Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Weakest Modern Presidency Faces a Pandemic From the Couch

For three years now, political scientists Jonathan Bernstein and Matt Glassman have been arguing that Donald Trump is a historically weak president—probably the weakest of the modern (post-FDR) presidents. This is a contrarian view in some respects. Trump dominates the day-to-day media coverage of politics like no other figure in memory, and even many of his harshest critics often describe him as ruthlessly wielding the power of his office.

But I suspect that this argument will become more popular over time, especially once Trump departs the presidency and is no longer the constant obsession of the political world. Even prior to the current emergency, Trump had rarely been invested in the substantive responsibilities of his office and had never been able to attract sustained popular support for himself or his policies. He has presided over an executive branch whose administrative and political capacity has been constrained by mismanagement, infighting, and a cast of substandard subordinates serving alongside an array of temporary appointees and outright vacancies. While other presidents learned on the job from early mistakes, Trump has seemed incapable of significant growth or adaptation.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed this weakness to public view like no previous event. Other than signing economic aid legislation for citizens and businesses—initiatives that were chiefly negotiated by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and congressional Democrats with little personal involvement by the president—Trump does not appear to be leading an ambitious national response to the epidemic. Governors and other state officials complain of insufficient federal assistance (and even active federal interference). According to recent reporting, Trump is unengaged with the substance of his administration's COVID mitigation efforts: his discursive appearances at task force meetings reveal a limited understanding of relevant subjects when he attends at all, and he spends much of the workday watching cable television.

Trump has angrily disputed these accounts, suggesting that he may be the hardest-working president in history. But the amount of time that he has visibly devoted to complaining on Twitter or holding extended press briefings is evidence enough of where his attention has been directed. Though they were initially assumed to be politically beneficial, the president's daily briefings have only turned out to advertise his limitations, impressing nobody who wasn't already a supporter. It's thus understandable that Trump's post-COVID bump in job approval was both comparatively modest and unusually short-lived.

Unlike the governors and mayors who are earning public support across party lines for their handling of the crisis, Trump seems incapable of understanding that projecting strength requires exhibiting intellectual command of the facts and toning down personal grievances. Rather than learning from experience, he repeats the same mistakes over and over: claiming that the virus will "just go away," touting unproven or nonsensical remedies, and making quickly-falsified predictions about how long the crisis will continue or how many Americans will die. And the president has repeatedly shifted responsibility for solving the problem from himself to state and local officials—quite a departure from the "I alone can fix it" rhetoric of the 2016 campaign.

The fundamental passivity of the president's response to COVID-19 is especially instructive given his normal preoccupation with projecting executive decisiveness, populist sympathies, and Type-A swagger. Trump's desire to comport to the ultimate "strong leader" archetype is indeed powerful, but not so powerful that it can overcome a limited interest in information-gathering, an inability to think strategically over the long term, a lack of mental focus on any subject other than himself, and a general absence of committed energy for the tasks of governing.

All of these traits were visible before COVID came along. But now the demands on this presidency have grown stronger while the president looks less and less comfortable in the job, unable even to mimic the seriousness of purpose that other elected officials have marshaled in the moment. He seems to be hoping that he will wake up one day and the virus will simply be gone—via miracle cure or act of providence—without the need for any dedication or sacrifice on his part. That's admittedly a relatable wish, but it's not how a strong president would act.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Solving the COVID Crisis Requires Bipartisanship, But the Modern GOP Isn't Built for It

American politics is famously polarized these days, but it's hard to envision any solution to the COVID pandemic and associated economic crisis that doesn't require a lot of bipartisan agreement. Democratic and Republican officeholders need to cooperate in order to enact economic aid legislation and other measures designed to ameliorate the effects of the outbreak. Supporters of both parties need to respect the authority of state and local officials to impose restrictions on public gatherings in order to slow the spread of the virus. And the future expiration of these stay-at-home orders will not produce an economic rebound unless Democrats as well as Republicans feel safe enough to resume their normal consumption activities.

As my political science colleague Frances Lee points out in Insecure Majoritiesher excellent book on the modern Congress, breakdowns in bipartisanship often benefit the party out of power, by denying the ruling side the policy achievements and broad popular legitimacy that it would gain from productive cooperation. Tamping down partisan divisions in order to focus on fighting the virus and helping those affected by the deteriorating economy thus especially serves the interest of the Republican Party, the current holder of the presidency. November's election will serve as an unavoidable referendum on President Trump, and citizens' perceptions of his performance in handling the COVID crisis will not only influence the outcome of the presidential race but will extend to congressional and even state-level contests as well.

Under the current circumstances, then, we might expect an incumbent president to pursue a strategy of staying above the partisan fray, reassuring Americans of all political preferences that he was committed to protecting both their health and their wealth from the current threats while finding some common ground with the leaders of the opposition. But Trump's instincts—especially in moments of potential vulnerability—compel him to attack his perceived enemies and ratchet up the general level of conflict. He has even suggested at times that he will condition federal aid to states and localities on the amount of deference he receives from their elected officials. There has been no apparent attempt by his administration to build credibility with the public outside the 45 percent or so of Americans who already like and trust the president.

Trump's personality is what it is. But his combative style is shared by many of his partisan allies. Other major elements of the Republican party network, such as conservative interest groups and the conservative media universe, are increasingly promoting Trump's position that the threat of the coronavirus is exaggerated and that prevailing social distancing restrictions are excessive. Familiar Republican targets—not only Democratic politicians but also scientific experts and the mainstream media—are under fresh attack from an American right that has become suddenly anxious about the president's chances of re-election during conditions of national economic catastrophe.

The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the government or solve specific social problems. So perhaps it shouldn't be shocking that an array of subjects, from what medical treatment might help COVID patients to how important it is to take measures protecting the lives of the elderly, have been drawn into the perpetual political wars. But leading conservative figures like Trump, Sean Hannity, and the Heritage Foundation will find it much easier to persuade existing supporters to take their side in a fight with "liberal" scientists, journalists, and public safety authorities than to win over the American public as a whole.

Republicans need a party-wide reset of priorities. There has seldom been a time in recent political history when daily partisan point-scoring has been rendered more irrelevant. The general election is far enough away that good policy is good politics: the best way for the ruling party to serve its own electoral interests is to work as hard as possible over the next seven months to render COVID manageable and prevent economic freefall. The widespread public confidence that will be necessary for "normal life" to resume simply can't be jawboned back into existence via daily press conferences, radio broadcasts, or Fox News monologues. If Republicans lose the battle with the coronavirus, they won't have much of a chance to win the fight against liberalism.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Sanders Was a Big Step Forward for Leftism—But Where Does It Go From Here?

Bernie Sanders officially suspended his 2020 presidential campaign on Wednesday, choosing not to contest the Democratic primaries all the way to the end of the calendar as he had done in 2016. It may seem in retrospect as if Sanders's second campaign was less successful than his first, since his support fell below its 2016 level in every state that voted after Super Tuesday and he dropped out of the race much sooner this time around. Yet Sanders achieved something important in 2020 that he never did four years ago: a temporary status as the favorite for the nomination during the two-and-a-half weeks between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, before Joe Biden's sudden resurgence blocked his path. It's likely that Sanders's two presidential bids, taken together, represent an important milestone in American politics. But it's impossible to know right now how important they will turn out to be.

After each of his candidacies, some analysts confidently declared that Sanders—despite his present-day defeats—nevertheless represents the future of the Democratic Party. This blog has consistently been skeptical of that argument, and it remains so today. Even if Sanders had managed to win the 2020 race, it would have been a testament to the complexities and contingencies of multi-candidate nomination politics more than the expression of a fundamental shift in the preferences of Democratic voters. And if Sanders had gone on to lose the general election to Donald Trump, there would have been substantial backlash within the party against his brand of politics.

Sanders found more success running for president than many people anticipated—and more success than any left-wing candidate achieved since Jesse Jackson, if not George McGovern. But as these historical parallels suggest, temporary breakthroughs do not inevitably lead to long-term transformations. Sanders has given leftism (a word I use in a non-pejorative sense to distinguish Sanders-style politics from the conventional Obama-Biden liberalism now prevailing within the Democratic mainstream) its best opportunity in at least a generation to establish itself as a persistently influential force in American politics, even if it remains unlikely to succeed in remaking the entire Democratic Party in its own image. But opportunities can be squandered, and they often have been before.

Sanders's most obvious contribution to the leftist cause is demonstrating that millions of Americans can be mobilized to support—and support passionately, with generous financial contributions—a political candidate who identifies himself as a socialist and who advocates a comprehensively left-wing set of issue positions that would, especially in the economic realm, represent a break from the thrust of American policy-making over at least the past 40 years. He diverted the attention of activists on the left who have often remained aloof from electoral politics to the potential benefits of seeking power through that means. And he (very sensibly) used the vehicle of a major party to do so, illustrating the self-defeating pointlessness of leftism's previous third-party dalliances by winning nearly four times as many total votes in one-and-a-half nomination contests as the Green Party has won over the past six general elections.

Sanders also introduced new or long-absent policy positions into the realm of public debate. Whether or not student debt forgiveness, a federal jobs guarantee, or six months of paid family leave are ever implemented in the United States, the necessary first step toward enactment is for a candidate to build a campaign around them. A political journalistic class that does not naturally welcome discussions of economic inequality and fairness has been compelled by Sanders's campaigns to acknowledge these subjects to a much greater degree than it did in preceding decades.

But Sanders also exposed some of the continued political weakness of American leftism even in a moment of relative triumph, so it's worth considering what else would need to happen for his candidacies to become the start of a larger revolution (as it were). Simply pointing at the age distribution of Sanders's support and claiming that the left wing can just wait to inherit the Democratic Party from its more moderate elders isn't very convincing. At any given historical moment, lefties can be prone to assuming that the enthusiasm of youthful activists for their cause is a sign that popular victory is just around the generational corner, but it's worth considering how many baby boomers who were marching in the streets in the 1960s and 1970s aged to become supporters of Joe Biden—or, for that matter, of Donald Trump.

While Sanders did much to promote the idea that left-wing politics could be productively advanced within the institutional framework of the Democratic Party, he did not entirely resolve—and, in some ways, even exacerbated—the tension between corners of the activist left and the party as it now exists. Sanders's refusal to officially become a Democrat himself, combined with his rhetorical attacks on the "Democratic establishment," meant that he couldn't speak of the party as a "we" rather than a "they," which contrasted with other leaders (such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) whose policy views overlap with Sanders but who present themselves as heirs to the left's lineage within the Democratic Party rather than outside it.

For those on the left who disdain the Democratic name, this separation was a major reason why Sanders was preferable to alternatives like Warren. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders ran better among political independents than among self-identified Democrats. Some of his most prominent and devoted public supporters, and even campaign staff members, have histories of open antagonism to Democratic leaders and organizations. But increasing the appeal of leftist politics within the Democratic electoral base in the future will require courting citizens who are loyal to the party and proud of its history—such as the black voters whose lack of support for Sanders proved decisive in both of the last two elections. The modern conservative movement gained control of the Republican Party not by dismissing the GOP's heritage but by claiming it for itself. Yet analogous actors on the left have been much more likely to criticize the Democratic leadership from outside the tent, limiting their persuasive power over those inside.

Another question still unanswered at this stage is whether momentum on the left will survive the end of Sanders's own national candidacy. Sanders is famous for his lack of interest in promoting or even talking about himself, but insurgent or upstart presidential campaigns often wind up presenting their candidates as political saviors who have arrived on the scene to personally cure the nation's ills, and—as with Obama and Trump before him—Sanders has indeed become such a figure, treated by some admirers as the only honest man in politics. Both Sanders campaigns styled themselves as a "movement," but can this movement extend beyond Sanders, his current activist supporters, and a handful of backbench allies in the House of Representatives?

One might be tempted to compare Sanders to Barry Goldwater, whose own unsuccessful presidential candidacy laid the groundwork for later transformational change, but the modern conservative movement was already much larger than one candidate or campaign by the time of Goldwater's 1964 nomination, and only two years after his general election defeat it elected its ultimate embodiment, Ronald Reagan, to be governor of the nation's largest state. Sanders has been a very effective spokesperson for his cause, but he does not seem to be a natural institution-builder, and an enduring political movement or party faction needs renewable capacity beyond the intermittent mobilization of quadrennial presidential campaigns. Here, as elsewhere, the conservative movement's ability to draw steady financial and structural support from business interests and wealthy patrons has given it an advantage that is difficult to replicate on the left.

The Sanders campaign was also ultimately hampered by another common impediment of left-wing politics: strategic and tactical deficiencies. Lefties can easily fall into the habit of waging campaigns in the political world as they wish it to be, not in the world as it is. They may also avoid practices that they consider unseemly, even if they might be effective. Post-mortem accounts of the Sanders operation describe flawed or absent polling, considerable strategic rigidity, and a candidate disinclined to reach out to other political figures who would have been in position to help him win. (The Warren campaign also seems to have been organized around the idea that relying on pollsters and professional consultants to make major decisions was somehow beneath its dignity and therefore to be resisted.) Romanticizing the noble defeat is a long-standing tradition on the American left, but it has undeniable practical drawbacks if the goal is to gain and hold political power.

Sanders has already left a mark on aspects of the Democratic policy platform, and he will almost certainly be credited in coming years with drawing a generation of activists into the political arena. Rather than exerting a transformative effect on the party as a whole, a more invigorated left wing is—if it can sustain its energy over the long term—more likely to act as one among many constituencies tugging on Democratic leaders to prioritize its particular concerns. Though such a development would fall well short of some supporters' revolutionary ambitions, it would be still a fairly impressive legacy for a second-place campaign to leave behind.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Time Passes Slowly Under COVID—So the Political World Should Adjust Accordingly

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect daily life in the United States, it has distorted the nation's collective sense of time. Many people have observed in the last few days how long the month of March 2020 seemed to last; the events of its first week, such as Joe Biden's electoral success on Super Tuesday and the withdrawals of Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren, now seem to have occurred in a long-distant era. This makes psychological sense: the world has fundamentally changed, that change is highly unpleasant and anxiety-provoking (if time flies when we're having fun, it crawls when we're miserable), and the measures imposed to control the spread of the virus confine most of the population to a limited set of spaces, activities, and companions.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of this development is its exacerbation of the American political class's existing preoccupation with immediate daily or even hourly developments at the expense of long-term perspective. The disinclination to think beyond the moment at hand has been a signature characteristic of the Trump presidency from its first day of existence, and the serious risks and dangers that accompany this aversion to planning and foresight have become excruciatingly obvious in the current crisis. Repeatedly dismissing the coronavirus as a non-threat or even non-issue in the early weeks of the pandemic may have fleetingly avoided spooking the press, the public, or the markets, but in retrospect it seems like a tragic error in both policy and political terms.

Trump's habit of governing with eyes fixed on the daily rhythms and pet subjects of television news coverage is commonly framed as an indictment of him, though it's equally an indictment of television news coverage. And social media, though it can do a better job of disseminating information than the average cable talking head-fest, operates with an even greater degree of transience. The emergence of the COVID-19 epidemic has only magnified this moment-to-moment mentality.

Rather than directing all of its energies towards developing and implementing an aggressive federal policy response, the White House has succumbed to the temptation to treat the pandemic as a public relations problem that needs a public relations solution (to paraphrase a previous president mischaracterizing his own presidency-defining crisis). Its daily press conferences are organized less to provide useful facts to the public than to allow Trump to engage in personal credit-claiming and subordinates or allies to bestow additional credit on him. Inevitably, these events attract considerable media attention, which just as inevitably provokes frustrated liberals to blast journalists for providing Trump positive publicity and allowing him to spread misinformation—even as Trump himself uses the platform to lob attacks at disfavored reporters. Meanwhile, in a particularly silly testament to the growing political time warp now in effect, a few days spent out of public view turned out to be long enough for a coalition of journalists, Republicans, and Bernie Sanders supporters to treat Joe Biden as if he had virtually forfeited the 2020 election.

The Trump administration, its opponents on the left, and its targets in the media have become locked in a cycle of perpetual mutual obsession that has not proven healthy for anyone concerned. Despite their many conflicts, all of these actors share the view that there's usually nothing more important than today's news. But the coronavirus does not abide by the same rules of time. It may have seemed to arrive quickly, but it is not likely to depart quickly. And so it renders the day-to-day preoccupations of the political world even more peripheral than usual.

In general, the rhetoric of political leaders, the testimony of scientific experts, and the coverage of media sources have done an increasingly effective job of persuading citizens of the potentially catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on both public health and the national economy. But there has been less open acknowledgement of the sheer length of time that it may take for daily life to approach relative normality. Trump, of course, went so far as to suggest last week that public institutions could reopen by Easter, for which he received considerable criticism before retreating from this timeline in recent days.

But even the University of Washington's frequently-cited projections of future infection and mortality frequencies, as foreboding as they may be in forecasting imminent emergency in much of the country, take on a reassuring bell-curved shape with the patient caseload declining rapidly in May, reaching minimal levels by mid-summer. However, these estimates assume the indefinite maintenance of maximal social distancing practices. It's likely that crisis conditions will continue until a vaccine or major treatment breakthrough arrives, and rules governing access to public spaces will need to reflect the ongoing presence of the threat. How can anything close to normal life resume before the virus is eradicated or the effects of infection become manageable?

For those who have found the last two or three weeks to be slowly-paced, the prospect of months or even years of continued restrictions—as casualties mount and the economy deteriorates—may seem hard to contemplate. But that's why the attention of politicians, journalists, and citizens alike should be trained squarely on potential paths to long-term solutions (or, at least, long-term ameliorations) rather than getting caught up in momentary dramas. If Trump indeed cares more about his own re-election chances than anything else, as many detractors charge, it's still true that his path to a second term runs through winning a war on the virus, not the daily news cycle.

Even analysts who are focused on the November election need to remind ourselves that seven months is a very long time in politics (seven months ago, for example, the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump's impeachment had yet to surface), and the next seven months will feel especially long. We all might as well settle in as best as we can, because we're going to be stuck here for a while.