Thursday, November 21, 2019

November Democratic Debate Recap: Lovefest or Snoozefest?

The Democratic debate Wednesday night was mostly devoid of sharp exchanges between candidates, with the partial exception of a few moments involving also-ran Tulsi Gabbard. To some observers, it was a pleasant and substantive affair; to others—especially reporters searching for a headline—it was a boring anticlimax to a long day dominated by the impeachment hearings in Washington.

The amicable climate was partially due to the MSNBC moderators, who mostly declined to ask questions intended to provoke conflict between specific candidates. Some corners of lefty Twitter credited this dynamic to the fact that all four moderators were women. But female moderators in previous debates have not been reluctant to set candidates against each other; a more likely explanation lies in MSNBC's own house style (personified by Rachel Maddow, the network's biggest star), which sells itself as floating cerebrally above anything that smacks of a mere made-for-TV stunt. Most candidates may also see attacks in a large field as strategically risky unless they can be directed at an easy target like Gabbard.

Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg are all doing well enough in the polls—whether in Iowa, nationally, or both—that debate performances aren't critical for their candidacies at this stage in the race (pundits never seem to think Biden does well in these events, but it doesn't seem to be hurting him with voters), and Gabbard, Yang, and Steyer aren't serious contenders for the nomination. That leaves Harris, Booker, and Klobuchar in the position of needing some kind of breakthrough as the days tick down, and all three seemed to have prepared for Wednesday's debate with an eye toward making a memorable impression with viewers. Notably, each of them made an explicit strategic case for themselves as nominees.

The problem is that they are all, to an extent, in competition with each other to attract media and activist attention during a crucial pre-Iowa stretch in which impeachment, not the Democratic primary race, will be the chief national political story. Journalists will probably agree that they all performed well, but none of them is likely to gain the kind of post-debate bounce that Harris got over the summer but couldn't sustain thereafter. For all three, their best path to the nomination remains a better-than-expected showing in Iowa that carries into the succeeding states. But while it's still early, it's not as early as it used to be, and their hopes increasingly depend on a major stumble by one or more of the front-runners.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Education Is Hurting Republicans in the Suburbs: New Op-Ed in the New York Times

I have a new piece over at the New York Times today explaining how Republican leaders' recent education policies are hurting them at the polls among suburban voters as they play to a conservative base that is growing older, more rural, and less well-educated. Could Republicans reclaim the education issue and win back the suburbs? It's happened before...

Sunday, November 17, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Why Can't Republicans Agree on What Happened with Ukraine?

According to a durable truism of American politics, Republicans find it much easier than Democrats to unite around a single political message. Not all nuggets of conventional wisdom are reliably accurate, but this one has substantial truth behind it: the collective self-definition of the Republican Party as the agent of an ideological movement makes it easier for Republicans to employ a common set of rhetorical themes, while the more coalitional Democrats are routinely speaking to multiple audiences at once. As one satirical headline from The Onion put it, "Democrats Unveil 324 Million New Slogans to Appeal to Each U.S. Resident Individually."

When it comes to the current impeachment inquiry, however, it's the Democrats who are collectively presenting a single theory of the case and the Republicans who are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to find consensus on an alternative argument. The events of this week illustrate the extent of this challenge, and the main sources from which Republican difficulties spring.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee came to Friday's public testimony of former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch with a clear message for the day's session: that Adam Schiff was a liar running an unfairly partisan inquiry. To this end, they took turns reading into the record previous public statements by Schiff that he would seek testimony from the whistleblower whose actions alerted Congress to the Ukraine affair. (Democrats have been abandoning these promises lately as they have found other witnesses willing to corroborate many of the claims in the whistleblower's original complaint.) Republicans also executed a procedural set piece—one of those almost-clever public stunts of which both parties are excessively fond when relegated to the minority—in which Rep. Elise Stefanik began speaking out of order, provoking Schiff to interrupt and deny her recognition; Stefanik and her colleagues then claimed that Schiff was abusing his authority in order to silence the only Republican woman on the committee.

The assumption behind this particular exercise was that Yovanovitch's testimony would not in itself be deemed particularly newsworthy by the press (she had no direct contact with the president, and her deposition in closed session had already been released), leaving partisan sparks on the committee to represent reporters' biggest takeaway from the day's proceedings. But President Trump foiled this strategy almost immediately by launching personal Twitter attacks on Yovanovitch that were soon echoed by his son Donald Trump Jr., stepping all over congressional Republicans' decision to treat her as a well-meaning but ephemeral public servant who was being misused by the real villains, the Democrats. Once Schiff read the president's words to Yovanovitch and invited her to reply, it was clear what the day's biggest media story would be. Republicans, normally reluctant to criticize Trump in public, didn't bother in this case to hide their frustration with his behavior.

Is impeachment a partisan witch hunt using career bureaucrats as dupes, or is it a deep state conspiracy in which they too are implicated? Is Ukraine a loyal ally deserving of the American military assistance that the Trump administration ultimately authorized in September, or did it treacherously intervene in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton? Did the temporary withholding of aid have nothing whatsoever to do with Joe and Hunter Biden, or was it a proper point of leverage to force Ukraine to crack down on the kind of corruption that the Bidens supposedly personify? Were Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland freelancing without Trump's knowledge or approval, or were they carrying out a plan masterminded by the president? Are the executive's constitutional powers so vast in the realm of foreign policy that no presidential act involving another nation could possibly be an impeachable offense?

It's increasingly clear that there is no common set of answers to these questions that both the White House and the congressional GOP can agree on—and stick to. Part of the problem is that Trump is willing to give up a lot of valuable factual ground as long as the normative defense of his actions remains absolute: celebrate him for committing murder and he'll thank you, but woe to the person who mildly criticizes him for jaywalking. Trump's inability to identify strategically counterproductive arguments on his own behalf has already caused him damage on the Ukraine affair. After all, the precipitating event that gave House Democrats a numerical majority supporting the pursuit of impeachment was Trump freely acknowledging to reporters that he had mentioned the Bidens in his July phone call with the Ukranian president.

Republicans' inability to settle on a single overaching defense that fits the uncontested facts of the case isn't likely to shake the loyalties of Trump supporters in the conservative media universe and the mass electorate. But it still makes a difference. Attentive elites in government and in the mainstream media are paying close attention to the impeachment process, and are sensitive to the quality of evidence and debate on both sides. So far, the prevailing view holds that Trump was, at least, up to something fishy with respect to Ukraine that justifies serious congressional examination. This judgment has noticeably colored press coverage and commentary; several journalists opined that the past week was one of the worst of Trump's entire presidency in part because of the effectiveness of the public hearings that began on Wednesday.

The media's reaction to Elise Stefanik's behavior on Friday was especially telling. Up until now, Stefanik has enjoyed a status as a bit of a press darling; as one of the few young Republican women in high-level political office and as a relative ideological moderate, she has regularly received positive coverage as the media-anointed face of a more "modern" Republican Party of the future (a role previously filled by figures like Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Nikki Haley). If the Washington community saw the Democrats' march toward impeachment as a stretch on the merits or a loser on the politics, journalists would have treated Stefanik's gamed-out attack on Schiff as a savvy maneuver or the raising of a fair procedural point, rather than as an attempted distraction by an ambitious Republican merely trying to ingratiate herself with a Trump-dominated party.

There are plenty of understandable reasons why the White House has prevented many potential witnesses from participating in the congressional investigation, and—given what we know—it may well be that Trump's political interests would not, on the whole, be served by honest testimony under oath by his subordinates. Yet one cost to this blockade policy is that there will be few witnesses in these open hearings with the motivation to mount a defense of the president built on their own authority as members of his administration and firsthand participants in the development of Ukraine policy. This unfilled space places even more weight on congressional Republicans, who must advance exculpatory arguments themselves rather than allow them to arise from the testimony of sympathetic executive branch officials. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, then, that the pro-Trump case so far is lacking the ideal amount of internal coherence.

Friday, November 08, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End

This week was the quietest, politically speaking, since Nancy Pelosi's announcement on September 24 that the House of Representatives was moving toward impeachment of the president. The most notable development was Adam Schiff's disclosure on Wednesday that the House was moving from private interviews to public hearings beginning next week, scheduling American ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to testify in open session.

This announcement signals that the fact-finding component of the House investigation is mostly completed. Taylor and Yovanovitch have already met with the committees leading the inquiry in closed session, and these depositions were recently released to the public. Their repeat appearances next week in the presence of reporters and television cameras will generate media publicity, but the public hearings attended by witnesses who already met with the committees are unlikely to uncover any major new facts that were not already brought to light by the skilled professional staff who led the questioning in private. There are other figures who might have further information about the Ukraine matter who are ignoring House subpoenas to testify, from John Bolton to Mick Mulvaney, but Pelosi and Schiff seem to have decided that they are unwilling to wait for the federal judiciary to sort out the validity of these refusals before proceeding.

It may seem premature for the House to already move into the next phase of the impeachment process. But despite the charged partisan conflict over impeachment, most of the factual record upon which it is based is not really in serious dispute. Democrats seem convinced that they've already seen enough to impeach the president. Republicans continue to oppose impeachment, but the defense is starting to shift under the weight of the evidence already presented from a blanket denial that there was a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government to a position that said quid pro quo was either an acceptable and unremarkable tool of American foreign policy, or that it was possibly troubling but not an impeachment-level offense. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that some congressional Republicans may attempt to defend Trump from impeachment by acknowledging that improper acts occurred, but that they were committed by underlings without the president's direction or knowledge.

The impeachment process may not have yet reached its halfway point in terms of the congressional calendar; especially given the upcoming holiday recesses, it's tough to see how it won't spill over into 2020 if the Senate has to conduct a trial. But the broad political outlines have become clear. Except for a handful of scattered critics, Republicans remain publicly loyal to the president (even if they are frequently critical, even furious, when off the record). Democratic support for impeachment appears at least equally solid; nothing in the results of Tuesday's off-year elections will cause Democratic leaders to worry about an emerging popular backlash. The upcoming public hearings and debates will be full of partisan fireworks, but few minds are likely to change from now on unless a new bombshell revelation appears from an unexpected source. It seems that we've already reached the end of the beginning—and the beginning of the end.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Pelosi Puts Her Skills on Display

Since the Ukraine story first broke in mid-September, important developments have piled up at such a rate that it's easy to overlook what hasn't happened. But here are a few headlines that have been virtually absent from the last five weeks of cascading news coverage: "Moderate Democrats Resist Impeachment Inquiry and Distance Themselves from Leadership." "Democratic Leaders Struggle to Satisfy Anti-Trump Base." "Democrats Fret that Impeachment Approach will Backfire in Key Districts." "Committee Chairs Battle over Jurisdiction while Senate Democrats Complain About 'Circus' in House."

This is not because the news media has lost its traditional appetite for juicy tales of internal party conflict. Rather, it accurately reflects the unusually high level of Democratic unity on the impeachment issue. Importantly, this unity appears to endure even in private—unlike on the Republican side, where public displays of support for the president have been accompanied by multiple accounts of anonymous congressional dissatisfaction and sniping at the White House.

Much of the credit for keeping Democrats unified belongs to the Trump administration, combined with the parade of witness testimony that continues to reveal damaging facts about the Ukraine matter at a near-daily frequency. The White House can use the levers of partisanship and conservative media pressure to keep most Republicans from publicly breaking with the president, but it has no obvious strategy for, or even seemingly much interest in, persuading any Democrats not to go ahead and vote for impeachment and conviction. The red meat contained in the October 8 letter to Congress from White House counsel Pat Cipollone, for example, was (among other things) a signal that no Democrat who continued to harbor qualms about impeaching Trump was going to be provided with any defense of the president's position that did not primarily rely on appeals to partisan loyalty.

Still, party unity seldom happens without party actors maneuvering to encourage it. The impeachment process has so far been a showcase for the political acumen of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has managed to keep both Trump-phobic liberals and risk-averse moderates on board with minimal defection or even complaint. Despite initial expectations that impeachment might cause a serious rift in the House Democratic Party, only two Democrats voted against authorizing formal impeachment inquiry procedures on Thursday. The Democratic leadership managed to win support from 29 of the 31 House Democrats representing congressional districts carried by Trump in 2016, including 8 of the 9 Democrats from seats where Trump outpolled Hillary Clinton by at least 10 percentage points.

Successfully wrangling moderate votes on the floor was only one way that the passage of the impeachment inquiry resolution demonstrated Pelosi's skill as a party leader. Though media coverage of the issue has been dominated by partisan fights over whether the House needed to formally authorize an inquiry and whether minority Republicans were being given enough procedural power, much of the resolution itself resolves what could have been a messy conflict over the roles played by relevant House committees as the drive toward impeachment begins to accelerate. Importantly, it places the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Adam Schiff at the center of the process—even though the Judiciary Committee has historically taken the lead in impeachment cases.

It's interesting to speculate about the reasoning behind this decision; my political science colleague Sarah Binder suggests that Pelosi might have given Intelligence the starring role in order to appease party moderates. (While the Intelligence Committee's former reputation for bipartisanship has broken down over the past few years, its membership is still less dominated by partisan show horses than the Judiciary Committee, long a haven for diehards on both sides.) There have also been media reports that Pelosi trusts Schiff more to preside over public hearings than Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler, with whom she has supposedly lost confidence. In any event, turf wars in Congress can be brutal, and even more so when an opportunity arises for potential media stardom once the proceedings move into view of the cameras. So while the formalization of committee roles may seem like inside baseball compared to other aspects of impeachment, the speaker's resolution of this particular issue is a quiet but important illustration of her effectiveness.

Pelosi's success is not unblemished; she has notably failed, at least so far, at fulfilling her own stated belief that impeachment should proceed with bipartisan support (not counting the ex-Republican Justin Amash of Michigan, now an anti-Trump independent). But she continues to be a somewhat underrated figure in the legislative politics of the 21st century, even though her record compares favorably to most of the other leaders who have held the speakership over the past several decades. It's likely that retrospective historical analyses will recognize her key role in clearing the path toward what now looks like a near-certain presidential impeachment.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Republicans Want to Make Impeachment About Schiff, Not Trump

As it enters its second month, the impeachment inquiry is starting to strain the internal cohesion of the Republican Party. Damaging revelations about the Ukraine affair continued to trickle out this week from media reports and the House investigation, making congressional Republicans increasingly reluctant to defend the president's behavior on the merits.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked Mitch McConnell about Donald Trump's claim that McConnell had privately agreed that Trump's July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president was "perfect." McConnell responded by denying any memory of his supposed praise of the president and notably passed on the opportunity provided by the question to confirm that he indeed approved of Trump's handling of the Ukraine issue. Public silence, often justified by claimed ignorance of the latest disclosures, has become Republican politicians' favored response to recent developments; as one reporter wryly remarked on Wednesday, "Once again a surprising number of Republicans are unfamiliar with the biggest story in DC." Many senators, perhaps with some relief, have fallen back on the excuse that, as potential "jurors" in an impeachment trial, it would be inappropriate for them to comment on the emerging factual record.

The Trump team has noticed. "Republicans have to get tougher and fight," Trump complained during his televised Cabinet meeting on Monday. The following day, Donald Trump Jr. criticized Lindsey Graham on Twitter for being insufficently visible in support of the president. A Daily Beast article published Tuesday night described a presidential administration and congressional party that had grown annoyed at each other, with a Senate aide suggesting that there was "very little appetite" among Republican senators for "defending the indefensible." The lack of a "war room" inside the White House for developing and disseminating a common set of talking points continues to frustrate many Republicans on the Hill; ex-John Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told the Washington Post that "in this situation, when only the president and his personal attorney seem to have all the facts, it's hard to have a coordinated defense."

But there are plenty of arguments against Trump's impeachment already in circulation; the president's own Twitter feed is an especially fertile source. The problem is that many congressional Republicans aren't comfortable staking their own credibility on any factual claim made by Trump, or committing to a specific line of defense that may later be abandoned without warning. When Republicans push for a counter-impeachment war room in the White House, they're really asking for a professional political shop in which strategy and communications are overseen by someone whom they trust to recognize their own political interest—in other words, someone other than the president.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans would rather discuss the behavior of the Democratic opposition. On Wednesday, a bloc of House conservatives led by Matt Gaetz of Florida disrupted the closed-door witness interviews organized by Democratic commitee chairs by crashing one of the meetings and occupying the hearing room for about five hours. This protest proceeded with the apparent approval of the president and the House Republican leadership; minority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana was one of the participants. The following day, McConnell and Graham introduced a resolution co-sponsored by most Republican senators accusing House Democrats of violating Trump's due process rights and granting House Republicans insufficient procedural privileges.

Shifting the subject of debate from Donald Trump to Adam Schiff solves some problems for Republicans. Rather than struggling to justify Trump's Ukraine policy or to explain away the well-documented concerns of credible witnesses like Fiona Hill and Bill Taylor, Republican members can return to the safer ground of partisan grievance. It also promotes party unity: Republicans may differ considerably among themselves over what they think of Trump, but none of them is predisposed to sympathize with Schiff. And it's simply more fun to be on offense than on defense, to be firing charges at others rather than trying to swat them away.

Yet there are costs as well. Some of the most common current complaints about the Democrats' handling of impeachment might become moot as events move along. The two major lines of attack at the moment are that access to witness depositions is restricted to the membership of the relevant House committees and that the House has not voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry. But today's private sessions will be succeeded by tomorrow's public hearings, and the House may well vote eventually to formalize the inquiry. By the time that House members actually consider articles of impeachment weeks or months from now, these objections will have lost much of their potency.

And when Republicans focus their energies on making the procedural case against Schiff, they risk failing to invest in disputing the substantive case against Trump—which potentially surrenders a lot of valuable ground to the pro-impeachment side. As one Republican source told CNN, "We can't defend the substance [so] all we do is talk about process." But Americans usually don’t care much about process disputes, whatever the merits of these disputes might be. Trump is right to worry that if many of his fellow Republicans are unwilling to confidently assure the public of his innocence, the public may draw the natural conclusion that he must have done something seriously wrong.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Trump Torches His Inside Reputation

The pioneering political scientist Richard Neustadt is best remembered for his insight that the unilateral powers of the presidency are much more limited than the expectations hung on the office by the American public and the ambitions of the people who occupy it, requiring presidents to engage in productive collaboration with other political elites—members of Congress and the bureaucracy, interest groups, foreign leaders, even the president's own direct subordinates—in order to achieve success. Neustadt believed that the maintenance of a positive personal reputation was necessary to convince these other actors to cooperate with the president; the power of the presidency, he argued, was largely "the power to persuade."

The developments of the past week have confirmed that Donald Trump is the ultimate anti-Neustadtian president. Trump's personal reputation among other elites, both at home and abroad, has always been low, but it took an even bigger dive this week when the ongoing Ukraine affair—already the focus of an impeachment inquiry in the House—was compounded by an abrupt policy change in Syria touched off by Trump's approval of an incursion by Turkey in a Sunday phone call with the Turkish president. Trump's withdrawal of American military defense from the Kurdish population in northern Syria received bipartisan disapproval in Congress and strong criticism across the ideological spectrum of foreign policy experts.

Several journalists have pointed out that it seems risky for Trump to alienate his fellow Republicans in the midst of an impeachment push, since (assuming that the House impeaches him) he'll depend on their votes in the Senate to avoid removal from office. That's true, but the Syria situation is unlikely to directly affect how Republican senators respond to an impeachment vote that may be months in the future.

The bigger danger for Trump is that impeachment, like any political process, will play out in a larger environment where his interests will be advanced or damaged by the choices made by other elites. At various points along the way, certain potential witnesses will be weighing whether to comply with congressional subpoenas, and whether to share or omit pertinent information. Accomplished attorneys will be weighing whether to accept offers to take Trump's case. High-ranking judges will be weighing whether to give deference to legal arguments made by White House representatives. Partisan officials will be weighing how passionately they should attack or defend the president. Political candidates will be weighing whether to run in the 2020 election. Journalists and other opinion leaders will be weighing whether to publicly endorse impeachment or removal from office.

All of these choices will be influenced to some degree by high-status decision-makers' evaluation of the president's personal attributes and behavior. And yet Trump's comportment has become even more idiosyncratic over the past week. Rather than reassuring attentive observers, he seems only to be unsettling them.

Trump habitually struggles to read people. Perhaps this difficulty reflects an adult lifetime during which his interactions with other human beings have been structured by corporate hierarchy and pop-culture celebrity, and during which he has taken in most of his information about the world around him via the distorted lens of television. Perhaps it's more foundational, more characterological in its source. Regardless, it sets him apart in the realm of politics, where most successful practitioners are experts at human relations and accustomed to grasping the perspectives and incentives of others.

Uniquely in American history, Trump was able to harness national fame to move directly from private life into the presidency without working his way up via an elective or military career where success tends to be dependent upon making a good personal impression on knowledgeable peers and superiors. But he has been repeatedly unable to recognize past mistakes in this area, as in many others, and thus to avoid repeating them. If anything, the push toward impeachment has provoked a perceptible deterioriation in judgment.

Jonathan Bernstein points out one dramatic example from this week's events: Trump not only sent Turkish president Erdogan a blustery letter on the Syrian issue, but also believed that releasing it publicly would bolster his standing in the eyes of other political leaders. Yesterday's meeting with congressional leaders at the White House was similarly disastrous; at least one Republican participant agreed with Democratic descriptions of a Trump "meltdown" that unnerved assembled officials in both parties. And what other than an unusual lack of emotional intelligence can explain his attempts to engineer a surprise reconciliation between the grieving parents of a British accident victim and the American diplomat's wife whose vehicle fatally struck him, as a live made-for-TV stunt with the White House as a backdrop for assembled cameras?

A central operating assumption of the Trump White House is that the Washington community is dominated by sworn enemies worthy only of being ignored or sneered at. And, indeed, it's only fair to acknowledge that Trump managed to achieve the presidency without the support or respect of many of its denizens. But failing, or not even trying, to build a positive reputation among influential insiders has costs and risks of its own. Just like anyone else, elites occasionally do have their uses.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

October Democratic Debate Recap: What Purpose Do Debates Serve?

Tuesday night's Democratic debate fell into a familiar pattern: a discussion of the relative merits of single-payer health care vs. a public option early in the evening, a few awkward exchanges thereafter but no single revealing moment, and a silly closing question that inadvertently revealed the extent to which television anchors tend to regard their viewers as simple-minded and allergic to substance. Anyone who hasn't already been paying attention to the race could glean some information from the dynamics on display: Warren and Sanders are running as transformational idealists; Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar are running as art-of-the-possible realists; and Harris, Booker, and Castro are trying to split the difference. Warren was the target of criticism from multiple rivals (though, interestingly, not from Sanders), reflecting her status as a candidate on the rise in the polls.

But most of the audience tuning in for a three-hour debate held more than three months before the start of the primary season presumably knew most of this information already, or would have gathered it soon enough from other sources. Despite all the hype that debates receive—and despite the power that the qualification rules now hold over candidate behavior, especially fundraising strategies—the value that they actually add to the nomination process remains very difficult to determine. (I suspect that their net effect in general is somewhat negative, increasing the chance that the election is affected by non-substantive "zingers" and "blunders" while attracting an excessively large field of also-ran candidates seeking national publicity.)

Maybe the solution is to have fewer debates. But, at the minimum, expectations for their newsworthiness should be lowered to an appropriate level—especially in this election. With so many candidates in the race, it is hard for any single contender to receive enough camera time to make a strong impression or create a dramatic moment. And a multi-candidate election also scrambles the strategic picture considerably: attack one opponent, and another rival might wind up benefiting more than you do.

After every debate, complaints pile up at the feet of the moderators or the sponsoring media outlet: it was boring, the questions were bad, important topics were ignored, this or that candidate got too much or too little attention. Some of these points are always valid. But when debate after debate fails to enlighten, perhaps the flaw is in the institution itself, or in the anticipation that precedes it. Presidential candidates always differ in important ways that an informed electorate should consider before making its choices. But there's no reason to assume that debates, at least as they are currently organized, do much to educate voters about these differences.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Trump Lets Democrats Off the Hook, Puts the Squeeze on GOP Instead

The impeachment of President Trump was already a likely event by the end of last week. It became even more likely this week.

Three sets of developments each acted to push the probability of impeachment higher over the past few days. First, the Trump White House made it clear that it was adopting a maximally combative approach, refusing cooperation with Congress and even imposing a last-minute veto on Tuesday's scheduled deposition of Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU who was directly involved in policy toward Ukraine. This response seemed certain to strike Democrats of all ideological persuasions as unacceptably dismissive of the constitutional legitimacy of congressional oversight.

Second, a series of news stories filling in additional details and opening up more angles on the Ukraine affair kept momentum alive and suggested that future investigations, whether by Congress or the media, would potentially uncover even more impeachment fodder over time. New facts are still emerging on a daily basis, and it seems likely that the true scope of the story is not yet understood.

Third, a series of public opinion surveys confirmed that most Americans support the impeachment inquiry—and a Fox News poll released on Wednesday even found a slim majority already favoring Trump's removal from office. A Washington community that is ordinarily fond of cautioning Democrats that they are risking "overreach" by engaging in any politically assertive behavior temporarily ceased its usual litany of warnings, as the previously sizable bloc of citizens in the "dislike Trump but oppose impeachment" camp turned out to be easily convinced to jump aboard once Democratic leaders made the case for it.

Some pundits have interpreted the White House's flouting of Congress, including the sudden yanking of Sondland's congressional appearance on Tuesday, as the strategic playing of a weak hand. Why else would the president take steps that virtually ensure his impeachment, if not to desperately head off testimony and other evidence that would be at least equally damaging?

But it's likely that the stonewalling, at least in this case, was driven by presidential psychology more than any kind of justifiable calculation. Sondlund doesn't really fit the profile of a devastating witness against Trump—whom he continues to serve as ambassador—and it would have been easy enough for him to alternate rhetorical defenses of the president with claims of ignorance or lapsed memory when it came to any inconvenient details. Blocking his deposition with blanket assertions of executive supremacy alienated Democrats while signaling "coverup in progress" to the media and other attentive political elites. Even congressional Republicans seemed to believe that Sondlund would be more likely to help than hurt the president's case, apparently convincing the White House by Thursday night to permit him to testify after all next week.

Trump's risk-taking approach is not limited to the procedural warfare that seems ultimately destined to provoke additional counts of impeachment against him. He also continues to insist that he has done "nothing wrong" and therefore deserves no criticism from any direction. This behavior, too, has the effect of boxing in other Republicans while taking pressure off the more cautious members of the Democratic opposition.

When White House scandals arise, fellow partisans often perceive the safest political ground for themselves to be a middle position between conviction and exoneration: the president did something he shouldn't have, but the offense isn't serious enough to justify removal from office. This was the approach many Democrats adopted when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998. Though aspects of Clinton's behavior were indefensible, they argued, his transgressions did not meet the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors. Once Clinton (eventually) acknowledged the impropriety of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, expressing criticism of his actions did not require other Democrats to break with the White House's own party line.

Trump will have none of that. The events of the week signaled that no contrition will be expressed—not even a sentiment in the vein of "I'm sorry that foreign governments apparently misinterpreted my innocent remarks"—and no disloyalty will be tolerated. Blocking off this escape route puts congressional Republicans in an uncomfortable position. Any criticism of Trump from within the GOP, however gentle, will attract national media attention and potentially provoke a presidential counterattack on Twitter. But openly defending Trump's behavior has its own risks: according to this week's Fox News poll, 66 percent of Americans think that it was wrong for the president to ask foreign leaders to investigate his political rivals, and only 17 percent agree that Trump's comments on the call with Ukrainian president Zelensky were appropriate.

So far, a common Republican response to this dilemma is to publicly oppose impeachment as an unjustified partisan exercise led by Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, but to also avoid directly answering the question of whether the president acted properly or whether soliciting foreign assistance in an electoral campaign (potentially a federal crime) is permissible behavior. This strategem may turn out to be a successful solution to Republicans' conundrum, but it carries an inevitable awkwardness that may not be sustainable as the story continues to progress over subsequent weeks and months.

Trump is wagering that he can hold Republicans in line by the mere threat of intra-partisan reprisal. He may well be right about this; if most Republicans aren't even willing to criticize Trump in public, they're certainly a long way from voting to impeach him or remove him from office. But for now, the president is likely to find fewer vocal defenders than he would have if he were willing to give an inch of ground by acknowledging the possibility that he might have made a mistake or two. So far, Trump's insistence that his communication with Ukraine was "perfect" has succeeded at creating more discomfort within the ranks of his own party than among his political opponents.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Does Trump Need a Good Strategy?

Over the two weeks or so since the impeachment of Donald Trump became likely, a series of news articles has chronicled Trump's strategic and tactical response to his new predicament. Anyone wondering whether Trump would adopt Bill Clinton's playbook from 1998—acknowledge impeachment as little as possible in public; portray yourself as more concerned with Americans' policy priorities than your own personal conflicts; build an adept political "war room" in the White House to respond to news developments and distribute talking points to partisan allies—has by now received an answer. As David Frum of The Atlantic observed earlier this week, Trump has taken the opposite approach from Clinton in many respects: he talks about impeachment obsessively, he shows no contrition for any aspect of the case, and he invests little in trying to persuade anyone who isn't already a Trump supporter that his impeachment is unwarranted.

It was clear enough even before these recent developments that Trump is much more a creature of emotion than a political calculator in the Clinton mold. The inadvisable admissions and uncontrolled outbursts of the past few days are hardly out of line with past behavior, though their growing intensity suggests that the prospect of impeachment is placing a decided strain on the presidential temperament. Put simply, this doesn't have the feel of a master strategy being coolly moved into place.

But does it really matter?

Clinton's response made sense because congressional Democrats' willingness to stand by him was dependent, as he perceived it, on the belief that they would not pay an electoral price for doing so. It was critically important, from this point of view, for Clinton to remain popular with swing voters and for other Democrats to hold their own in trial heat polls against Republican opponents; if the public turned against Clinton, so would key members of his own party, thus jeopardizing his presidency. The impeachment strategy, then, was merely a specific application of the Clinton-era Democrats' broader political approach: make tactical concessions here and there in order to gain and hold the political middle ground against the Republican opposition.

Trump is not only a very different kind of politician than Clinton, but he also leads a very different kind of party. Many congressional Republicans worry more—for good reason—about internal primary challenges from the right than Democrats do about a backlash on the left, which keeps them publicly loyal to a president who remains very popular among the Republican grassroots. Trump's belief that general elections are won more by keeping the party base stoked and mobilized than by reassuring swing voters of his moderation and pragmatism is shared widely among Republican politicians and activists. Trump can also rely on the conservative media infrastructure to supply a stream of arguments in his defense for other Republicans to echo, making the creation of a central command post staffed by political communication and research professionals a less necessary step for him than it was for Clinton.

So even if Frum is right that Clinton and Trump have chosen diametrically opposed counterimpeachment strategies, it's very possible that they will both wind up facing the same outcome: a more-or-less party-line vote to impeach in the House of Representatives, followed by a more-or-less party-line vote to acquit in the Senate. It's fair to wonder whether Trump would actually benefit after all from following his predecessor's more deliberate approach. Perhaps the answer is no. But there are a few reasons why a better strategy might actually help Trump:

1. It might exacerbate Democratic divisions. One key difference between 1998 and 2019 is that Clinton's impeachment was driven by a committed Republican congressional leadership (especially then-majority whip Tom DeLay), while Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democratic officials have been visibly unenthusiastic about impeaching Trump due to the perceived risk that it poses to the party's most electorally vulnerable members. A savvier White House would be in position to exploit this internal tension by turning down the rhetorical heat and allowing moderate Democrats to have second thoughts, but instead it is providing more impeachment fodder seemingly every time that the president speaks in public. Trump is already acting as if his impeachment is inevitable, thereby making it—at the least—more probable.

2. Even a few Republican defections matter. The strength of partisan ties and the power of the conservative media guarantee that most Republicans will stick with their president, thereby ensuring that he will continue in office unless the Ukraine scandal metastasizes dramatically from its current state. But if a handful of congressional Republicans break with Trump, it bolsters the legitimacy of the impeachment effort and undercuts the counterargument that the whole thing is a Democratic power grab. Even if the public doesn't notice too much or remember too long, attentive elites are much more likely to treat the Ukraine scandal as a serious violation if there is an element of bipartisanship to the impeachment proceedings.

Some Republican allies will be content to defend Trump regardless of circumstance, but others will be worried about getting caught out on a limb that gets sawed off when the president's story changes or new facts surface that disprove previous claims. The release of the "smoking gun tape" sealed Richard Nixon's fate in 1974 in part because Republicans in Congress discovered that Nixon had been lying not just to the press but to them, and allowing them to repeat those lies to their constituents. Several key Republicans have already grown very quiet rather than commit themselves to any particular position or version of events, and there doesn't seem to be much about the president's handling of the crisis that is privately reassuring to members of Congress.

3. Trump still has another election to win. Clinton, of course, was in the midst of his second term in 1998, but Trump is facing an election next year burdened by a subpar approval rating and a highly energized opposition party. Even if the current crisis doesn't further damage his popularity, it still makes it harder for him to win over a few skeptical voters and thus strengthen his position prior to the 2020 race. Impeachment may not itself have major electoral ramifications, but it could still exact an opportunity cost on a presidency that could really use a few quiet months. Clinton believed that getting drawn into daily rhetorical combat would erode his ability to claim the high ground. But Trump is a fighter by nature, and can't resist the partisan fray regardless of the political benefits that might come from adopting the veneer of statesmanship.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Impeachment Is Important—But Don't Expect It to Matter Much in 2020

Once Democratic control of the House of Representatives made the impeachment of Donald Trump hypothetically possible, discussion of the topic has been accompanied by a widespread assumption (held inside as well as outside the party) that pursuing impeachment is a high-risk political strategy with a very good chance of seriously backfiring regardless of its substantive justification. This conventional wisdom reflects the Washington community's collective memory of the events of 1998, which goes something like this: zealous Republicans insisted on impeaching Bill Clinton despite strong opposition from American voters, who exacted their revenge by raining electoral blows upon the GOP in the congressional midterms as Clinton snickered with delight.

But that's not really what happened. It's true that impeachment was unpopular, but the actual results of the 1998 election were hardly calamitous for Republicans. The party suffered a very minor loss of 5 seats in the House, while there was no net partisan change in the Senate. Republicans held a majority in both congressional chambers prior to the election, and they retained this majority afterwards with little change in their margin of control. The 1998 midterms were the epitome of a status quo election, with no measurable wind or wave in either direction.

There are two main reasons why the Clinton impeachment is misleadingly remembered as such a disaster for the Republican Party. The first is that most journalists and commentators assumed that Republicans would reap major political benefits from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal from the moment it first emerged in January 1998. Even when polls began to roll in showing that most Americans weren't outraged by the revelations—and certainly didn't believe they warranted removal from office—pundits repeatedly waved them off, insisting that the electorate would be properly scandalized once it learned more of the facts. For example, Sam Donaldson of ABC News was predicting as late as mid-October that the public was about to turn against Clinton for good, forcing his resignation from the presidency.

The written report of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, engineered by congressional Republicans to be released to the public in the midst of the campaign season in mid-September, contained a number of salacious details that consumed the news media for weeks. When combined with the "iron law" that the president's party "always" loses House seats in the midterm election (which had held true for every midterm since 1938 at that point), this well-timed additional exposé was supposedly poised to hand the GOP a major political advantage. So while the election itself hardly produced a Democratic landslide, the outcome was interpreted against a backdrop of contrary expectations as a decisive victory for Clinton at the expense of his partisan opponents.

The second reason why the Clinton impeachment went down in history as a political fiasco is the messy leadership succession that occurred after the election. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was immediately forced out by his own party, though the disappointing election returns represented the final blow to an already weakened Gingrich (who had faced an internal Republican coup attempt the year before) rather than the central factor precipitating his exit from the speakership. It was easy enough for media reports to frame Gingrich's downfall as representing Clinton's ultimate triumph over an arch-nemesis, but the abrupt withdrawal of the next prospective speaker, Bob Livingston, from consideration for the job several weeks later—Livingston had carried on an extramarital affair, which became disqualifying under the circumstances on grounds of perceived partisan hypocrisy—merely cemented perceptions that the whole production had turned into an utter wipeout for Republicans even before the Senate trial of Clinton ended in an anti-climactic acquittal early the following year.

But there is no clear evidence that Republican candidates as a group performed any worse, either in 1998 or thereafter, than they would have absent the impeachment push. Clinton was an unusually popular president due primarily to an unusually robust national economy, and many of the most promising congressional seat targets for the GOP had already been picked off in the 1994 or 1996 elections. Congressional elections expert Gary Jacobson of UC San Diego concluded at the time that "the results of the 1998 elections are in no way extraordinary. . . . [they] are about what we would expect if no one had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky."

If Clinton's impeachment didn't really matter much in the 1998 elections (Washington lore aside), there's little reason to believe that a potential impeachment of Donald Trump will be decisive in 2020. Trump is much less popular than Clinton was; public attitudes have become more consistently partisan and less malleable over the 21 succeeding years; fewer members of Congress are cross-pressured by representing a constituency that normally leans toward the opposite party; and even an impeachment process that stretches on for a few months will conclude well before next November. The currently developing scandal is important for a number of reasons, but it's very possible that its influence on future elections never extends beyond potentially pushing this or that odd congressional seat in one partisan direction or the other.

An impeachment proceeding is such a momentous, historic event that it's only natural to expect it to have a transformative effect on the attitudes of the American public. This was certainly a common assumption in 1998—how can such a big political story not produce a correspondingly big electoral impact?—and some analysts continue even today to treat impeachment as a perilous political proposition for one side or the other. But the Trump presidency has already generated more than the usual number of big political stories, and the effects of all of them on mass opinion have been modest at best. Americans have already made up their minds about this president, and it will take a truly dramatic set of future developments for most of them to re-evaluate his performance in office. That doesn't mean this isn't an important story—it surely is, just as Clinton's impeachment was. But not everything that's important in politics leaves a major imprint on the voting returns.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Yes, Some Suburbs Are Turning Blue—But Others Have Stayed Quite Red: New Op-Ed in the New York Times

The results of the 2018 elections have repeatedly been interpreted as demonstrating a weakened Republican Party in suburban America, as Donald Trump's antics are supposedly driving exasperated suburbanites into the Democratic camp. In my latest op-ed piece for the New York Times, I explain that this story indeed holds true for the nation's largest metropolitan areas. In the remainder of suburban America, however, where the electorate is whiter and more socially conservative, the GOP remains electorally dominant in the Trump era. The research paper upon which the article is drawn, "The Suburbanization of the Democratic Party, 1992–2018," also served as the basis of a recent column by Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and is available here.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis: Who Has the Right to Question Biden's Competence?

It's likely that even those analysts who love to declare winners, losers, and game-changing moments (a practice largely eschewed here at Honest Graft) won't find all that much fodder in Thursday night's Democratic debate. The biggest pre-debate media hype focused on the opportunity for a dramatic personal showdown between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, who were appearing on the same debate stage for the first time this year. But no major conflict arose between the two, and for sound strategic reasons. Biden is still ahead in the race, while Warren seems to be steadily gaining support, and so neither candidate has much incentive to rock the boat—at least not right now. Aiming a sharp personal attack at the other might only backfire among the large share of Democratic voters who have positive views of both candidates.

Even those contenders who are far behind in the polls, and thus have more reason to adopt a risky, attention-grabbing debate style, mostly played nice—at least with each other. (Some mockery lobbed in Donald Trump's direction, especially by Kamala Harris, was seemingly designed not only to play to the crowd but also to potentially bait the president into responding on Twitter.) The biggest exception was Julián Castro, who directly challenged Biden on at least two occasions. Castro provoked the most comment during an exchange on the subject of health care, when he claimed that Biden had contradicted himself about an aspect of his reform proposal. "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Castro asked Biden.

Anyone paying even modest attention to the news coverage of the 2020 Democratic nomination race is likely to have encountered the implication from multiple corners of the national press corps that the front-running former vice president is not operating at peak performance these days. Biden has long been treated by many reporters, fairly or not, as an undisciplined speaker with an unremarkable intellect, but something of a collective judgment has formed that even by his own standards he's lost a step or two, mentally speaking, as he approaches his late 70s. When combined with Biden's digital illiteracy and propensity to tell stories about the mostly-forgotten senators he served with 45 years ago, this has led to an unmistakable theme running through reporters' coverage of Biden that their subject is a man whose time has come and gone—a pattern that Biden's own orbit recently complained about to Ryan Lizza of Politico.

One might think that the potential competence of would-be presidents would be a critical topic for primary voters to consider—or, at the least, fair game to contest in a debate. But from the perspective of a rival candidate, it's a very tricky issue to raise. And Castro missed the mark: his accusations that Biden had misstated, or "forgotten," his own health care plan were simply not true.

Candidates who make false attacks on their opponents are being unfair and deserve criticism. But multiple media assessments faulted Castro not only for making a false attack—something that has been known to happen from time to time in debates—but also for engaging in underhanded if not offensive insinuations about Biden's cognitive acuity: a "low blow," "playing the age card." Yet later in the debate, Biden gave a somewhat meandering answer in response to a question about Afghanistan and made a non sequitur remark about "having the record player on at night" as (apparently) a suggested means for parents to improve the verbal skills of underprivileged children. Both of these comments provoked immediate media mockery in the familiar "Uncle Joe is losing it!" genre that has become a staple of campaign coverage this year.

One need not agree with Castro's specific line of attack—which was clearly erroneous on the facts—to wonder whether the national media are in danger of adopting a kind of double standard under which reporters and commentators can openly ridicule Biden's outdated references and freely speculate about potential senility while simultaneously pronouncing any political competitor who suggests the same to be guilty of ageism or other out-of-bounds transgressions. This is a complicated and delicate subject, and no clear rule book applies. But if journalists are as concerned about Biden's fitness to serve as they appear to be, they should allow the issue of competence to be openly litigated during the nomination campaign. It's an important attribute for a president to have, and voters should be allowed—and even encouraged—to take it very seriously.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Is the Nationalization of Politics Hurting Favorite Sons and Daughters?

Over the weekend, a new poll of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race was released. It showed Joe Biden in first place, Elizabeth Warren in second, and Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris following—with no candidate other than these five at more than 2 percent. The poll's findings are quite consistent with the results of other recent surveys, but they are noteworthy in one respect: the poll was conducted in Massachusetts, where Warren has twice been elected to statewide office (most recently last November). Why isn't the Bay State resident far in the lead among her own constituents despite running a highly competitive national campaign?

The question of why Warren isn't more dominant in her own political backyard has occasionally attracted interest from followers of nomination politics. This article by Vox's Ella Nilsen (in which I'm briefly quoted) focuses mostly on her unremarkable level of popularity among the Massachusetts general electorate, but some of its explanations could apply to the Democratic primary as well: Warren has a polarizing persona; she hasn't focused much on cultivating an identity as a fighter for Massachusetts rather than for national causes; she suffers from voter sexism in a state that lacks a history of electing women regularly to high office.

But maybe it's misleading to focus solely on Warren, as if coolness to a home-state candidate is a phenomenon unique to her. How are other serious Democratic presidential contenders faring with the voters who presumably know them best? Reliable public polling at this stage is limited, and its availability varies significantly from state to state, but we have enough evidence to draw some preliminary conclusions.

Let's start in California, where Harris has been elected three times statewide since 2010 (as state attorney general twice and U.S. senator once). The latest public survey by CBS News/YouGov, from July, found Harris running neck-and-neck with Biden (24 percent for him, 23 percent for her), with Warren and Sanders close behind at 19 percent and 16 percent, respectively. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted around the same time found Harris with a slender lead over Biden, 23 percent to 21 percent, with Sanders at 18 percent and Warren at 16 percent.

It's clear from these results that Harris does somewhat better in her home state than elsewhere in the country (she's never received more than 20 percent in any national poll since the start of the race). But she was not able to establish an unambiguous lead in California even during the few weeks after her attention-getting performance in the first Democratic debate, a moment that appears to have been a temporary peak for her candidacy (Harris briefly hit 15 percent in the national RealClearPolitics average in mid-July; today, she's down to 7 percent). So even if she was barely winning California in July, she almost certainly isn't winning it now.

What about Beto O'Rourke, the hero of Texas Democrats for waging a near-miss Senate campaign last year? A July poll by CBS/YouGov found him running in second place in his home state, though barely so: Biden 27 percent, O'Rourke 17 percent, Warren 16 percent, Sanders 12 percent, Harris 12 percent. A more recent survey by Texas Lyceum seemed to confirm this arrangement of the candidates, albeit with a small sample size of Democratic voters (N=358): Biden 24 percent, O'Rourke 18 percent, Warren 15 percent, Sanders 13 percent. (The other Texan in the race, Julián Castro, has failed to reach 5 percent in any public poll of the state.)

It's hard to know how seriously to treat the online polls conducted by Change Research without a longer track record of forecasting success, but in two states where no other nomination polling exists, Change Research results follow the same pattern. A June survey found Amy Klobuchar in fourth place in Minnesota, though only 5 points behind the leader. An August poll of New Jersey found Cory Booker struggling badly there, placing sixth with only 5 percent of the vote.

Taken together, these results suggest that the "favorite son/daughter" phenomenon, in which voters begin a presidential nomination campaign by voicing support for a serious contender from their home state, is not playing a major role in structuring the 2020 nomination race. It's possible that this pattern reflects the nationalization of American politics: voters are paying more attention to national media, national issues, and nationally prominent political figures than they once did, which reduces the relative power of their home-state loyalties.

All else equal, such a development would work to the advantage of Biden and Sanders, who come from very small states but have big national profiles. It's not very good news for Harris and O'Rourke, who could find it more difficult to leverage what would otherwise be an important strategic asset (assuming either can survive the gauntlet of Iowa and New Hampshire): home-field advantage in the two largest states of the country, each sending hundreds of delegates to the national convention. If Elizabeth Warren's decision to devote more energy in office to raising her national visibility than to tending her Massachusetts constituency has hurt her a bit in one state while helping her in 49 others, right now that looks like a sound strategic choice.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Honest Graft on the Factually! Podcast

On the latest episode of the Factually! podcast, I chat with host Adam Conover about American political parties, voters, polarization, health care, and why Sean Hannity scares more politicians than Chris Hayes. It was a fun, wide-ranging conversation and you can listen to it here or via the usual podcast apps.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis (Second Night): Can Anyone Beat Biden But Biden?

Some takeaways from Part 2 of this week's Democratic presidential debates (my analysis of Part 1, as well as more general thoughts on debates, can be found here):

1. Joe Biden was the biggest target of attacks on Wednesday—unsurprisingly so, given his current status as the leading candidate in the race. And nearly all of the attacks were ideological jabs from the left: Castro and de Blasio on immigration, Gillibrand and Harris on women's rights, Gabbard on Iraq. What's not yet clear is how vulnerable Biden is to such criticisms; his frequent deployment of his service under Barack Obama as a defense shield in these situations prompted a frustrated response from Booker but may well turn out to be a perfectly effective strategy given Obama's continued popularity with the Democratic electorate. One important question that the debate raises is whether there is an argument that another Democratic candidate can make that's strong enough to bring Biden down, or whether Biden is ultimately much more vulnerable to self-inflicted wounds such as gaffes, or quiet concerns about his age, than open attacks from rivals.

2. One strategic implication of the "lanes" model of party nominations is that it can be advantageous for candidates to attack competitors who are the most ideologically, demographically, or stylistically similar to themselves, on the theory that they are competing over the same blocs of voters. But we haven't seen much evidence yet that Democrats are thinking this way. No Sanders vs. Warren, Buttigieg vs. O'Rourke, Harris vs. Booker, or Biden vs. Bennet showdowns erupted in either debate this week. This was partially due to CNN's transparent maneuvering on both nights to stoke cross-ideological conflict, but no candidates seemed particularly interested in challenging this network-imposed dynamic.

3. Underlying much of the discussion on both nights of the debate is a divide within the Democratic Party over the proper interpretation of the 2016 Clinton-Sanders race and the subsequent rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and company. Do these recent elections demonstrate that a majority of the Democratic Party continues to prefer Obama-style incrementalist politics? Or, instead, do they reflect a growing pressure at the party roots for transformative social change?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis (First Night): CNN Decides What the Race Is About

Honest Graft was on vacation during the first pair of Democratic presidential debates last month, so this week's events are the first of the 2020 campaign that will receive recaps here on the blog. Perhaps it's worthwhile, then, to review my general perspective on debates before proceeding to discuss Tuesday night's proceedings.

• I tend to be skeptical of analysts' confident declarations of debate "winners" and "losers," because the standards by which such pronouncements are made are usually unclear and are often colored by previous preferences. However, a strong collective judgment among media figures about who did well or who committed a major gaffe can affect candidates' fortunes in important ways, regardless of the fairness of such evaluations.

• Debates can tell us important things beyond who won or lost. They help illustrate candidate strategy, internal party trends and developments, and media preoccupations. But most debates don't turn out to be dramatic "game-changers" in the race as a whole.

• As tools for voters to learn about candidates and make decisions about whom to support, debates are not entirely useless—but neither are they reliably helpful. Rather than adopting the common media theme that debates are sacred exercises in civic enlightenment, citizens should treat them more like the television productions that they are at heart. Television can be entertaining, but it's not reliably informative.

Now, on to a few takeaways from the first night's debate:

1. There was a chance that the random assignment of Sanders and Warren to the same debate stage this month would lead to a showdown between them, but that didn't happen. Instead, the most common dynamic was one in which both candidates were lumped in together as targets of criticism from more moderate rivals.

2. This dynamic didn't just naturally happen on its own; it was largely the consequence of CNN's choice of questions. The moderators, who displayed a curiously hostile tone throughout the evening, were clearly most interested in defining the race as a battle between ideological purity and electoral formidability—a frame to which they frequently returned. (CNN's post-debate coverage summarized the event by repeatedly displaying the chyron "Breaking News: Liberal and Moderate Democrats Clash in Detroit.") The moderators' behavior had the inevitable effect of minimizing the differences between Sanders and Warren, while making the two of them stand out dramatically from the rest of the field.

3. John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Tim Ryan, and John Hickenlooper all repeatedly accepted the moderators' invitations to make attacks against Warren and Sanders, but the short response times imposed by CNN (as low as 15 seconds in some cases) meant that these candidates didn't have as much of a chance to explain what made them, personally, the best alternative to the two leading lefties in the race. There's a long historical tradition of Democratic candidates distancing themselves from the left edge of their party—and convincing the Democratic electorate that they are smartly positioning themselves for the general election by doing so. But previous Democrats who have successfully employed this approach en route to the nomination have had some other quality that could excite the party's voters: impressive biography, youthful charisma, policy wonkery. Without an immediately obvious personal selling point, these candidates need to make a positive case for themselves as well, but the format was not well-suited to this objective.

4. Amy Klobuchar, interestingly, didn't really take the opportunity to join in the push against the left, despite her self-positioning as an electable midwesterner. (She preferred the popular moderate tactic of attacking the other party instead.) Klobuchar seems to be doing just well enough in polls and donations to qualify for the next debate in September, so she's not in imminent danger of being culled from the race, but as the resident of a neighboring state she'll need to make a big splash in Iowa or she'll be written off before the New Hampshire primary.

5. After (mostly) uniting around the ACA, the presidential wing of the Democratic Party is splintering again on the issue of health care, with substantive policy differences among candidates sometimes illustrated, and sometimes confusingly obscured, by the invocation of phrases like "Medicare for All." Whether or not Democratic primary voters consciously base their choice of candidate on the issue, the 2020 nomination contest will determine whether the party enters the general election on a platform of advocating the wholesale restructuring of the American health insurance system. A vote for Sanders or Warren as nominee is partially a bet that such a position is now viable in a national race.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

What's Missing from the "Ideology vs. Electability" Debate

We're still in the early stages of the 2020 presidential campaign, but a common media frame has emerged already: will Democrats prioritize pragmatic electability when selecting a challenger to President Trump, or will the party instead prize ideological purity? Again and again, news coverage of the Democratic nomination contest has boiled a well-populated, multi-faceted candidate race down to this either-or choice, with Joe Biden usually personifying the "electability" option while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent the "purity" alternative.

News outlets have repeatedly publicized surveys of Democratic primary voters designed to measure how they come down on this supposedly inevitable dilemma. "Which type of candidate would you prefer to see the Democrats nominate for president in 2020: a candidate who agrees with you on almost all of the issues you care about but does not have the best chance of beating Donald Trump, or a candidate who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump but who does not agree with you on almost all of the issues you care about?" "Who would you choose if you had a magic wand and can make any of the candidates president—they don't have to beat anyone or win the election?"

One problem with this increasingly ubiquitous concept of the race is that Democrats might not register an obvious collective preference after all. As a general rule, most political analyses in the "now we have come to a fork in the road" style don't turn out well in retrospect; politicians and voters alike are demonstrably adept at avoiding clear choices and generally muddling through. Past nominees like Barack Obama have often found success by finessing differences within the party rather than planting their flags firmly on one end of an internal debate. Kamala Harris, for one, is clearly pursuing a strategy of presenting herself as simultaneously more liberal than Biden and more electable than Warren or Sanders, and perhaps that will turn out to be the most effective approach in the end.

But the more serious danger is the underlying assumption that these are the only major considerations for primary voters as they deliberate over their preferred candidate. While both policy positions and electoral strength are highly appropriate grounds on which to evaluate candidates, they are not the only important attributes when choosing a nominee or potential president. Surveys and media accounts that presume otherwise thus present an oversimplified and distorted picture of presidential politics. And because voters in primaries are heavily influenced by media coverage, endless news stories that frame the race as fundamentally a tradeoff between just two criteria—idealism vs. practicality, head vs. heart, sincerity vs. calculation—could persuade many citizens to view their alternatives in precisely those terms, and to pay less attention to other deservedly relevant candidate qualities.

Like. say, competence.

Surely it's highly sensible to evaluate candidates in terms of who would, and would not, prove to be successful presidents if they wound up in the job. One of the benefits of the old system of presidential nominations is the influence it granted to politicians within the party who knew the various candidates personally and had previously worked with them in government. But the candidates' own records, as well as the kind of campaigns they run, can provide valuable evidence in this area, and voters should not be discouraged from placing effectiveness at the center of their considerations.

In this particular race, there are several candidates who lack the traditional credential of previous service in Congress or a state governorship, plus others who have served only for a brief time in federal office. Two of the candidates with the most experience are also approaching their 80s. At least one candidate seems to have chronic difficulties getting along with subordinates. Candidates also disagree over the optimal approach to accomplishing policy change: stakeholder compromise or mass mobilization? All of these factors and more seem highly relevant to the question of potential future success in the presidency, independent of the policy positions or personal popularity of the various contenders.

Discussions of competence can lack the drama of ideological battles or the savvy calculations of electoral strategy. But how—and how well—a president governs ultimately matters a lot. The more that voters, activists, and journalists acknowledge this truth during the nomination process, the healthier our political system will be.

Monday, July 01, 2019

The Return of Roy Moore

Today over on the Monkey Cage blog hosted by the Washington Post, I explain what the second Senate candidacy of Roy Moore tells us about the larger dynamics within the Republican Party today. President Trump has found himself in strong agreement with the traditional GOP officeholding and consulting class in opposing another Moore candidacy, but—tellingly—all these actors combined couldn't keep Moore from running again.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Once Again, the Debates Are Going to Cause the DNC Plenty of Grief

The Democratic National Committee faced a lot of criticism for the way it organized presidential nomination debates in 2016. Originally, the party only planned six debates (there ended up being nine), and the first event wasn't held until mid-October 2015—in contrast to the Republicans, who held a total of twelve debates beginning in early August. One of the Democratic debates was held on the Saturday before Christmas, and another occurred over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January 2016. The Bernie Sanders campaign suspected that the DNC had intentionally scheduled the debates in order to minimize their likely viewership—and, not coincidentally, to deprive Sanders of a large audience for his challenge to the better-known front-runner Hillary Clinton. Complaints about the debates thus became part of the larger case that Sanders supporters built against the DNC for "rigging" the nomination process in Clinton's favor.

Desperate to preserve its popular legitimacy and prove its dedication to equality and inclusion, the DNC changed its ways in advance of the 2020 election. There would be twelve debates in all, and the first event would be held much earlier—in the last week of June 2019. And, importantly, the standards for inclusion in the June and July debates would be very forgiving, in order to forestall accusations that the party was being exclusionary or manipulative: candidates would need only to reach 1 percent in three polls of Democratic voters or to attract 65,000 financial donors. If there were too many candidates to fit in a single debate, the party wouldn't consign secondary candidates to a separate, lower-status "undercard" or "kiddie table" debate, as the Republicans did in 2016. Instead, each candidate would be assigned to one of two consecutive nights via a random draw, stratified in order to ensure that the top contenders in the polls didn't all happen to wind up on the same stage.

But as so often happens in life, maneuvering to address one set of problems can create a new, different set of problems—with no guarantee that the original set will indeed be solved. The scheduling of very early debates with modest eligibility requirements turned out to be something of an attractive nuisance, helping to draw into the race a record-breaking flotilla of candidates enticed by the prospect of national television exposure. With ten candidates participating in each of two 2-hour debates, it's likely that each individual candidate won't get much of a chance to make his or her case to the voters even as a lot of camera time will collectively be consumed by contenders with little or no chance of winning the nomination.

Acknowledging these inconvenient consequences of its own policies, the DNC has indicated that the inclusion criteria will become more stringent beginning with the third debate in September, requiring candidates to reach 2 percent in at least four polls and to receive financial support from at least 130,000 donors. But if a higher threshold succeeds in solving the problem of a debate stage too crowded with also-rans, it will simultaneously exacerbate the older problem of a party perceived to be favoring some candidates over others. Montana governor Steve Bullock is already complaining that his exclusion from next week's debates means that the party isn't hearing "different voices," and it's very possible that the DNC-is-silencing-me caucus could expand by the fall to include multiple sitting senators whose campaigns have yet to catch on with the public.

Maybe nobody will care much that candidates with little popular support aren't invited to future debates. But internal party warfare tends to attract substantial media attention, and frequent complaints from journalists that there are too many Democrats running for president hardly guarantee that they will come to the party's defense when it acts to further limit the number of debate participants. Voters could easily form a vague impression that something about the process was unfair without necessarily supporting, or even recognizing, any of the excluded candidates.

Media figures also love to hype debates in advance, even though they often turn out to be bored in practice by the rehearsed rhetoric and awkward one-liners that usually dominate the proceedings. Anything that dampens anticipatory excitement, then, tends to provoke a fair amount of journalistic grousing. The DNC attempted to ensure that the top candidates were evenly divided between the two debate events next week—but because it defined "top" as polling at only 2 percent or higher, it wound up assigning four of the five leading candidates to a single debate group. Even worse for media critics, the one candidate left out (Elizabeth Warren) is the trendiest at the moment, depriving pundits of the juicy prospect of potential Warren vs. Biden or Warren vs. Sanders in-person showdowns. Journalists responded to the announcement of the debate lineups last Friday with considerable disappointment on social media, despite the DNC's hopes of using the process to demonstrate its scrupulous devotion to fairness and equality.

The centrality of debates in presidential nomination politics is a fairly recent development; the 2012 Republican race is arguably the first nomination contest in which debates played a major role in influencing the dynamics. With their interests increasingly at stake in these events, parties have understandably responded by asserting more control over their production. But the Democratic Party in particular is also extremely sensitive to accusations that any new rules imposed on the process infringe on the sacred right of "the people" to choose a nominee without the stain of elite interference. The DNC is attempting to thread its way through the narrow straits separating excessive chaos from excessive order, but it seems unlikely to do so without attracting simultaneous criticism that it is being both too strict and too indulgent. When it comes to presidential nominations, it's impossible to satisfy everybody—and easy to satisfy nobody.