Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Voters Don't Often Reward What They Like...But They Do Punish What They Don't Like

Joe Biden finally signed the infrastructure bill into law this past Monday after a three-month delay separating its approval by the Senate from its passage in the House of Representatives—a delay insisted upon by House liberals who attempted to use it as leverage to guarantee the simultaneous enactment of the larger and more ambitious reconciliation bill. But the reconciliation bill, named the Build Back Better Act after a campaign slogan of Biden's, still remains in legislative limbo, as a few pivotal moderates in the Senate have remained coy about exactly what they will support and when they will support it. The House leadership plans to move forward on the bill as early as this week, but the Senate's timeline for action will remain unclear until the entire Democratic caucus signals that it's ready to proceed. At the moment, final passage of the bill shortly before the Christmas recess seems like the most optimistic plausible scenario for Democrats, and it's still possible that nothing will end up passing at all.

It might seem logical to draw a connection between the slowing momentum of the Biden legislative agenda and the simultaneous fade in the president's job approval ratings over the course of the late summer and fall. Perhaps, one could imagine, voters who are dissatisfied by the pace of national policy change are taking out their frustrations on the president. If this were true, both the recent enactment of the infrastructure bill and the potential forthcoming passage of Build Back Better—both popular measures according to opinion surveys—would hold the promise of giving Biden and his fellow Democrats a popularity boost heading into the midterm elections next year.

One problem with this assumption is that there are other, more convincing explanations for Biden's declining approval. The resurgence of COVID-19 infections caused by the delta variant, combined with the continued disruption of the job market and rising inflation, seems quite sufficient to account for increased public discontent since the spring. Even Biden's imposition of mandates for vaccination or frequent COVID testing as a condition of employment, though favored by a narrow majority of Americans, may have cost him some support among certain segments of the population.

But we also don't have many historical examples of voters rewarding presidents and governing parties for legislative productivity. Even when the bills being passed are popular or transformative, they don't seem to attract new supporters to the president's side or protect him from criticism on other grounds. The congressional sessions of 1965–66, 1981–82, and 2009–10 were all marked by unusually prolific policy-making innovation, enacting laws that continue even today to shape national politics and federal governance. In all three cases, the president's party suffered a significant loss of congressional seats in the subsequent midterm election.

Voters are tough to satisfy and have short memories, especially for success. (In May 1945, Winston Churchill and the other Allied leaders declared victory in the European theater of World War II; two months later, Churchill's party lost 189 seats and control of Parliament to the opposition.) Americans happily accepted the economic stimulus payments included in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, passed through Congress on a party-line vote, but did not respond to this provision of benefits by showering the ruling Democrats with their enduring affection. But when the party in power does something unpopular, or even fails to effectively ameliorate the day's crisis or economic hardship, we can almost always foresee a public backlash. In politics, grievance is a far more predictable response than gratitude.

Anyone who would wish electoral outcomes to serve as a reliable means of rewarding legislative achievement and punishing legislative inertia will find this pattern endlessly infuriating. But it's a good reason why the importance of new policy shouldn't be judged only through the lens of its potential short-term electoral consequences, which may be nonexistent or even negative. Democrats paid a heavy political cost for passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which contributed to their loss of the House for what turned out to be the following 8 years. But when Republicans sought to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with the ACA by attempting to repeal it in the first year of the Trump presidency, the direction of popular sentiment immediately swung in the other direction—and House Democrats soon found themselves back in the majority. A party expecting an electoral reward for enacting new laws may just need a lot of patience; the political payoff, if it comes at all, may not be realized until the opposition comes to power and tries to undo the accomplishments of its predecessors.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Biden's Declining Popularity: An Interview with The Signal

I spoke recently with Michael Bluhm of The Signal about the recent decline in Joe Biden's job approval ratings. We covered the likely causes of this trend, their political implications, and the contributing role of America's broader climate of partisan polarization. Excerpts of the interview are posted here, and a more complete version is available to subscribers.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Democrats Don't Appear Doomed, Unless Losing Half the Time Means Doom

Since Ronald Reagan's first victory in 1980, the United States has held 11 presidential elections and 10 congressional midterms. In total, over those 21 federal contests:

• Republicans have won the presidency 6 times and Democrats 5 times.

• Democrats have won a majority in the House of Representatives 11 times and Republicans 10 times.

• Republicans have won a majority in the Senate 11 times and Democrats 10 times. (This counts the post-2000 Senate as having a Democratic majority, though Republicans controlled it for several months in early 2001.)

• Democrats have achieved unified control of the presidency and Congress after 3 elections: 1992, 2008, and 2020. Republicans have also achieved unified control after 3 elections: 2002, 2004, and 2016 (plus those few months in 2001). The remaining 15 elections produced divided party government in one permutation or another.

These numbers form a picture of consistent, and fairly remarkable, long-term parity between the parties, reinforced by the narrow margins by which most recent presidential and congressional elections have been decided at the national level. The record of the past 40 years suggests that Democrats and Republicans can each expect to achieve unified control of the presidency and Congress in about one out of every seven elections, most likely holding a cross-branch governing majority for just two years at a stretch before the next election re-establishes the condition of divided government—which has been the norm of our age.

This might seem to be a boringly self-evident set of observations. And yet, those of us who have actually spent most of this period experiencing each election in sequence while immersed in associated debates and media coverage have been subjected to a constant series of arguments, theories, and analyses that claim the existence or imminent appearance of an enduring advantage for one party or the other. Promoting hypotheses of "electoral locks" over particular institutions and repeatedly proclaiming nascent realignments or even revolutions, some of the most distinguished political analysts of the era have repeatedly been tempted to assume that the short-term trends of the immediate past will extend into the long-term future. All the while, actual electoral outcomes have continue to rapidly and repetitively bounce back and forth between Democratic and Republican victories at equal rates over decades of history, even while the internal coalitions, policies, strategies, messages, and candidates of both parties have undergone substantial change.

On Friday, the New York Times published a column by liberal journalist Ezra Klein profiling the Democratic political strategist and data analyst David Shor. Shor has attracted a reputation as something of a renegade, though I'd guess that many of his conclusions are quietly shared by a substantial proportion of professional consultants in both parties. His contrarian image stems more from his willingness to publicly argue in front of social and online media's younger, well-educated, ideologically progressive audience that the left-wing cultural opinions now ascendant within that audience are likely to weaken Democratic mass appeal among working-class voters if they become popularly associated with the party and its candidates.

We are, of course, currently in what history tells us is a rare and temporary period of unified Democratic rule, likely to end as soon as 2022 given the narrow margins of control in Congress and the losses normally suffered by the president's party in midterm elections. But Klein and Shor are neither congratulating Democrats for achieving an uncommon success nor cheering on the leftward policy shifts that the victories of last November have made possible for their side. Instead, they are looking into the future with terror.

Invoking Shor's analysis, Klein's column repeatedly employs apocalyptic phrases to describe the Democrats' hypothetical fortunes in upcoming elections: "truly frightening," "without any hope," "sleepwalking into catastrophe," "on the edge of an electoral abyss." A "deeply pessimistic" view of the Democrats' position is not unique to Shor, Klein writes, but is widely shared among analysts (including, presumably, himself).

Given the urgency of such language, one might expect Klein and Shor to be forecasting the imminent end of our long era of partisan parity, to be succeeded by a new phase of American politics marked by unobstructed Republican rule. But they don't explicitly argue that Republicans will win national elections at a higher rate in the future than they have in the past, and they certainly don't claim to envision a durable GOP governing majority. Though the results of the statistical model Shor has built to predict every election from now until 2032 are not revealed in detail (ambition, at least, is not in short supply here), the likelihood of Democrats losing unified control next year and facing challenges in winning it back quickly thereafter appears to be a sufficiently dire prospect to provoke dramatic expressions of anticipatory lamentation—even if such an outcome is, by historical standards, tediously unexceptional.

Many of the specific points made by Klein and Shor are sound and even persuasive. The current geographic distribution of the parties' mass coalitions gives the Republicans a structural head start in winning a majority in the electoral college and especially the Senate, though (as the results of 2020 demonstrated) this advantage falls well short of guaranteed perpetual victory. But if lacking unified federal control is plunging into an "abyss," then the Democratic Party has been sunk in that abyss for all but three two-year periods since 1980. Defining the failure to achieve a cross-branch governing majority as a "catastrophe" would suggest that Democrats—and Republicans too, for that matter—are in an electorally catastrophic state 86 percent of the time.

I suspect that's not what Klein really means. Most likely, he simply views the post-Trump Republican Party as sufficiently dangerous to the values he prizes that any impending Republican victory, even just to restore divided government and block the Democrats' legislative progress, represents disaster. Thus, Democratic leaders and their supporters cannot afford to appreciate the rare achievement of their recent electoral success or the policy changes that flow from them, and certainly have no right to adopt a philosophical detachment about the inevitability of frequent alternations of power in an age of evenly-matched national parties. There's a five-alarm fire in the engine room of American democracy, he implies, and the Republicans are pouring fuel on it. Any setback for the Democratic side is ruinous.

Regardless of the validity of that argument, it engages questions that are distinct from merely estimating each party's probability of victory in upcoming electoral contests. And if the nation is indeed in such peril, it doesn't seem realistic to expect Democratic politicians and operatives to solve the problem by adopting a sufficiently powerful set of policies and messages to shut the Republicans out of power until they change their ways, whenever that might be. An age marked by persistently close elections means that the outcome in this or that specific contest can indeed hang on the calculated choices of candidates and campaigns, and Shor has a number of justifiable ideas about which strategies will maximize Democrats' chances of victory. But partisan parity also means that both sides are going to lose sometimes, no matter what they do. If that's catastrophic, than catastrophe is inevitable.

Given the disappointing record of previous attempts to identify nascent partisan trends in one direction or the other, I admit to holding a strong default assumption that this parity will continue until the evidence really starts to build over multiple elections that American politics has entered a different era. There are simply too many moving parts in the parties' coalitions and too many contingent factors influencing electoral outcomes to gain much confidence in foreseeing future developments, and even smart arguments made by smart people drawing on smart data sources can quickly fall apart when the political world changes. If predictions must be made, the safest bet remains that each party will narrowly win roughly half the time, and that divided government will continue to be more frequent than instances of single-party rule. For now, I leave to the judgment of others the question of whether that likely pattern indicates impending doom—for either party, or for the country itself.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

In the California Recall, Republicans Turn to the Conservative Media for Party Leadership

The field of Republican candidates seeking to replace Democratic governor Gavin Newsom in next Tuesday's recall election in California includes the former mayor of San Diego; a businessman who was the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2018; a former member of both houses of the state legislature who serves on the elected state tax board; and a current member of the state Assembly. All of these candidates have the kind of background that commonly precedes service as a top statewide elected official.

But none of them have much chance of replacing Newsom if he is recalled. Assuming that the polls are roughly accurate, all of these candidates are stuck in the single digits, while the clear favorite candidate of Republican voters—who will likely lead the overall vote for a successor, since no major Democrat is running—is Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host. A majority "yes" vote on the recall itself would automatically make the plurality winner of the replacement contest the next governor of the state. Even if more Californians oppose recalling Newsom than vote for Elder, all Elder needs is more votes than any other single replacement option, and it seems like he's in position to achieve at least that second goal.

California Republicans do not appear to be bothered by Elder's lack of conventional experience for high executive office. His favorable position in the race has allowed him to pursue a strategy of skipping the major debates where he might face attacks from other candidates or lines of questioning designed to test his grasp of state government. And even the negative publicity that Elder has received in recent weeks has kept the media's attention on him, making it difficult for any single other Republican to break out of the also-ran category in the final stretch of the race.

Elder's success reflects the appeal that a conservative media figure's candidacy can have among Republican voters—and, more generally, the growing influence of the conservative media universe over the direction of the Republican Party. Talk show hosts like Elder boast several potential advantages over more conventional Republican candidates: they are skilled at delivering the red-meat rhetoric that conservative voters reward; they lack a governing record that might contain elements of ideological impurity; and they are "outsiders" who can serve as a personification of resentment towards a class of traditional party leaders who have failed to reverse the growing power of liberalism. Elder's rival Kevin Faulconer is running on his successes in managing the state's second-largest city, promising to bring the same "strong and stable leadership" to the governor's office, but that argument has not caught on among California Republicans like Elder's more provocative style and resolutely pro-Trump message has.

Of course, California has twice elected famous actors to the governorship who sold themselves as anti-politicians. But both Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were true celebrities, widely known as entertainers before they decided to enter elective politics. Elder, by contrast, is a creature of the conservative media world without any larger notability, and his campaign is strongly ideological rather than merely throw-the-bums-out populist.

To actually become governor, Elder needs independents and some Democrats to vote to recall Newsom, which may well be a tougher sell with a right-wing successor seeming to wait in the wings. Two organizers of the recall even complained recently that Elder was "outspoken to the extreme" and being "very politically naive" by trying to ride culture-war backlash to the governorship of a socially liberal state. Faulconer's moderate policy views and less pugnacious demeanor would seem to better fit the typical profile of a victorious Republican in Blue America. But Republican voters are not really in the mood to value political pragmatism or conventional leadership experience. If they were, conservative media personalities wouldn't have such political power in the first place.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

As New Census Numbers Show, the Biggest Divide Isn't North v. South Anymore—It's Metro v. Rural

On Thursday, the Census Bureau released the 2020 census data for cities, counties, and other geographic subdivisions. Just as with the state-level numbers announced in April, there were some surprises. Many large metropolitan areas grew faster over the past decade than the Bureau had previously projected, with eight of the nation's ten largest cities showing an increased growth rate compared to the 2000 to 2010 period. At the same time, most of rural America shrank in absolute as well as relative terms. A majority—52 percent—of the nation's counties actually reported a smaller raw population in 2020 than they had in 2010:

Many rural areas have been stagnant and struggling for a long time, but the distinct trajectories of big-city and small-town life have seldom been as divergent—and as connected to partisan politics—as they became over the past decade. Kathy Cramer's fieldwork in Wisconsin during the late 2000s and early 2010s found a prevailing sentiment of political alienation among rural voters, who perceived their communities as suffering a steady economic and cultural decline for which they often blamed greedy and decadent urbanites. An existing collective preference for the Republican Party among this heavily white, socially traditionalist population was soon super-charged by Donald Trump's brand of nostalgic populist nationalism, producing record Republican electoral margins in rural precincts from coast to coast in 2016.

But Trump's policies as president did not solve the long-term problems facing rural residents, or reduce the financial and cultural opportunities that migration to larger population centers can offer their children and grandchildren. The invocations of a nation fallen from past glories that resonated so strongly in small-town America inspired less enthusiasm among the residents of racially diverse, increasingly well-educated metropolitan municipalities, where even the challenges of daily life—high costs of living, insufficient housing supply, traffic congestion—often reflect the byproducts of growth and success rather than decline and decay. Prosperous suburban enclaves that once served as reliable sources of support for the mass Republican Party (such as Orange County, California; Loudoun County, Virginia; and Cobb County, Georgia) continued to shift steadily toward the blue end of the partisan spectrum in response to Trump's rise.

The fundamental geographic division in American politics has traditionally been a sectional conflict setting the North against the South. The idioms of "red states" and "blue states" caught on widely after the 2000 presidential election because they could be applied to a regional divide—blue North, red South—that was already presumed to reflect the main axis of political debate and competition. But the partisan difference between large-metro and rural residents has now become much larger than the gap between northerners and southerners.

Until 1996, the difference in presidential voting between residents of the nation's largest 20 metropolitan areas and inhabitants of rural (non-metropolitan) counties resembled the difference between the South (defined here as the eleven states of the former Confederacy plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma) and the North (defined as all other states from the Atlantic coast west to Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri). Between 2000 and 2008, the urbanism gap was somewhat, though not dramatically, larger than the regional gap. By 2016 and 2020, however, the partisan difference between large metros and rural areas had become fully three times as large as the North-South difference, which had visibly narrowed (from 12 to 9 percentage points) from its 2008 peak.

Look inside practically any state in the country and you'll find blue dots corresponding to its densent and most populous urban centers, each surrounded by a sea of red rural hinterlands. The regional divide has declined since 2008 because the urban precincts of the South have grown bluer over time while the rural territories of the North have gotten redder, both shedding some of their sectional distinctiveness in the face of a consistent nationwide trend. This gave Donald Trump the ability to flip a few northern states with significant rural populations from blue to red in 2016 (such as Iowa and Wisconsin), while Joe Biden likewise outperformed previous Democratic nominees in Georgia and Texas in 2020 by winning the large metro areas of greater Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston—none of which had been carried by Barack Obama in his 2012 victory.

In a widening electoral conflict between urban and rural America, one might think that it would be clear which side holds the strategic advantage. More than twice as many voters live in one of the top 20 metro areas as reside in all rural counties combined, and the results of the new 2020 census reveal that the American population is becoming more collectively metropolitan at an accelerating rate. Even in states where they control the post-census redistricting process, Republicans will face the challenge of needing to accommodate the declining numbers of their loyal rural constituency.

But as the figure above reveals, Republicans' plight as the rural party of a increasingly non-rural nation has so far been balanced out by the fact that rural America has moved toward the GOP at a faster pace since the 1990s than urban America has shifted away. When combined with the structural biases of the electoral college and Senate in favor of rural voters, the current Republican popular coalition can easily remain fully competitive in national elections. The intensifying conflict between city and country has had a number of important consequences for how each party operates, which voters it attracts, and which states and districts it is likely to win, but it does not show any signs of ending the perennially close competition for control of the federal government that has become a distinctive characteristic of our current age.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Power Center in the GOP Isn't Just Trump, It's the Conservative Media

Donald Trump is still the Republican Party's spiritual leader in exile. Most other Republican politicians don't dare express criticism of Trump in public, ambitious candidates troop to Mar-a-Lago to seek his endorsement, and his style of resentment politics continues to gain adoption even among former detractors in his party. But Trump's repeated denunciations of the infrastructure legislation being developed in the Senate by a bipartisan "gang of 20" do not yet seem to be having much of an effect on its amount of Republican support; the bill survived its first test vote on Wednesday evening when the motion to begin consideration passed with the votes of 17 Republican senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell.

This reflects something important about the nature of Trump's internal power within the GOP. The main conduits through which Trump exerts control over other Republicans are the conservative media outlets with which he has maintained a close alliance ever since his 2016 nomination. Trump is much more effective at imposing his preferences on the party when the Republican electorate is made aware of those preferences by the informational sources they trust the most.

When Trump was president, and before he was banned from social media, we often heard about how he had uniquely harnessed the power of Twitter. But it wasn't his tweets themselves that were especially powerful (only a small slice of the American public would have seen any of them directly), it was his tweets as amplified by other media platforms with much larger popular audiences. Republican members of Congress enjoyed much more political leeway to reject or ignore President Trump's policy proposals than they did to explicitly disapprove of his personal behavior, because substantive differences with Trump did not usually receive much attention from the media—including the conservative media—while personal differences could turn into headline news.

Trump is no longer allowed to tweet, but he still issues statements that resemble his old social media posts. Now, however, his goal of attracting widespread attention for these messages is even more dependent on the decision of others with louder bullhorns to give them publicity.

Some of the Senate Republicans participating in the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, have already survived confrontation with Trump or his conservative media allies. Others, like Rob Portman and Richard Burr, are not planning to seek another term and may not care much what the Fox News audience thinks about them. But a few Republican members of the "gang of 20," like Todd Young of Indiana or Mike Rounds of South Dakota, might well be made uncomfortable if their names and faces repeatedly led off the top of Tucker Carlson Tonight broadcasts as accused enemies of Trump and the conservative cause.

Fortunately for them, the infrastructure bill simply hasn't been promoted to Republican supporters in the electorate as a critical test of ideological purity. The attention of Carlson and his fellow conservative media personalities is mostly trained elsewhere these days, on the various cultural concerns that have come to dominate the agenda of the popular right. This may cause Trump some frustration. But if the energy of conservative activists and voters has indeed shifted in recent years from opposing increases in government spending to fighting the contemporary culture war, Trump—as well as his friends in the right-of-center media world—surely bears considerable responsibility for encouraging this change in priorities.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

How Should We Judge the Harris Vice Presidency?

More than 200 years after its creation, the vice presidency remains the least defined, and outright oddest, major political office in the United States. With almost no formal powers but the critical responsibility of needing to be prepared to assume the leadership of the nation at any moment, vice presidents occupy a position that, like the electoral college that selects them, was a clumsy 1787 solution to a practical problem of constitutional mechanics.

Like the presidency, the vice presidency has evolved over time, and no longer resembles the description of its first historical occupant as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." But it can still be an awkward position to hold and a difficult one to evaluate from the outside. How can we judge whether the vice president is doing a good job without a shared set of expectations about what the job actually is?

Joe Biden has explained repeatedly that he wants Kamala Harris to be the "last voice in the room" when major decisions are made. In the early months of the current presidential administration, it wasn't hard to find sympathetic press stories emphasizing the "large role" or "central role" or "integral role" that Harris was expected to play in the Biden White House. The model for her vice presidency, Biden and his aides often said, was Biden's own experience serving under Barack Obama, when he was considered to be an unusually successful and influential vice president by historical standards.

But it's impossible for Biden and Harris to replicate the relationship that existed between Obama and Biden. Harris is simply not situated in the same place that Biden was as VP, and the implications of this difference have already begun to emerge only five months into her term. For one thing, the unique governing contribution that Biden could make was clear from the moment that he was chosen as Obama's running mate. As a six-term senator who had chaired the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, he brought extensive national policy-making experience and a collection of valuable personal relationships, both on Capitol Hill and around the world, to an administration whose leader had served only briefly in federal office. 

Moreover, Biden was also widely (and, as it turned out, incorrectly) believed to have abandoned his own presidential ambitions after 2008, which was another important asset to his vice presidency. He benefited from the presumption that his judgments and actions were motivated by sincerity and loyalty, rather than by angling to benefit his own future political prospects. And nobody would have thought to argue that Biden as vice president should intentionally distance himself from involvement in this or that thorny issue or crisis in order to protect himself politically for a future campaign.

In contrast, Harris is widely viewed by party leaders and media figures as highly likely to run for president as Biden's heir apparent in 2024 or 2028, but as lacking a clear domain of unique authority to bring to the current administration. She isn't an old Washington hand like Biden, Dick Cheney, or George H. W. Bush; she doesn't have a signature set of policy priorities like Al Gore; she doesn't provide close long-standing personal ties to a key party constituency like Mike Pence. So any substantive responsibility that Harris takes on will inevitably be viewed by other political elites in terms of its strategic implications for her presumed future presidential candidacy, rather than as a reflection of sincere dedication, interest, or expertise.

We're already seeing this happen with Harris's role as the Biden administration's point person on Latin American migration, the subject of her first trip abroad earlier this month. Conventional wisdom in Washington agrees that the situation at the southern border is indeed a serious national problem that deserves urgent attention from the top levels of the executive branch. Conventional wisdom in Washington also seems equally certain that Harris is making a big mistake by getting anywhere near it. I recently spoke with one national reporter who suggested to me that, because of its potentially risky politics, the migration issue must have been assigned to Harris involuntarily. That doesn't seem to me like an act that would be in character for Joe Biden, and at least one media report suggests that Biden and Harris thought taking the lead on addressing the regional conditions causing migration would be an opportunity for her to shoulder an important responsibility and gain international experience. But some of Harris's own sympathizers are openly worried that she is being "set up to fail" by the president, walking into a political "trap" consisting of "the most difficult policy challenges in 21st-century America."

This prevailing sentiment may be right about the strategic calculations here. And it may also be right about Harris's political acumen, which seems to be suffering a declining reputation after her initially positive reception in Washington as a charismatic rising star in the Obama mold. (Note how many people think that someone who was just elected to national executive office could really use some good career advice.) 

But Harris's dilemma is not simply a product of her supposed naivete about her own political interests or Biden's supposed insensitivity to them. Rather, it is a natural consequence of her new position—where holding the status of potential president-in-waiting is often seen as more important than whatever the occupant might be expected to accomplish while waiting to be president. If it were otherwise, perhaps a vice president who tackled a difficult national issue would be praised, not second-guessed, for addressing the governing challenges of today rather than merely protecting her personal ambitions for tomorrow.

It seems unsatisfying to judge the success of a vice presidency solely on the grounds of whether the incumbent managed to use the position to elevate herself into a different one. But the lack of independent responsibilities or a consensus job description for the office has prevented the Washington political community, or the American electorate, from forming an alternative widely-accepted set of standards. Harris herself says, both publicly and (apparently) in private, that she views her vice presidential role as being a substantively engaged and personally loyal governing partner to Biden, not just a once-and-future presidential candidate in her own right. To consider how well she seems to be meeting her own stated vision for the office is not the only valid way to evaluate her performance. But it seems like a thoroughly fair one, regardless of whether her further aspirations are satisfied in the years to come.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The ACA Survives, in One More Victory for Boring Old Liberalism

Plain vanilla American liberalism hasn't been particularly fashionable for a long time, and it certainly isn't now. Anyone who regularly consumes high-status media like NPR or the Wall Street Journal, or who spends any time at all in the Twitterverse, could well conclude that today's politics is mostly defined by a battle between a highly intellectualized, social identity-oriented, self-consciously "anti-establishment" left wing on one side and an array of conservative critics, both Trumpist and anti-Trumpist, on the other.

But when we shift our attention to what the government is actually doing, we see a policy-making apparatus that continues to be dominated by a familiar pragmatic liberal tradition representing the historical legacy of the New Deal and Great Society. The Affordable Care Act is one of this tradition's most important recent achievements, if it's appropriate to refer to a law passed more than a decade ago as "recent." And the Supreme Court's 7–2 decision, announced Thursday, upholding the ACA against what may well be the last in a series of major legal challenges only confirms the resilience of the center-left policy state in the face of dissatisfaction on both ideological sides.

The ACA is complicated. It's inelegant and kludgy. It was designed to patch up the most urgent perceived flaws in the existing health care system rather than to tear it down completely and construct a more efficient and coherent successor. It is easy for its strongest detractors to hate, but hard for even its strongest defenders to love.

And yet the ACA remains a representative model of policy-making because it had two critically valuable qualities: enough initial support to be enacted in the first place and a big enough constituency to protect it from subsequent retrenchment. For all of the well-argued critiques directed its way by dissenters on the left and right, neither side has demonstrated the ability to transform a purer ideological vision into achievable and sustainable policy. Decades of progressive attempts to replace the current health care system with a universal single-payer alternative have yet to bear fruit. Conservatives' philosophical opposition to government involvement in health care provision has historically been a politically potent force when working to block liberal reform proposals before they passed, as in 1994, or when mobilizing an electoral backlash immediately after enactment, as in 2010. But after Republicans gained full policy-making power in 2017, general anti-government sentiment turned out to be insufficiently strong to persuade enough politicians within the party to rescind the ACA's specific benefits once they had actually started flowing to the public.

This same pattern arises in a number of other issue domains besides health care: entitlement policy, education policy, environmental policy. The decades-long conservative project to redefine government's role in society has been largely unsuccessful, except for several rounds of tax cuts (never balanced by corresponding spending reductions) and a few smaller victories on the margins. Donald Trump abandoned previous Republican support for Social Security and Medicare reforms that had always been more effective at attracting damaging Democratic attacks than in producing actual legislative achievements. But Trump was hardly the first Republican leader to depart from shrink-the-government doctrine in search of votes

Conservative victories often amount to the successful obstruction of liberal initiatives, or even just a reduction in the rate of government growth, rather than actual rightward shifts in the direction of policy. As popular conservatism becomes more consumed with symbolic and cultural battles, such as the current conflict over the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, the movement's traditional primary objective of rolling back the modern welfare state is either moving down the agenda or increasingly delegated to the conservative judiciary rather than the elected branches of government. (As Thursday's ruling showed, judges may not always be much more eager to take on this assignment than executives or legislators have been.)

In the other ideological direction, an increasingly visible strain of progressive activism has certainly had a measurable effect on perceptions of the American political climate. But so far, its ability to directly impose policy has been mostly restricted to non-governmental institutions controlled by the highly-educated cultural left, such as media companies and liberal arts colleges. The new progressive style has yet to find a secure foothold in elective politics, even in Blue America—where are the socialist state governors? the leftist big-city mayors?—despite plenty of confident assertions that the Bernie Sanders campaigns and the AOC-aligned "Squad" foreshadow the near-term future of the Democratic Party. Conflicts in various left-dominated municipalities over police reform and defunding in the Black Lives Matter era, as well as other similar issues, suggest that there are still many unanswered questions about how this particular ideological framework can and will be converted into specific governing choices.

Traditional pragmatic liberalism is a perennial rhetorical target for people who think of themselves as committed to loftier ideals. On the right, social conservatives like Ross Douthat criticize it for lacking "a clear sense of moral purpose," suggesting that in our time it has become "somewhat exhausted." Purist activists on the left echo these themes, speaking of an age marked by the supposedly catastrophic failures of "neoliberalism" and representing the onset of "late capitalism"—implying that a non-capitalist future is surely soon to arrive.

But old-fashioned half-a-loaf liberalism has proven tough to replace. It's not just that revolutionary change is difficult to achieve in the American political system, though it is. There are also plenty of important constituencies invested in conventional liberal policy-making—classes of credentialed work-within-the-system subject matter experts, institutionalized interest groups that prize partial victories over none at all, and a large number of regular voters who hold moderately left-of-center views on domestic affairs and are wary of socialism and laissez-faire-ism alike. While critics on all sides yawn with impatience for the era of boring old liberalism to end, the boring old liberal ACA has just further entrenched itself, boring old liberals Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer are working to enact more boring old technocratic incrementalist liberal policies, and boring old liberalism just keeps muddling through to prevail once again.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Biden Administration's Demographic Diversity Is Where the New Progressivism Meets the Old Democratic Party

History was made on Wednesday when the daily White House briefing was delivered by Karine Jean-Pierre, the chief deputy press secretary, filling for press secretary Jen Psaki. The briefing itself was not unusually newsworthy. But Jean-Pierre was the first openly gay or lesbian person ever to fill the role, and the first Black woman to do so in three decades. The Biden administration proudly publicized this milestone, which attracted significant media notice including a post-briefing televised interview with Jean-Pierre by MSNBC's Joy Reid.

The White House's enthusiastic promotion of Jean-Pierre's turn at the briefing podium fits a larger pattern. Biden and his team have been especially devoted to presenting themselves as commited to increasing demographic diversity in government. This theme dates back to the 2020 campaign; Biden promised to choose a female vice presidential nominee near the end of the Democratic primaries and ultimately signaled, prior to the selection of Kamala Harris, that he would probably name a woman of color as his running mate. Since then, Biden has claimed credit for unprecedented aggregate representation of women and racial minorities in senior administration positions, as well as a long list of individual history-making appointments: the first-ever female treasury secretary and director of national intelligence; the first-ever Black secretary of defense; the first-ever Native American and openly gay Cabinet members; the first-ever transgender sub-Cabinet appointee; the first-ever all-female White House communications team. (Biden has also promised to name the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, but an opportunity has yet to arise.)

This emphasis can be seen as attempting to satisfy contemporary progressive activists' intense interest in categorizing individuals by social identity and judging the fitness of an organization by counting the members of historically disadvantaged groups within its ranks. But there's nothing new about a president, especially a Democratic president, working to ensure the visible representation of his party's major constituencies. Franklin Roosevelt was the first chief executive to appoint a woman to the Cabinet, and Lyndon Johnson the first to appoint a Black Cabinet secretary. Bill Clinton, hardly a left-wing purist, promised "a Cabinet that looks like America" during the 1992 campaign, and ultimately appointed the first-ever Asian-American secretary and the first women in history to serve as attorney general and secretary of state.

For Biden, attending to and publicizing the demographic composition of his administration can simultaneously accommodate the traditional organized interests of his party and appeal to ideological activists who increasingly prize social group diversity as a core political value. With narrow congressional majorities and the Senate filibuster presenting serious long-term obstacles to the administration's ambitious legislative agenda, Biden's appointment decisions may turn out to be an important way for him to satisfy the priorities of multiple blocs of supporters.

Of course, diversity in government can mean more than one thing. Biden's administration contains no top Republicans or independents, and the only member of his Cabinet whose educational credentials are limited to a single bachelor's degree is Marty Walsh, the secretary of labor. The dominant substantive ethos of the Biden presidency is a technocratic liberalism that appears to prevail across its senior personnel regardless of ethnic or gender identification. But this merely reflects the current state of the larger Democratic Party, where fundamental ideological divisions have eased over time even as the number of component social groups seeking representation only continues to grow.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Biden at 100 Days: An Interview with The Signal

Graham Vyse of the new online publication The Signal called me yesterday and we chatted about the record of the Biden presidency at the 100-day mark. Normally, my interviews with reporters yield a quotation of a sentence or two in a larger news story, but this time our discussion was turned into a more in-depth Q&A covering many different aspects of the current political moment. You can read an edited transcript of the interview here; the site requires an email address to sign up but access to the piece is free.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

2020 Was as Geographically Polarized as 2016, But Biden Did Just a Little Better in the Right Places

The idea of Joe Biden as a depolarizing figure, someone who aimed to transcend rather than exacerbate the nation's political divisions, was both a dominant rhetorical theme of his campaign and a major strategic premise behind his nomination. In particular, Biden was supposed to be uniquely appealing to the type of white, older, modestly-educated, socially traditionalist voter who had wandered away from the Democratic Party sometime between Barack Obama's first victory and Hillary Clinton's last defeat. A candidate who won back a significant share of this electoral bloc while receiving the energized support of the groups alienated by Trumpism—cultural liberals, metropolitan professionals, young people—would be in excellent position to gain the kind of decisive national victory that many polls suggested Biden would achieve.

In the end, that didn't happen. Whatever demographic and stylistic differences distinguished Biden from Clinton or Obama failed to change enough votes to reorder the fundamental electoral constituencies of both major parties. The geographic polarization that has defined 21st century American politics remains fully intact—but a few incremental improvements in Democratic performance turned out to be just strong enough, and well-located enough, to eke out an electoral college majority.

Most states continue to be faithfully Democratic or Republican in presidential elections. By 2016, statewide popular margins had grown to differ with the national popular vote by an average of 20 percentage points, meaning that an election in which the candidates split the national vote 50-50 would produce a typical state margin that was a 60-40 landslide for one side or the other. Biden didn't succeed in healing this particular national divide, as the average state margin remained at 20 percent in 2020:

Below the state level, geographic polarization has been primarily fueled by a widening partisan gap between large metropolitan areas turning deeper blue and rural counties turning brighter red. This divide also remained virtually unchanged between 2016 and 2020. Biden very slightly outperformed Hillary Clinton in the nation's 20 largest metro areas, winning 62 percent of the two-party vote there—the best performance since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But he only improved on her 2016 showing in non-metropolitan counties by half a percentage point—33.7% to 33.2%—despite expectations that he would prove to be a much more appealing candidate among the whites without college degrees who dominate most rural electorates. Trump nearly matched his own record rural performance of four years before, winning a greater share of the non-metro vote than even Ronald Reagan had received in his 49-state landslide of 1984:

The main reason why Biden didn't do even better than he did within Top 20 metros was a pro-Trump national shift among non-white voters, especially Hispanics. His biggest single underperformance compared to Clinton in 2016 occurred in metro Miami, but he also lost ground in greater Los Angeles, San Jose/San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Orlando. This trend helped to put Florida and Ohio out of reach for the Democratic ticket, but it was otherwise concentrated in non-competitive states where the party could well afford to lose votes.

In fact, a countervailing rise in Democratic support in 2020 among the voters of metro Atlanta, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Detroit helped Biden narrowly carry four pivotal states that Clinton had lost, while improved Democratic performance in metro Washington, Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Boston gave Biden more electoral breathing room than Clinton had had in Virginia, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire—all virtually must-wins for a Democratic presidential nominee. So while the overall Democratic vote share in top 20 metro areas only increased very slightly between 2016 and 2020, it was more fortuitously distributed from the perspective of electoral college strategy.

As the second figure above reveals, the biggest aggregate movement toward the Democrats in 2020 occurred within metro areas outside the Top 20. These other 251 metro areas cast somewhat fewer collective votes (41% of the total two-party vote in 2020, compared to 45% for the Top 20 metros). But their lower levels of racial diversity meant that the ongoing pro-Democratic trend among college-educated whites was less likely to be numerically counteracted by racial minorities' movement towards Trump. 

Biden rarely exceeded Clinton's vote share by a dramatic amount in the smaller metros, but he consistently outperformed her by 1–3 percent across the nation (except for a few heavily Hispanic areas in Texas and California). His modest improvement in places like metro Pittsburgh and Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), Grand Rapids and Lansing (Michigan), and Milwaukee and Madison (Wisconsin) turned out to be critical elements of his precarious electoral college majority, and he was also able to carry the single Nebraska electoral vote from the metro Omaha-based 2nd congressional district that, under a plausible alternate scenario, might have given him exactly the number of electors needed to win the presidency.

It's possible that Trump had a unique appeal to certain small-town voters who might be more open to voting Democratic in future elections when he isn't on the ballot. But Democrats' retrospective interpretations of 2020 are more likely to focus on the apparent patterns of defection among urban minorities than the attrition of rural whites, which is a longer-term trend with fewer obvious implementable solutions. The continued decay among less-educated white citizens presents Democratic leaders with serious challenges in building a sustainable national electoral advantage, given this constituency's especially important geographic distribution. But if the culture wars have so alienated these voters that even Scranton Joe can't win them back, Democrats may conclude that, win or lose, the party's future inevitably lies in another direction.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Can Republicans Win Back Congress Next Year by Running Against "Cancel Culture"? Sure They Can

There's a popular view of the last few weeks of American politics that goes something like this: Under Joe Biden's leadership, the Democratic Party is not only easing the current national crisis by handing out $1400 checks and distributing COVID vaccines to American citizens, but has also already enacted some of the most ambitious liberal policy change since the Great Society, making Biden a potentially transformational president after just two months in office. And what are Republicans doing while all this historical achievement is going on? Ranting and raving about "cancel culture."

This account isn't necessarily wrong as a simple description of recent events, though it's really too soon to evaluate the long-term importance of a American Rescue Plan Act that has been law for less than a week. As I recently remarked to Jeff Stein of the Washington Post, the lack of a sustained conservative attack on the bill eased the political pressure on moderate Democratic members of Congress who might otherwise have worried about its $1.9 trillion cost: "the case against Democrats [right now] is being made on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, not the debt." Leading conservative media voices and prominent Republican politicians alike have rallied to the defense of these pop-culture figures and other symbols of traditional Americana supposedly in danger of permanent suppression by the censorious left; Rep. Jim Jordan argued last month that "cancel culture . . . is the number one issue for the country to address today."

But the cancel-culture preoccupation isn't necessarily a mistake for Republicans—at least if their main objective is electoral success, not substantive influence. Polls have consistently shown that Biden's COVID response efforts gain wider popular approval than any other major policy or presidential quality. Meanwhile, as Harry Enten of CNN recently pointed out, the assertion that political correctness has "gone too far" receives broader agreement from the American public than the Republican Party's positions on many other political issues. Rather than trying to convince voters that legislation containing immediate four-figure cash payments for everyone in their family is actually a bad idea, it's strategically easier to simply move the partisan battle to more favorable terrain.

Democrats are hoping that the Republican politicians who opposed the Rescue Plan will be punished at the polls next year. But history suggests that voting in favor of an unpopular bill is more likely to inspire a backlash than voting against a popular bill—especially one that passed anyway. Members of congressional majorities often hope to be rewarded by the public for enacting the policies they like, but anger tends to be a much stronger political motivator than gratitude. And the margins of control in the House and Senate are so narrow that even a mostly content electorate that was not particularly outraged by the supposed extermination of certain favorite childhood possessions could still easily hand power back to the GOP in 2022.

The Republican pivot to "cancel culture" outrage may not matter much for the party's immediate electoral fortunes, and might even be a better strategic option for a midterm message than the alternatives. But it's much more noteworthy as a marker of what GOP sees itself as standing for these days. Since Obama's second term, Republicans have increasingly retreated from offering specific alternatives to Democratic domestic policies, and have invested much more energy in emphasizing symbolic cultural differences between the left and the right. Whether or not this shift influences the outcome of any particular election, it has very significant implications for the manner in which both parties govern when it is their turn to lead the country.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Of Course Biden Is Running for Re-Election

The Washington Post ran a story on Tuesday about Joe Biden's decision to house his political operation within the Democratic National Committee instead of creating a parallel organization as Barack Obama had done. Obama never had much affection for the DNC, which was not exactly a center of support for him when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2008. But Obama's neglect of the party's institutional strength while president in favor of the personal vehicles Organizing for America and Organizing for Action ultimately neither provided major electoral payoffs nor won him appreciation among Democratic politicians and committee members. A party regular through and through, Biden has decided that his interests are best served by remaining integrated with the traditional Democratic organizational apparatus heading into the 2022 midterms, rather than siphoning staff members and donor money into a separate political structure.

The Post report mentions, almost as an aside, that while Biden will wait until after the midterms to build a formal re-election campaign and publicly declare his candidacy, his advisors are "working under the assumption that he will once again top the Democratic ticket in 2024." This might be shocking news to some; I have encountered multiple politically aware people since Biden first entered the 2020 race who presume that he would only seek to serve a single term. But it shouldn't be a surprise at all.

The idea of the self-declared single-term president has had a romantic appeal to editorial-page writers (and few others) since well before Biden became the oldest person in history elected to the job. Like many other ideas with romantic appeal, it is disconnected from political reality. Declaring oneself a lame duck from the early days of an administration is not an effective strategy for a president to build or maintain influence, both inside and outside the party. The perception that you might be there awhile is a much better way to attract talented subordinates, pursue ambitious goals, and pressure members of Congress for support, and the inability to seek re-election is one reason why modern presidents' second terms tend to be less focused and successful than their first.

The main point made by the Post article—that Biden is at heart a loyal party man—also applies to the re-election question. Unless an unforeseen governing disaster occurs, Democratic leaders will perceive that they are far better off with Biden running again, and presumably benefiting from the electoral advantage that incumbents normally hold, than with the risk of a damaging internal fight over the 2024 nomination. Even if Kamala Harris were able to quickly consolidate support within the party as Biden's heir apparent, she would still stand in the general election as both a less tested national figure and as a liberal woman of color seeking the presidency in a highly polarized era.

Leading Democrats who have their president's ear are thus very likely to encourage his intention to seek a second term—and to be terrified that a premature Biden retirement would only further increase the chances of a Trump comeback in 2024. Even if Biden were to have doubts about his ability to serve a full eight years, a successful re-election and subsequent mid-term handoff to Harris, setting her up as an incumbent in her own right before she had to face the voters, would be a much more desirable solution according to prevailing Democratic calculations. And Biden has already shown that he's the kind of president who cares a lot about what other people in his party think.

Yes, health considerations or other events may alter these plans. It's certainly possible that Joe Biden will not still be running for a second term when we get to 2024. But right now? Of course he's running. He's already started.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Biden's Early Moves Reflect the Declining Strength of the Center-Right

The predominant media storyline of the new Biden presidency so far is that it is surprisingly liberal and surprisingly partisan. A Washington community that has long viewed Biden as an instinctive ideological moderate who prides himself on his ability to work with members of the opposite party, and that interpreted his nomination as a decisive defeat for the purist left, has been forced to recalibrate its perceptions in the face of his early governing choices. Progressive observers have found much to cheer so far in Biden's policy and personnel decisions, with some even indulging the hope that his presidency might represent a historical turning point in American politics. Meanwhile, conservative critics have already begun to complain that the new chief executive is failing to live up to his own calls for political unity.

The "moderate" label was always a poor fit for Biden, used mostly as a facile shorthand to denote that his politics differed from those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. As I observed after his selection of Kamala Harris last August, Biden's actual career-long persona is "regular Democrat," with issue positions and priorities that have evolved over the decades in parallel with the mainstream of his party. The appointment of progressives to multiple administration positions—especially at the sub-cabinet and agency levels—and the ambition of Biden's major proposals in a range of policy areas can be viewed as a simple reflection of a recent leftward shift within the Democratic Party as a whole.

But there's another change that's important here. Biden and his team aren't just being pulled by internal partisan dynamics toward a strengthening left wing. They are also much less motivated than previous Democratic administrations to court the approval of the ideological center-right.

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama appointed Republicans to their administrations and pursued bipartisan policy solutions in part to build reputations among political elites as mature statesmen capable of rising above mere partisan loyalties. Their primary audience for these decisions was an "official Washington" composed of media thought leaders, think tank staffers, executives and lobbyists, and other political actors who had become accustomed to view Republican rule of the executive branch as the natural order of things (Republicans held the presidency for all but 4 years between 1968 and 1992, and all but 12 between 1968 and 2008) and to venerate right-of-center figures like Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan as the ideal personifications of public service. Much of this official Washington applauded Clinton's and Obama's "responsibility" and "toughness" when they departed from traditional liberal doctrine to pursue deficit reduction at home or military intervention abroad, and sympathetically portrayed non-Democrats within their administrations like David Gergen, Bill Cohen, and Robert Gates as the adults in the room keeping a necessary check on liberal naïveté.

Expectations that the Biden presidency would follow a similar path had caused a certain anticipatory disaffection on the left. But Democratic veterans of the Clinton and early Obama eras see a very different Republican Party when they look across the aisle today. The last decade of American politics, marked by the Tea Party movement and ascendancy of Donald Trump, has convinced even "establishment" Democrats that making concessions outside their party doesn't provide them much benefit—for either producing major policy achievements or realizing significant political advantages. And official Washington has discarded the once-prevalent assumption that the Republican Party is a valuable source of expertise and experience upon which Democratic presidents should productively draw. After the last four years, which party has a better claim to be the adults in the room?

If Biden had defeated Trump by a landslide margin in November, it might have paradoxically tempted him to govern in a more cautious style as a way to keep a wave of new defectors from the GOP inside his coalitional tent. But the last two elections have demonstrated that the anti-Trump Republicans who populate high-status editorial pages and Beltway professional circles are not representative of a numerically populous mass constituency; their approval might make a positive impression within a limited peer group, but it simply doesn't sway many voters. As long as the Republican Party remains devoted to Trump's style of politics if not Trump himself, Democrats may calculate that moderates and conservatives who find Trumpism intolerable will have little choice but to root for Biden's success even if his record is more liberal than they'd like.

The new opportunities for influence granted to the American left by the decaying position of the center-right may turn out to be one of the most unexpected political legacies of the Trump years. Center-right elites used to see themselves as the natural leaders of a "center-right nation." But today they are increasingly abandoned by both partisan sides, facing the realization that they speak mostly for themselves.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

In the End, the Trump Presidency Was a Failure on Its Own Terms

The most surprising political development of the 21st century was that Donald Trump became president of the United States. The least surprising development was that he turned out to be bad at the job.

Evaluating presidential performance can be difficult. Some presidents' qualities only become clear long after they leave office, as previously unknown information comes to light and the revelations of history render their decisions more or less justified than they seemed at the time. Ideological predispositions inevitably color our views of political figures, who sometimes rise or fall in retrospective estimation as subsequent intellectual trends shift the grounds on which they are judged—like the renewed emphasis in recent years on the importance of civil rights that has bolstered the reputation of U. S. Grant among presidential scholars while damaging that of Woodrow Wilson. And there is no consensus, even among experts, on what the responsibilities of the president are and what standards are appropriate to determine success in office.

Regardless of these challenges, the general verdict on Trump among historians and political scientists, reporters and commentators, and most of the Washington political community (including, at least privately, many Republicans) is guaranteed to range from disappointment and mockery to outright declarations that he was the worst president in American history. And there is little reason to expect that the information yet to emerge about the internal operations of the Trump administration will improve his reputation in the future. Instead, it's far more likely that there are stories still to be told about the events of the last four years that history will find just as damning as today's public knowledge.

Trump's defenders will respond that the scholars and journalists who claim the authority to write this history are fatally corrupted by hostile bias. It's certainly true that these are collectively left-leaning professions, and that the Trump presidency treated both of these groups as political opponents from its earliest days. So what if we tried for a moment to give Trump the benefit of the doubt by attempting to evaluate his presidency as much as possible on its own terms? Did Trump succeed in achieving what he wanted to do, even if it wasn't what others wanted him to do?

One approach to answering this question involves returning to the 2016 campaign and comparing the positions of Trump the candidate to the record of Trump the president. Trump did deliver on some of his promises once in office: he cut taxes and regulations, he strengthened barriers to immigration and travel from overseas, and he appointed a large number of conservatives to the federal judiciary. But his signature proposals were never enacted, including the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, the significant renegotiation of international trade agreements, a major federal infrastructure investment, and a wall spanning the nation's southern border funded by the Mexican government.

There was also a more general set of failures that didn't concern specific policies as much as a basic approach to the job. While a candidate in 2016, Trump presented himself as an energetic deal-maker who would fight harder than his predecessors in both parties for the interests of the American people. But he turned out to be much less invested in his official responsibilities than in spending his daily "executive time" watching cable television and his weekends playing golf; he was sufficiently self-conscious about this lack of work ethic to inelegantly deny it in public ("President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings") but not to actually alter his behavior. 

Trump's pre-election suggestions that he would attract an all-star team of executive personnel to join the government similarly stood in sharp contrast to the actual staff of his administration, which was by some distance the least qualified and talented group of subordinates assembled by any modern president of either party. (And many key positions were filled by acting appointees or were simply left vacant for months and even years.)

With Trump's evident lack of interest in substantive details, his instinct for combativeness (a universally-acknowledged personal quality which many of his supporters admired), and his apparent difficulties in grasping the motivations of others, the promised knack for deal-making never materialized either. Both major legislative achievements of his presidency—the 2017 tax cut bill and the two rounds of COVID relief in 2020—were, by all accounts, developed and enacted with minimal direct involvement by the president. When Trump did insert himself in legislative negotiations in late 2018 and early 2019 by demanding that Congress approve funding for his border wall, the result was a prolonged government shutdown and subsequent retreat after Senate Republicans abandoned their support for his position.

Of course, politicians occasionally have been known to make promises on the campaign trail that they do not expect to keep if elected. Maybe it's inaccurate to treat public commitments in the midst of a tough electoral race as evidence of a president's true goals. So, based on the actions of the Trump administration once it began, what can we conclude about what it wanted to do and whether it succeeded in doing it?

The primary animating force of the Trump presidency, the juice that fueled the president and his subordinates every day, was the waging of a permanent political war against an array of perceived enemies. The Democratic Party was one such enemy—this was by far the most thoroughly partisan presidency in memory—but hardly the only one. The news media, career bureaucrats, intellectuals and educators, the entertainment industry, and any insufficiently supportive Republican were all dependable targets.

This war was unrelenting, but achieved few victories outside the bounds of the Republican Party (where Trump's influence and threats were most effective at punishing dissenters). Trump's critics spent the past four years feeling sad, angry, offended, and even fearful about the potential destruction of American democracy. But it's hard to make the case that their political or cultural power was weaker at the end of his presidency than it was at the beginning.

Trump succeeded in preventing Hillary Clinton from leading the country, but he wound up empowering Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer instead. He railed against liberal elites who predominate within social institutions like universities, media organizations, and technology companies, but his time in office only saw a continued progression of leftward cultural change in American society and a parallel departure of highly-educated voters from the Republican Party. The conservative intellectual project has not suffered as much damage in many decades as it did over the past four years; conservative thinkers and writers were internally divided into pro- and anti-Trump factions, were exposed as holding a limited ability to speak for the conservative mass public, and were deprived by Trump's behavior of a precious claim to moral superiority over the left. And the fact that the Trump administration is leaving office complaining of being "silenced" and "canceled" by a multi-platform social media ban imposed on its leader is evidence enough of its lack of success in gaining influence over the tech sector.

A final, inadvertantly-acknowledged testimony to the failure of the Trump administration was its prevailing communication style. Both the outgoing president and his succession of spokespeople stood out for two distinctive traits: a lack of commitment to factual accuracy and a perpetually grouchy demeanor. The typical public statement from this White House was a misleading claim delivered with a sarcastic sneer. Of course, no member of the administration would admit on the record that the Trump presidency was anything less than a parade of unparalleled triumphs. But it doesn't make sense to lie so much unless the truth isn't on your side, and there's no good reason to act so aggrieved all the time if you're really succeeding as much as you claim.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Two Weaknesses Exposed on Capitol Hill

The most prevalent conspiracy theory within the Republican Party, promoted for decades by many of its elected officials and opinion leaders, holds that the Democratic opposition regularly steals elections via organized plots of fraudulent balloting and ballot-counting. On Wednesday, January 6, this theory took human form and broke down the doors and windows of the U.S. Capitol in Washington as the officers of the American government fled in fear for their safety, and even their lives.

It's impossible to know for sure how many Republicans actually believe these claims of widespread Democratic voter fraud, how many do not, and how many land somewhere in the middle. But even those who are not sincere adherents can find conspiracy theories to be quite useful. For decades now, accusations and insinuations of electoral dishonesty have accompanied Republican resistance to Democratic initiatives aiming to lower the administrative burdens of voting, and have justified the imposition of voter identification requirements at polling places in a number of states. (Both parties tend to believe, accurately or not, that measures making it easier to vote work to the advantage of Democratic electoral fortunes.)

The results of the 2020 presidential contest supplied even more reasons for Republicans to promote stories of a stolen election. This claim could provide a psychologically satisfying explanation for why a president whom many conservatives admire to the point of hero worship nevertheless failed to win a second term in office. It could allow other figures in the party to demonstrate their solidarity with the president in question, who is well-known for demanding regular gestures of personal loyalty. And it could fuel a simmering anger among conservative voters at the supposed illegitimacy of the incoming president, which could helpfully stimulate high engagement and turnout in future elections.

But when a large population of citizens is told repeatedly by authorities they trust that political power is being improperly seized by a nefarious cabal, many will naturally start to think that they should do something drastic to stop it. And so whatever strategic cleverness might have inspired the repeated promotion of this and other conspiracy theories has been abruptly joined this week by what might be euphemistically called the corresponding downside risk.

The past five years have been especially valuable in revealing where power within the Republican Party does and doesn't reside. Republican members of Congress enjoy substantial internal influence in certain areas: they largely controlled the party's legislative agenda and shaped much of the policy-making during the tenure of the outgoing administration. But in the realm of rhetoric and communication, of speaking for their party and guiding its members, congressional Republicans are clearly at the mercy of a conservative media apparatus that has achieved the ability to dictate what the Republican Party should and shouldn’t publicly stand for.

If being a true conservative requires refusing to deny that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by treacherous Democrats, then Republican politicians will, regardless of their private views, be reluctant to defend the integrity of the electoral system, will support the disenfranchisement of voters from multiple states merely on the basis of improbable claims and rumors dismissed in courts of law by judicial appointees of both parties, and will pile on to demand the resignation of a fellow Republican elected official who was baselessly accused of mismanaging the administration of his state’s election once it became clear that the Democrats had narrowly won there.

The personal calculation at play here is obvious enough, and politicians of both parties can be expected to protect their own interests. But what do these acts add up to, in the end, if not the willful spreading of untruth, and the cession of massive national power to a set of voices who hardly even claim to prize or reward anything more than victory over their political adversaries? Recent events raise the question of whether the inarguable failure of security forces to defend the Capitol has been mirrored by an equally damaging weakness of responsible leadership from those who are supposed, at least some of the time, to lead. Can our form of government count on faithful protection from its stewards regardless of the partisan winds of the moment? Or are civic values, like the buildings that so often symbolize them, vulnerable to being smashed to pieces by those angry that they lost the last fight?