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.