace," and are threatening to join the Democrats in voting down any health care legislation that fails to meet their ideological demands.

These two problems merged on Thursday into a single bizarre scene in the Capitol building. Annoyed at leaks of previous legislative drafts that produced damaging headlines, Republican House leaders have decided to keep their latest health care reform proposal a secret from everyone except Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rumors that the secret plan was being guarded in a basement room in the Capitol prompted congressional critics to engage in a mock-treasure hunt to determine its location and contents. While some Democrats tried to get in on the fun, the chief detective on the case was Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who even played to the cameras by bringing along a photocopier in order to make a duplicate copy of any legislation he encountered. (The bill's whereabouts, if a draft indeed exists on paper, were not ascertained.)

Paul, a Tea Party ally, has already vowed to oppose any legislation that leaves large sections of the ACA in place, and such a rebellion would need to attract only two other Republicans—such as fellow right-wing purists Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah—to deny Republican leaders a majority vote for reform in the Senate.  As Paul has not only failed to endorse the leadership's repeal efforts but is now openly mocking them to Capitol Hill reporters, prospects for imminent passage of an ACA replacement seem rather remote at this point.

Paul knows full well that his behavior is making the passage of ACA repeal less likely; similar maneuvers by Tea Party types have doomed leadership-backed legislation repeatedly over the past 6 years. But now the White House is in Republican hands as well. For the first time in years, intra-party squabbling and acts of purer-than-thou symbolic position-taking can actually endanger the legislative program of a Republican president.

From what we can tell, there is apparently very little communication between Congress and the White House over policy, so that congressional Republicans have resorted to parsing the president's rhetoric in public speeches in order to divine his views on health care reform. But here is a Republican senator engaged in what looks like a public act of sabotage against one of Trump's biggest stated legislative goals—which immediately raises some curious questions. What, if anything, are the president and his advisors doing, or planning to do, about this ostentatious display of partisan independence? Will they devote any attention and energy to trying to whip Paul, or any other disaffected Republican, into line on ACA repeal? Or do they not actually care enough about the issue to bother?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

That Grover Norquist Quote Was Wrong Then...and It Just Keeps Getting Wronger

Back in early 2012, influential conservative interest group leader Grover Norquist delivered a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in which he addressed the then-raging Republican presidential nomination contest. "We are not auditioning for Fearless Leader," argued Norquist:

We don't need a president to tell us what direction to go; we know what direction we want to go. . . . The Republicans in the House have passed 24-plus bills that create jobs and opportunity and strip out regulations. We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. . . . [We just need to] pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become the president of the United States . . . [and] to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.

It's important to understand the context in which Norquist was speaking. The front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who was facing criticism at the time from hard-liners on the right for his previous departures from conservative ideological purity. Norquist was, in effect, giving a campaign speech on Romney's behalf, telling conservative activists that Romney's personal views or past record in office shouldn't trouble them because Paul Ryan and other congressional conservatives would be in charge of policy under a Romney presidency, and Romney would faithfully go along with their sweeping plans to reshape the federal budget and welfare state. (This was before Romney received the Republican presidential nomination and chose Ryan himself as his running mate.)

The Norquist speech was perfectly serviceable as a piece of strategic campaign rhetoric, but it is much less valuable as a characterization of how politics actually works. Unfortunately, the idea that the Republican-led Congress was a humming engine of policy change stymied in its objectives only by Barack Obama's veto pen received rather more credit than it deserved in the ensuing years, with the memorable "enough working digits" quip often quoted to suggest that the election of any Republican president would itself be sufficient to usher in a new conservative policy revolution.

Congressional Republicans from Ryan on down did their part to promote this view, as captured by this Washington Post curtain-raiser published on New Year's Day that portrayed the GOP as counting down the days until Trump formally took office in order to immediately begin the methodical implementation of an ambitious legislative agenda. But today, less than two months after the current session of Congress began and barely one month into Trump's presidency, several major policy items—repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, immigration reform, entitlement reform, and so forth—already face an uncertain future on Capitol Hill. Hopes are beginning to dim that the current Congress will indeed produce the bonanza of conservative policy achievements that Norquist envisioned.

So what went wrong?

The first problem with the Norquist quote was its substantial overstatement of the degree to which the congressional Republican Party was indeed a prolific font of policy-making. Congress in the Obama years was in fact quite unproductive in historical terms, and while Ryan in particular jealously guards his reputation as a self-described "policy guy," he prefers to lead by generating piles of "frameworks" and "summaries" rather than bringing specific legislative language up for votes on the House floor.

This approach can be successful at avoiding costly internal party fights and unpleasant trade-offs by effectively sweeping the annoying details and controversial aspects of policy change under the rug, but it has kept many key substantive questions from being resolved and has left the congressional GOP some distance away from the actual enactment of major legislation. Even the "Ryan budget" that Norquist singled out for specific praise in his 2012 speech relied on conveniently underspecified entitlement cuts to make its numbers work, which was hardly an accidental oversight by a party leadership that wishes to avoid politically inconvenient attacks on its long-term vision for Medicare and Medicaid.

Republicans did write and approve ACA repeal legislation that Obama vetoed in early 2016, but that too was a politically-motivated "message bill" intended as a campaign stunt rather than an actual test run for Republican health care policy-making—as confirmed by the fact that the Republican leadership is not planning to re-pass the same bill this year but has instead committed itself to an alternative strategy of "repeal and replace." Indeed, Republicans still don't seem to know what they want to do about health care nearly seven years after the ACA's passage, and increasingly deep divisions within the party are starting to threaten the prospect of fundamental reform surviving the legislative process this spring.

Even if the current Republican Congress were a bit more policy-oriented, however, the Norquist argument would still be deeply flawed as a characterization of how policy change has historically been enacted in the Untied States. There are several good reasons why Congress seldom takes the lead in enacting major legislation without significant presidential involvement. For one thing, some degree of internal disagreement is inevitable even if both congressional chambers are controlled by the same party—and only the president has the standing and capacity to resolve these disputes.

More fundamentally, members of Congress don't want to invest time and energy into developing legislation without the assurance of presidential support and political cover. Who wants to spend six months or more writing a bill, unavoidably casting some tough votes along the way, only to see it vetoed or its most controversial provisions disowned by the president? (Imagine how enthusiastic congressional Democrats would have been about passing the ACA if they thought Obama might blame them for including unpopular provisions like the individual mandate in the bill while taking credit only for the things voters like, such as coverage expansion and insurance regulations.)

Congress doesn't necessarily want the White House to boss it around or micromanage every detail, but presidential leadership in a larger sense is an absolutely necessary condition for effective legislating. And this is where Trump makes the congressional GOP's significant existing problems even worse.

Trump is habitually vague about his actual policy views on the major issues before Congress, from tax reform to health care. In part, this reflects Trump's limited personal familiarity with the substance of issues and (perhaps naive) apparent belief upon his ascension to the presidency that policy problems are easy to solve; his remark yesterday morning that "nobody knew that health care could be so complicated" inspired a mocking response in the media, but probably reflects a sincere realization that he's a bit out of his depth.

But Trump is also instinctively cagey, often demonstrating what seems to be a characteristic wariness of committing to specific policy objectives because of a fundamental fear that he's setting himself up for failure. What we've seen so far of the Trump administration also reveals it to be understaffed and inexperienced, with nobody apparently empowered to speak authoritatively for, or negotiate on behalf of, the president.

The result has been a blizzard of mixed signals. Republicans on the Hill still don't understand whether Trump will propose his own health care, infrastructure, or tax reform plans, what his major objectives are on these issues, what minimum provisions he will or won't accept, and which policies are his top priorities.

Presidential addresses to Congress, like tonight's event, are valuable opportunities for presidents to provide clarity on such matters. Publicly committing to a specific legislative agenda helps to convince Congress that the president is personally invested in its passage—and would thus share in the responsibility for any failure in enactment. Presidential agenda-setting does not guarantee legislative success, of course, but it is almost always a necessary condition for it.

For all of Trump's surface boldness and big talk, he has so far been a curiously risk-averse president when it comes to identifying specific policy objectives. But if Trump expects Congress to do the heavy lifting of policy-making and deliver him one bill after another on a platter, he is likely to wind up with few legislative achievements to show for his time in office. If he really does want to sign a lot of major legislation, a president needs a lot more than just the working digits to hold the pen.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A President Misjudges His Audience

Whenever a major political event occurs or news story breaks, it's only a matter of time before political commentators shift from a discussion of the topic itself to predictions about its "political" implications—by which they usually mean its presumed effect on the attitudes of the typical American voter. "It's true that all of Washington is obsessed today with [a new international treaty / a congressional budget agreement / a missile test launch by a band of Nova Scotian separatists]," they'll ask each other, "but do you really think this issue is important to the average [factory worker in Ohio / factory worker in Michigan / factory worker in Indiana]?"

Accusations that the political media devote too much attention to poll-driven "horse race" journalism and not enough to the substance of policy are neither new nor entirely invalid. But the political implications of current events are hardly irrelevant or frivolous subjects of analysis—after all, how can Americans understand their political system without understanding politics? Neither "substantive" nor "political" coverage should be produced, or consumed, to the exclusion of the other—we need plenty of both to be properly informed about what's going on in the world.

The real problem with "political" analysis is that it is too often restricted to dissecting the results of past polls or speculating about the results of future polls. In truth, the subject of politics encompasses much more than the collective opinion of the mass public at any given moment. If we insist on judging the importance of political events through the narrow lens of whether or not they cause immediate, measurable shifts in citizen attitudes, we often risk missing the real story.

As you may have heard, President Trump held a long and contentious press conference yesterday that left the press with a lot to chew on—not least because journalists themselves were primary targets of Trump's anger and sarcastic contempt. One instinctive response to such a development is to engage in extensive debate about whether or not the average voter, or even the average Trump supporter, will feel more or less warmly toward Trump because of his behavior on Thursday. Did Trump hurt himself in the eyes of John and Jane Q. Public by his blustery performance? Did smacking around the press instead merely endear him further to the denizens of middle America who installed him in the presidency? Or do "real people" (a Washington phrase that, even though it is usually used half-seriously, still contains an off-putting element of unwitting condescension) not care either way, because they have other things to occupy their attention?

But this reflexive how-does-it-play-in-Peoria mentality misses the true story, at least in the present case. Over the past four weeks, a pivotal class of political actors both in this country and around the world has rapidly converged on the belief that the Trump administration is a terrible mess in nearly every conceivable respect. Members of Congress (of both parties), interest group leaders, bureaucrats, federal judges, media figures, foreign leaders, and even top staffers (and would-be staffers) within the White House itself are by all accounts agape with disbelief at this state of affairs, which has no remote parallel in the modern history of the nation.

Trump apparently wished to dispel this conclusion on Thursday, but his antics only reduced his stature still further in what turned out to be a serious political miscalculation. (The New York Times reported that the press conference was Trump's own idea, overruling the well-founded misgivings of his advisors—or at least that's what the advisors ran to tell the Times after it was over.) Trump may not believe that he needs to care about whether or not other political elites—a term I use descriptively rather than pejoratively—view him as competent, trustworthy, honest, patient, strategically acute, or mentally well-balanced. Or maybe he does care, but has no idea how to conduct himself in order to create such an impression.

Either way, the political implications of the press conference have little to do with whatever slight or temporary effect it might or might not have on the president's public approval rating. The most important audience for Trump's appearance was the highly observant set of other influential political figures whose trust and cooperation is essential to the success of any administration, but who have grown increasingly uneasy over the course of the past month. Even if nobody else watched or cared, the president was making a fool of himself before a powerful group of people with considerable capacity to frustrate his policy ambitions and damage his political standing. When even the Kremlin is beginning to waver in its enthusiasm, it's time to wonder how many governing allies the new president will manage to maintain during his time in office.