Thursday, August 27, 2020

2020 Republican National Convention Recap

This week's Republican convention did an especially efficient job of encapsulating the current state of the party after four years of Donald Trump's leadership. In terms of the roster of speakers and the venues at which they spoke, the convention reflected how much the party has become a personal extension of Trump. Among the usual appearances by up-and-coming politicians and regular-citizen testimonials, a long succession of members of the reigning court—including a deputy chief of staff, press secretary, assistant to the president, counselor to the president, personal attorney of the president, and seven Trump family members—dominated the schedule, while the White House itself served as the backdrop to the addresses of both of its current adult occupants.

But the words of these speeches showed how much Trump's consolidation of power within the party has been accompanied by his adoption of its existing ideological commitments. Speaker after speaker at this week's convention reinforced standard Republican themes: small government, social traditionalism, veneration of the military and law enforcement, and attacks on "socialism," the "radical left," and the news media. Even the president's children, who might have been expected to spend their stage time sharing family anecdotes intended to create favorable personal impressions of their father, concentrated instead on delivering familiar conservative rhetoric. The occasional heterodoxies of the 2016 Trump campaign, which convinced many pundits and voters at the time that he was pulling the Republican Party to the left on economic policy, are no longer evident.

If there was something a bit redundant about the Republican convention, beyond the repetitive format forced in part by COVID-related restrictions, it stems from this presidency's unprecedented day-to-day domination of the political world over the past four years and the volume of coverage it already receives in both the mainstream and conservative media. Even enthusiastic supporters already have many other avenues of constant exposure to communication from Trump and his staff, and the campaign chose not to use their candidates' acceptance addresses, or the convention in general, to make much news.

It's hard to remember another presidential campaign in which concrete proposals and potential legislative initiatives have played such a minor role. Democrats have plenty of ideas for policy reform, as usual, but they did not make them the centerpiece of their public message in last week's convention; Biden's acceptance address mostly omitted the traditional "laundry list" of issue-specific domestic appeals in favor of a narrower focus on denouncing Trump as a threat to American values and mismanager of the COVID response. But the Republican convention was even more devoid of a vision for the next four years that centered on the actual powers and responsibilities of the president, as opposed to its frequent expression of emotionally charged but mostly symbolic opposition to the media, national anthem protests, destruction of local statuary, and "cancel culture." In the midst of an ongoing national economic and public health crisis that requires active, competent management to address effectively, it's remarkable that our national debate at this moment isn't more concerned with each candidate's specific plans and capacities to solve the immediate, life-threatening problem that the nation continues to face.

Monday, August 24, 2020

"Many People Are Saying" Trump's Republican Party Doesn't Stand For Anything...But They're Wrong

Did you hear that the Republicans aren't writing a traditional platform this year? Did you read that the party has only approved a resolution pledging to "enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda"? Did you happen to catch the quote in today's Politico story from veteran GOP congressional hand Brendan Buck, who quipped that his party has come to stand solely for "owning the libs and pissing off the media"?

Whether you're a never-Trump conservative shaking your head in mourning or a never-Trump non-conservative chortling with schadenfreude, the idea that the GOP has been reduced to a content-free cult of an ideology-free personality has an irresistably appealing emotional truth. The problem is that it doesn't have much factual truth.

Is there any confusion, or serious disagreement, over the Republican Party's current position on abortion? Or gun control? Corporate tax rates? Universal health care? Military spending? Environmental regulation?

Maybe the lack of a new platform in 2020 doesn't mean that the Republican Party is out of ideas. Maybe it shows that there is so much consensus within the party around the ideas it already has that few activists see the benefit in pressing for more internal debate.

The popular story that the Republican Party now revolves around Trump is true enough. But it often leaves out the point that Trump has won this power in part by adopting the party's existing substantive commitments. In terms of both policy and personnel, the Trump presidency is the most consistently conservative administration since Calvin Coolidge. Aside from the area of international trade (which has never been a defining issue for either major party in modern times), Trump governs in an ideologically orthodox fashion. And on some important subjects, such as immigration and international relations, he has helped to pull his party even farther to the right than it was before his arrival.

So where does the myth come from that Republicans don't stand for anything any more?

One clue comes from the types of people who seem the most invested in this argument. Today's Politico piece, which quoted Buck approvingly amidst a larger thesis that the Republican Party has abandoned any coherent animating philosophy, was written by Tim Alberta, an alumnus of the leading conservative journal National Review. Alberta's perspective is common among elite conservatives who dislike Trump: conservatism is good and Trump is not, so a Trump-led GOP is by definition a party that has forsaken its ideals.

It's true enough that Trump does not speak, or carry himself, like a National Review conservative. But that's because Trump is a Fox News conservative, not because he isn't a conservative at all. He has little interest in conservatism either as an intellectual movement built on abstract principles or as a set of moral and personal virtues, so conservative thinkers who do view their cause in such a manner naturally find it difficult to admit him to their ranks. However, the last four years have shown that most Republican voters trying to figure out what, or who, is and is not conservative pay a lot more attention to Sean Hannity's or Rush Limbaugh's thoughts on the subject than they do to Ramesh Ponnuru's or George F. Will's.

In the end, there's nothing new about the argument that the Republican Party has wandered away from true conservatism. This refrain was sounded in the later years of George W. Bush, in the final days of the Gingrich speakership, during the administration of the senior George Bush—even, at times, in the era of the otherwise sainted Reagan presidency. The conservative project of shrinking the size and role of government while simultaneously reversing leftward cultural trends is simply very difficult to achieve in practice, even when Republican politicians are in power and rhetorically committed to the cause. Donald Trump has pushed federal policy in a conservative direction across a broad spectrum of specific issues to the approval of nearly all of his fellow Republicans. That's what the Republican Party stands for, and if it wins another term, that's what it will do for another four years.

Friday, August 21, 2020

2020 Democratic National Convention Recap

Political scientists tend to like conventions more than media figures do. One reason is that journalists, whose souls are stirred most of all by the dramatic and the unexpected, are easily bored and annoyed by the packaged, stage-managed production of modern conventions, where the nomination outcome is pre-ordained and party leaders labor to hide any internal divisions or other juicy stories from public view. (Clint Eastwood's famously bizarro empty-chair routine got so much media attention at the 2012 Republican convention largely because it was a rare moment of true spontaneity.)

But another reason is that political scientists tend to like parties more than media figures do, and national conventions are above all party affairs. The nature of this year's conventions means that they can't serve as physical gatherings of the parties' human infrastructure—a real loss, even if the virtual version is a slicker and snappier experience for viewers on television. But they are still important as a unique window into how each party defines itself, and how that definition changes from one election to the next.

In most respects, the Democratic Party we saw on display this week was a familiar animal—above all, a varied coalition of social groups. Unsurprisingly, given the current climate, the topics of racial and gender equality were not only implicitly primed by the presentation of a demographically diverse succession of participants, but were also frequently invoked in speeches and voiceovers. Democrats also handed over key speaking slots to the first families of the party—the Obamas and Clintons, with a briefer but equally inevitable Kennedy appearance as well—and exploited their permanent representational advantage within the community of popular entertainment-industry professionals.

But there were also unmistakable signs of change. If the typical persuadable voter in the minds of party strategists 20 or 30 years ago was a small-town, church-going wage earner who goes hunting on the weekends, today it's more like a suburban small-business owner with Lean In on the coffee table and BeyoncĂ© on Spotify. Democrats' former defensiveness about associations with cultural liberalism is no longer a visible element of the party's national message, and subjects that party leaders were once somewhat reluctant to discuss—gun control, feminism, LGBT rights, illegal immigration—are now central elements of its public appeal. So while Joe Biden might have been seen in the primaries by supporters and detractors alike as a kind of throwback figure representing bygone days, the campaign he's wound up running is very much a reflection of the Democratic Party's present course.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

More on the Vice Presidential Selection of Kamala Harris

I have a new piece today in the New York Times that focuses on what the selection of Kamala Harris tells us about Joe Biden. Over the course of his long political career, I argue, Biden has always been a man of his party. He thus was unsurprisingly sensitive to pressure (or encouragement, if you prefer) from within Democratic circles to choose a woman, especially a black woman, and especially Harris. And the undeniable similarities and parallels between the figures of Harris, now very much Biden's political heir apparent, and Barack Obama merely underscore the extent to which the Democratic Party is still forged in Obama's image.

There wasn't enough room for me to touch on it in the piece, but it's become clear that Biden's organizational ties to the institutional Democratic Party are also very strong—probably stronger than those of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. For example, while Obama mostly disdained and neglected the Democratic National Committee, preferring to build his own personal voter outreach structure (ultimately called Organizing for America), the Biden campaign seems to be closely integrated with the DNC and much more invested in its success. And the retrospective accounts of his vice presidential search process that are starting to pop up in the press all describe a very extensive and elaborate intelligence-gathering operation designed to synthesize input from a wide array of party actors and stakeholders.

Here are a few other final thoughts as another round of veepstakes draws to a close:

1. It's not entirely clear from the reports I've seen whether Harris was the front-runner from the beginning. But it does seem obvious that a decision was made fairly early in the process to prioritize black women and—critically—to leave other party members and the press with the same impression. Once you've signaled that you're so interested in a black running mate that you're considering multiple non-traditional picks like Susan Rice, Karen Bass, or Val Demings, you'd be running quite a risk of disappointment by settling on, say, Gretchen Whitmer instead.

2. This strategic framing by the Biden campaign is one of the reasons why the Harris pick has been described as "safe" and "obvious." She's certainly the safe choice in comparison to Rice, Bass, or Demings. But a campaign that had floated a different mix of finalists might not have produced the same response.

3. One of the important issues that this search process has demonstrated is the underrepresentation of women, especially women who aren't white, in the traditional vice presidential (and presidential) feeder offices. Harris is one of only two black women who have ever been elected to the Senate in American history (Carol Moseley-Braun, who served one term from Illinois in the 1990s, is the other), and no black woman has ever served as a state governor. In our current political moment, the demand for national elected leaders who are not white men—at least on the Democratic side—is exceeding the ready supply. If Biden had ruled out Harris, for whatever reason, he would have been faced with a real dilemma, forcing him to relax either his preference for a black running mate or the normal perceptions of the appropriate credentials for presidential office.

4. The press has made a lot of hay out of the Trump campaign's incoherent set of attacks on Harris as it simultaneously attempts to paint her, like Biden, as both a radical anti-police anarchist and an overly punitive agent of the carceral state. But my guess is that the bulk of Republican messaging, in paid advertisements and surrogate talking points, will emphasize the former claim, with the latter saved for a few targeted social media communications intended to decrease turnout on the left. As with much else in politics, follow the money: tweets are free, but TV ads are expensive.

5. The vice presidential selection is always good for a few days of media frenzy in an otherwise slow summer week for news, but it's worth remembering that running mates normally fade into the background as the fall campaign heats up (with one historical exception that is, above all, a cautionary tale). And the next VP debate to have an important effect on the presidential race will be the first one ever.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

A Few Thoughts on the 2020 Democratic Veepstakes

We've had a series of reports this week about the state of the internal deliberations over Joe Biden's selection of running mate, including from the New York Times, Politico, Politico again, Bloomberg News, and CNBC. These various accounts are consistent in some but not all respects; in particular, some suggest that Kamala Harris remains the clear favorite while others imply that her chances are fading. Here are the main points that I've taken away from the reporting so far:

1. The Biden campaign doesn't seem to be doing much to dispel the assumption that the final leading candidates are Harris, Susan Rice, and Karen Bass, with Val Demings and Tammy Duckworth still in the mix but as less probable alternatives. Of course, campaigns sometimes try to fake out reporters in advance in order to make a bigger splash when the announcement comes. But it would be an uncharacteristically risky move for the Biden team to leave the impression that they were probably going to select a black woman and then not do so.

2. There is real opposition to Harris within the party and to some extent within Biden's own orbit. This opposition is primarily personal, not based on strategic or ideological considerations. The criticism offered to the press this week that she was too "ambitious" landed badly because of its sexist overtones, but it also seemed like an intended euphemism for something more serious—selfishness? untrustworthiness?—that would have been too explosive an accusation to make without some additional evidence or corroboration.

3. But if Harris is not the final choice, Biden will need an explanation for why he preferred somebody else that can be made publicly to activists and voters, not just on background to journalists. This explanation doesn't need to be critical of Harris, but it does need to cite distinctive virtues of the alternative candidate that citizens can be expected to find duly impressive. Of the other apparent remaining contenders, Duckworth already comes with a readymade case for her selection, but the rest do not. While personal loyalty and collegiality are indeed valuable qualities in a running mate, the Biden camp would need a stronger justification than that for reaching down into the House rank-and-file or outside elective office, and one hasn't really been made so far.

4. Of all the "veepstakes" episodes in my memory, this one has been the least dominated by speculation about who might deliver a particular battleground state or key voting bloc to the national ticket and the most dominated by discussions about who might be the best vice president once the election is over. This is probably due in large part to Biden's steady lead in the polls—a rare luxury for a non-incumbent—but it is still a positive development. Whatever one might think about the way Harris or any of the other candidates have been treated, it is much better for the parties and the entire political system if leaders focus on the running mate as a potential governing partner and political successor, not as a mere tool of campaign strategy.

5. Many people seem to be operating under the assumption that Joe Biden, if elected, would not seek re-election in 2024. But it isn't very clear whether Joe Biden is one of those people.