Thursday, July 12, 2018

Democrats Don't Need Unity to Win Elections: New Op-Ed in the New York Times

In every election year that I can remember, media pundits have spent a lot of time worrying (or crowing) that the Democratic Party is sabotaging its chances of victory. And, of course, 2018 is no different. As Matt Grossmann and I write today in the New York Times, Democratic disunity isn't an electoral disadvantage—though the developments of 2018 point toward serious future internal fights over which policy issues should receive top priority once the party regains power in 2020 or beyond.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

In Both Parties, Primary Voters Have Trump On Their Minds

Last Tuesday, Alabama congresswoman Martha Roby was held to 39 percent of the vote in the Republican primary in apparent punishment for her long-ago disavowal of Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October 2016. Roby faces a tough July 17 runoff election, where she will need to win an outright majority of votes in order to salvage her congressional career. This Tuesday, fellow House member and ex-governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina lost his own race for renomination to another Republican challenger whose main line of attack against Sanford cited his penchant for criticizing Trump.

Scattered election results don't always add up to a pattern—Sanford, in particular, carries his own personal baggage that long predates Trump's ascendance—but Tuesday brought another revealing set of outcomes in Virginia. Two-term Republican congresswoman Barbara Comstock represents a district that Hillary Clinton carried over Trump in 2016, yet her own party's voters do not appear to have much patience for her attempts to maintain an independent political persona in order to preserve her general-election viability. Without much advance warning, a relative unknown challenger from the right held Comstock to just 61 percent of the vote in the Virginia Republican primary. At the same time, Republican primary voters in northern Virginia provided Corey Stewart, an outspoken defender of the state's Confederate heritage, with the margin he needed to capture the party's U.S. Senate nomination.

One might expect that the population of wealthy, well-educated, professional, politically-connected Republicans who reside within the Washington suburbs would render northern Virginia about as promising a place as anywhere in the country to find a GOP electorate that was relatively skeptical of Trump and Trumpism. But there's little trace of such sentiments within the latest primary returns, in Virginia or elsewhere. In fact, it's hard to identify a single consistuency nationwide where Republicans are sufficiently numerous to realistically compete in general elections but where separation from Trump, even in muted form, is devoid of serious political risk for party candidates.

Open criticism of the current president from within the ranks of Republican officials is thus likely to be restricted to the handful of retiring incumbents—Jeff Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker, John Kasich—who no longer fear retribution from their own party's voters. Other Republicans may grumble on background to reporters about the current administration, but the message they hear from their voters these days is, at least in their perception, a demand for unconditional public loyalty. This state of affairs is only likely to change if the conservative media, now acting as the most powerful source of opinion leadership within the Republican Party, sours on Trump—which hardly seems possible in the immediate future.

It's not just Republican voters who are preoccupied with Trump these days. The abrupt surge in the share of women nominated for Congress by Democratic primary electorates that I discussed last month has remained intact through the recent round of primaries, representing an unmistakable response to Trump's election.

As of this week, a majority of states have now held primary elections for the 2018 midterms, and it is safe to say that the number of female House nominees on the Democratic side will set a historical record by a wide margin. In fact, Democrats have nominated 74 non-incumbent women for the House so far, which already exceeds the all-time high number (73) reached by the party in the 2012 election—with 24 states yet to hold primaries this year and several others with unresolved runoffs. Currently, 41 percent of Democratic House nominees are women, including 48 percent of non-incumbent nominees (see below). More than a year into his presidency, the shadow cast by Trump over both sides of American politics seems only to be growing in size.

Monday, June 04, 2018

What the Governor of Massachusetts Tells Us About American Voters

A new WBUR poll of Massachusetts residents confirms that the incumbent governor, Charlie Baker, is overwhelmingly popular and in excellent position to win a second term by a landslide. Baker is viewed favorably by 67 percent of poll respondents (compared to just 9 percent with unfavorable views) and leads each of his two potential general-election opponents by an identical 40-point margin. The 2018 election will feature pivotal and highly competitive governors' races in a number of states from Maine to Nevada, but we Bay Staters appear likely to be deprived of such excitement this fall.

Baker is a Republican running in a normally Democratic state and a pro-Democratic national electoral environment, yet he is not merely favored to win but heavily so. In an era in which it is fashionable to characterize Americans as hopelessly "tribal" in their partisan loyalties, he has managed to become broadly well-liked across party lines (in fact, according to the WBUR data, Baker is slightly more popular with Massachusetts Democrats than among his fellow Republicans). Baker's success thus represents a rare outlying case that allows us to better understand the foundations of contemporary political conflict in the United States. What has allowed him to escape the partisan wars that have scarred so many other politicians?

Part of the answer is Baker's own public persona. He has made efforts to define himself as an ideological moderate by breaking with conservative doctrine on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and gun control, and he has not proposed deep budget cuts in education or other popular public programs. Baker has also distanced himself from his party's national leadership, refusing to endorse Donald Trump (whose favorability rating in Massachusetts is just 29 percent, according to the WBUR poll) in 2016 and publicly criticizing the president's actions and words on several occasions.

But the behavior of the Democratic opposition is also important. By and large, Democratic leaders in the state legislature and state constitutional offices have taken a cooperative approach to the Baker administration rather than attempting to exacerbate partisan rancor at every turn. Democratic voters who are liable to take cues from their own party officials when forming opinions on political matters thus have little reason to form a critical view of Baker's governorship. Because both of the possible Democratic nominees for governor are relative unknowns with limited fundraising capacity, the 2018 campaign is unlikely to change enough Democrats' minds about the incumbent's job performance to plunge him into electoral danger.

For all the evidence that Democratic and Republican citizens increasingly disagree over policy issues and view each other in negative personal terms, it's still important to acknowledge the role of messages from elites—politicians, interest group leaders, media figures—in regulating the climate of partisan conflict. The mass public is often portrayed as fatally inattentive to political nuance, but it does seem to notice when party leaders prize collaboration over confrontation (and vice versa). At the national level, however, it has become rare for both sides to view mutual cooperation as serving their interests at the same time—and even if party leaders themselves wish to turn down the partisan temperature, they face increasing pressure to remain maximally combative from ideological media outlets and other powerful actors, especially on the Republican side.

One of the common themes of this blog is that politics is inevitably full of tradeoffs. For Charlie Baker, a moderate and mild-mannered governing style may well guarantee him a second term in office but will almost certainly prevent him from rising in the national Republican Party. For Donald Trump, slash-and-burn politics has succeeded in satisfying conservative activists and media authorities, but at the cost of legislative productivity and an unusually energized Democratic opposition. Yes, Americans are collectively divided these days—but it's important to note that such developments don't happen on their own. Inevitably, there are political leaders, whether in or out of office, who are doing the dividing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

For Democrats, 2018 Is the Year of the Woman...and 2020 Too?

Opinion polls confirm that Democratic voters don't like Donald Trump any more than Republicans liked his predecessor Barack Obama, but anti-Trump popular activism ("the Resistance") has received a small fraction of the press coverage that the Tea Party movement attracted in 2009 and 2010. There are several reasons for this imbalance: the absence of a liberal counterpart to the powerful conservative media universe; the relative lack of bitter internal conflict within the Democratic Party as compared to the Republicans' persistent battles over ideological purity during the Obama years; and a Trump presidency that has itself produced an overwhelming barrage of daily headlines, making it difficult for any other story to gain sustained notice.

During the rare breaks in the Trump-generated action, media attention has occasionally focused on what has appeared to be a surge in political participation by women, from the well-attended Women's March of January 2017 to reports of an increase in female campaign donors to studies indicating a rise in women-led political organizing efforts. With Tuesday's primaries in Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky (plus a primary runoff in Texas) bringing the number of states that have already selected 2018 party nominees to 13, collectively holding 34 percent of the total number of House seats nationwide, it's a good time to examine whether the number of female congressional candidates is in fact historically exceptional, and whether—as one recent story suggested—such a trend is apparent in both parties, not just among the Trump-allergic Democrats.

Calculating the share of women among House nominees, and non-incumbent nominees, within each party in the states that have held primaries so far, and comparing these figures to previous years, yields the chart below. As Susan B. Anthony might say, wowee zowee:

So far in 2018, 43 percent of the Democratic nominees for the U.S. House are women, producing what would be the highest share of female congressional nominees in history for a major party by far if sustained through the remaining two-thirds of the primary calendar (the current record is 29 percent, set by the Democrats in 2016). In the districts with no Democratic incumbent seeking re-election, women actually outnumber men at this point in the nomination season by a margin of 51 seats to 50.

These numbers will shift somewhat in one direction or the other as more states hold their primaries. But it's apparent enough by now that we are witnessing a dramatic and historic change in the gender distribution among Democratic congressional nominees, caused by a rise in the supply of, and demand for, female candidates within the party in the wake of Trump's election (and Hillary Clinton's defeat). It's equally clear that this development is not occurring in parallel on the Republican side. In fact, the GOP is drifting the other way—so far, only 7 percent of the party's House nominees this year are women (compared to 12 percent in 2016), the lowest share for the party since the election of 1988. The proportion of female Republican nominees isn't much bigger when incumbents are excluded (9 percent).

From time to time, I'm asked whom I think the Democrats will nominate for president in 2020. With no obvious heir apparent in the party and a large field of probable candidates, I find it impossible to guess which individual contender is most likely to emerge from the nomination process two years from now. Moreover, the surprises of 2016 have left some of us supposed political experts with an enduring dose of humility that leads us to be wary of forecasting electoral outcomes.

But there is one prediction that I have been making with a great deal of confidence: I think there will be very strong sentiments among many Democratic activists and primary voters to nominate another woman for president in 2020. This doesn't mean a woman will win for sure; the nomination system is complex and multifaceted, and multiple female candidates could easily split popular support among themselves in the pivotal early states to the strategic benefit of a male opponent. But it seems certain that Trump's ascendance will cause gender to be even more salient among active Democrats next time than it was in 2008 and 2016, when the first viable potential female nominee sought the presidency. The primary results of 2018 thus represent both a critical contemporary development and a likely foreshadowing of our political future.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

What We Can Learn From the Demise of Trump's Infrastructure Plan

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed what had already been apparent for months: Congress is not going to enact infrastructure legislation this year. In its early weeks, Trump treated infrastructure investment as a major goal of his presidency; as recently as January's State of the Union address, it served as one of the primary elements of his proposed legislative agenda. But the details of the plan remained vague, enthusiasm among congressional Republicans was palpably limited, and periodic attempts by the White House to talk up the issue always seemed to be derailed by unrelated distractions of its own making.

Even in a conventional administration, "presidential initiative hits dead end in Congress" is hardly an unusual story. But the death of the infrastructure proposal also tells us something about the current state not only of the Trump presidency, but of the wider Republican Party.

Most national political leaders, most of the time, have historically operated under the assumption that they will be rewarded by the electorate for delivering widely popular policies and benefits; in the pithy words of Bill O'Reilly, voters are thought to "want stuff." This inclination tends to provide a brake on ideological extremity, encouraging members of the majority party to resolve their internal differences in order to amass a collective record of productivity and accomplishment. The ability to claim credit for working the system to provide funding for projects in their home states and districts was once seen as a significant advantage for incumbents running for reelection—and even as an explanation for the structure of Congress itself. Previous presidents have likewise habitually advanced policy priorities that were popular with average voters—from Bill Clinton's crime bill and welfare reform to George W. Bush's prescription drug benefits and public education funding—even if they departed at times from party orthodoxy.

But today's ideologically-oriented Republican Party increasingly rejects this logic. Rank-and-file Republicans, increasingly afraid (with good reason) of primary challenges from the right, are reluctant to support centrist or bipartisan legislation regardless of its overall popularity. Legislative leaders, who normally concern themselves with protecting the party's majority by playing to key voters in competitive seats, must now also keep a worried eye on their own right flank. The Senate majority leader has been cast as a sellout to conservatism by members of his own party in several Republican primaries this year, while the speaker of the House is departing from Congress rather than endanger future political ambitions by risking his reputation for ideological fidelity.

The president has found it politically useful to sell himself in public as a get-it-done Mr. Fix-It rather than a conservative thinker—and, indeed, media coverage during the 2016 campaign mostly adopted Trump's own framing of himself as a maverick outsider dedicated to "making deals" rather than upholding philosophical principles. But Trump hasn't placed much emphasis on backing up such pronouncements with action once in office, instead amassing a strongly conservative record in both personnel and policy matters.

Failing to pass an infrastructure bill might deprive Trump and congressional Republicans of a political advantage heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Spending more money on infrastructure is much more popular with the American public than Congress's actual priorities this session: cutting taxes on the wealthy and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Imagine a President Trump who planned to spend the coming summer touring the country, triumphantly demonstrating his patriotic dedication to rebuilding the nation with each well-televised ribbon-cutting ceremony. Other Republicans, too, would have received tangible benefits to offer voters whose disapproval of Trump's personal behavior might have been tempered by his success in demonstrating effectiveness in office—to the endless frustration of Democratic congressional challengers.

Instead, Republicans have made a different choice. Party leaders are desperate to avoid further alienating a skeptical party base that they believe is already dissatisfied by the lack of spending cuts in the March omnibus appropriations bill, and that might treat additional "pork barrel" legislation as an outright ideological betrayal. Most top Republican politicians, including Trump himself, are daily consumers of Fox News and conservative talk radio who worry more about stimulating high turnout among Republican voters than about attracting electoral support from outside the party; as a result, they wish to avoid doing anything that might lead to critical coverage from right-of-center media. Most, Trump presumably excepted, are also themselves committed conservatives whose personal political beliefs would also discourage support for a major federal infrastructure initiative.

The demise of Trump's infrastructure plan thus represents both a revealing window into the current Republican Party and a collective political bet placed by Republican politicians on the smartest strategy for contesting the 2018—and, perhaps, 2020—elections. One notable characteristic of the Trump era is a growing perception that voter support, at least on the right, is best sustained via symbolic appeals rather than policy deliverables. The GOP's adherence to this hypothesis may ultimately risk a fatal backlash led by the rest of the public against a presidency that has so far offered more drama than substantive accomplishment. But it surely holds a natural allure to a president who seems much more inclined to verbal volatility than applied action, and it may prove to be a sufficient way for Republicans to rally their own side in the coming electoral battles with an energized Democratic opposition.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

More on the Conservative Media in the New York Times

Today's New York Times column by Tom Edsall concerns the rising power of conservative media within the Republican Party in the Trump era. It draws on research and analysis by a number of scholars and practitioners, and quotes at length from my latest paper with Matt Grossmann, "Placing Media in Conservative Culture." You can find the column here, and the full version of our paper here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Party Asymmetry in the Trump Era: Op-Ed in the New York Times

Not long ago, I wrote about the lack of a "liberal Tea Party" in the Trump era. In our latest op-ed piece for the New York Times, Matt Grossmann and I delve deeper into this question—and explain why being a member of the anti-Trump "resistance" requires you to keep your weekends free for one protest march after another. As veteran Honest Graft readers will know, this argument draws upon our 2016 book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ryan Was an Odd Fit as Speaker, and His Exit Proves It

The retirement of Paul Ryan after only two and a half years as speaker of the House, though rumored for months, was made official on Wednesday morning, setting off a race to succeed him as leader of the House Republicans. I very much recommend this post from Jonathan Bernstein, and have a few additional thoughts of my own.

It's impossible to understand Ryan's speakership without understanding the bizarre circumstances under which he came to power. John Boehner abruptly announced his departure from Congress in the fall of 2015 after anti-Boehner Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus threatened to force a procedural motion to depose him. Boehner's previous lieutenant and heir apparent, Eric Cantor, had unexpectedly been defeated in the Virginia Republican primary the year before, and Cantor's successor Kevin McCarthy, presumed at first to be next in line for the speakership, proved unable to line up enough votes within the Republican conference. (McCarthy, who remained as majority leader, is preparing to take another shot at the top leadership position now that Ryan is leaving, though the voters will decide in November whether or not that position is the speakership.)

Ryan, who was not a member of the party leadership at all in 2015 (he was chairing the Ways and Means Committee at the time), was finally persuaded to stand for speaker by an increasingly desperate Boehner in concert with other senior Republicans, protesting all the while that he was not actively seeking the job and didn't really want it. As it turned out, this wasn't just clever posturing designed to increase his leverage with the Republican conference. From the day he took the speaker's gavel until the present, Ryan has consistently behaved very much like someone who wasn't especially comfortable in the role and whose primary political preoccupation was to avoid suffering the awkward fate—unsentimentally pushed out the door in the midst of a congressional session—that had befallen his immediate predecessor.

It turns out that there are pretty good reasons why the speaker of the House is usually a veteran party "pol" rather than an ideologue or policy specialist—and is usually someone who views the position as the desired culmination of a long-held ambition rather than a potential impediment to his or her even greater future plans. While Boehner, a widely underrated leader, repeatedly put himself on the line politically in order to protect his party, Ryan instead risked his party in order to protect himself—including by the way he announced his retirement.

Throughout his tenure in office, Ryan acted more like an ideological activist than as the leader of a party or a country. Ideological leaders of the left and right have their place in our political system, but that place is seldom at the head of a congressional caucus. Boehner understood that the greater interests of his members sometimes required him to take heat from conservative insurgents for departing from ideological purity; Ryan instead manuevered to direct blame onto others in order to preserve his own reputation in conservative circles.

Donald Trump's shocking rise to the presidency presented Ryan with a series of challenges that he lacked the political creativity or courage to address effectively. Ryan never had a good plan for protecting the Republican conference in the House from being seriously damaged by Trump's political deficiencies. He neither found a way to publicly distance his electorally vulnerable members from Trump's antics nor advanced a popular set of policies for which they could claim credit in 2018. Ryan's office played a major role in developing the one major legislative achievement of the current Congress—the December 2017 tax reform act—but the bill directed its benefits to such a narrow segment of the population that it turned out to have limited appeal among average voters. By the end of the race in last month's special election in Pennsylvania, Republicans had more or less stopped trumpeting the tax cuts in their campaign advertising, concluding that the issue didn't really help them win support even in a seat carried easily by Trump in 2016.

Ryan could have used his own platform as speaker to send Trump signals that certain presidential behavior would have negative consequences—or to reassure the electorate that a Republican Congress could be counted upon to serve as at least an intermittent check on the chief executive. Instead, Ryan tended to treat reporters' questions about Trump as hostile "gotchas" designed to embarrass him personally, and he declined to act when the House Intelligence Committee, one of the last vestiges of bipartisanship and institutional independence on Capitol Hill, devolved into pettiness and rancor over the Trump-Russia issue. In general, Ryan was less inclined than previous speakers to talk or act like an officer of the United States government rather than merely the leader of a partisan majority, even though Trump's ascendance arguably made such a responsibility even more important in his case.

Finally, Ryan's own departure from Congress has occurred in a manner that puts his own career ahead of other Republicans' interests. Had he left last year, he could have plausibly argued that the electoral climate in 2018 was not yet clear; had he waited until after this fall's election, he could have avoided sending the message during the campaign that Republicans were likely to lose control of the House and would have delayed an open leadership fight within the Republican conference that will now play out over the course of the election season. But Ryan, who at 48 can dream of a long political future beyond the speaker's office, did not wish to risk associating himself with what may turn out to be a devastating electoral defeat. He may be the captain of the House Republican Party, but he has no intention of going down with the ship.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why The "Liberal Tea Party" Doesn't Exist (And Why Some People Think It Does)

As we head into the 2018 primary election season, some reporters and pundits have raised the question of whether Democratic nomination contests will turn into activist-fueled ideological purity tests—in other words, a liberal version of the Tea Party movement that has so famously roiled the Republican Party over the past decade. But it's hard to sustain the case that the Democrats are about to undergo a leftward lurch driven by a demanding party base. Conor Lamb, the newest member of the House Democratic caucus, just won a special election in Pennsylvania after running a campaign in which he opposed gun control and pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi for party leader. Last night, the socially conservative, anti-ACA incumbent Dan Lipinski narrowly won renomination from a safely Democratic district in the Chicago area. In the Senate, meanwhile, 17 Democrats recently joined Republicans to support a banking deregulation bill strongly opposed by Elizabeth Warren and other economic liberals in the party. If a partywide leftist purge is indeed imminent, it's quite well-disguised.

Matt Grossmann and I explained in Asymmetric Politics why the Democrats are much less vulnerable to ideological purification campaigns than Republicans are, and we summarized our argument in this piece for Vox Polyarchy. Part of the story is that the American left simply lacks much of the institutional infrastructure that promoted and sustained the Tea Party rebellion on the right, such as powerful ideologically-driven media sources, interest groups, and financial donors. (The number of politically active leftist billionaires is....not large.) But it's also true that many Democratic voters simply don't think of politics in ideological terms or prize doctrinal fidelity over other qualities—such as perceived electability, group identity, or ability to deliver concrete policy achievements—when making their choice of candidate.

So if there isn't much evidence of a "liberal Tea Party," why is anybody talking about it? One reason is that the assumption of party symmetry is deeply entrenched in the minds of many political observers, who expect any trends on one partisan side to inevitably appear in comparable form on the other. Another is the well-documented tendency of media coverage to frame stories in ways that emphasize conflict, or at least the possibility of conflict ("if it bleeds, it leads"); for example, this recent Politico article does its best to hype the existence of a "Democratic civil war" exacerbated by Lamb's victory even though there's nothing in the actual piece that justifies using such hyperbolic language.

A third is that Republicans, facing a poor electoral climate this year, have adopted the talking point that their fortunes will be salvaged by a raft of extremist opponents nominated by far-left Democratic primary electorates. House Speaker Paul Ryan brushed off Lamb's victory last week by claiming that "this is something that you're not going to see repeated, because they didn't have a primary [referring to Lamb's selection by a local Democratic committee to compete in the special election]. They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative."

But there's something else at work here as well. Purist leftism, to the extent it exists in America, is especially concentrated in the circles—metropolitan, well-educated, highly internet-active—in which many media members themselves travel. Based on their own anecdotal experiences, or at least their social media feeds, it's easy for them to start thinking that left-of-center politics is consumed with protests of ideologically unpalatable campus speakers, debates over whether Bruno Mars is guilty of cultural appropriation or whether RuPaul is prejudiced against the transgender community, and endless relitigation of the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders presidential race as a proxy for the direction of the American left as a whole. (In reality, as my research shows, Clinton and Sanders supporters in 2016 were split much more by age, race, and party identification than they were by ideology.)

Put simply, the online left is not representative of the Democratic Party. Visitors to local Democratic caucus or committee meetings in most parts of America will find that the public employees, union officials, trial lawyers, nonprofit association administrators, and African-American church ladies who actually constitute the party's activist backbone are, by and large, neither preoccupied with ideological purity nor in a state of rebellion against its current leadership. And though the election of Donald Trump has surely angered and energized the Democratic base, there's no particular reason to think that anti-Trump sentiment will lead to an internal ideological transformation. 

The scholars Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol, who are studying the citizens—especially the women—newly mobilizing against the Trump-led GOP, report that a strong sense of pragmatism prevails among their subjects. "This is not a leftist Tea Party," they explain. "It is not a Sanders versus Clinton redux [or] Occupy Wall Street-type questioning of liberal democracy . . . [T]he metropolitan advocates to whom the national media turn . . . at times exaggerate the left-progressive focus of the activism underway and overestimate their own importance in coordinating it." Instead, Putnam and Skocpol find a lot of middle-aged suburban professionals moved to act by their horror of Trump and determined to work strategically to oppose him. "At the current pace," they predict, "it seems likely that the pop-up leaders and grassroots groups of 2017 will, by 2019, have repopulated the local layer of the Democratic Party in much of the country."

The logic of Asymmetric Politics doesn't imply that one party is inherently in better shape than the other, but rather that each side has its own distinctive set of problems. The Democratic Party is suffering from a number of contemporary weaknesses, made undeniable by its inability to defeat a deeply flawed Trump candidacy in 2016. But Democrats remain well-positioned to avoid the specific pathologies that have recently plagued the Republican opposition: endless primary challenges to veteran incumbents, Freedom Caucus-style legislative rebellions, the elevation of cable news hosts into positions of power over elected officials. Jettisoning the assumption that one party is simply a mirror image of the other would not sacrifice the balance and objectivity of news media coverage, but it would greatly improve its accuracy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pennsylvania Special Election Recap: Good News for Democrats? Yes. 100+ Seats in Play This Year? Not Quite.

It's always possible to overinterpret the outcome of a single special election; at the same time, even one more data point can help us make a little bit more sense of the political world around us. Here are a few things that can be gleaned from tonight's results in Pennsylvania:

1. The photo finish between Democratic candidate Conor Lamb and Republican nominee Rick Saccone (with Lamb currently in apparent position to eke out a victory) in a district previously considered safely Republican indeed represents a notable development, but not a shocking one. It comports with the historical pattern of electoral politics: the opposition party reliably makes gains in midterm elections, and the magnitude of the swing is correlated with the (un)popularity of the president. The importance of tonight's outcome lies primarily in its confirmation that these dynamics still hold today as they have in the past. But the current state of President Trump's job approval rating and the congressional "generic ballot" polling already signaled that 2018 is likely to be a good year for Democratic candidates.

2. Even so, the outcome in PA-18 may itself prompt members of the Washington community to revise their predictions about what's likely to happen in November, although there's plenty of existing information on which to base their analyses. There's an undeniable psychological difference between expecting something to happen and actually watching it occur. I remember the 2006 midterms, when—despite piles of survey data pointing to a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives—a number of pundits had a hard time actually envisioning an end to what at that point was a 12-year Republican reign over the House until the votes actually came in on the night of the election.

As for the parties themselves, whatever spin we hear from either side doesn't mean very much. What's important is what they do. Will Republicans start to act as if they believe their majority is now in serious danger? Will there be criticism directed, on the record or on background, by rank-and-file members of Congress toward Republican leaders, including the president, for putting the party in such a precarious position? Or will incumbents sincerely adopt the view that the results in PA-18, along with those in the Alabama Senate race last year, reflected a mismatch in candidate quality more than a fundamental deterioration of the GOP's electoral strength?

3. Special elections can also be opportunities for the parties to test out their campaign messages in advance of a national vote. One lesson that the Republicans appear to have taken away from their Pennsylania experience is that the December tax cut bill is of limited popularity and/or salience in the electorate. Since the current congressional majority has few other accomplishments for which to claim credit, this suggests that the fall elections will be fought over something other than the legislative record of the past two years. (It's likely at any rate that the midterms will be dominated by Trump and Trumpism regardless of what most individual candidates do.)

4. It's common for election analysts these days to use the 2016 presidential election results, or measures derived from them (such as the Partisan Voting Index, or PVI), as a benchmark to characterize the party leaning of states and congressional districts: a +5 Clinton seat, a +10 Trump seat, etc. In general, presidential and congressional voting results are strongly correlated, making these figures good rules of thumb in most cases. But there are still parts of the country where voters behave somewhat differently when choosing presidential and non-presidential candidates; moreover, the distinctive candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (and, before that, Barack Obama) have the potential to produce slightly misleading pictures of the "fundamental" partisan composition of a particular constituency.

Specifically, it's worth noting that while PA-18 gave Trump a 20-point margin over Clinton in 2016, Democrats still slightly outnumber Republicans in the district's party registration figures. Washington County, most of which lies within the district, supported Trump over Clinton by 60 percent to 36 percent and Mitt Romney to Obama in 2012 by 56 percent to 42 percent, but had narrowly preferred John Kerry to George W. Bush in 2004 and had given Al Gore a 53-44 advantage over Bush in 2000.

Of course, things have changed since 2004, and recent elections are more predictive of future outcomes than more distant ones. But it's worth keeping in mind that the world of American politics did not experience a complete rebirth in 2016, rendering all previous history irrelevant. With more time and perspective, we'll be better able to tell how much of the 2016 alignment represents a "new normal" and how much is a temporary deviation from longer-term patterns.

The demonstration that a Democratic candidate like Lamb could win back many former supporters, especially among the white non-college population, who had defected in 2016 is good news for the party. Democrats are defending multiple Senate seats in states that not only supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but also shifted significantly in the Republican direction in 2016—including Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, and Ohio. In order to avoid a devastating series of defeats in Senate races this year, Democrats need to attract voters who had previously backed the party's candidates but who either abandoned Clinton for Trump or merely stayed home.

At the same time, I'd recommend being a bit wary of the claim, oft-repeated during Tuesday night's coverage, that there are more than 100 Republican-held House seats that are more electorally vulnerable than PA-18. Again, that's true if we use PVI or Trump's 2016 margin over Clinton as the sole measure of partisan competitiveness, but PA-18 has more of a Democratic tradition—and labor union presence—than most other districts that gave Trump (and Romney before him) comparable margins.

Republicans undoubtedly appear to be in serious danger of losing their 24-seat (now, perhaps, 23-seat) House majority later this year. But any implication that the number of seats gained by Democrats in November could approach triple figures is not exactly realistic.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Nothing Affects the Washington Climate Like Presidential Job Approval

There are many ways in which the Trump presidency is historically distinctive, but one of the most consequential is how unpopular it has been right from the start. Before Trump, even those new presidents who won a close election or entered office amidst controversy enjoyed a "honeymoon period" of elevated public support during the first months of their administrations. Of the previous twelve presidents who served during the era of modern survey research, eight ended their first year in office with average job approval ratings of at least 55 percent, and approving citizens outnumbered disapprovers at that stage of their term for all twelve.

But according to the poll aggregator at FiveThirtyEight, Trump's approval rating has never climbed higher than 48 percent—which in itself represents a transient peak reached briefly in the days immediately after his inauguration. The share of Americans who disapproved of his performance first exceeded those who approved on February 4, 2017, barely two weeks into his presidency, and reached 51 percent of all surveyed citizens (including those who responded "don't know") on March 16; it has not dropped below this level since.

These approval ratings matter a lot for presidents. Denizens of Washington, both in and out of government, pay close attention to the polls and maintain a rough consensus across partisan and ideological lines over whether the president is popular or unpopular, gaining or losing ground. Job approval numbers act as a kind of highly visible thermometer measuring the political climate surrounding the White House, and everyone in the vicinity agrees that high temperatures are much more comfortable than low ones.

Presidents with positive ratings can harness their popularity to pressure Congress, to win battles with organized interests, and to recruit strong candidates for their party in congressional elections (and discourage strong potential opponents). But the latest reported survey numbers also strongly color the press coverage that presidents receive. Journalists and commentators rely on approval ratings as an accessible and "objective" measure of presidential success, and they also tend to be very sensitive to accusations of being snobbish or out of touch with the wider public. How better to demonstrate that one is properly attuned to the preferences and perspectives of Mr. and Ms. America than by crediting presidents with effective leadership when the polls say the voters are happy and by dwelling on their failures when the electorate is doing the same?

In 2002 and 2003, for example, media coverage routinely characterized George W. Bush as tough, decisive, dedicated, politically deft, administratively effective, and surrounded by a skilled team of subordinates. By 2007 and 2008, after both the national economy and the Iraq War had fallen into crisis on his watch, Bush was frequently portrayed as detached, out of his depth, and hampered by political and managerial incompetence. It was almost as if the occupant of the White House had become a different person entirely. What had happened instead was that the same man—with, presumably, the same personal qualities—had seen his national popularity drop by more than 50 percentage points from one point to the next.

The various public mishaps and chronic internal tensions of the Trump administration would have produced a series of unfavorable media stories in any circumstance, but the collective Washington judgment that the current chief executive is fundamentally ill-suited to his position is much less likely to have formed if his approval ratings had remained above 50 percent. Trump had an opportunity immediately after his shocking electoral upset to convince professional observers that he served as an adept and formidable messenger of a growing populist rebellion. However, the public's dim response to his governing record from its earliest days forward has merely reinforced the general perception that he is instead something of an accidental president—and, above all, a particularly hapless one. If a consistent majority of Americans told pollsters that they trusted Trump's judgment on how to handle North Korea, viewed the Mueller investigation as illegitimate, and found the president's Twitter persona charmingly delightful, the tone of press coverage on these and other matters would be much different than they are. And Democratic leaders would be faced with persistent questions about whether their party was mired in an enduring crisis.

Given the current state of (relative) national peace and prosperity, it's likely that a president who lacked Trump's unappealing personal attributes would be enjoying positive job approval ratings these days. Another, more popular Republican incumbent would be in a position to protect the party's congressional majorities in the 2018 midterm elections—and even to sow havoc in the ranks of the opposition by forcing red-state Democrats to choose between angering their party base and alienating the general electorate in their home constituencies. (The extent to which Trump's foibles have limited the political pressure on vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents like Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri is one of the undertold stories of the 2017–2018 session of Congress.) Even if one believes that the president has been more successful than acknowledged, or even that he is on track to win a second term, surely the opportunity cost paid by the Republican Party for electing President Trump rather than a President Rubio or President Kasich is still quite considerable.

A few weeks ago, a series of polls started to report a minor upward trend in Trump's job approval. Because the media love to have something new to talk about, this movement received a substantial amount of notice in the press even though the president's rating only rose a few points into the low 40s on average (41 percent according to FiveThirtyEight, 42 percent according to RealClearPolitics, and 43 percent according to HuffPost). In part, the approval bump attracted attention because it coincided with a narrowing of the Democratic advantage in the "generic ballot" polls asking voters which party they plan to support in the 2018 midterm elections.

Over the past 10 days or so, however, Trump's modest surge has started to reverse, and the generic ballot is also moving back in the Democratic direction. We'll no doubt experience several more such fluctuations between now and November, and a few media stories proclaiming a "Trump comeback" will likely ensue whenever the polls register upward momentum for a week or two. From a larger perspective, though, the current administration remains historically unpopular, and only a truly dramatic, double-digit shift in voter sentiment could fully convince the Washington community that the president had regained his touch with the public.

One particularly curious quirk of the oft-atypical Trump regime is the apparent absence of a standard White House political shop headed by a professional strategist with substantial internal access and influence—a Karl Rove, David Axelrod, or Jim Baker type. In a normal presidency struggling with subpar approval ratings and a looming national election, well-connected publications like the Washington Post and Politico would be filled at this stage with one story after another about this operation's internal analysis of its political difficulties and its planned strategies for restoring the political standing of its party in the months before the balloting started.

But the current president, his chief of staff, and many of his top aides all lack substantial partisan-elective experience; if there is indeed anyone directing such an effort, it seems to be a well-kept secret at the moment. (What's Kellyanne Conway up to these days?) Expect increasingly nervous congressional Republicans to soon start dropping hints in the press that a White House habitually shrouded in a fog of its own self-made distractions is not paying enough attention to the potentially perilous fate of its nominal allies on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are Washingtonians too, after all—and just like everyone else in their community, they're keeping a close eye on those job approval ratings.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Today's Generation Gap Is Being Widened by the Conservative Media

Americans disagree much more about politics today across generational lines than they did in the well-chronicled era when youthful cultural icons announced to their parents that "your sons and your daughters are beyond your command" and "I hope I die before I get old." The partisan differences between the youngest and eldest cohorts of voters have not received the same public attention as other forms of contemporary political conflict, but they are now bigger in size than the more celebrated divisions between men and women, the college-educated and the non-college-educated, and the residents of red and blue states.

Younger people may be reliably more idealistic and less nostalgic than their elders, but that doesn't always make them more liberal. In the 1980s, for example, Ronald Reagan and other Republicans ran as well or better among the young as the old. Reagan-era conservatives appealed to younger Americans by portraying themselves as innovative and forward-thinking, while arguing that the Democratic Party had become a corrupted relic of bygone days.

But over time, the dominant tone of conservative rhetoric has become darker, more pessimistic or alarmist about the future, and more critical of ongoing social trends of which young people largely approve. Conservatives responded to the rise of Barack Obama, a personally popular figure among younger Americans, with eight years of relentless opposition. And as conservatism's messages have evolved, so too has the receptiveness of newer generations to conservative politicians and ideas. Voters under the age of 40 were evenly split between the parties as recently as the 2000 election; by the 2010s, the Democratic Party was reliably prevailing among this age group by margins of 20 points or more.

From time to time, Republican officials have expressed concern about this development and have proposed steps to increase their party's standing among younger voters. But power within the extended Republican network has been flowing away from politicians and toward the conservative media over the same period that the GOP's youth problem has emerged. It's media talking heads, not elected officials, who are now the primary spokespeople for American conservatism. Freed from political candidates' need to court a popular majority, the increasingly loud voices of Fox News and talk radio are free to appeal to their smaller core audience of right-leaning senior citizens by ignoring or even explicitly ridiculing the concerns and activities of younger Americans.

Contemporary conservative rhetoric is often characterized by exhibitions of bewildered discontentment directed at younger people and the cultural environment that envelops them. Mockery of millennials and college students as "snowflakes," "campus crazies," and "social justice warriors" has become commonplace in conservative media outlets over the last few years, intensifying when an issue arises that especially activates the generational divide. Last Thursday, for example, a 54-year-old conservative prime time host engaged in a public fight with a 33-year-old who is also perhaps the most popular professional athlete of his generation, insisting that his proper role in society is to "dribble" rather than express his views about race relations in the United States.

As high school students who survived the Parkland, Florida school shooting have mounted a public anti-gun campaign over the past week, several conservative media personalities have responded by suggesting that the young age of the activists renders their opinions on the subject illegitimate. (Meanwhile, the more conspiratorial corners of the conservative media ecosystem have reacted in their own unique fashion, dismissing the students as actors on the payroll of shadowy leftists.) President Trump, himself a conservative media figure before he ran for elective office, argued today that violent movies and video games help to encourage school shootings—placing responsibility for social violence on young people's own consumer choices.

All in all, the messages transmitted by conservative elites these days are doing little to redirect younger citizens' collective left-of-center political alignment. Even young adults who are skeptical of gun control or other liberal causes are unlikely to respond positively to the argument that they should automatically defer to the judgment of their elders on political matters, or that social ills can be cured by regulating their favorite pastimes.

It's possible that the current state of political conflict will lead today's younger citizens to form a lifelong preference for the Democratic Party, thus burdening Republicans with a long-term electoral disadvantage. Whether or not that happens, however, the more immediate consequences of stoking generational warfare are not necessarily unfavorable to conservatives. Seniors and near-seniors have become more pro-Republican over the past decade, and they participate in politics at much higher rates than their children and grandchildren.

So far, evidence of an incipient millennial-led liberal revolution is much more apparent in the youth-dominated pop culture world than in a political system led by conservative Republicans at every level of government. If conservative media rhetoric is partially at fault for alienating young people from the Republican Party, it may be equally responsible for attracting more older Americans to the ranks of the GOP during the same period. Fox News Channel recently retired its famous slogan "Fair and Balanced"; perhaps its next catchy motto will be "Don't Trust Anyone Under 30."

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The GOP Made Trump More Conservative—But Trump's Also Making the GOP More Conservative

The single biggest pearl of Beltway conventional wisdom to suffer irreversible tarnish in 2017 was the notion that Donald Trump stood for an iconoclastic "populism" poised to redefine the dominant governing ideology of the Republican Party. Trump's past support for Democratic candidates and policies, his weak ties to conservative elites in Washington, and his infrequent rhetorical devotion to the American right's familiar themes of limited government, constitutional fealty, individual liberty, and traditionalist sexual ethics convinced many political analysts during the 2016 campaign that he represented a dramatic break from his adopted party's existing ideological legacy. Critics ranging across the political spectrum from National Review to Barack Obama reinforced the dominant news media judgment that Trump was not a regular conservative—and voters ultimately agreed, perceiving Trump as significantly closer to the ideological center than previous Republican presidential nominees.

But the existing Republican Party has exerted a strong gravitational pull on Trump, who seems to lack many personal substantive commitments and who does not command a larger faction of allies within the GOP dedicated to shifting its platform away from standard conservative positions. Indeed, Trump's record in office so far can be fairly described as the most consistently conservative of any president in modern history, as he has proven to be much less inclined than Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, either George Bush, or even Ronald Reagan to pursue centrist or bipartisan initiatives in select policy domains.

And in at least one major area, it's Trump who's pushing other Republicans in a conservative direction rather than vice versa. The extensive attention devoted by the mainstream media to Trump's verbal departures from conservative doctrine on topics like trade, Medicare, and the Iraq War in 2016 somewhat obscured the fact that on his signature issue—immigration—Trump quite conspicuously ran to the ideological right of the rest of the Republican presidential field, to say nothing of the Democratic opposition.

While Candidate Trump's invocations of economic populism and military non-intervention have not often guided the policy positions of President Trump's administration, his commitment to reducing the number of immigrants residing in the United States has only deepened once in office. The Trump campaign mostly emphasized combating illegal immigration via more aggressive internal enforcement and a "big, beautiful wall" across the Mexican border, but the Trump presidency is also pursuing a significant cut in legal immigration rates and proposing reforms to the criteria governing the process of granting authorization to would-be residents. Attempts by congressional Democrats and a few breakaway Republicans to provide "DREAMers" with legal status in exchange for increased border security funds have now foundered in Congress due in large part to newfound presidential demands over the past few weeks that major reductions to lawful immigration also be included in the deal.

To be sure, the Republican Party as a whole has not yet openly embraced Trump's call for slashing legal immigration rates. Even some supporters of the Senate legislation endorsed by Trump are not publicly defending the very provisions in the bill that would implement such a policy, and business interests within the Republican Party network are unlikely to be satisfied (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already expressed its opposition). But the bulk of congressional Republicans, including top leaders in both chambers, have backed the Trump administration's proposal to resolve the DACA issue by rolling it into a larger reform bill that would otherwise shift immigration policy in a more restrictive direction on the legal and illegal fronts alike, while opposing the narrower DREAMers-for-security-dollars swap negotiated by a bipartisan Senate group.

There are political risks to the Trump approach. Previous Republican presidents departed from ideological purity because they also prized racking up legislative achievements and appealing to voters beyond their party base. Trump is making a very different bet—though not necessarily an incorrect one—that holding to a tough line on immigration will either compel Democrats to make further concessions or keep an issue alive that works to his electoral advantage even if he can't (accurately) claim progress in constructing his famous border wall. The pragmatic, deal-making, I-can-fix-it Trump we heard so much about during the 2016 campaign still makes occasional appearances for the benefit of the cameras; only last month this Trump publicly told Congress he'd sign any bipartisan agreement on DACA and "take the heat" from his supporters for doing so. But the Trump who actually governs, the Trump who shot down the bipartisan agreement with which he was then presented in a fusillade of anger, is best understood as the increasingly ideological leader of an increasingly ideological party.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Don't Expect Much Legislation From Congress in 2018

Even during normal political times, the internal operation of Congress gets much less than its rightful share of attention from the news media and public. With Donald Trump as president? Forget it. But amidst all the other drama of this eventful week, a few important clues emerged about the road ahead for Congress in 2018. They all seem to point in the same direction: to a relatively unproductive legislative year.

First, it's important to note that Congress has some major unfinished business left over from 2017, due to its failure to pass annual appropriations legislation by the end of the previous fiscal year on September 30. Instead, the government has been funded via a series of short-term continuing resolutions that periodically expire and require extension (allowing the Senate Democrats to engineer last week's temporary government shutdown simply by filibustering the latest iteration). Congressional leaders have signaled that they don't expect to reach a final agreement on domestic and military spending levels before March at the earliest, which means that another resolution will need to be passed next week to keep the government open until then.

When combined with an impending need to raise the federal debt ceiling in order to prevent default on the national debt, this means that a fair amount of legislative energy over the next two months will be devoted to what would normally be considered the basic necessities of government. Even next week's vote on a new continuing resolution is not free from complication; dissatisfied conservative purists threatened this week to join with Democrats to vote it down on the floor of the House and thus force another shutdown. Past experience suggests that Republican leaders will ultimately strike a deal with a sufficient number of party holdouts to push the bill through, but every day spent on negotiations over appropriations is a day lost to other priorities.

The decreasing probability that Congress approves a budget resolution this year also indicates that Republicans will not be able to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a major item on the party's legislative agenda by a simple majority in the Senate (as they did last year to enact tax reform). While some members of Congress express enthusiasm for taking another crack at repealing the Affordable Care Act, doing so would require not only passage of a budget resolution but also persuading two of last summer's three opposing Republican senators to change their minds (since the December election of Doug Jones in Alabama has narrowed the partisan margin in the chamber to 51–49).

President Trump's unusually policy-free State of the Union address also seemed to signal a lack of imminent congressional action. Trump's speech included a brief advance promotion of his infrastructure plan (the public release of which is, according to his aides, perpetually just around the corner) but did not leave the impression that he or his administration would devote much energy in the near future to pressuring reluctant conservatives or persuading opposition Democrats on the subject.

It's also an election year in which the current partisan majority, at least in the House, is vulnerable to defeat—which means that Republicans will be in no mood this summer or fall to spend long weeks legislating in Washington rather than attending to their home constituencies. Other leaders might have acted to build a longer list of legislative accomplishments prior to the midterms by finding topics with popular appeal that were well-situated for bipartisan dealmaking—anti-sexual harassment and assault measures? maybe something on opioids?—but it seems clear from this week's party retreat that Republicans have decided to focus their 2018 electoral message on taking credit for last year's tax cuts.

That leaves immigration as the most likely subject matter of any major non-budgetary legislative initiative enacted between now and November, though the chances still seem fairly modest from today's perspective. The approaching March expiration of DACA will compel the two parties to devote the next month to negotiations, but the probability of a comprehensive immigration agreement appears remote absent a significant concession by one or both sides. More likely, Trump will be faced with a choice between a narrow deal and no deal at all.

The decaying state of the legislative process in Congress is a subject that deserves much more public consideration than it has received. The decline of committee influence and expertise, the increasing power of party leaders at the expense of other members, the increasingly slapdash approach to major policy-making, and the fading institutional loyalty of incumbents to the legislative branch are all developments with wide-ranging implications for the workings of American government; they  should rightfully concern members of both parties. Even in a period of electoral triumph, many Republicans have expressed dissatisfaction with the congressional experience—and are voting with their feet by retiring in record numbers.

Relegated to the minority, at least for now, Democrats aren't any happier. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia briefly threw a scare into his fellow members of the Democratic caucus late last month when he flirted with retirement—which would almost certainly have thrown his seat to the Republican opposition. Manchin was persuaded to seek another six-year term in the Senate this November, though not before he expressed his displeasure with the operation of the institution whose members once frequently pronounced themselves the "world's greatest deliberative body."

"This place sucks," said Manchin.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Real Leverage on DACA Isn't Shutdowns, It's Stephen Miller

On Friday night, most of the Democratic caucus in the Senate protested against the lack of legislative progress on fixing the DACA program by voting against cloture on a Republican continuing resolution (CR) funding the federal government through February 16, thus precipitating a government shutdown. On Monday, most Democrats joined Republicans in voting to reopen the government through February 8—having won an informal agreement that the Senate majority leader would bring an immigration reform bill to the floor if one is produced by a bipartisan working group of senators.

Compared to the original demands of Senate Democrats, the "deal" they struck to reopen the government didn't look like much of a victory. Compared to 1995-96 and 2013 (when Republicans got nothing but political pain out of two much longer shutdowns), winning a shorter CR, a public pledge by Mitch McConnell, and a six-year reauthorization of the CHIP program (included in both bills) seemed like a pretty decent haul. But the experience seems to have left feelings of dissatisfaction across much of the party; moderate Senate Democrats either opposed or reluctantly supported the shutdown in the first place, while some liberal activists complained that Democrats caved too early and thus revealed the shallowness of their sympathy to the plight of the DREAMers.

Extracting a big payoff from a shutdown is probably impossible in most cases, because the cost is borne not only by the political opposition (if at all) but also by the public at large. Even if they sympathize with the underlying objectives, citizens will soon start to wonder why they have to suffer the inconveniences associated with an unfunded government. For a party out of power, forcing a shutdown is somewhat like running out onto the field during a sporting event—it seems in the moment like a dramatic act of defiant self-assertion, but immediately upon execution reveals a limited consideration of the key question "so then what happens?"

It's true that most Americans support a solution that would allow the DREAMers to remain in the United States lawfully; it's equally true that most Republican politicians are reluctant (with good reason) to cast their votes in favor of any bill that could be characterized by a future primary opponent as constituting "amnesty for illegals." The main obstacle to successful bipartisan negotiations over the issue has been the long and growing list of concessions that Trump and other Republican leaders have demanded as a price for their support. But these demands in turn reflect a political reality in which risk for Republicans exists much more on one side of the issue than the other—and government shutdowns aren't likely to change those calculations much.

If the DACA expiration date of March 5 arrives without a deal, however, the Trump administration will have to decide what to do about the DREAMers. It's quite possible that Trump will choose not to prioritize immigration enforcement measures against those who have registered under DACA despite the program's nominal cessation; it's also possible that the administration's freedom to maneuver will be limited at least temporarily by legal action. But there's a reasonable chance that Trump, encouraged by the immigration hawks on his staff like White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, will preside over the deportation proceedings of significant numbers of DACA-eligible immigrants.

Polling suggests that such a development, if it occurs, would be unpopular with the public, and congressional Republicans already facing an electoral headwind in 2018 would not welcome a campaign season characterized by widespread media images of sympathetic DREAMers being detained by federal agents. Another president might be counted on to spare his party such politically difficult developments in an important election year, but Trump hardly enjoys the private trust of his fellow Republican officeholders. If a bipartisan DACA agreement is indeed successfully enacted into law—an improbable development, from today's vantage point—it is much more likely to reflect Republican fears of an untrammeled Trump than another shutdown showdown.

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.