Thursday, October 19, 2017

New Book: Red Fighting Blue

I'm very happy to announce that my new book, Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics, has just been published by Cambridge University Press in paperback, hardcover, and eBook formats.

The book explains how the emergence of significant and persistent regional differences in partisan voting patterns in both presidential and congressional elections since the 1990s has had a profound effect on party politics in the United States. The American electoral system, with its geographically-defined voting constituencies and winner-take-all rules, has greatly magnified these differences when translating the preferences of citizens into electoral college outcomes and the partisan and ideological composition of Congress. The moderate Democrats formerly elected in large numbers from what are now the "red" states and the moderate Republicans who once represented the "blue" states are both disappearing from office, leaving increasingly polarized parties and an ever-shrinking scope of electoral competition. In an age in which the two major parties are closely balanced but each increasingly dominant across large regional subsections of the nation, the specific ways in which the geographic distribution of party support interacts with the rules of the American electoral process accounts for how our politics works—or doesn't work—in the 21st century.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why Do People Think Tax Reform Will Swing the 2018 Election?

Last week, I described why we should be skeptical of the view that the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections will be substantially affected by whether or not Republicans succeed in enacting tax reform. But my previous post did not explain why such a belief can become widely accepted in Washington despite the lack of hard evidence behind it.

The extent of this acceptance is illustrated by a Wednesday article in the New York Times stating in its second paragraph that "one political and legislative reality is suddenly becoming crystal clear: Republicans must deliver a tax cut or face an epic backlash that would pose a significant threat to their governing majority and long-term political health." The article presents this claim not merely as one plausible account of the electoral stakes of reform but as a "crystal clear" political "reality" beyond legitimate analytical contestation.

The author of the article, a veteran Capitol Hill reporter, is no doubt accurately portraying the prevailing sentiment among Republican members of Congress—and perhaps among Democrats as well. Republicans really do feel desperate to rack up a major legislative accomplishment. Most of them are ideologically committed to tax cuts as a worthy substantive goal, and it's very easy for them to convince themselves that good policy is also good politics. The assertion that failure to enact tax reform will lead to electoral doom in 2018 is also a powerful argument with which to convince fellow partisans to unite around legislation. Everybody had better get with the program, Republican leaders are no doubt telling their membership, or we'll all feel the pain.

Conservative interest groups are sounding the same message. The Times article includes a quote from Scott Reed, a former Republican campaign professional who now works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that characterizes success on tax reform as politically "vital" for the Republican Party. Reed's remarks are somewhat amusingly framed as a kind of objective analysis, though they are in fact an act of political advocacy: the Chamber wants tax reform to pass and, toward that end, is naturally promoting the idea all around Washington that the GOP has no choice but to deliver if it wants to stay in power.

But journalists and other analysts do not always concur with the strategic judgment of politicians or accept the self-serving spin of interest groups. Why is the view that tax reform represents a "must-pass" proposition for congressional Republicans so convincing to outside observers?

One answer is that media coverage perennially and systematically overstates the extent to which electoral results reflect the calculated behavior of politicians. This is partially because candidate actions are by far the most visible component of campaign dynamics, and partially because journalists are embedded in the same social environment as politicians and campaign consultants, who also habitually overstate their own influence. Within this world, electoral outcomes are typically interpreted as primarily reflecting the traits of particular candidates or the "messages" with which they court voters. It can be hard to accept that elections are mostly decided on the basis of factors—such as the state of the economy or the job approval rating of the president—that are mostly out of the control of congressional incumbents and their advisors.

But there's something else at work as well. Human nature encourages us to perceive the existence of a kind of cosmic justice in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. If a "good" congressional party is focused, harmonious, and legislatively prolific, and a "bad" party is fractious, undisciplined, and unproductive, it's only natural to believe in a world in which a partisan majority that delivers on its policy goals and commitments goes on to reap electoral benefits from a grateful public while one that fails to do so faces the righteous wrath of a betrayed citizenry.

Trouble is, history gives us no particular reason to believe that this is how the world of politics actually works. The current state of the Republican Party is itself a testament to the lack of reliable correlation between popular success and leadership ability; the GOP is in its strongest electoral position since the 1920s but is arguably less equipped to govern, at least at the federal level, than at any point in living memory. Likewise, the Democrats of the late 1930s and 1940s were very good at winning national elections and not very good at uniting behind a common policy agenda.

If there is an actual iron law of politics, it's that few benefits are unaccompanied by corresponding costs and that trade-offs and paradoxes abound. (Hence the seemingly oxymoronic title of this blog.)

Sometimes Congress does little and voters reelect its members anyway; sometimes it does a lot and voters respond by rebelling. Democrats produced a series of major legislative initiatives in 2009–2010 and were "rewarded" with the enduring loss of their congressional majority. Republicans adeptly harnessed popular resentment against Barack Obama to win control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but that same resentment led to the rise of a troublesome Tea Party movement and the installation of an unusually unpopular and ineffective president as party leader. And it is that president, not their own legislative record (or lack thereof), that represents the biggest impediment to Republican electoral success in 2018.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Can Tax Reform Really Save the Republican Regulars in 2018?

A series of recent news articles over the past few weeks describes sinking morale within the ranks of Republican congressional leaders and their allies. The failure of the Graham-Cassidy health care reform bill in the Senate, combined with the victory of Roy Moore in the Alabama Republican Senate primary, has increased the sense on Capitol Hill that an angry bloc of Republican voters is ready to punish party incumbents for failing to implement the ambitious conservative legislative agenda that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell promised last winter.

Normally, the congressional leaders of a president's party could at least expect the White House to come to its defense. But we are not in normal times. President Trump, of course, has repeatedly and angrily expressed his frustration with the congressional GOP in general and McConnell in particular. His erstwhile political strategist Steve Bannon, freshly exiled from the West Wing, is now apparently dedicating himself to the recruitment of challengers to "establishment" Republicans in next year's House and Senate primaries. Vice President Mike Pence is usually considered a loyal party man—at least in comparison—but his own chief of staff was secretly recorded this week encouraging high-dollar donors to rebel against insufficiently pro-Trump Republicans by withholding financial support and even actively backing intra-party challengers.

Amidst this increasingly menacing haze, Republican regulars are now fixing their eyes on tax reform as a potential escape hatch. The repeated defeat of health care legislation has only raised the perceived stakes for the passage of a major tax initiative. "Republican leaders are making no attempt to mask their fear," reported the New York Times on Thursday, "predicting that failure to pass a tax overhaul in the coming months will lead to a wipeout in next year's midterm elections." The argument is simple enough: if tax reform falls apart the way health care reform did, incumbent Republicans will have no major accomplishments to tout, and disgruntled conservatives will respond in 2018 by supporting insurgent challengers in Republican primaries and/or by declining to vote in the November general election.

But accepting this logic requires viewing tax reform as itself a sufficiently valuable prize in the eyes of Republican-leaning citizens that its passage alone is likely to represent the difference between loyalty to the current stock of party incumbents and widespread disaffection or rebellion. There are at least two reasons to be skeptical of this assumption.

First, it's not at all clear that active Republican voters in the Trump era are as energized by the potential enactment of tax reform as they are by the prospect of repealing Obamacare, building the border wall, and achieving other currently-stalled party priorities. Will the simmering anger that many Republicans have expressed toward their own party's congressional leadership for the past decade really be extinguished by the passage of a single bill on a subject that has hardly dominated popular conservative debate in recent years?

Second, the actual plan that is emerging from negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House focuses largely on reducing the tax burden of businesses and very wealthy individuals; millions of middle-class and upper-middle-class citizens would receive a minimal reduction or even a net increase in their tax liabilities. Proponents argue that the plan would produce additional economic growth that would in turn ultimately boost wages and employment rates for the non-rich; even if those predictions come true in the medium-to-long term, however, it is unrealistic to expect perceptible economic payoffs to arrive in the months between the signing of the bill and the November election. Whatever the merits of the Republican plan might be, it's simply not a measure designed to provide immediate benefits to the average voter.

A somewhat stronger case for the electoral advantages of tax reform emphasizes three indirect ways in which passage could aid the Republican cause in 2018. For one thing, reform is a popular goal among the party's most generous financial donors—many of whom are apparently withholding their usual contributions at the moment as a form of protest against Congress's lack of productivity so far. If tax reform reopens some roomy wallets that are currently closed, it could help Republican incumbents compete financially against upstart primary challengers and opposition Democrats alike.

In addition, observable progress on major tax legislation over the next few months might help convince a few wavering incumbent Republicans to seek another term in 2018, while a lack of legislative success might similarly encourage those members to consider retirement—leaving behind open seats in Congress that would be vulnerable to capture in the next election by anti-leadership Republicans or Democrats.

A final way in which passage of tax reform might help congressional Republicans politically is that it might get Trump off their backs a bit—or, at least, leave him somewhat less disagreeable than he would be if reform were to fail. The worst-case scenario for Republican House and Senate leaders is an out-and-out civil war with a president who, weakened though he may be in a more general sense, clearly holds most of the power within his own party. Giving Trump a bill to sign hardly guarantees that he will be a loyal asset to fellow Republicans in 2018, but failing to deliver one virtually ensures that he will be a vocal critic of his own party's congressional membership.

All three of these indirect consequences of tax reform could well exert a limited degree of influence over Republican electoral fortunes, but it's hard to see how their combined impact would be significant enough to represent the difference between a good and a bad 2018 midterm for the party. Other external factors such as Trump's job approval rating, the success of Democratic candidate recruitment efforts, the drawing of House district lines, and the staggered terms of the Senate are poised to be much more powerful determinants of next year's outcomes, while the long-term trend of increasingly successful right-wing revolts against "establishment" Republicans is likely to continue whether or not McConnell and Ryan can muster sufficient support for a single piece of legislation.

Republican incumbents are understandably nervous about their prospects in 2018, but that doesn't make tax reform a "make-or-break" proposition for party regulars. We should therefore be wary of analysis that frames tax reform efforts primarily through an electoral lens rather than emphasizing its much more consequential substantive effects and implications for congressional governance and policy-making. If Republican regulars are indeed fatally vulnerable next year in primaries or general elections, passing tax reform will not save them; if they still maintain a clear path to victory, it will likewise not be foreclosed even if legislative success eludes them.