Friday, May 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Congressional Republicans Won't Abandon Trump Over Comey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 04, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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