Monday, April 24, 2017

Interview about Asymmetric Politics with Salon.com

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Kansas Election and the Stability of American Electoral Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Goodbye, Polarization—Hello, Polarization and Factionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 02, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

A President Misjudges His Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 06, 2017

Trump Cries "Fake News"...But What He Really Thinks Is More Important

Last night, the New York Times added yet another volume to what is becoming, after less than three weeks, a growing journalistic genre: the Dysfunctional Trump White House Chronicles. (Previous installments can be found here, here, here, and here, among other examples.) Predictably, the Washington community immediately began to feast on the juicy anecdotes the Times provided: did Steve Bannon really hornswoggle Trump into appointing him to the National Security Council without knowing it? could it really be true that the staff can't even figure out how to turn on the lights in the Cabinet Room?

Just as predictably, the new president took to Twitter this morning to angrily dismiss the story as "total fiction" and "FAKE NEWS" from a "failing" newspaper. Trump's ebbing credibility ensures that such responses are in turn treated by the press as desperate denials of reality. To be fair, however, any presidential administration would publicly challenge the accuracy of damaging media coverage like this, whether or not it were true—though a more measured pushback delivered indirectly through a press secretary is, admittedly, the more traditional means of doing so.

In the long run, it's less important what Trump says about these stories that what he really thinks. Does he actually believe, as he claims, that the Times simply made the whole thing up? Or does he continue to rail against media bias in public while realizing that his own top employees are repeatedly using the press to send up warning flares about alarming dysfunction within his shop? The sheer volume of leaks alone confirms that this White House is far from running smoothly and is particularly beset by the kind of internal infighting that often springs up in government, especially in the absence of an attentive and engaged leader.

If Trump comes to understand that there really are serious problems with the way his administration operates, he won't acknowledge as much in public—but he will privately order changes designed to address them. (Whether those changes are actually effective is another question.) In the best case scenario, Trump responds by defining clear administration objectives and lines of authority that invest primary decision-making responsibility in the most experienced and competent members of his staff and cabinet, reducing the squabbling and elementary errors that have plagued the first weeks of his presidency.

More troublingly, Trump could decide instead that the biggest challenge facing his administration was not its bumpy record of governing but rather the tendency of some of his aides to pop off to the Times or Post whenever they lose an internal debate or turf battle. When a president decides that the mere existence of leaks themselves is the real problem to be solved, history suggests that big trouble is around the corner.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Strategic Lens Won't Bring Trump into Focus, So Let's Give Psychology a Shot

It didn't take very long for the signals to arrive that this would be a different kind of presidency. On the first full day of the Trump administration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared before the news media to chastise them for (accurately) reporting that the number of spectators at the new president's inauguration ceremony had failed to equal the crowds drawn by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Lest there be any confusion over whether it was Spicer's idea to immediately risk his own personal credibility by making obviously incorrect claims about a completely trivial matter, Trump himself brought up the issue during his visit to CIA headquarters the same afternoon, bragging as well about the number of times he's appeared on the cover of Time and offhandedly remarking that the United States might re-invade Iraq to seize control of its oil supply.

If anything, the strangeness factor has been increasing ever since. Trump remains visibly preoccupied with indicators of personal power, status, and popularity at the expense of other matters. In a single week, the new president has pretended that he lost the national popular vote due to a non-existent epidemic of voter fraud, compared Chicago to Afghanistan and threatened to send in "the Feds" to impose order, and boasted that his CIA appearance produced the "biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl."

Much remains unknown about how the new administration will operate, but this week has confirmed beyond doubt that Trump, to a greater degree than any other major American politician, eschews rational strategy in favor of personal instinct—an instinct that is largely influenced by emotion, especially negative emotion. And his actions ultimately can only be understood in that sense.

This attribute presents a challenge to journalists and academics alike, who have developed long-standing and elaborate traditions of analysis that treat politics primarily as a series of strategic puzzles. Politicians may—and do—regularly make mistakes or miscalculations, or the world around them can change in a manner that renders previously effective behavior futile or even counterproductive, but the common assumption is that political action is directed toward an identifiable purpose that is perceived to further the substantive objectives or tactical interests of the actor.

Reporters are so predisposed to view politics through this lens that even stunts as clearly nonsensical as Spicer's press statement on Saturday prompt musings about the savvy thinking that might undergird them. Trump's endless attacks on the press and claims of unfair treatment, for example, could in some cases be plausibly interpreted as stoking a politically useful sense of grievance among his supporters, or by cleverly undercutting the power of the news media to contradict factually inaccurate statements made by his administration. And, to some degree, his behavior does and will have such an effect.

But among the most revealing news stories of the past week have been reports sourced from within the White House itself confirming that these matters are private obsessions, not merely public battle cries. Indeed, Trump's claims that millions of illegitimate votes deprived him of a rightful popular victory were first raised in a closed-door meeting with the congressional leadership of both parties, who were likely not reassured as a result that the new president has a firm grip on political reality. In retrospect, the characteristic that allowed Trump to overcome expectations and successfully capture both the Republican nomination and the White House looks less like a unique degree of strategic sophistication on his part and more like a simple ability and willingness to say or do things that other candidates couldn't—or wouldn't.

While Democrats and other critics have responded to the first week of the Trump era with blasts of righteous outrage, some Republicans seem to be experiencing a quieter feeling of queasiness brought on by the dawning realization that Trump's bizarre behavior is not merely an act created for public consumption. The frustrations experienced by the Trump aides who have already leaked damaging material to the Times and Post are undoubtedly spreading more widely within the party. Given the outcome of the last election, one would have expected this past week's retreat by congressional Republicans to be held amid an atmosphere of unrestrained euphoria, yet journalistic accounts paint a picture of a collectively uncertain GOP that is warily attempting to take the measure of its new leader.

Weighing the evidence, it seems as if observers both inside and outside the political world—including those of us studying politics using the tools of social science—need to readjust their assumptions and expectations of presidential behavior if they want to understand what's going on. As one anxious Republican told Politico, "It's surreal. We finally have the White House, and it's this." In order to figure out what exactly "this" is and how it will work in practice, the gaming-out of strategic calculus will need to be complemented even more than usual by insights from the realm of human psychology, where the presence of logic and reason is never taken for granted.

Friday, January 20, 2017

BC Scholars on the Trump Presidency

The Boston College Chronicle asked a number of BC faculty members about their expectations for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. Yu can find my thoughts among those of my colleagues here.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Asymmetric Politics on the New Books in Poli Sci Podcast

Matt Grossmann and I are guests on the latest edition of the podcast New Books in Political Science, hosted by Heath Brown of CUNY, to talk about our new book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. The podcast episode is available here or via the usual podcasting channels.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

You Gotta Fight For Your Right...to Write the Obamacare Repeal Bill

The Republican congressional leadership's ambition to begin the process of dismantling Obamacare within days of Donald Trump's ascension to the presidency has hit a snag. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan had previously agreed upon a legislative strategy of immediately enacting a bill that would ostensibly "repeal" much of the Affordable Care Act (via budget reconciliation legislation, which is not subject to filibuster in the Senate) but would delay its effective date of implementation for at least two years in order to give Republicans in Congress time to develop their long-promised alternative health care reform plan.

Now some fellow Republicans are throwing obstacles in their path. Five members of the Senate majority have introduced an amendment that would effectively delay a vote on repeal until March, while a few others have suggested that the ACA should not be repealed until a replacement plan is ready to be enacted in its place. On the House side, members of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus have also threatened to oppose the Republican leadership's budget resolution when it comes up for a vote later this week unless they receive more specific information about the nature and timetable of ACA repeal-and-replace legislation. (Passage of the budget resolution through both chambers is a necessary first step to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to repeal provisions of the ACA.)

We might expect politicians to get a case of political cold feet about the risk of voting to upend the entire health care industry in potentially unpredictable ways, as well as the potential fallout of revoking public benefits from millions of citizens. Otherwise staunch ideological conservatives like Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have objected to the leadership's fast-track approach; it's hardly a coincidence that both senators represent states that have experienced a significant decline in their populations of uninsured residents under the ACA. Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, another state with many ACA beneficiaries, even endorsed the idea that any replacement health care plan should cover more citizens than Obamacare does—a telling concession to the complex political considerations that Republicans now face as they try to square their small-government philosophical predispositions with their electoral survival instincts.

But that can't be the whole story. After all, the House Freedom Caucus is famous for claiming unmatched devotion to conservative principle and for constantly criticizing the Republican leadership from the ideological right. It's hard to envision its members going wobbly on ACA repeal before Trump's term has even begun—especially since they uniformly represent deep red districts with little chance of serious challenge from the Democratic opposition.

What's also going on here is the preliminary round of what may prove to be a significant internal battle within the Republican Party over the legislative specifics of repeal-and-replace. The absence of a party-endorsed replacement plan for Obamacare over the seven years and counting since one was promised by the congressional GOP reflected the difficulties that party leaders faced in uniting Republican members around a single alternative—but this policy void must be filled now that repeal-and-replace has evolved from catchy slogan to legislative agenda. Various key actors within the party will now seek to maximize their leverage over the policy-making process, which often involves threatening or even imposing procedural obstacles to the passage of reform unless and until they gain the opportunity to exert influence over its shape. The Freedom Caucus is not averse to making common cause with Democrats to outvote its own party leadership on the floor of the House, while the small group of Republican senators currently making trouble for McConnell similarly constitute a strategically pivotal voting bloc, given the close margin of party control in the chamber.

Jonathan Chait and Brian Beutler argue that the public maneuvering of the past few days indicates that there probably aren't 51 votes in the Senate to repeal and replace the ACA in anything other than cosmetic fashion. That's true for the moment, though it would be premature to conclude that repeal is doomed to failure. At this stage, it's likely that the senators currently wandering off the leadership reservation are raising public doubts in order to assert control over the reform process rather than to derail it entirely. Tellingly, one of the troublemakers is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who might well be expected to seize an opportunity to establish his own independent authority over both the substantive and procedural content of reform. The relatively pragmatic and policy-minded Alexander will be in the position to argue that the only bill with a prayer of passing the Senate will be one that he writes himself, and that his committee—not the House leadership or the hard-line Tea Party bloc—should therefore take the lead in developing the elusive Republican alternative reform package.

Such claims will not sit well with the Freedom Caucus or other Republican factions, which will use similar tactics in order to seek control of the process for themselves. This fight could get messy, and the current GOP congressional leadership does not have an impressive record of successfully uniting its members in support of ambitious, complex, politically controversial policy initiatives. It's not difficult to imagine large-scale reform ultimately foundering due to unresolvable differences between the House and Senate, or between party pragmatists and conservative purists. Over the past few weeks, as the reality of imminent one-party rule has begun to settle upon Washington, a number of Republican officeholders have begun to acknowledge that "repeal-and-replace" is much more complicated in practice than it might have initially appeared.

However, it's very difficult to gauge the prospects for ACA repeal without further insight into the intentions of the new president. Donald Trump holds unique political influence within his party that he could exploit to crack some heads on Capitol Hill and get a deal done (what Republican member of Congress would want to end up on the wrong side of a presidential Twitter rant?). If Trump identifies ACA replacement as a top priority and devotes the necessary attention and energy to the issue during the first months of his presidency, it would be hard to deny the possibility of legislative success—even if it were followed by significant policy complications that would then invite a popular backlash against Republican politicians.

If he really wants fundamental reform to pass, however, Trump will have to assure congressional Republicans that he won't sell them out. There will be some unavoidable political costs to a true repeal-and-replace approach, and GOP members will need Trump to provide them with political cover by sharing these costs. Right now, they are probably unsure of his loyalty—and, based on his past behavior, they have reason to be. 

What happens when citizens, some of them Trump supporters, begin to complain that he and his party are messing around with their health insurance? Does Trump take responsibility for the policy implications of repeal-and-replace, or does he respond to blowback by disavowing the Republican replacement plan and blaming Congress for any unpopular consequences? It would truly be a political nightmare for congressional Republicans if they were to cast tough votes to repeal the ACA only to have a president of their own party join the chorus of critics.

So far, it doesn't seem as if the incoming president has communicated to congressional Republicans that health care reform is in fact his primary legislative objective, or that he will stand with them politically over the months and even years that will be necessary to see it through to completion. One senator even pleaded with Trump this week to clarify his health care ideas via Twitter—which, though it inspired some mockery, would at least have the advantage of publicly committing the new administration to some specific choices and thus send valuable signals to the Hill about how best to proceed.

ACA repeal isn't dead, but it faces little chance of surviving the arduous legislative process without significant presidential investment. Unless Trump is willing to publicly and privately devote himself to the cause (and assume the corresponding political risks), Congress is unlikely to do the heavy legislative lifting required to enact significant further change to the American health care system. If he wants to claim victory over Obamacare, Trump needs to join the fight.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

How Obamacare Repeal Illustrates Conservatism's Central Challenge

Over the past eight years, the Republican Party has publicly stood for nothing so much as the proposition that the Affordable Care Act—a.k.a. "Obamacare"—is more than just a misguided set of public policies but is in fact a fundamental threat to cherished values. Congressional Republicans have referred to the ACA as a "stunning assault on liberty" that "tramples on the freedoms of Americans" and is itself "un-American"; former party leader John Boehner warned in 2010 that the legislation would cause an "Armageddon" that would "ruin our country." The implementation of the ACA's provisions over the course of Obama's presidency has done nothing to reconcile the GOP to the act's existence nearly seven years after its enactment, and party members have energetically pursued various attempts to overturn or undermine the law—from judicial challenges to state-level Medicaid expansion blockades to the unsuccessful Ted Cruz-led government shutdown maneuver in October 2013.

Soon after the ACA was passed, Republicans collectively adopted a slogan of "repeal and replace"—committing the party to repealing the hated Obamacare while replacing it with a "better" alternative. Republican politicians have not found much success in specifying exactly what that alternative would be, despite repeated promises over the past seven years that the public unveiling of their own detailed health care plan was just around the corner. Even if the GOP's pledge to enact a different version of health care reform represented a clever rhetorical strategy more than a serious policy position, however, it still contained a key implicit concession. By promoting the idea of a superior legislative replacement (however hypothetical it might be), Republican leaders were acknowledging that the central purpose of the law itself—government-initiated expansion of citizen health-care access—was not per se illegitimate, and that revoking the benefits provided by the ACA to millions of Americans by merely ripping out Obama's reforms by the roots was not a politically palatable stance.

With Donald Trump about to assume the presidency, Republican leaders are now considering how best to translate the "repeal and replace" pledge into a concrete legislative program. This has proven difficult. Congressional Republicans understandably wish to satisfy their own ideological commitments (and the demands of their party base) by moving quickly to pass repeal legislation. But without a replacement proposal ready to go, the current strategic plan involves delaying the actual implementation of repeal for two years or more.

In some respects, advocating such a relaxed timetable is a curious position for a party that has previously characterized the ACA as representing a menacing threat to the very future of America itself. But Republicans have found themselves in a genuine political bind. Repealing Obamacare carries substantial political risks for the GOP; voters seldom reward politicians for denying them benefits that they have previously enjoyed, while the health care industry as a whole could experience substantial disruption due to funding cuts and uncertainty about future federal policy. (Even the kick-the-can-into-2019 approach currently favored by Republican congressional leaders could have the effect of unraveling the individual insurance market as early as this spring, if insurers respond by pulling out of the marketplace ahead of schedule.) With unified Republican control of the federal government arriving on January 20, voters would not be confused about which party to blame for any problems that might occur.

The Republican health care dilemma has become a microcosm of the larger challenge faced by the conservative movement for the better part of a century. American conservatives are committed to the ideal of limited government power as a means of protecting individual liberty, and have repeatedly promised to achieve "revolutionary" reductions in the size and role of the federal state. Yet rolling back the scope of government is very difficult in practice, since most of what it actually does—providing benefits to various classes of citizens—is politically popular. Even conservative politicians maintain an instinct for electoral self-preservation that encourages them to assure constituents that nobody will be left worse off by their policy proposals, and some conservatives have been known to support new expansions of federal responsibility, despite their stated small-government principles, as an effective means of appealing to voters.

Thus the increasing electoral success of an increasingly conservative Republican Party over the past 40 years of American politics has yet failed to result in an overall reduction of federal authority. When conservative activists complain that Republican politicians talk a good game about shrinking government but seldom follow through once in office, they have something of a point. As Matt Grossmann and I explain in Asymmetric Politics, much of the GOP's distinctive governing behavior reflects the enduring gap between the American public's general preference for "small government" in the abstract and its collective support for most specific government activities.

Republicans are therefore simultaneously filled with excitement about the prospect of repealing Obamacare—or, at least, passing legislation that can be sold to the party base as repealing Obamacare—and rife with anxiety about being blamed for any unpopular consequences that might ensue. One interested party has recently communicated some concern on this point. In a series of tweets posted on Wednesday, Donald Trump exhorted Republicans to "be careful" to make sure that "Dems own the failed Obamacare disaster" which, he predicted, would "fall of its own weight."

Trump's words reflect a recognition that the "big-government" ACA has served as a highly effective foil for Republicans during the Obama presidency, but that the partisan calculation is likely to change once the GOP assumes sole responsibility for federal policy-making. Politically speaking, it's much easier to continue to rail against the Democrats from the opposition bench than to start fiddling around with people's health insurance in a way that might put one's own party on the defensive. Of course, if Republicans do receive blame for any changes to the American health care system that inspire a popular backlash over the next four years, such blame will be shared by, and even primarily directed at, the next occupant of the White House—even if his substantive role is limited to signing legislation crafted by his fellow partisans on Capitol Hill. The recent Twitter record suggests that such a realization is dawning on said occupant.

It is still very difficult to predict exactly what health care policies will be enacted by the incoming Congress and presidential administration. Most probably, Republicans will successfully rescind some of the ACA's provisions while leaving others at least partially intact. For Democrats who view the legislation as one of their party's most important and hard-won policy achievements, even an incomplete dismantling of the law will be a heavy blow. Yet anything less than total repeal-without-replacement will result in a federal role in the health care realm that will remain larger in 2020 than it was in 2010—rendering the conservative movement's central goal of reducing the government's reach in domestic affairs that much further away from realization.