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.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Price of Resentment Politics Is Policy Failure

In the month that has elapsed since Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency has become undeniable even within the corners of Washington once predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. Trump's behavior has not only sapped the morale of congressional Republicans and conservative interest group leaders, but has also repeatedly frustrated and even frightened members of his own Cabinet and White House staff. A plausible theory making the rounds suggests that one factor keeping White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in office is a shortage of other candidates willing to take what is nominally one of the most powerful and prestigious jobs in the entire country. It's now an open question whether Trump's approval rating within his own administration is any higher than the 39 percent of Americans who currently view his performance in a favorable light.

The realities of partisan politics will compel most Republicans to defend Trump in public even as they complain about him to reporters on background. Even if they do so privately, though, it is time for party members to reflect upon how a candidate like Trump was able to win the Republican nomination and sufficiently unify the party to achieve the presidency. After all, Trump hasn't really changed since he began running nearly two years ago. Nothing that he's done in office should be surprising to anyone except those who fooled themselves into expecting something different.

The democratic system works best when the same qualities that make someone a strong candidate for office also make him or her an effective leader once elected. But Republicans now face the problem that the individual attributes likely to bolster popularity within the party have become fatally misaligned with those necessary for governing success. Wasn't it a problem that Trump had no experience in public office? Not to Republican voters who scorn "career politicians" and venerate businesspeople who claim a superior background for managing the public sector. Wasn't Trump's temperament far from ideal for a national leader? Not to consumers of conservative media, where contempt and outrage are the default emotional states. Didn't Trump demonstrate little command of actual policy issues and elementary concepts? Not to vocal conservative authorities who dismiss reporters and intellectuals as snobby liberal hacks.

The other Republicans who ran against Trump in the 2016 primaries often shied away from confronting him directly, in part due to a strategic calculation that Trump would likely implode on his own and leave his supporters up for grabs. But few of the anti-Trump volleys that were made during the campaign focused on what are now clearly Trump's most consequential flaws. Instead, the usual Republican playbook of "attack-from-the-right" prevailed, emphasizing Trump's imperfect devotion to conservative ideological doctrine. These charges didn't stick with Republican voters, in large part because of the extent to which anti-Obamaism and anti-Clintonism represent foundational tenets of contemporary conservatism as defined by right-of-center media personalities. And nobody in the Republican presidential field was more of an "anti-Obama" figure than Trump, in both senses of the term: as an outspoken critic of Obama and as his ultimate antithesis. Plus, Trump's signature issue was immigration, and he made sure nobody got to his right on a subject of major current concern to the Republican popular base.

Trump's electoral triumph demonstrates the considerable power of cultural, nationalist, and ethnic resentment as engines of popular mobilization. However, a party that rewards skill at stoking such sentiments rather than policy fluency or governing competence is asking for trouble—and now the trouble is here. Democrats, of course, find nothing to celebrate in Trump's record so far. But Republicans who prioritize the implementation of sound conservative policy are also being primed for disappointment. The GOP is in such a state that it cannot, by its own admission, be counted upon to avoid a government shutdown or a possible default on the national debt this year—much less to develop and enact successful initiatives on health care, taxes, financial regulation, and other topics.

After just four months, a remarkable despondency has set in within Republican ranks about the prospect of a legislatively productive 115th Congress. Despite holding unified control of government, the party is simply unequipped for serious policy-making—a deficiency for which Trump is both cause and symptom. Republicans have honed a style of oppositional politics that has proven repeatedly effective at winning primaries and general elections alike, handing them a governing majority for at least the next two years. But this approach offers little guidance about how to exercise that power to craft specific policies, and has deposited into office a number of politicians—Trump chief among them—who are poorly positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.

For various reasons, Democrats are much less susceptible than the GOP to the rise of Trumpian candidates who are indifferent to mastering the mechanics of government on behalf of feasible policy objectives. But the rise of Trump as a uniquely powerful villain raises the danger that Democratic politics will also tilt farther toward symbolic demonstrations of opposition at the expense of other goals and values, benefiting future Democratic candidates who are the savviest at positioning themselves against Trump rather than those who offer the best promise of effective leadership. The emergence of a political climate in which both parties are driven primarily by fear and hatred of the other side has a number of important consequences, but the routine enactment of good public policy is certainly not among them.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

November 2018 Is Still a Long Way Away

The results of the special House election in Montana last week—where the Republican candidate won by a single-digit margin in a "deep red" constituency—are best interpreted as providing one more data point in favor of the conclusion that the national political environment has undergone a substantial, though not necessarily fatal, shift away from the Republicans and towards the Democrats since the inauguration of Donald Trump. This swing is thoroughly consistent with the larger back-and-forth pattern of partisan competition for the past 25 years, in which achieving unified control of Congress and the presidency has consistently rendered a party vulnerable to immediate popular backlash.

On the basis of history alone, then, there is good reason to expect the 2018 election to produce a more favorable outcome for the Democrats than 2016. How much more favorable, however, is impossible to foresee so far in advance of the vote. Eighteen months is a long time in politics under normal conditions—conventional wisdom would have bet overwhelmingly at this stage against the final results of the 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2006, 2010, and 2016 elections. And we are not currently in normal conditions; if anything, the speed of political developments is unusually quick these days, and the level of uncertainty about future events is even higher than usual.

From today's perspective, there are at least two major political issues that are likely to exert a significant effect on the results of the 2018 midterms. One is the Trump-Russia connection and its associated complications, stretching from Wikileaks to Michael Flynn to Jared Kushner to the FBI. Though the appointment of a special prosecutor suggests that this story isn't fading anytime soon, it's impossible to predict what directions it will go over the next year and a half, and what response it will produce in the mass electorate. The key question lurking behind the Russia affair—the extent of Trump's personal knowledge of, or involvement in, any illegal or shady activity—is not much clearer now than it was at the beginning of his presidency, and there is no guarantee that the Mueller investigation will provide a clear answer before November 2018.

The second significant and unpredictable factor in 2018 will be health care: specifically, whether the Republican-controlled Congress will succeed in enacting health care reform, and—if so—what form such legislation will take. The House narrowly passed a reform bill in early May, but Senate Republicans have opted to write their own version from scratch—an effort that already seems to have encountered serious problems. Whether the Senate will be able to pass a health care bill of its own is itself difficult to determine (Republicans can only afford two defections out of a 52-member conference). And whether any bill crafted to survive the Senate gauntlet could then serve as the basis for successful reconciliation negotiations between the two chambers is itself very difficult to know in advance, at least until its major provisions come into greater focus. Whatever the Republicans wind up doing about health care, from passing nothing at all to pushing through a substantial rollback of the Affordable Care Act, is almost certain to carry an electoral cost in 2018, but how big a problem health care will be for the party is impossible to ascertain before it's apparent what the policy change (if any) will be and when it will take effect.

So even excluding the unforeseeable events—foreign crises, terrorist attacks, economic trends—that may well occur and further influence the electoral balance between the parties, we have little reason to believe that the political climate will remain stable between now and November 2018. It's more likely that things get better for the Democrats than for the Republicans, given the performance of the Trump administration and the 2017–2018 Congress so far, but the range of plausible outcomes is exceptionally wide. Due to a structural Republican advantage in the ways that House districts are drawn and in the specific Senate seats up for election in 2018, even a decided nationwide pro-Democratic trend may not prove sufficiently strong to hand the party control of either chamber.

The special election approaching on June 20th in what has become a nationally representative suburban Atlanta House district will almost certainly be treated as an electoral bellwether by the news media. But even if the results accurately reflect the political environment of the moment, we're still so far away from the midterms that there is little sense in interpreting the Georgia race as an indicator of which party is favored to win the most seats in 2018. Throwing up your hands and saying "it's just soon to tell" is not a good strategy for advancing one's career in public punditry, where the constant reading of tea leaves is part of the job description. But in this case, it is just too soon to tell—so beware of anyone who says differently.

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.