Sunday, January 14, 2018

Will the 2018 Elections Create Another "Outsider Class" in the House?

The Republican midterm landslides of 1994 and 2010 washed unusually large freshman classes into the House of Representatives; roughly a third of the Republican conference in both the 1995-96 and 2011-12 Congresses consisted of newly-elected members (31% and 35%, respectively). Many of these House freshmen lacked previous experience in elective politics. In 2011, for example, the nation's new federal representatives included people who came to Washington from careers as a roofing contractor, an airline pilot, a nurse, a pizzeria owner, a youth camp director, and a professional auctioneer.

In part because many members viewed themselves as "citizen legislators" sent by an angry electorate to shake up business as usual, the classes of 1994 and 2010 immediately earned reputations for rebelling against Republican party leaders and other senior members; especially in 1994, a number of freshmen had pledged to serve a limited number of terms in Congress—giving them little patience for following the traditional practice of deferring to veteran colleagues while methodically climbing the ladder of seniority. As my political science colleague Richard Skinner recently explained, there is a long-standing historical pattern of large freshman classes forcing a redistribution of power within the House—aside from the two already mentioned, the reformist "Watergate class" of 1974 is another well-known example—thus leaving an enduring residue on the operation of Congress for years after their arrival.

Given the growing evidence that 2018 is shaping up to be a good electoral year for the Democrats that may well result in a Democratic House majority 12 months from now, Richard considers the possibility that a large and boisterous "Class of 2018" might similarly provide the voting power for further rounds of institutional reform or leadership challenges. At the very least, he notes, it is likely that newly-elected Democrats will claim a mandate to constrain the power of the Trump administration, which may produce innovations in procedural antagonism between the legislative and executive branches.

A resurgence of activist energy in the Democratic Party since the 2016 election is evident in the unusually large numbers of Democratic candidates for Congress and the record-breaking fundraising totals they have collectively achieved so far. Surveying the field of candidates in many competitive seats, however, reveals a relative lack of conventionally experienced potential nominees for a year in which the conventional wisdom predicts a favorable environment for the party. In Colorado-6 and Pennsylvania-6, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—an arm of the Democratic House leadership—has officially endorsed military veterans Jason Crow and Chrissy Houlahan to oppose Republican incumbents Mike Coffman and Ryan Costello. In Texas-7, three lawyers, one doctor, one university administrator, and one journalist are competing in the Democratic primary to face nine-term incumbent Republican John Culberson. In Washington-8, an open seat vacated by retiring Republican Dave Reichert, an even larger assortment of candidates (all lacking previous tenure in elective office) are jockeying to advance to the general election against the likely Republican nominee, a long-serving state legislator. Hillary Clinton carried all four of these districts against Donald Trump in 2016; Democrats probably need to win all four in order to achieve a national House majority in 2018.

National party leaders and interest groups usually prefer experienced candidates as congressional nominees, especially on the Democratic side; political professionals tend to have better name recognition and fundraising ability, and are viewed as less likely to commit damaging mistakes or suffer embarrassing personal revelations over the course of the campaign. In most cases, the DCCC would have first attempted to recruit elected officeholders to run in its top targeted districts, and thus the current raft of less experienced potential nominees represents a kind of "Plan B" for national Democrats. It's possible that some of these candidates will stumble during the long election season ahead, complicating the party's ambitions to regain control of the House. On the other hand, candidates who are not "career politicians" may hold their own distinctive appeal among swing voters, and records of business success or military service are commonly recognized by the American public as more than adequate qualifications in themselves for election to public office.

Due to the larger stable differences between the two parties, it's likely that the next Democratic freshman class will be less rebellious than their Republican predecessors even if it contains a significant proportion of politically inexperienced representatives. But a party leadership that is growing decidedly long in the tooth is unlikely to attract as much collective loyalty from a generation of younger members who are newer to politics as it has received from the fellow congressional senior citizens who have served alongside those leaders for decades. On the first day of the 2019-20 congressional session, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will be 78 years old, her deputy Steny Hoyer will be 79, and third-in-command Jim Clyburn will also be 78. Regardless of what happens this November, the time is nearing for House Democrats to consider the question of succession—and a large and independent-minded class of 2018 would be in position to exert plenty of influence over the party's next direction.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Television President

It's fair to say that Donald Trump owes his political career to the medium of television. It was television that successfully sold Trump to the nation as the personification of American business success—from his frequent appearances on talk shows and newsmagazines in the 1980s and 1990s to his prime-time network reality show that lasted from 2004 until he began running for office in 2015. When Trump turned his attention to conservative politics during the Obama years, Fox News Channel offered him a weekly platform to promote his views. And when Trump threw his hat in the presidential ring, he received far more television coverage than any other candidate. Other politicians, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, have often been recognized for their mastery of television, but only Trump harnessed modern media to leap directly into the White House without working his way up the traditional ladder of subordinate political offices, after-dinner speeches at state party fundraisers, and long days of hand-shaking and small talk at state fairs, train stations, and barbershops.

But public discussions of the relationship between television and Trump have perceptibly reversed course in recent weeks. Rather than emphasize Trump's reliance on television as a tool to reach his supporters, political observers have become preoccupied with television's influence on Trump.

The New York Times reported in December that Trump watches between four and eight hours of TV per day, while Axios revealed this week that the daily presidential schedule tends to be liberally sprinkled with periods of "executive time" during which the executive in question is often alone with his remote control. Trump has defensively denied these and similar claims, but the evidence is clear enough—the various subjects addressed by the presidential Twitter account frequently exhibit a close real-time correlation to the programming of cable news outlets, especially Fox News Channel. When combined with Trump's aversion to reading long memos or sitting through extended oral briefings—Michael Wolff has claimed in his new Trump exposé that White House aides view their boss as "semi-literate" and far too impatient to spend much time in meetings discussing substantive issues—as well as an apparent lack of Internet savvy beyond his beloved Twitter platform, we are left with a portrait of a president who absorbs nearly all his information through the tube.

Naturally, this behavior is treated by his critics as demonstrating Trump's profound personal unfitness for the office he now holds. But such conclusions also reflect the remarkably widespread acceptance of the belief that consuming hours upon hours of television news programming, day after day, still leaves viewers dangerously uninformed about current political events, the functioning of the government, and the state of international affairs—an assumption tacitly acknowledged by Trump's own furious denials of habitual couch potato-dom. If it's indeed true that relying on TV to educate oneself about the world is indeed a formula for perpetual ignorance, surely Trump cannot be the only one who is damningly indicted by this fact.

Television is on the whole pretty bad at covering politics, for reasons that extend from the limitations inherent in the medium to the financial calculations guiding the programming choices of television executives. Above all, television demands eye-catching visual footage—which directs its attention to individuals over institutions, to conflict over cooperation, and to activities that occur in public over those happening out of the camera's view. Compared to print media, television coverage tends to dwell on a small number of "top" stories over the course of a typical day, and its temporal frame of reference is nearly always instantaneous; small tidbits of "breaking" news win out over much more important long-term developments. Analysts and reporters are chosen for their ability to speak extemporaneously in real time—and for their more general polish and camera-friendliness—as much as for their substantive insights, and the perpetual desire to build as wide an audience as possible limits any focus on topics not deemed interesting to the average viewer.

These characteristics produce a fairly consistent set of distortions. Above all, television offers a view of the political world utterly dominated by the day-to-day behavior of the president; any other government official normally attracts a similar volume of coverage only upon the advent of a particularly juicy scandal. The internal operation of Congress is commonly treated as an impenetrable mystery or ignored altogether; judicial and bureaucratic politics seldom merit much attention. Events beyond the borders of the United States similarly receive extensive coverage principally on the occasion of American military action or acts of terrorist violence.

Given the consistently president-centric nature of television's political programming, it's surely understandable that Trump the TV addict has struggled for the entire length of his administration to reconcile the differences between the job he thought he was getting and the one he actually has. Trump has repeatedly chafed against the limitations of the presidency's formal powers, complaining repeatedly that members of Congress, federal judges, Cabinet departments, and even the media themselves don't automatically submit to his personal will. He appears much more engaged in those presidential duties that occur in public view—giving speeches, signing laws and executive orders, joint appearances with foreign leaders—than those relegated to the world off camera (such as substantive meetings and briefings, or the negotiations of legislative provisions). The Times report that Trump "told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals" surely rings true to most observers of his presidency—especially to nervous fellow Republicans who wouldn't mind it too much if the controversial and unpopular chief executive ceded the spotlight every once in a while.

This week, Trump reacted angrily to Wolff's portrayal of him as an emotionally unbalanced ignoramus by proclaiming on Twitter that he was, in fact, a "very stable genius" and "like, really smart." In order to substantiate these assertions, Trump unexpectedly allowed televised access to Tuesday's bipartisan congressional meeting on immigration over which he was presiding. Members of both parties came away from the experience without, shall we say, necessarily reporting more confidence in the president's intellectual acumen or command of policy on his signature issue—but it's a safe bet that Trump has not read the political scientist Richard Neustadt's classic work Presidential Power, which argues that presidential success requires maintaining a positive presidential reputation among other elite actors in the political system.

Instead, Trump claimed today that his appearance before the cameras was a triumphant personal success, based in part on his own consumption of the resulting attention on television: "It was reported as incredibly good [and] got great reviews by everybody . . . phenomenal [coverage] for about two hours . . . a lot of [news] anchors sent us letters saying that was one of the greatest meetings they ever witnessed. . . . I'm sure their ratings were fantastic; they always are." In other words, a very special episode.