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.