Sunday, July 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Night to Remember in the Senate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Who's Really Winning the Culture War?

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 09, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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