Thursday, October 19, 2017

New Book: Red Fighting Blue

I'm very happy to announce that my new book, Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics, has just been published by Cambridge University Press in paperback, hardcover, and eBook formats.

The book explains how the emergence of significant and persistent regional differences in partisan voting patterns in both presidential and congressional elections since the 1990s has had a profound effect on party politics in the United States. The American electoral system, with its geographically-defined voting constituencies and winner-take-all rules, has greatly magnified these differences when translating the preferences of citizens into electoral college outcomes and the partisan and ideological composition of Congress. The moderate Democrats formerly elected in large numbers from what are now the "red" states and the moderate Republicans who once represented the "blue" states are both disappearing from office, leaving increasingly polarized parties and an ever-shrinking scope of electoral competition. In an age in which the two major parties are closely balanced but each increasingly dominant across large regional subsections of the nation, the specific ways in which the geographic distribution of party support interacts with the rules of the American electoral process accounts for how our politics works—or doesn't work—in the 21st century.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why Do People Think Tax Reform Will Swing the 2018 Election?

Last week, I described why we should be skeptical of the view that the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections will be substantially affected by whether or not Republicans succeed in enacting tax reform. But my previous post did not explain why such a belief can become widely accepted in Washington despite the lack of hard evidence behind it.

The extent of this acceptance is illustrated by a Wednesday article in the New York Times stating in its second paragraph that "one political and legislative reality is suddenly becoming crystal clear: Republicans must deliver a tax cut or face an epic backlash that would pose a significant threat to their governing majority and long-term political health." The article presents this claim not merely as one plausible account of the electoral stakes of reform but as a "crystal clear" political "reality" beyond legitimate analytical contestation.

The author of the article, a veteran Capitol Hill reporter, is no doubt accurately portraying the prevailing sentiment among Republican members of Congress—and perhaps among Democrats as well. Republicans really do feel desperate to rack up a major legislative accomplishment. Most of them are ideologically committed to tax cuts as a worthy substantive goal, and it's very easy for them to convince themselves that good policy is also good politics. The assertion that failure to enact tax reform will lead to electoral doom in 2018 is also a powerful argument with which to convince fellow partisans to unite around legislation. Everybody had better get with the program, Republican leaders are no doubt telling their membership, or we'll all feel the pain.

Conservative interest groups are sounding the same message. The Times article includes a quote from Scott Reed, a former Republican campaign professional who now works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that characterizes success on tax reform as politically "vital" for the Republican Party. Reed's remarks are somewhat amusingly framed as a kind of objective analysis, though they are in fact an act of political advocacy: the Chamber wants tax reform to pass and, toward that end, is naturally promoting the idea all around Washington that the GOP has no choice but to deliver if it wants to stay in power.

But journalists and other analysts do not always concur with the strategic judgment of politicians or accept the self-serving spin of interest groups. Why is the view that tax reform represents a "must-pass" proposition for congressional Republicans so convincing to outside observers?

One answer is that media coverage perennially and systematically overstates the extent to which electoral results reflect the calculated behavior of politicians. This is partially because candidate actions are by far the most visible component of campaign dynamics, and partially because journalists are embedded in the same social environment as politicians and campaign consultants, who also habitually overstate their own influence. Within this world, electoral outcomes are typically interpreted as primarily reflecting the traits of particular candidates or the "messages" with which they court voters. It can be hard to accept that elections are mostly decided on the basis of factors—such as the state of the economy or the job approval rating of the president—that are mostly out of the control of congressional incumbents and their advisors.

But there's something else at work as well. Human nature encourages us to perceive the existence of a kind of cosmic justice in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. If a "good" congressional party is focused, harmonious, and legislatively prolific, and a "bad" party is fractious, undisciplined, and unproductive, it's only natural to believe in a world in which a partisan majority that delivers on its policy goals and commitments goes on to reap electoral benefits from a grateful public while one that fails to do so faces the righteous wrath of a betrayed citizenry.

Trouble is, history gives us no particular reason to believe that this is how the world of politics actually works. The current state of the Republican Party is itself a testament to the lack of reliable correlation between popular success and leadership ability; the GOP is in its strongest electoral position since the 1920s but is arguably less equipped to govern, at least at the federal level, than at any point in living memory. Likewise, the Democrats of the late 1930s and 1940s were very good at winning national elections and not very good at uniting behind a common policy agenda.

If there is an actual iron law of politics, it's that few benefits are unaccompanied by corresponding costs and that trade-offs and paradoxes abound. (Hence the seemingly oxymoronic title of this blog.)

Sometimes Congress does little and voters reelect its members anyway; sometimes it does a lot and voters respond by rebelling. Democrats produced a series of major legislative initiatives in 2009–2010 and were "rewarded" with the enduring loss of their congressional majority. Republicans adeptly harnessed popular resentment against Barack Obama to win control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but that same resentment led to the rise of a troublesome Tea Party movement and the installation of an unusually unpopular and ineffective president as party leader. And it is that president, not their own legislative record (or lack thereof), that represents the biggest impediment to Republican electoral success in 2018.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Can Tax Reform Really Save the Republican Regulars in 2018?

A series of recent news articles over the past few weeks describes sinking morale within the ranks of Republican congressional leaders and their allies. The failure of the Graham-Cassidy health care reform bill in the Senate, combined with the victory of Roy Moore in the Alabama Republican Senate primary, has increased the sense on Capitol Hill that an angry bloc of Republican voters is ready to punish party incumbents for failing to implement the ambitious conservative legislative agenda that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell promised last winter.

Normally, the congressional leaders of a president's party could at least expect the White House to come to its defense. But we are not in normal times. President Trump, of course, has repeatedly and angrily expressed his frustration with the congressional GOP in general and McConnell in particular. His erstwhile political strategist Steve Bannon, freshly exiled from the West Wing, is now apparently dedicating himself to the recruitment of challengers to "establishment" Republicans in next year's House and Senate primaries. Vice President Mike Pence is usually considered a loyal party man—at least in comparison—but his own chief of staff was secretly recorded this week encouraging high-dollar donors to rebel against insufficiently pro-Trump Republicans by withholding financial support and even actively backing intra-party challengers.

Amidst this increasingly menacing haze, Republican regulars are now fixing their eyes on tax reform as a potential escape hatch. The repeated defeat of health care legislation has only raised the perceived stakes for the passage of a major tax initiative. "Republican leaders are making no attempt to mask their fear," reported the New York Times on Thursday, "predicting that failure to pass a tax overhaul in the coming months will lead to a wipeout in next year's midterm elections." The argument is simple enough: if tax reform falls apart the way health care reform did, incumbent Republicans will have no major accomplishments to tout, and disgruntled conservatives will respond in 2018 by supporting insurgent challengers in Republican primaries and/or by declining to vote in the November general election.

But accepting this logic requires viewing tax reform as itself a sufficiently valuable prize in the eyes of Republican-leaning citizens that its passage alone is likely to represent the difference between loyalty to the current stock of party incumbents and widespread disaffection or rebellion. There are at least two reasons to be skeptical of this assumption.

First, it's not at all clear that active Republican voters in the Trump era are as energized by the potential enactment of tax reform as they are by the prospect of repealing Obamacare, building the border wall, and achieving other currently-stalled party priorities. Will the simmering anger that many Republicans have expressed toward their own party's congressional leadership for the past decade really be extinguished by the passage of a single bill on a subject that has hardly dominated popular conservative debate in recent years?

Second, the actual plan that is emerging from negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House focuses largely on reducing the tax burden of businesses and very wealthy individuals; millions of middle-class and upper-middle-class citizens would receive a minimal reduction or even a net increase in their tax liabilities. Proponents argue that the plan would produce additional economic growth that would in turn ultimately boost wages and employment rates for the non-rich; even if those predictions come true in the medium-to-long term, however, it is unrealistic to expect perceptible economic payoffs to arrive in the months between the signing of the bill and the November election. Whatever the merits of the Republican plan might be, it's simply not a measure designed to provide immediate benefits to the average voter.

A somewhat stronger case for the electoral advantages of tax reform emphasizes three indirect ways in which passage could aid the Republican cause in 2018. For one thing, reform is a popular goal among the party's most generous financial donors—many of whom are apparently withholding their usual contributions at the moment as a form of protest against Congress's lack of productivity so far. If tax reform reopens some roomy wallets that are currently closed, it could help Republican incumbents compete financially against upstart primary challengers and opposition Democrats alike.

In addition, observable progress on major tax legislation over the next few months might help convince a few wavering incumbent Republicans to seek another term in 2018, while a lack of legislative success might similarly encourage those members to consider retirement—leaving behind open seats in Congress that would be vulnerable to capture in the next election by anti-leadership Republicans or Democrats.

A final way in which passage of tax reform might help congressional Republicans politically is that it might get Trump off their backs a bit—or, at least, leave him somewhat less disagreeable than he would be if reform were to fail. The worst-case scenario for Republican House and Senate leaders is an out-and-out civil war with a president who, weakened though he may be in a more general sense, clearly holds most of the power within his own party. Giving Trump a bill to sign hardly guarantees that he will be a loyal asset to fellow Republicans in 2018, but failing to deliver one virtually ensures that he will be a vocal critic of his own party's congressional membership.

All three of these indirect consequences of tax reform could well exert a limited degree of influence over Republican electoral fortunes, but it's hard to see how their combined impact would be significant enough to represent the difference between a good and a bad 2018 midterm for the party. Other external factors such as Trump's job approval rating, the success of Democratic candidate recruitment efforts, the drawing of House district lines, and the staggered terms of the Senate are poised to be much more powerful determinants of next year's outcomes, while the long-term trend of increasingly successful right-wing revolts against "establishment" Republicans is likely to continue whether or not McConnell and Ryan can muster sufficient support for a single piece of legislation.

Republican incumbents are understandably nervous about their prospects in 2018, but that doesn't make tax reform a "make-or-break" proposition for party regulars. We should therefore be wary of analysis that frames tax reform efforts primarily through an electoral lens rather than emphasizing its much more consequential substantive effects and implications for congressional governance and policy-making. If Republican regulars are indeed fatally vulnerable next year in primaries or general elections, passing tax reform will not save them; if they still maintain a clear path to victory, it will likewise not be foreclosed even if legislative success eludes them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Alabama Special Election Recap: A Bad Day for Republican Governance

Donald Trump interrupted his Friday campaign speech on behalf of Alabama senator Luther Strange to engage in a digression about the decline of football in general and the protests of Colin Kaepernick in particular, following up with a barrage of tweets on the subject over the following days that also rescinded a White House invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. As with many such developments, the initial news media response (to briefly paraphrase: "?!?!?!?") soon evolved into a discussion of whether or not Trump's attacks amounted to smart politics. Some observers judged the president's actions a mistake, while others argued that Trump's behavior reflected an effective strategy of harnessing racial tension and opposition to social change within the American public. "This kind of thing," wrote Rich Lowry of National Review, "is why he's president."

Because much of our punditry views politics primarily through an electoral frame, "smart politics" is generally defined as an action that helps one party win popular support at the expense of the other. It's quite possible that a majority of the voting population sides with Trump on the Kaepernick issue, especially if Trump's preferred interpretation of the protests—that players who demonstrate during the pregame national anthem performance are "disrespecting" the flag, the troops, and the nation—wins broad acceptance.

But politics is about more than winning elections, and the Republican Party's current problems have little to do with the party's relative strength compared to the Democrats. Today brought three significant developments in the world of Republican politics, all carrying relatively minimal implications for electoral competition between the parties—but with much more serious (negative) consequences for the GOP's deteriorating capacity to govern.

The first development was the Senate Republican conference's public acknowledgement that the Graham-Cassidy health care reform bill lacks sufficient support to win a vote on the floor. From a purely electoral calculation, congressional Republicans are probably better off abandoning their "repeal and replace" efforts than enacting a law that would result in millions of Americans losing health insurance coverage beginning in the 2018 election year. But the inability to pass legislation through Congress addressing the party's top domestic priority is not only a source of embarrassment for Republican leaders and exasperation for Republican activists, but also represents a significant sunk cost of time and energy over the past nine months that could have been devoted instead to taxes, infrastructure, or other more promising matters.

The second big news item of the day was Senator Bob Corker's announcement that he would not seek a third term in 2018. Corker's retirement does little to change the electoral math—Tennessee is decidedly inhospitable territory for Democratic candidates even without a popular incumbent on the ballot—but removes a capable, pragmatic, leadership-friendly senator from a Republican conference in need of legislative heft.

Third, former state supreme court justice Roy Moore easily defeated Strange, the appointed incumbent, in the Alabama Republican Senate primary. Thanks to Alabama's deep red partisan alignment, Moore is unlikely to jeopardize the Republican Party's hold on the seat in the December general election. But his future arrival in the Senate will create its own set of difficulties for the GOP. Moore ran as an open opponent of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and his propensity for attention-getting stunts and remarks is likely to put his fellow Republican senators in an awkward position on a regular basis. Moore's demonstrated level of policy command also suggests that he will not turn out to be a legislative workhorse in Washington.

Moore's triumph over Strange will also further damage the already-faltering relationship between Trump and McConnell. Trump will be predictably furious at Strange's defeat after he endorsed, and campaigned for, the senator in part at McConnell's urging, and will seek to shift blame for this embarrassment onto a Senate leader whom he already holds responsible for failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act. An intensifying civil war within the Republican Party between its two most powerful leaders, or between "insider" and "outsider" factions of conservatives, bodes ill for the chances of productive, functional governance over the next 16 months.

Perhaps a public appeal increasingly centered on themes of cultural and nationalist nostalgia simultaneously helps a party win elections and renders it inherently ill-equipped for the process of governing. At the least, the results tonight confirm that the potency of popular rebellion from the right remains alive and well within the Republican Party in the post-2016 era. As I remarked to Jeff Stein of Vox, "You might have thought that a Trump presidency and having Republicans control Congress would relieve that pressure valve—that with Hillary and Obama off the scene, some of that anti-establishment, anti-Republican leadership sentiment would dissipate. What we're seeing in Alabama is that that's not the case." The next question is to what extent Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, throws his own lot in with the rebels.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Graham-Cassidy Shows That Politics Is About Ideas As Well As Interests

Critics on the left often roll their eyes when conservatives proclaim a principled commitment to the timeless virtues of limited government and cultural traditionalism. To detractors, conservative rhetoric about values is merely a rationalization of, or mere window-dressing for, the right's actual motivation: the defense of existing social inequalities in the domains of economics, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. Conservatives like to portray themselves as committed to a philosophical cause, according to this view, but they really just care about enacting policies that provide their supporters with financial or social advantage at the expense of everybody else.

As Matt Grossmann and I were writing our book arguing that the Republican Party is fundamentally an ideological movement while the Democrats are distinctively a social group coalition, some of our colleagues accused us of taking conservative ideology too seriously as representing something more than a publicly palatable justification of Republican-aligned groups' own collective self-interest. One attendee at the Midwest Political Science Association's annual conference responded to my presentation of some of our early work by complaining that we didn't understand that Republicans simply do whatever their corporate sponsors tell them to do. (She continued to rant about how ridiculous she thought the paper was in the hallway after the panel was over, personally delivering the kind of "spirited feedback" that we academics more commonly experience through the anonymous peer review process.)

It's surely true that citizens' relative degree of receptiveness to the tenets of small-government conservatism is strongly influenced by the extent to which they perceive a personal benefit from the enactment of conservative policies. But a conception of ideology as simply interests-in-disguise can't account for important elements of Republican Party politics, as demonstrated by the party's ongoing attempts to enact health care reform—the latest of which, the Graham-Cassidy bill, appears to narrowly lack sufficient support in the Senate now that John McCain has announced his intention to vote against it.

The Graham-Cassidy plan is opposed by the American Medical Association, by hospitals, and by patient advocacy groups. Despite the common assumption on the left that Republicans reliably carry water for the insurance industry on health care policy (a charge repeated by Jimmy Kimmel during one of his critical late-night monologues this week), major insurers are also strongly opposed. Though the bill was sold as a boon for state-level policymaking "flexibility," several Republican governors and the national association of state Medicaid officers do not support it. In fact, it's very difficult to identify any definable interest group or segment of the electorate whose material interests would benefit from the passage of Graham-Cassidy—even the wealthy, who gained a substantial tax cut under previous iterations of Republican reform, do not receive one here—and it's equally hard to argue that the American public at large is clamoring for its passage.

So why have Republicans made health care reform the centerpiece of their legislative agenda this year, returning to the issue multiple times despite failure after failure? The answer is that most of the key actors within the party are philosophically unreconciled to the use of government power to grant health insurance benefits to large swaths of the population. For some Republican politicians, reducing the public sector's role in the provision of health care has been a personal cause "since [they] were drinking from a keg"; for others, intense pressure from Republican activists and financial donors has spurred them to pursue repeated attempts at reform despite the considerable frustration and political risk involved.

The ideological basis of Republican behavior on health care also accounts for why the party has taken a slapdash approach to the crafting of legislation, pulling together bills affecting a major sector of the American economy in a matter of days without substantial public debate or favorable expert analysis. Most Republican officeholders are not invested in policy details or particularly curious about how their favored reforms would operate in practice. If any initiative that moves public policy to the right is desirable by definition, the specifics are much less important than the general directional thrust.

It's also noteworthy that while Republican health care reform initiatives are most commonly treated as efforts to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, each major bill—including Graham-Cassidy—has included cuts to Medicaid funding that go well beyond simply rolling back the expansion contained in the ACA. For all the public focus on Trump's supposed personal obsession with exacting revenge on Obama, the true aim of Republican policymakers has consistently been the achievement of a much broader and more permanent reduction of the federal government's health care footprint.

Whether one has been cheering or booing the results, this year so far has marked a clear departure from models of legislative action that emphasize transactional politics among interest-group stakeholders mediated by the application of policy expertise. Of course, such approaches have historically been open to criticism that they are insufficiently informed by broader ideological visions or values. The view that government-provided health insurance amounts to a normatively unacceptable implementation of a leftist or socialist belief system has only become more prevalent among Republicans in recent years, the pragmatic rhetorical patina of Trumpian "populism" notwithstanding. If politics were merely a battle of interests and not a war of ideas, the anti-government health care cause wouldn't keep springing back to life every time it appeared to be DOA.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Asymmetric Politics of Trump's Dreamers Deal

Late last night, Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi triumphantly announced that they had reached an agreement with President Trump over dinner at the White House under which Trump would support legislation shielding the "Dreamers," immigrants brought unlawfully to the U.S. as children, from deportation in exchange for enhanced border security measures (though not Trump's famous "wall"). While there is still considerable confusion about the details of what was and was not explicitly agreed to (confusion stoked in part by members of the Trump administration who probably oppose the deal and are trying to undo it), Trump's willingness to enter a legislative bargain with top Democrats to enact a more liberal immigration policy has predictably taken Washington by surprise.

There will be plenty written in the days and weeks ahead about how this development reflects Trump's own unique personality, unsteady command of policy, and strong feelings of resentment towards Republicans in Congress. Stripping away the individual eccentricities of the current incumbent, however, leaves us with a self-identified conservative Republican president cooperating with congressional Democrats to move domestic policy to the left—which is hardly an unprecedented development. Our Asymmetric Politics framework can explain why Republican presidents seek such agreements, and why Democrats in Congress are also open to them.

One of the most reliable challenges facing Republican leaders is the relative unpopularity of conservative policies among American voters, especially in the domestic sphere. Even many citizens who consider themselves to be conservative Republicans do not support the substantial cuts to public benefits and programs that conservative doctrine prescribes. Despite years of promises, Republicans have so far failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act in large part because of worries from members representing swing districts that revoking health insurance from millions of Americans would prompt a serious backlash, and even pro-repeal politicians—Trump included—repeatedly denied that their replacement plans would result in a loss of coverage despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Recognizing this danger, previous Republican presidents have found signature issues on which to break with their party's ideological orthodoxy by protecting or introducing popular left-leaning policies. George W. Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare Part D prescription drug program; George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, an expanded Clean Air Act, and a raise in the minimum wage; and Ronald Reagan reached bipartisan agreements on immigration, transportation, and Social Security. As Matt Grossmann and I pointed out last month, Trump's record in office up until now has been distinctive for its comparative lack of significant left-of-center policy initiatives, despite ubiquitous media characterizations of Trump as possessing significantly less ideological or partisan fidelity than his Republican predecessors.

Trump knows as well as anyone that symbolic appeals to general anti-immigrant sentiment in the mass public can be electorally powerful, especially in Republican primaries. But he also realizes that a specific policy change subjecting the Dreamers, an especially sympathetic group, to mass deportation would be very unpopular. Though he acquiesced to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other immigration hawks in ordering an end to the DACA program earlier this month, Trump immediately sent signals that he was eager to come to an agreement with Congress to preserve the Dreamers' legal protections.

Some observers find it unusual not only that Trump would be willing to make such a deal, but that Democrats would take him up on it:


The idea that engaging in blanket opposition to a president's policies, regardless of their inherent merit, is smart politics because it causes voters to become disillusioned with the effectiveness of the incumbent administration was a major premise of Republican strategic behavior during the Obama years. Here again, though, the two parties are not mirror images of each other. Democrats don't like Trump any more than Republicans liked Obama, but they are much more likely to remain open to opportunities for policy-making cooperation than their partisan counterparts were during the previous administration.

The main reason for this, as we explained in Asymmetric Politics, is that the Democratic Party is a social group coalition, not an ideological movement. Democrats correctly perceive their constituents as more interested in achieving real-world policy accomplishments furthering their concrete group interests than in remaining true to abstract ideological doctrines or engaging in obstruction for purely electoral aims. Most Democrats are willing to share credit, even with the detested Trump, if they can successfully find a practical solution to the Dreamers' current legal predicament. They came to Washington to legislate, and will happily do so if they can deliver the policies favored by their own partisan base.

We are, of course, a long way from an actual bill hitting the president's desk, and there are many ways that the current agreement can fall apart. But if Trump maintains the capacity to learn from experience, he would do well to take note of the lesson offered by this week's events. He can be a consistently conservative president, or he can be a legislatively productive president. Maybe he'll wind up being neither. But it's really hard to be both.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

How Big a Deal Is Trump's Debt Limit Deal?

Today brought the unexpected news that President Trump had reached an agreement with the Democratic congressional leadership (later publicly endorsed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell) to pass legislation combining Hurricane Harvey disaster relief with an extension of the debt ceiling until December 15 and a continuing resolution funding the federal government through the same date. If a bill containing these provisions successfully makes its way through Congress, it will remove the possibility of a government shutdown or default on the national debt for the next three months.

The media immediately formed a consensus that Democratic negotiators had claimed a major achievement at Republican expense. Politico reported that Trump "sided with Democrats . . . relinquishing the GOP's leverage." The Atlantic called the agreement "Trump's Early Christmas Gift to Democrats." Jonathan Swan of Axios even wrote that Trump had "handed Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer the deal of the century."

It's undisputed that Trump indeed quickly accepted Democratic leaders' offer of a three-month debt ceiling extension over his own party's (and Treasury Secretary's) preference for a longer relief period. The conclusion that Trump had betrayed his fellow Republicans was widely shared by both sides on Capitol Hill; frustrated Republican incumbents privately (and in some cases publicly) griped about the president, while jubilant Democrats attempted to control their outward expressions of glee lest they provoke Trump to reconsider his decision.

But did Schumer and Pelosi really pull off the "deal of the century," justifying the multiple expressions of unfettered liberal elation and conservative dissatisfaction that dominated the day's analysis?

The case for why the deal with Trump was a big win for the Democrats and a horrible defeat for the GOP goes something like this: Democrats managed to secure hurricane relief and three more months of government funding without making any policy concessions to conservatives, while simultaneously guaranteeing that another vote on raising the debt ceiling will be required in just three months' time. Because Democratic votes will be needed once again to avoid a potentially calamitous debt default in December, the party will be in good position to make additional policy demands in exchange for its support. Moreover, the need for Congress to spend the last few weeks of 2017 on spending and debt negotiations will complicate Republican ambitions to complete a tax reform plan before the holidays, leaving the party with no major legislative achievements to show for its first full year in power since 2006.

The main problem with this analysis is that it arguably overstates the capacity of both parties—the Republicans today, the Democrats in the future—to leverage government funding and debt ceiling showdowns to extract major policy concessions from the opposition. It's true that some conservatives had planned to hold the debt ceiling hostage in order to force broad-based spending cuts, just as some liberals might now dream of using similar tactics to jam a legislative authorization of DACA through an otherwise reluctant Congress. But we've had enough of these governing crises over the past few years to conclude with some confidence that they are ultimately resolved via bipartisan agreements that more or less preserve the policy status quo. A hypothetical Democratic threat to endanger the credit of the United States over immigration reform wouldn't necessarily have any greater chance of success than the Republicans' misguided 2013 attempt to compel the repeal of Obamacare by shutting down the government.

Whether the Trump-Pelosi-Schumer deal represents a serious blow to tax reform's chances in the current Congress also depends on one's prior estimation of those chances—which were clearly on the wane even before today's news broke. Republicans are not even close to passing the budget resolution that is a necessary procedural precursor to the consideration of their tax reform plan. (Also, they do not, as of yet, have a tax reform plan.) Republicans can even take solace in apparently avoiding a damaging but entirely plausible scenario: a standoff between Trump and Democratic leaders over funding for a border wall that could have led to an indefinite government shutdown, leaving the congressional GOP caught hopelessly in the middle.

But while the policy implications of Wednesday's deal are unclear and possibly quite modest in scope, the political consequences are much more significant. By endorsing the Democrats' offer in negotiations over the stated position of his own party's congressional leaders, Trump humiliated Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, further intensifying the war between the president and his nominal allies in Congress that has been steadily progressing all summer. This was no accident. Trump nurtures a lengthening list of grievances with both men and was apparently looking for an opportunity to land a few punches. The GOP thus moves closer to a state of open schism between its executive and legislative wings, and the hopes of last winter that Trump would happily follow the direction of veteran party leaders recede even further into the distance.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Interview with Vox

Yesterday I talked to Andrew Prokop of Vox about my post earlier this week about the looming fight between Trump and the Republican congressional leadership. You can find an edited version of our conversation here. Thanks to Andrew for a great chat!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Success Has Eluded Trump, But He Could Win a Republican Civil War

Amidst all the daily developments during what is usually a slow news month, some of the most consequential are those that indicate a continued deterioration in the relationship between President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress. Just two weeks ago, I described why this tension had emerged and explained that it could lead to a catastrophic governing failure as soon as the end of September, when leaders in both the legislative and executive branches must act to fund the government and raise the federal debt ceiling. Since then, all available signs point to a likely crisis that could well lead to a government shutdown and possibly even a default on the national debt.

The presence of serious conflict between Trump and congressional Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell, is now undeniable. Trump has taken to Twitter on several occasions to blast McConnell—and a few other senators—for failing to pass health care reform through the Senate and for refusing to abolish the legislative filibuster. Trump has also taken aim at Arizona senator Jeff Flake, who did vote for Obamacare repeal but wrote a book critical of Trump, implicitly endorsing his Republican primary challenger in 2018. Last night in Arizona, Trump make derogatory references to both Flake and John McCain while suggesting that he would be willing to shut down the government this fall if Congress did not approve funding for his proposed wall along the Mexican border. It doesn't help matters that Trump is also furious at congressional Republicans for supporting sanctions against Russia and declining to defend him on the issue.

Republicans in Congress are striking back, albeit more indirectly. Several recent news stories, full of juicy quotes from (mostly) anonymous members and staff, have chronicled widespread anger and frustration with the president on Capitol Hill. A New York Times piece clearly sourced from leaks by McConnell aides portrays the majority leader as doubting Trump's fitness for the presidency.

This is a battle of personalities, but it's also much more than that. Although the Trump presidency is barely seven months old, it's already clear that much of what both Trump and congressional Republicans promised to do in office is probably not going to happen. We are quickly moving to the stage at which the pursuit of success gives way to the assignment of blame for failure—especially since the incumbent president is not known for his patience, grasp of the legislative process, or eagerness to accept responsibility.

Trump may not get the ACA repeal bill or border wall that he demands, but he could still taste success—if he chooses to redefine success as winning a civil war within the Republican Party. Wherever one's own sympathies might lie in such a battle, Trump simply holds heavier artillery and superior field position:

1. Neither Trump nor Congress is particularly well-liked these days, but Trump is much more popular within the GOP. Trump's job approval among Republicans sits at about 80 percent, depending on the poll. McConnell's favorability is closer to 40 percent among Republicans, and Congress as a whole has dropped below 20 percent.

2. Trump will enjoy the support of most influential conservative media sources and personalities in any fight with Congress over health care, taxes, or the border wall, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Fox and Friends, and Breitbart—where ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has settled to wage "war" on people both inside and outside the Trump administration whom he views as impeding his favored ethno-nationalist policy agenda. The congressional GOP will have conservative print publications like National Review, Commentary, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page on its side, but it's simply not an even match.

3. Trump has a louder mouthpiece and is more willing to use it aggressively. He employs Twitter and public addresses to hammer away at members of Congress, often by name, with contemptuous mockery. Many Republicans are willing to say dismissive or nasty things about Trump on background to reporters, but few will risk getting into a public war of words with the president. Trump is also less likely than his opponents to be constrained by the facts, which also offers him certain rhetorical advantages.

4. Even if Trump doesn't achieve passage of his legislative agenda, he can use his executive powers to claim other accomplishments, however modest they may be. Whereas a congressional majority that doesn't produce legislation gives its incumbents very little to run on in the next election—which, for the House and one-third of the Senate, is only a year away.

5. For all his bluster, Trump has a point when he notes that congressional Republicans have been making big promises for years about health care, taxes, and immigration. While Republicans accurately respond that the Trump administration has proven unhelpful on both the politics and policy front in developing legislative alternatives, the truth remains that the internal problems roiling the congressional GOP had appeared years before Trump came along and cannot be principally blamed on the current administration.

Because Trump hates looking "weak" more than just about anything, it's probably only a matter of time before he picks even more serious fights within the party. Such behavior would undoubtedly be counterproductive to the achievement of legislative goals, but Trump acts emotionally rather than strategically—and besides, some of those goals were unrealistic in any case. Forcing a government shutdown, knocking off a few Republican incumbents in party primaries, or even toppling a congressional leader or two might give him a hint of the pleasure that has so visibly eluded him so far in office. But it would also turn the Republican Party into an open battlefield.


Monday, August 14, 2017

The Real Republican Fear about Trump's Charlottesville Response

Last week, I described how the tensions between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans had become increasingly visible, and explained why this conflict was likely to get even worse in the weeks to come. But that was before this weekend's events in Charlottesville, which seem to have further widened the divide between the two. Trump's initial refusal to specifically denounce racist groups and hold them responsible for the disorder and violence that occurred in Virginia—he briefly gave a more forceful condemnation Monday afternoon after two days of pressure—not only contrasted strikingly with the public statements made by other Republican elected officials, but also provoked obliquely critical comments from some of them.

"Mr. President — we must call evil by its name," wrote Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida agreed that it was "very important for the nation to hear [the president] describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists." Republicans were described as "privately wincing" and complaining that Trump had "botched" his response.

Aside from being sincerely horrified that the president of the United States did not view organized bigotry as an appropriate target for his otherwise sharp tongue, Trump's critics have focused on what they see as the political malpractice of passing up a chance to immediately and vehemently reject the belief system of a small and widely-loathed group of extremists. Fellow Republican politicians indeed have good reason to be seriously concerned about the flawed instincts of the president, and to wonder if their party has become hitched to the whims of a uniquely stubborn and tone-deaf figure.

But Trump's defective political antennae do not represent the biggest danger to the GOP. If the worst Republican nightmare comes true, Charlottesville is just the beginning of an emboldened white supremacist movement descending on one part of America after another. It can be difficult to predict how the typical voter will respond to the rise of civil unrest, but these are not Black Lives Matter activists scuffling with police; these are not liberals with rainbow flags and feline hats blocking traffic or protesting at airports. The pictures from Virginia are of gun-toting crackpots with torches, swastika tattoos, and ugly frog logos invading a town to beat up and run over the sons and daughters of the American middle class—and many who are far from the political left have nonetheless reacted to these developments with a reflexive sense of utter revulsion.

Republicans desperately want Trump to tell the white-power goons to get lost forever. Extremists and violent actors are a political fact of life, but it's tougher to escape association with them when many are wearing red baseball caps openly proclaiming their identification with the leader of one's own party. Worryingly, even Trump's more strongly-worded, and more positively-reviewed, statement today did not specifically reject the support he has personally received and continues to receive from the racist fringe. The president's manner also strongly suggests that he makes such public pronouncements reluctantly out of political necessity rather than enthusiastically out of personal conviction—which may do little to convince the leaders of these movements that he really wants them to cease their efforts.

If Charlottesville becomes a model replicated elsewhere rather than a single tragic departure, true panic will set in among Republican ranks. Trump has already given his party a lot of trouble during his brief time in office. But if the next two elections become a national referendum on whether it's a good thing that the Nazis and the Klan are back in the picture, few Republicans will be optimistic about their chances.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Trump's War with Congress Is Just Getting Started

How many Republican members of Congress are still wearing their Donald Trump socks?

When House and Senate Republicans held a policy retreat in Philadelphia during Trump's first week in office, one of the items in each member's gift bag was a pair of socks decorated with the new president's face. The socks, reported Politico, were claimed to be "a huge hit."

The retreat itself occurred amidst an atmosphere of palpable partisan optimism. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled ambitious plans for the coming session of Congress. Legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act would be on the president's desk by March, according to the leaders' proposed calendar, with a tax reform agreement following by the August recess—at which point the first phase of funding for Trump's promised southern border wall would be in place and a major infrastructure package would be "moving along." Trump himself made an appearance at the retreat, promising his fellow Republicans that "we're actually going to sign the [bills] that you're writing; you're not wasting your time" and vowing that "this Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we've had in decades, maybe ever."

We have now reached the August recess, and the only major piece of legislation that Congress has enacted this year is a bipartisan bill tightening the sanctions on Russia (as punishment for its record of meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Republican presidential ticket) that Trump grumpily signed rather than risk the embarrassment of having his veto overridden.

That Republican hopes for a historically prolific congressional session have gone unfulfilled is hardly shocking in itself. It's common for presidents and other party leaders to entertain visions of legislative productivity that dissipate upon exposure to the political and procedural obstacles to achieving major policy change within the American system of government. Though there's little chance of the entire Republican wish list ultimately becoming law, plenty of time remains in the next 18 months for selected elements of the party platform to make their way through the House and Senate.

But salvaging what's left of the GOP's legislative agenda will still require extensive collaboration and cooperation between Congress and the White House. Unfortunately for Republicans, this relationship has been deteriorating rapidly over the past few weeks. The failure of health care reform in the Senate prompted a series of critical remarks from Trump, who also unsuccessfully demanded the abolition of the legislative filibuster. During the Senate health care debate, a member of Trump's cabinet threatened Senator Lisa Murkowski with retribution against her home state of Alaska if she did not support the ACA repeal plan backed by the White House. (She cast a decisive vote against it.)

Republican members of Congress have likewise become more open in distancing themselves from the president. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley publicly warned Trump not to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch rejected Trump's demands that Republicans continue to work on hammering out a health care bill, and Senator Jeff Flake published a book containing sharp criticism of Trump. On Monday, Mitch McConnell blamed Trump for creating unrealistic expectations about the ability of Congress to quickly deliver significant legislative achievements ahead of "artificial deadlines"—even though McConnell himself had promised swift action on the party agenda during the Republican retreat in January. McConnell's remarks, in turn, provoked sharp counterattacks from White House aide Dan Scavino and Trump loyalist Sean Hannity.

Though Trump critics wish for an even less deferential Congress, this is still a very unusual degree of tension between two branches under control of the same party—especially since the Trump presidency is barely six months old. And it's about to get worse.

Before Congress can even think about making major progress on issues like tax reform, it needs to raise the federal debt ceiling and pass at least a temporary resolution funding the government past the end of the current fiscal year (September 30) while it works out a longer-term appropriations plan. Both tasks will require bipartisan agreement. Democratic support will be necessary in the Senate to avert a filibuster, and may well be needed in the House as well to compensate for what may be plentiful nay votes from the Republican side of the aisle on one or both measures.

There will be no "big wins" for Trump in the near future. The best-case scenario for resolving these responsibilities simply keeps the federal buildings open and the debt serviced with a minimum amount of legislative disarray; Democrats have considerable leverage and no reason to support legislation that contains a major rightward policy shift on any issue. In the worst-case outcome, the process falls apart and the government shuts down or defaults on its obligations—both with potentially disastrous consequences for both the president and the ruling party in Congress.

This is also very treacherous ground for Paul Ryan. His predecessor John Boehner was deposed from the speakership by rebellious conservative purists in large part because he regularly found it necessary to push must-pass legislation through the House with more Democratic than Republican votes. Ryan is similarly at risk of sustaining considerable damage in the upcoming debt ceiling fight, with one anonymous Republican House member telling the Huffington Post that legislation raising the debt ceiling without delivering on other conservative priorities would mark "the beginning of the end of the Ryan speakership," even though such a proposal might be the only bill that could pass the Senate and avert a governing catastrophe.

At least Boehner, for all his problems, didn't have Trump to deal with. About the best that Ryan and McConnell can hope for is that they can guide bipartisan bills through Congress before the clock runs out and that Trump will sign them while merely making a few snide remarks. But what if Trump sides with the hard-liners demanding large spending cuts, or regulatory repeal, or funding for his border wall? What if he fails to come to the defense of party leaders facing a mutiny from within their ranks? What if he vetoes a bill sent to his desk, plunging the nation into a crisis?

Normally, there is a perception of mutual linked fate that prevents a president and his congressional party from letting their differences become too vast or too public. But Trump is an inexperienced and impatient president who is incapable of taking responsibility for setbacks. He is getting to a point in his presidency where he's going to need an answer for the question of why he hasn't delivered on all of his big, beautiful promises. Congress will be an irresistible scapegoat for his failures; the only uncertainty is whether the smooth functioning of the federal government is a casualty of the resulting crossfire.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

So Donald Trump Turned Out to Be a Conservative After All

Whatever happened to the idea that Donald Trump wasn't really a conservative? Matt Grossmann and I explain how Trump is turning out to be the most conservative president in modern history today over at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A New Chief of Staff, But Don't Expect Any Improvement

The firing of Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff late Friday afternoon (and that's what it was, though Priebus at least briefly pretended that he had "secretly" resigned the day before) was perhaps one of the least surprising developments of the summer. Priebus had lost, or never seemed to have, Donald Trump's confidence and respect. He had also alienated other top members of the administration who have Trump's ear, and had committed the cardinal sin of too openly caring about his own press coverage rather than that of the boss. Priebus could claim a personal friendship with House Speaker Paul Ryan and close ties with many other powerful Republicans in Washington, but after six months on the job he could point to no major legislative or policy victories that his relationships had facilitated.

Yet a president who has made many more bad than good decisions has long since lost the benefit of the doubt in the business of hiring and firing. While the choice of John Kelly to replace Priebus seems superficially promising—Kelly has the government experience and organizational capabilities that his predecessor lacked, and Trump appears to trust generals more than Republican Party operatives—it's more likely that Kelly will fail to solve any of this administration's existing flaws while potentially creating new ones.

The three biggest problems that the Trump presidency currently faces are: (1) the president's lack of knowledge and judgment; (2) a prevalence of mediocre (and worse) people in key positions without a functional decision-making process; and (3) a Congress that is ill-equipped to be a productive governing partner.

The optimistic response to the Kelly hiring is that he might be at least able to address problems (1) and (2). Perhaps, the thinking goes, Kelly can use his experience and gravitas to impose "order" and "discipline" on a chaotic White House by, for example, cutting down on the number of people who have direct access to the president and sidelining some of the most egregiously unqualified. Maybe he can even convince Trump to take it easy with the tweets, at least when it comes to sensitive national security matters.

But there's no reason to believe that Trump views problems (1) and (2) as problems at all, let alone to think that he brought Kelly in to solve them. Even if Kelly dedicated himself to the task, he has little chance of reining in Trump's personality or limiting the many routes to the Oval Office—especially since one of the main centers of power within the White House is controlled by Trump's own daughter and son-in-law.

From Trump's point of view, the real problems with his presidency so far (besides Congress, which I'll discuss in a moment) have been insufficient loyalty within his administration and a hostile media outside it. These difficulties are related in his mind, as leaks from anonymous staffers have fueled many of the damaging stories in the press; hence the recent introduction of hot-headed superloyalist Anthony Scaramucci in a comic-relief role to reboot the White House Plumbers program forty-odd years after its first scene-stealing appearance. But the supposed treachery in the ranks also extends to James Comey's pursuit of the Russia investigation, Jeff Sessions's recusal from it, and Rod Rosenstein's appointment of Bob Mueller as special counsel. What is more likely: that Trump replaced Priebus with Kelly because he viewed the latter as more personally loyal and more likely to impose that loyalty across the rest of the executive branch, or that he suddenly developed a thirst for meritocratic personnel decisions and effective management skills?

The failure of Congress to advance Trump's legislative agenda was no doubt fatal to Priebus, whose connections to top Republicans on Capitol Hill were more or less his only qualification for the chief of staff position. But just because Paul Ryan's friend couldn't push health care reform through the House and Senate doesn't mean that somebody else could have done much better. (With his usual perverse logic, Trump appeared to hold Priebus's existing relationships within the party against him, viewing them as signs of disloyalty rather than as advantages to be exploited.) This White House is in desperate need of basic political intelligence and avenues for coalition-building—and, as miscast as Priebus was in his former position, he takes a supply of those precious commodities with him as he leaves. There's little chance that Kelly—who reportedly "hates politics"—will be in his element negotiating a deal to raise the debt ceiling or flattering a key committee chair to move along some sub-Cabinet nominations, and no particular reason to think that he can successfully orchestrate bicameral agreements on major policy priorities.

Much of official Washington looks at someone like Kelly and sees substantive competence and emotional maturity. But Trump is more likely to see a tough-guy enforcer whom he will expect to bark orders and threats at staff, Cabinet officials, reporters, and members of Congress. To the extent that such tactics are effective, Trump will have succeeded in better working his personal will within the government; to the (more probable) extent that they are ineffectual or even counterproductive, the rampant dysfunctionality within the current leadership regime will only continue to grow.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Night to Remember in the Senate

The election of 2016 was an unexpected and smashing Republican victory—but it also represented the calling of an awfully big bluff. For seven years, Republicans had pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a superior, but always unspecified, alternative. Donald Trump famously claimed that he could cover "everybody" at a fraction of the cost of the ACA, but he was hardly the only Republican politician to promise the American people that they could keep everything they liked about Obamacare while painlessly jettisoning the parts they didn't like—the taxes, the mandates, the high premiums.

Once Trump was elected, repeal was no longer merely a symbolic position useful for rallying the Republican base against Obama and the Democrats, but represented a well-established policy commitment to which the party had unavoidably staked itself even though health care reform is predictably treacherous for the party attempting to pass it. Congressional Republicans—first in the House, and then in the Senate—took to developing actual repeal legislation with all the enthusiasm of a teenager who had promised to mow the lawn in exchange for being allowed to go out with his friends the night before, and now had to make good on his end of the bargain.

For in fact there is no magic policy formula that preserves the popular aspects of the ACA while abolishing the unpopular provisions—especially while also remaining true to conservative ideological principles. Many people would have to pay more for their health insurance and many others would lose their coverage entirely. As public opinion polls showed, support for various versions of the Republican health care plan among the electorate was consistently dismal.

What followed over the succeeding few months—right up until the moment that John McCain became the 51st vote in the Senate against repeal early Friday morning—was an attempt by a significant proportion of the Republican conference in both houses of Congress to maneuver so as to avoid blame from the party base if repeal failed while also avoiding responsibility for the consequences of its passage. The result of this mentality was some of the strangest and most confusing legislative behavior that veteran Congress-watchers had ever seen. Bills with wide-ranging policy implications were written in a single afternoon. Individual members made public demands that they then abandoned without explanation days, or sometimes even hours, later. Party leaders kept the process alive by promising that collective agreement around a single set of policies, though never realized, was merely sitting just beyond the next procedural vote.

Even the final Senate bill, the so-called skinny repeal, was sold to Republican senators as merely a vehicle to enter a conference committee with the House that would at long last produce that ever-elusive consensus bill. One Republican called skinny repeal a "fraud" and "disaster" (but voted for it anyway), others warned that while the Senate might pass it the House was strictly forbidden from doing so, and hardly anybody bothered to show up to defend it on the Senate floor—leaving Budget Committee chairman Mike Enzi to filibuster interminably in the face of critical remarks from the Democratic side of the aisle.

As unprecedented—and somewhat ridiculous—as all this was, there was a certain logic to keeping repeal alive, or at least trying to leave its corpse in the lawn on the other side of the Capitol. And nobody wants to be the disloyal teammate. It took a dramatic late-night defection by John McCain, in collaboration with previous dissenters Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, to administer the apparent kill shot while onlookers literally gasped in surprise.

Undoubtedly, the three nay-voting Republicans are not the most popular members of their party at the moment—a stunned and furious Mitch McConnell didn't bother to hide his resentment of their actions after the vote on the Senate floor—but they may have merely spared their colleagues more wasted time in the weeks ahead as the party continued to search fruitlessly for consensus. Or, alternatively, agreement might have been achieved, and a bill sent to the president—but then Republicans would have been forced to defend an extremely unpopular piece of legislation in the 2018 and even 2020 elections, confronted with tearful or enraged constituents who had lost insurance and other benefits. McCain, Collins, and Murkowski may never get the recognition from fellow Republicans for doing so, but it's quite possible that they just saved their party's majority.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Who's Really Winning the Culture War?

As most of the political world continues to watch with fascination and impatience to see if the Senate can desperately pull something together on health care before the end of the week, President Trump unexpectedly diverted attention on Wednesday by suddenly announcing via Twitter that transgender people would be prohibited from serving in the military. Trump's decision seemed to take his own administration by as much surprise as anyone else; the White House was unprepared to supply answers to basic questions about how the new policy would be administered, and the Pentagon—which was apparently worried at first that Trump's tweetstorm might be revealing a hostile military action—tersely referred all inquiries back to the White House.

The impetus for Trump's announcement became clear as the day wore on: congressional conservatives, who had just lost a vote in the House of Representatives to legislatively prohibit service-members from receiving taxpayer-funded medical treatments related to gender identity, had appealed to Trump for support—but Trump instead decided on a much larger service ban without any consultation with Congress.

One might expect Democrats on Capitol Hill to receive the new policy with distaste—and they did—but the more interesting development was the critical response among many Republicans. Even older and socially conservative members of Congress like Orrin Hatch, Richard Shelby, and John McCain released statements that were at the least implicitly critical of Trump's actions.

For those Americans old enough to remember the national controversies that led to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s, it is remarkable that the political climate has shifted so dramatically that even Republican elected officials now seek to distance themselves from the traditional conservative position on LGBT rights. Last fall, an incumbent governor lost re-election in a southern state in part because he had supported an anti-transgender "bathroom bill," and there's every reason to expect that public opinion will continue to move in a liberal direction on this and similar issues.

It is often argued that Trump and his fellow Republicans have ascended to political power on the crest of a mass cultural backlash. While there is some truth to this, it's hard to see how Trump—or any president—would be able to slow, much less reverse, the rapid social change that we have experienced over the past generation. Trump is fond of promising that he will make people "say Merry Christmas again" and in other ways turn the clock back on liberal cultural trends, but as he can't even get his own party in Congress to support him on military personnel policy, such ambitious goals are probably beyond the powers of his office. One of the most disorienting aspects of our current historical moment is the frequent sense that partisan politics and the broader American society are not only out of sync but are actually moving in opposite directions.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Demise of the Health Care Bill Shows That Policy Still Matters

Over the past few years, it's become fashionable among many political experts to deny that policy substance plays much of a role in motivating the electoral choices of the American public. The dominant picture of citizen behavior in contemporary accounts is that of a crude tribalism, in which individuals' salient social or cultural identities motivate them to develop a simplistic but powerful affinity for a favored party—and an even stronger antipathy for the opposition—that subsequently determines their normative, and even factual, political beliefs. A number of my fellow political scientists are fond of quipping on Twitter that "all politics are identity politics" and that "negative partisanship rules everything" whenever evidence arises of such phenomena at work.

Like any pithy aphorism, these observations contain substantial, but not total, truth. Today's electorate is indeed strongly partisan in its candidate preferences, and much of this party loyalty is driven by an increasingly bitter feeling toward the other side (rather than a more positive view of one's own party). Many Americans do perceive political conflict as involving competition among social groups, and their own group identity often plays a powerful role in determining which partisan team they join and which they scorn.

But a theory of voting behavior that stops there cannot account for every important development in politics today, and the apparent demise of Mitch McConnell's health care bill in the Senate late Monday is one key example. There will no doubt be numerous inside-baseball reports and analyses about how and why the legislation has failed (at least so far) to attract the necessary support. But it's also worth stepping back and looking at the big picture. The largest single obstacle that the Republican Party has faced in repealing the Affordable Care Act has been the policy preferences of the American people.

While the ACA itself proved to be a divisive measure, most of its specific provisions have consistently enjoyed strong popular support. Moreover, repeal faced the same problem any other attempt at welfare state retrenchment creates: how does a political party revoke benefits from sympathetic current beneficiaries without provoking a serious popular backlash? Prior to Trump's election, Republicans—including Trump himself—could sidestep these dilemmas by keeping their alternative health care proposals vague and implausibly attractive. Once the GOP was compelled to write an actual bill, however, it unenthusiastically produced a set of policies that were almost historic in their unpopularity. Even Republican voters reported lukewarm-at-best attitudes towards the positions of their own party leaders—demonstrating that tribal loyalty still has its limits despite our unusually polarized climate.

If Republican members of Congress thought that mere group solidarity ruled the electorate, they would have resurrected the repeal bill that passed the House and Senate in 2015 (only to be vetoed, as expected, by Obama), quickly enacted it on a party-line vote last January, and moved on to other business—secure in the belief that any supporters who subsequently lost health insurance access could be easily convinced that their favored party was not to blame. Instead, the GOP embarked on a protracted, and so far unfulfilled, struggle to reconcile its ideological predispositions with the substantive demands and anticipated responses of the broader electorate. Donald Trump's bully pulpit and Mitch McConnell's tactical acumen have not yet proven able to overcome the suspicion among a critical mass of officeholders that politicians who defy the will of the public on important national policy issues risk popular retribution at the next round of balloting, regardless of the party label next to their name.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Want to Influence the Democratic Party? Try Joining the Democratic Party

While I was on vacation last week, my friend and colleague Sarah Reckhow sent me this story about a new website and self-described "political network" called Win the Future. Win the Future (WTF for short) is co-founded by two Silicon Valley moguls (Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Mark Pincus of Zynga, the parent company of the online games Farmville and Words with Friends). Frustrated with the Democratic Party for imperfectly representing their political preferences, Hoffman and Pincus are attempting to build a mass membership (or at least mass participation) organization via the Internet that will be devoted to "empower[ing] all of us to choose our leaders and set our agenda." Reading between the lines of their rhetoric, they want to push Democratic officials to shift further leftward on immigration and social issues while talking more about impeaching Donald Trump, but they are simultaneously rather less sympathetic than the current party leadership to the interests and power of labor unions and free-trade skeptics.

Two weeks out of town left me less attentive than usual to day-to-day social media trends, so I missed whatever reaction the unveiling of WTF provoked among expert observers of the political world. But I think I can guess. Starting with the name itself, the WTF initiative is marinated in tech-hype buzzword-speak. It trades mostly in overfamiliar platitudes (Up with giving a voice to the people! Down with career politicians!). The mechanisms by which its influence is to be amassed and deployed are described in a vague manner, with the following exception: it is clear that the organization will solicit direct cash contributions, which it will then use to rent advertising space on billboards (?!?). The political judgment on display is appropriately summarized by the revelation that one of the ideas for achieving a national party "revolution" involves encouraging the singer of a '90s-era power-pop band to mount an electoral challenge to popular California senator Dianne Feinstein.

In all likelihood, WTF will eventually pass into the same obscurity that has befallen most awkward mashups between politics and the tech sector. But its supposed purpose rests on an assumption that is much more widespread and longer-lived, and that promises to endure whether or not Hoffman and Pincus realize their particular organizational vision. This perspective views political parties in their current form as controlled by unaccountable politicians and other elites to such an extent that they are virtually impermeable to the influence of interested citizens—thus necessitating fundamental and even "revolutionary" measures in order to restore their democratic legitimacy.

Yet there are plenty of ways that parties are open to mass participation. Any eligible voter is able to take part in the process of selecting a major party's nominees for nearly all elected offices, including the presidency. Regular Americans can, and often do, work on behalf of favored candidates' campaigns and provide them with financial contributions. City, town, or county Democratic and Republican committees and clubs are usually quite welcoming to citizens who wish to commit themselves to becoming active in party affairs. Within the broader networks of both major parties sit a number of well-established interest groups—NARAL, the NRA, the League of Conservation Voters—that themselves solicit public membership and support, and that exert considerable power over the politicians of the party with which they are aligned.

Contrary to myth, politicians are quite sensitive to the wishes of party members, and there are plenty of historical examples of elected officials changing their policy positions in response to pressure from active factions and interest groups within their party. The success of the modern conservative movement in gaining control of the Republican Party is a textbook case—conservatives sought to dominate the organizational apparatus and nomination process of the GOP, compelling ambitious Republican politicians to satisfy the preferences of these activists in order to advance their own careers.

It takes a certain degree of credulity to believe that the parties' policy adoption process is currently walled off from the interested citizen by the machinations of self-dealing operators but could be cracked wide open with a dot-com address, some Twitter polls, and a few strategically-located billboards. Aside from the obvious superficial appeal of a pitch that taking over a major national institution is something that could be done from the comfort of a lunch-hour smartphone session, this thinking draws on a tendency that is more common on the American left than on the right: a certain ambivalence about partisan politics and a reluctance to engage with the electoral process from within a major party, even as one holds strong opinions about what that party should, or should not, stand for.

One example of this mentality dates from the 2016 presidential nomination contest, when some Bernie Sanders supporters argued that voters who refused to officially register as Democrats should still be granted the right to participate in Democratic primaries (a few even went so far as to assert that state primaries that excluded independents amounted to a form of "voter suppression"). Whether or not it's presumptuous to claim the right to influence party affairs without actually belonging to the party, it's—more importantly—fatally flawed tactical thinking. As conservatives have historically understood better than the American left, no idiosyncratic quirk exempts political parties from the general rule within human institutions that demands are more likely to be addressed when they come from inside the tent.

This isn't the first time that Silicon Valley types have demonstrated that success and smarts in other fields doesn't necessarily translate into a high political IQ. But taking the time and effort to gain an understanding of the actual operation of party organizations isn't only valuable for learning how best to achieve one's own political goals. It also reveals that party leaders who aren't already doing what you want are not necessarily being "unrepresentative," but may instead be doing a perfectly good job of representing the preferences of others who are more invested in the party cause.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

The Trump Defense Splits in Two, and the Big Story Remains Flynn

James Comey's testimony this morning was noteworthy in a number of ways without itself changing the broader political dynamics surrounding the Trump administration. Comey confirmed a number of specific revelations about his relationship with Trump in public and under oath, implying that he viewed Trump's behavior as quite possibly constituting abuse of power or obstruction of justice. Along the way, he signaled that former national security advisor Michael Flynn is being investigated for potentially lying to the FBI, and hinted opaquely that attorney general Jeff Sessions is sufficiently connected to the issue of Russian electoral sabotage that he properly needed to recuse himself from any Justice Department inquiries into the subject.

Anyone expecting Republican officeholders to begin suggesting based on today's events that Trump may have committed an impeachable offense was undoubtedly disappointed. As I've written before, impeachment is a political—and largely partisan—process, and Republicans simply have no political incentive to pursue it.

At the same time, it was easily apparent this morning how few true fans Trump has within his own party. On this score, what didn't happen at the hearing was as telling as what did. No Republican really offered an endorsement of Trump's behavior; most simply ventured that there might be a less damning explanation for it than the one offered by Comey and repeatedly emphasized that the FBI's counterintelligence investigation had not reached Trump himself. Republicans declined to criticize Comey's own leadership of the FBI, to suggest that he was misrepresenting any facts, or even to explicitly challenge Comey's assertion that he was fired in retribution for his handling of the Russia investigation. Some senators were clearly much more comfortable talking about the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, or inaccurate stories in the media than the actions of the current president at the heart of Comey's testimony.

When combined with the pugnacious statement released today by Trump's personal lawyer, the hearing confirmed that the Republican Party's defense of Trump on the Russia issue has split into two different tracks. Many congressional Republicans have adopted the position of conceding, or at least not disputing, Comey's factual claims while offering a more benign interpretation of the evidence—perhaps, as House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested this morning, this is all just a big misunderstanding stemming from Trump's inexperience in government. Their approach differs substantially from Trump's own case, which is built around the accusation that Comey is an outright villain who has intentionally lied under oath and improperly disclosed information to the press.

The first defense is obviously much safer ground than the second for Republican politicians, who hold some respect for Comey and who by now have learned not to lean too heavily on Trump's word about anything. But it will be interesting to see whether Trump is satisfied with their devotion to this version of events, or if he becomes frustrated with the reluctance of his own fellow partisans to publicly trash Comey on his behalf. It also raises the probability that Trump will once again take to Twitter to personally mount his own defense, even though Comey explained today that an ill-advised presidential tweet actually set in motion the appointment of a special prosecutor last month.

To some critics, Comey's account itself provides Congress with sufficient grounds to begin impeachment proceedings. But while it's legally or constitutionally defensible to argue that obstruction of justice can occur regardless of what the underlying crime is (if any), there's no way that the political act of impeachment goes anywhere without a lot more damaging evidence than is now available about what was being covered up. So we end the day with more notable details filled in, but with the central mystery of this entire matter still frustratingly unresolved: why did Trump go to such lengths to protect Michael Flynn? Until this question has a clear answer, impeachment remains a purely hypothetical scenario.