Friday, September 22, 2017

Graham-Cassidy Shows That Politics Is About Ideas As Well As Interests

Critics on the left often roll their eyes when conservatives proclaim a principled commitment to the timeless virtues of limited government and cultural traditionalism. To detractors, conservative rhetoric about values is merely a rationalization of, or mere window-dressing for, the right's actual motivation: the defense of existing social inequalities in the domains of economics, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. Conservatives like to portray themselves as committed to a philosophical cause, according to this view, but they really just care about enacting policies that provide their supporters with financial or social advantage at the expense of everybody else.

As Matt Grossmann and I were writing our book arguing that the Republican Party is fundamentally an ideological movement while the Democrats are distinctively a social group coalition, some of our colleagues accused us of taking conservative ideology too seriously as representing something more than a publicly palatable justification of Republican-aligned groups' own collective self-interest. One attendee at the Midwest Political Science Association's annual conference responded to my presentation of some of our early work by complaining that we didn't understand that Republicans simply do whatever their corporate sponsors tell them to do. (She continued to rant about how ridiculous she thought the paper was in the hallway after the panel was over, personally delivering the kind of "spirited feedback" that we academics more commonly experience through the anonymous peer review process.)

It's surely true that citizens' relative degree of receptiveness to the tenets of small-government conservatism is strongly influenced by the extent to which they perceive a personal benefit from the enactment of conservative policies. But a conception of ideology as simply interests-in-disguise can't account for important elements of Republican Party politics, as demonstrated by the party's ongoing attempts to enact health care reform—the latest of which, the Graham-Cassidy bill, appears to narrowly lack sufficient support in the Senate now that John McCain has announced his intention to vote against it.

The Graham-Cassidy plan is opposed by the American Medical Association, by hospitals, and by patient advocacy groups. Despite the common assumption on the left that Republicans reliably carry water for the insurance industry on health care policy (a charge repeated by Jimmy Kimmel during one of his critical late-night monologues this week), major insurers are also strongly opposed. Though the bill was sold as a boon for state-level policymaking "flexibility," several Republican governors and the national association of state Medicaid officers do not support it. In fact, it's very difficult to identify any definable interest group or segment of the electorate whose material interests would benefit from the passage of Graham-Cassidy—even the wealthy, who gained a substantial tax cut under previous iterations of Republican reform, do not receive one here—and it's equally hard to argue that the American public at large is clamoring for its passage.

So why have Republicans made health care reform the centerpiece of their legislative agenda this year, returning to the issue multiple times despite failure after failure? The answer is that most of the key actors within the party are philosophically unreconciled to the use of government power to grant health insurance benefits to large swaths of the population. For some Republican politicians, reducing the public sector's role in the provision of health care has been a personal cause "since [they] were drinking from a keg"; for others, intense pressure from Republican activists and financial donors has spurred them to pursue repeated attempts at reform despite the considerable frustration and political risk involved.

The ideological basis of Republican behavior on health care also accounts for why the party has taken a slapdash approach to the crafting of legislation, pulling together bills affecting a major sector of the American economy in a matter of days without substantial public debate or favorable expert analysis. Most Republican officeholders are not invested in policy details or particularly curious about how their favored reforms would operate in practice. If any initiative that moves public policy to the right is desirable by definition, the specifics are much less important than the general directional thrust.

It's also noteworthy that while Republican health care reform initiatives are most commonly treated as efforts to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, each major bill—including Graham-Cassidy—has included cuts to Medicaid funding that go well beyond simply rolling back the expansion contained in the ACA. For all the public focus on Trump's supposed personal obsession with exacting revenge on Obama, the true aim of Republican policymakers has consistently been the achievement of a much broader and more permanent reduction of the federal government's health care footprint.

Whether one has been cheering or booing the results, this year so far has marked a clear departure from models of legislative action that emphasize transactional politics among interest-group stakeholders mediated by the application of policy expertise. Of course, such approaches have historically been open to criticism that they are insufficiently informed by broader ideological visions or values. The view that government-provided health insurance amounts to a normatively unacceptable implementation of a leftist or socialist belief system has only become more prevalent among Republicans in recent years, the pragmatic rhetorical patina of Trumpian "populism" notwithstanding. If politics were merely a battle of interests and not a war of ideas, the anti-government health care cause wouldn't keep springing back to life every time it appeared to be DOA.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Asymmetric Politics of Trump's Dreamers Deal

Late last night, Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi triumphantly announced that they had reached an agreement with President Trump over dinner at the White House under which Trump would support legislation shielding the "Dreamers," immigrants brought unlawfully to the U.S. as children, from deportation in exchange for enhanced border security measures (though not Trump's famous "wall"). While there is still considerable confusion about the details of what was and was not explicitly agreed to (confusion stoked in part by members of the Trump administration who probably oppose the deal and are trying to undo it), Trump's willingness to enter a legislative bargain with top Democrats to enact a more liberal immigration policy has predictably taken Washington by surprise.

There will be plenty written in the days and weeks ahead about how this development reflects Trump's own unique personality, unsteady command of policy, and strong feelings of resentment towards Republicans in Congress. Stripping away the individual eccentricities of the current incumbent, however, leaves us with a self-identified conservative Republican president cooperating with congressional Democrats to move domestic policy to the left—which is hardly an unprecedented development. Our Asymmetric Politics framework can explain why Republican presidents seek such agreements, and why Democrats in Congress are also open to them.

One of the most reliable challenges facing Republican leaders is the relative unpopularity of conservative policies among American voters, especially in the domestic sphere. Even many citizens who consider themselves to be conservative Republicans do not support the substantial cuts to public benefits and programs that conservative doctrine prescribes. Despite years of promises, Republicans have so far failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act in large part because of worries from members representing swing districts that revoking health insurance from millions of Americans would prompt a serious backlash, and even pro-repeal politicians—Trump included—repeatedly denied that their replacement plans would result in a loss of coverage despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Recognizing this danger, previous Republican presidents have found signature issues on which to break with their party's ideological orthodoxy by protecting or introducing popular left-leaning policies. George W. Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare Part D prescription drug program; George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, an expanded Clean Air Act, and a raise in the minimum wage; and Ronald Reagan reached bipartisan agreements on immigration, transportation, and Social Security. As Matt Grossmann and I pointed out last month, Trump's record in office up until now has been distinctive for its comparative lack of significant left-of-center policy initiatives, despite ubiquitous media characterizations of Trump as possessing significantly less ideological or partisan fidelity than his Republican predecessors.

Trump knows as well as anyone that symbolic appeals to general anti-immigrant sentiment in the mass public can be electorally powerful, especially in Republican primaries. But he also realizes that a specific policy change subjecting the Dreamers, an especially sympathetic group, to mass deportation would be very unpopular. Though he acquiesced to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other immigration hawks in ordering an end to the DACA program earlier this month, Trump immediately sent signals that he was eager to come to an agreement with Congress to preserve the Dreamers' legal protections.

Some observers find it unusual not only that Trump would be willing to make such a deal, but that Democrats would take him up on it:


The idea that engaging in blanket opposition to a president's policies, regardless of their inherent merit, is smart politics because it causes voters to become disillusioned with the effectiveness of the incumbent administration was a major premise of Republican strategic behavior during the Obama years. Here again, though, the two parties are not mirror images of each other. Democrats don't like Trump any more than Republicans liked Obama, but they are much more likely to remain open to opportunities for policy-making cooperation than their partisan counterparts were during the previous administration.

The main reason for this, as we explained in Asymmetric Politics, is that the Democratic Party is a social group coalition, not an ideological movement. Democrats correctly perceive their constituents as more interested in achieving real-world policy accomplishments furthering their concrete group interests than in remaining true to abstract ideological doctrines or engaging in obstruction for purely electoral aims. Most Democrats are willing to share credit, even with the detested Trump, if they can successfully find a practical solution to the Dreamers' current legal predicament. They came to Washington to legislate, and will happily do so if they can deliver the policies favored by their own partisan base.

We are, of course, a long way from an actual bill hitting the president's desk, and there are many ways that the current agreement can fall apart. But if Trump maintains the capacity to learn from experience, he would do well to take note of the lesson offered by this week's events. He can be a consistently conservative president, or he can be a legislatively productive president. Maybe he'll wind up being neither. But it's really hard to be both.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

How Big a Deal Is Trump's Debt Limit Deal?

Today brought the unexpected news that President Trump had reached an agreement with the Democratic congressional leadership (later publicly endorsed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell) to pass legislation combining Hurricane Harvey disaster relief with an extension of the debt ceiling until December 15 and a continuing resolution funding the federal government through the same date. If a bill containing these provisions successfully makes its way through Congress, it will remove the possibility of a government shutdown or default on the national debt for the next three months.

The media immediately formed a consensus that Democratic negotiators had claimed a major achievement at Republican expense. Politico reported that Trump "sided with Democrats . . . relinquishing the GOP's leverage." The Atlantic called the agreement "Trump's Early Christmas Gift to Democrats." Jonathan Swan of Axios even wrote that Trump had "handed Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer the deal of the century."

It's undisputed that Trump indeed quickly accepted Democratic leaders' offer of a three-month debt ceiling extension over his own party's (and Treasury Secretary's) preference for a longer relief period. The conclusion that Trump had betrayed his fellow Republicans was widely shared by both sides on Capitol Hill; frustrated Republican incumbents privately (and in some cases publicly) griped about the president, while jubilant Democrats attempted to control their outward expressions of glee lest they provoke Trump to reconsider his decision.

But did Schumer and Pelosi really pull off the "deal of the century," justifying the multiple expressions of unfettered liberal elation and conservative dissatisfaction that dominated the day's analysis?

The case for why the deal with Trump was a big win for the Democrats and a horrible defeat for the GOP goes something like this: Democrats managed to secure hurricane relief and three more months of government funding without making any policy concessions to conservatives, while simultaneously guaranteeing that another vote on raising the debt ceiling will be required in just three months' time. Because Democratic votes will be needed once again to avoid a potentially calamitous debt default in December, the party will be in good position to make additional policy demands in exchange for its support. Moreover, the need for Congress to spend the last few weeks of 2017 on spending and debt negotiations will complicate Republican ambitions to complete a tax reform plan before the holidays, leaving the party with no major legislative achievements to show for its first full year in power since 2006.

The main problem with this analysis is that it arguably overstates the capacity of both parties—the Republicans today, the Democrats in the future—to leverage government funding and debt ceiling showdowns to extract major policy concessions from the opposition. It's true that some conservatives had planned to hold the debt ceiling hostage in order to force broad-based spending cuts, just as some liberals might now dream of using similar tactics to jam a legislative authorization of DACA through an otherwise reluctant Congress. But we've had enough of these governing crises over the past few years to conclude with some confidence that they are ultimately resolved via bipartisan agreements that more or less preserve the policy status quo. A hypothetical Democratic threat to endanger the credit of the United States over immigration reform wouldn't necessarily have any greater chance of success than the Republicans' misguided 2013 attempt to compel the repeal of Obamacare by shutting down the government.

Whether the Trump-Pelosi-Schumer deal represents a serious blow to tax reform's chances in the current Congress also depends on one's prior estimation of those chances—which were clearly on the wane even before today's news broke. Republicans are not even close to passing the budget resolution that is a necessary procedural precursor to the consideration of their tax reform plan. (Also, they do not, as of yet, have a tax reform plan.) Republicans can even take solace in apparently avoiding a damaging but entirely plausible scenario: a standoff between Trump and Democratic leaders over funding for a border wall that could have led to an indefinite government shutdown, leaving the congressional GOP caught hopelessly in the middle.

But while the policy implications of Wednesday's deal are unclear and possibly quite modest in scope, the political consequences are much more significant. By endorsing the Democrats' offer in negotiations over the stated position of his own party's congressional leaders, Trump humiliated Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, further intensifying the war between the president and his nominal allies in Congress that has been steadily progressing all summer. This was no accident. Trump nurtures a lengthening list of grievances with both men and was apparently looking for an opportunity to land a few punches. The GOP thus moves closer to a state of open schism between its executive and legislative wings, and the hopes of last winter that Trump would happily follow the direction of veteran party leaders recede even further into the distance.