Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Theory Of The Future of #NeverTrump

Here's a fun pre-Forth or July question to kick around: what's the future of the whole branch of #NeverTrump conservatism?

I'll preface my piece by saying that overall I'm still standing by my predictions from back in February looking at Trump one year in. My basic read then and now is that the theory of him becoming some sort of fascist dictator seems wrong. Instead President Governator/The Body or Berlusconi seems what were stuck with. This of course will have long term, and in my view very bad impacts, from the failure to address climate change, to trade wars, to the future of the Supreme Court. But the "tail risk" Brad DeLong identified in his post I was drawing from seem unlikely at this point.

Likewise the whole idea that Trump's election might re-scramble the whole makeup of the coalitions that makeup our political parties was popular for a while last year, but seems to have faded away. Instead, in a time of high partisanship, we are seeing a few changes around the edges of party coalitions, but they largely seem the same when it comes to big points in which Trump is a president loathed by Democrats, generally disliked by Independents, and quite popular with Republican voters.

This is of course wasn't the case back in 2016, where there was a massive revolt of conservative "thought leaders", professional writers, and other movement Janissaries against the whole idea of ever letting Trump win the GOP nomination. This was best personified in National Review's "Against Trump" issue in January of that year. There's a number of other examples, and they often rallied around the hashtag of #NeverTrump. And the label itself was a bit like the "Left" political labels of #BernieorBust or #NeverHillary, in that they stressed the idea that Trump was simply too awful for any number of reasons to ever be supported out of personal conviction.

But it didn't work, and Trump of course won the Electoral College, which leaves us with the question of what happens to the #NeverTrumpers now?

Personally I think their future, at least in terms of inside the world of Republican politics is pretty grim. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in a recent piece about new Pew survey results on the electorate much of the "anti-Trump" GOP base in the primaries, that is those voters that generally rallied around conservative stalwarts like Cruz, Jeb! Bush, or Rubio are now, well Trump's base. While his more "Trumpish" voters or whatever you want to call them are actually more skeptical of him since he's taken office:
The first, and largest [group of GOP voters], “Core Conservatives,” holds doctrinaire positions on everything. This group is “financially comfortable,” and “overwhelmingly supports smaller government, lower corporate tax rates and believes in the fairness of the nation’s economic system,” and also “express[es] a positive view of U.S. involvement in the global economy.” This is the conservatism of Paul Ryan.

Another group, “Country First Conservatives,” is “older and less educated than other Republican-leaning typology groups,” and has more populist and isolationist views. They are “highly critical of immigrants and deeply wary of U.S. global involvement,” and most likely to believe “if America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.”

Which of these two groups do you think registered higher support for Donald Trump? The Country First Conservatives, right? Well, no. Ninety-three percent of Core Conservatives approved of Trump’s job performance, as opposed to 84 percent of Country First Conservatives.
So now what's a #Never Trump conservative to do?

I personally see three main options for the #NeverTrump thinker, professional writer, or aspiring "thought leader" and honestly thinkthese battle lines are already being drawn and people are already taking sides.

The first group I'll call "Accepters". There's are folks that have decided to just accept Trump as their leader and charge ahead. Oh they might not love it, they might even express worries or "concerns", but they aren't going to stand in his way and will accept him as their party's leader until he's gone. People like Paul Ryan, a number of RedState bloggers, and well everyone and their mom basically are good examples of "Accepters"

The second group I'll call the "Outties", as in people who've announced they are "outtie" when it comes to contemporary GOP politics. Example of "Outties" include Senator Jeff Flake, Steve Schmidt, and some more obscure figures.

The final group I'll call the "Pretenders", that is people who are pretending that Trump isn't president, hasn't taken over the GOP, or are pretending they aren't expected to take a side. Ross Douthat scolding liberals about Sarah Huckabee Sanders' ordering at a restaurant, or a number of swing-district Republican office holders trying to simply pretend everything is the same as in 2014 or 2016 all count as "Pretenders" in my book.

I think the "Pretenders" are the important group here, as the other two groups' fates seem pretty much cast by this summer: they'll be Trump's base in 2020 or no longer be very relevant.

But what will happen to our "Pretenders"? I personally used to think they might be a bit like the Neoconservatives of the later 20th Century. These were a group of important intellectuals originally oriented with the Democratic Party and their Cold War "Hawks" who then became disillusioned with the perceived failures of the liberalism in The Sixties, especially Johnson's Great Society, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the rise of more "Left" politics in that era. And so they decided to leave the Democratic Party and become Republicans after the tumultuous Sixties came to a close.

These are the folks that helped give us the Iraq War and a bunch Cold War escalation (see here and here) so they are hardly a group to emulate policy-wise in my book. But in the first months of the Trump Era I used to think they there was a possibility of something similar, but with conservatives deciding to switch teams and maybe giving up their social conservationism beliefs for a staunch defense of a free-trade and alliance based international system. Or so other grand "switcheroo".

This seems highly unlikely these days, and so instead we'll probably get these groups just playing out as is.

In other words the "Accepters" will continue with throwing in with Trump until he leaves office, after which, like George W. Bush, questions about why he happened and why his Administration was so bad will be ignored. Expect lots of posts about how president Gillibrand/Booker/Harris are being "uncivil".

"Outties" will probably simply leave the party and/or politics and never be heard from again outside of some interesting historical tomes.

And a final group of "Pretetnders", if they haven't already picked the former or latter groups outlined above, will just go with a "Uh, both sides are terrible, politics is so bad" type of framework (although likely written better). That's right, self-identified Libertarian Megan McArdle assuming a post Roe legal framework would be sensible did this the other day.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Liberal Contrarianism Explained

Recently in Democracy, Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Penn State wrote a pretty hilarious piece about the (almost) death of what he calls "liberal contrarianism." I don't have a whole lot to say about the specifics of piece, I mean how do you agree or disagree with a fictional dialog of two different characters arguing inside one man's head? But it is quite funny.

It's also a great look back into the past, at least in terms of what people were writing in "high brow politics" magazines once upon a time and how similar and totally different that is from our own era. I especially loved the deep cut about how Reason magazine ginned up a controversy about how Dade County, Florida spent too much money installing a ADA compliant ramp to access a nude (well actually clothing optional) beach. People were outraged (or were they?), then again maybe it was just a conservative writer looking for a punch line at other people's expense. As the HIC character puts it, "Cripes. I can’t even begin to imagine anyone ridiculing access ramps today."

The conversation then goes on to address what the character ILLE calls, "liberal contrarianism", like from the old joke that a liberal is someone who won't take their own side in a fight, that sort of thing:
You know where I’m going with this. As the age of the liberal contrarian reaches maturity in mid-decade, Andrew Sullivan is hawking The Bell Curve at The New Republic, by then known as “even the liberal New Republic.” A few years later, Michael Kelly, having spent his time at TNR fulminating against the liberal hegemony of Heather Has Two Mommies, takes over The Atlantic. Camille Paglia is ubiquitous. Slate emerges as the West Coast, online TNR, and within a few years, the #Slatepitch becomes shorthand for the liberal contrarian hot take. By 1997, it’s like, they may seem innocuous, but maybe Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy are the most corrupt public officials in the history of the republic! Democracy and public decency demand an investigation! That was an actual, real Slate essay by Jacob Weisberg about Herman in February 1997.
Read the whole thing, as the kids say. But I would like to push back against this a bit. It's really common, at least to me, to see this sort of framing around a lot of the inter-"Left" brawls when it comes to high brow political magazines from the 90's. That is, once upon a time liberals foolishly fought each other, but now that The New Republic has been destroyed and William Safire is no more liberals have finally gotten their act together and can focus on the important stuff!

But I think this gets liberalism and especially the Democratic Party (which is often where theses sorts of conversations lead to) wrong. In politics everything is contested, so these sorts of fights aren't really about liberal writers being "contrarian" for the hell of it, but rather they often show real disagreement  about questions like what "liberal" and "liberalism" means. Just look how that once hallowed term "Conservative" has become "I'm with Trump" in the last few years!

In other words the "contrarians" may or may not have been writing that stuff to be, well contrarian. But those views, whatever you think of them, were once a mainstream part of liberalism and the Democratic Party. As political scientist Jonathan Ladd put it back in 2016 when surveying the downfall of The New Republic:
One way to think about this is as part of an intra–Democratic Party argument that took place in the 1980s and early '90s about what the party needed to do to win presidential elections more often. From 1968 through 1988, the Democrats lost five out of six presidential elections. Many liberal pundits and Democratic politicians debated what the party needed to do to win presidential elections again. The truth was that this streak was a product of essentially random variation in short-term economic conditions close to election time. But pundits and politicians wanted an ideological explanation.

One natural inference was that because the party started losing presidential elections around the time it heartily embraced the civil right movement and turned against the Vietnam War, these changes were a major culprit. To win the presidency again, the Democrats needed to reconstruct their geographic and ideological constituency from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

In the 1980s, many thought that if only the Democratic Party distanced itself from threatening African-American leaders like Jessie Jackson, and demonstrated that it was tough on crime and tough overseas, it would win the presidency by winning back the white Southern voters who were the backbone of Democratic electoral strength before 1964.
I think that's spot on. Ladd goes on to put it this way:
But as the presidency of Barak Obama draws to a close, this fight over the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party is essentially over. The party has an increasingly racially diverse voting base. Racial, gender, and sexual pluralism is a key part of the party's culture and ideology...

In the two major ways the Peretz-era New Republic distinguished itself, it lost the battle for the soul of liberalism and the Democratic Party. Where once its views on race and foreign policy represented a faction within liberalism, now they don't seem liberal at all.
In other words the famous/infamous "Day Of Reckoning" cover of TNR that liberal writers love to cite these days, did in fact represent a branch of liberalism and the Democratic Party, most notably in the form of then President Bill Clinton, very much a liberal (well that's what we called him at the time), who negotiated that welfare reform bill with then newly Republican congress (he vetoed two earlier ones).

Likewise just a few years before the "contrarians" Bérubé cites the Speaker of the House was a man named Jim Wright (The Speaker from Texas as they used to say), who among other things lead Congress to override quite a few of Reagan's vetoes and chaired the 1988 Democratic National Convention. He also supported the Vietnam War and voted against the Civil Rights Act.

This all seems weird, but not really once you start thinking in terms of changes in parties and political coalitions instead of the word-smithing done by people who write about it for a living. And it's a very old story indeed, whether it's one time icon of liberalism Adlai Stevenson ducking the whole question of civil rights, or noted liberal Howard Dean making many Democratic Party old hands queasy when he endorsed the then radical idea of "civil unions" as an alternative to the impossible dream of marriage equality.

Which means the "contrarians" aren't gone, they've just changed shape. For example they are people like Kevin Drum (and me I suppose) who were deeply skeptical of the whole Bernie thing, and look back not with awe and respect, like most liberal writers these days, but with a touch of bitterness. Or you can find them with a growing chorus of liberals (Noah Smith comes to mind) who increasingly point out that liberals in major cities and their NIMBY obsessions are causing real harm to people.

To make a long story short people won't be giving these contrarians New York Times columns anytime soon, but, it doesn't mean they (we?) aren't out there. Or that new battles over the future of liberalism and Democratic politics don't loom on the horizon.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Trump Is About Norms, Not Vulgarity

Recently I was listening to a fun podcast called Filbluster by two political scientists named Tyler Hughes and Larry Becker about national politics. They were having an interesting debate sparked by the recent death of former first lady Barbara Bush about what to make of her and her husband's era of politics. And of course the Trump era we are living in now, and I thought brought into sharp focus some of my own thinking about Trump.

The debate was one of those classic ones that will probably never go away, about to what degree society keeps changing and to what degree "the more things change, the more they stay the same." What struck me as being really interesting is that while George Herbert Walker Bush and Donald Trump are in many ways completely different people, there is a strong case they they were quite similar in some ways when it came to their engagement with electoral politics.

I don't want to belabor the point because I see Bush The Elder as a fairly mediocre president (other's think he's better but I don't really see it), and Trump seems to be on track to being one of the worst in American history. But thinking about it in terms of electoral or media politics I see a lot of similarities. For example:
  • Trump's use of racial demagoguery is pretty obvious, but Bush used it too in his campaigns quite a bit, most notably in the infamous "Willie Horton Ad"
  • On the campaign trail, Trump surrounds himself with a whole Royal Court of pretty fairly awful people, most notably Steve Bannon. Bush of course had as his campaign manager in 88' Lee Atwater, a man Democratic political people used to call the "Boogie Man."  Among Lee's greatest hits were using a hired person pretending to be a journalist in a press conference to ask a question about a candidate's mental health so Lee could bring up the fact the man had been suicidal as a teen and had received ECT treatment,  "got hooked up to jumper cables" in Lee's words. Also Lee on how to win over mythical "white working class" should be mentioned as well. In other words Atwater's life and times reminds me of Trump's style and substance quite a bit, and while Bush didn't give Atwater a job in the White House, he did make him head of the RNC. 
  • Trump of course lives and breathes Fox News, there's good evidence in fact he uses Fox pundits as part of forming White House rhetoric and policy. Fox News got founded in the late 90's of course and its chief architect was Roger Ailes. Who was one of Bush The Elder's major media guru's on the 88' campaign as well the man who according to Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" once told the Vice President after he wore a tie and a short sleeve dress shirt at a speaking engagement on a hot summer day, "Don't ever wear that shirt again!...You look like a fucking CLERK." Bush rarely did that again and Ailes would be Bush's major media buyer through much of the 88' primaries as well.
My point here isn't to say the George H.W. Bush is the same as Donald Trump. Far from it. George H.W. Bush was a man born of great wealth and privileged to an old money American family, who was a war hero and college athletic star, who then moved to another part of the country to make his own very large fortune, and who dedicated his life to politics and public service, and who cared deeply about forging an international system that would preserve global peace and advance American interests. Donald Trump is none of those things.

So what's the point of this blog post? Well the point is that I think the Filibluster debate focused too much on political actions when the big thing is political norms. 

In other words Trump shreds political norms wherever he goes, from big things like calling for his political opponents to be imprisoned, to little things like refusing to invite any Democrat to his state dinner with the President of France. But George H.W. Bush, whatever he was willing to do in his campaigns and rise to power, at least worked to try and uphold those political norms he had trampled on.

In other words Bush's campaign may have focuses on racial demagoguery at some times, but he's also a president who signed the 1991 Civil Rights Act (admittedly he vetoed the stronger 1990 bill). Likewise after stoking the flames of racial animosity in his campaign, when the LA Riots happened, he gave a president address where he was very "Law And Order" in the beginning. But then talked about what happened to Rodney King, "I felt anger, I felt pain, I felt how can I explain this to my grandchildren? Civil rights leaders and just plain citizens fearful of and sometimes victimized by police brutality were deeply hurt."

Just try to imagine Trump saying something like that. Now try to imagine him saying it in the midst of a riot in America's second largest city.

My big point is this: Becker and Hughes are asking the wrong questions. Politics has always been nasty, even the narrative of the "Good Old Days" of post war congressional congeniality in Congress are probably more PR than anything else, and don't get me started about how the Founders' views of each other. But trying to maintain the norms used to be something Republican Presidents like George Herbert Walker Bush cared about. Now under Trump this seems to be gone.

I'll make no predictions about the future, after all I really did think there was a way Trump could win the GOP nomination. But I do think Barbara Bush is a woman from another era, a era where democratic norms mattered, and while Trump is the oldest president in a long time, his shattering of norms seems to be a big thing for the future.

We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

On Snow Emergencies, Democractic Norms, and Donald Trump

Recently we had a big blizzard here in Minneapolis. Well it wasn't that big, not like the Halloween Blizzard of my youth, or any number of other pretty big ones you could look up. But we did have about five inches over night on a Thursday/Friday, a clear up during Friday, followed by another eight or more inches overnight on Friday/Saturday.

When these sorts of things happen in Minneapolis the city generally declares a "Snow Emergency". Snow Emergencies are a big deal in The City Of Lakes and differ a bit from what you might be familiar with, like in Boston, where they just plow the middle of the streets, or Washington DC where basically everyone panics, abandons their cars in the middle of the street, and run home to hide for three weeks or so. In Minneapolis Snow Emergencies are a highly complicated affair. (Please note suburban cities in the Twin Cities have their own rules, some simply ban on street parking after large snowfalls until every thing is plowed or even parking in general in the winter, but for this blog post I am talking about the City of Minneapolis.)

So how do Snow Emergencies in Minneapolis work? Well feel free to check out the official rules, but gist of it is this:
  • The city can declare a Snow Emergency any day before 6:00 pm. Once declared it's illegal to park on "snow emergency routes" (main thoroughfares) in the  city from 8:00 pm to the following 8:00 am.
  • Starting the following 8:00 am it is illegal to park on the even side of the street until 8:00 pm or until the street is "fully plowed".
  • Starting the next 8:00 am its illegal to park on the odd side of the street until 8:00 pm or until the street is fully plowed.
  • Cars that aren't moved are subjected to getting a ticket and possibly towed.
The upshot of this is a series of negative incentives that traditionally have made sure most people pay attention after big snowfalls to see if a Snow Emergency has been declared and move their cars accordingly. Meaning the gargantuan task of plowing a city with well over 1000 miles of streets and parkways that many people park their cars on can be accomplished in just 72 hours. More over in a city where most, but not all, neighborhoods have enough on street parking for everyone to park on one side of the street the "Snow Emergency Shuffle" is quite doable, if also something of a pain in the neck. And in my experience it really can work! Streets can be cleared and everyone can go back to parking wherever without the giant built up of snow mounds that can make streets impassible for emergency vehicles and everyone else.

But here's the thing to remember, this system, while backed up by the power of the city in a very real legal way (you can get a ticket, someone can come and tow your car to the impound lot, if you try to stop them by force you'll get arrested and be prosecuted), but at the same time it is dependent on people complying both due to incentives, and also out of learned habits as well. In fact, getting your car towed during one is a right of passage for many people from Greater Minnesota or the suburbs who "move to the big city" which is part of how the norm gets established for new comers. Moreover these norms aren't all just about avoiding punishment. Moving your car in compliance with the rules can be seen as a good thing, as in "If we do this then the street can be plowed and better for everyone! You idiots who didn't follow the rules are making it worse for the rest of us!" 

In other words, it's a system that is dependent on social norms as much as big trucks or logistical experts in Public Works planning on how to deploy said trucks over three days.

So what does this have to do with Trump and democracy? Well here's what happened to me during the snowy weekend. A Snow Emergency was declared on Friday meaning that plowing of the street where I park my car would start on the even side at 8:00 am Saturday. Easy enough for me, I parked on the odd side Friday night and was fine. Then on Saturday night around 5:00 pm I went to move my car to the even side of the street (as they would be plowing the odd side starting on Sunday 8 am) and to my horror (well okay annoyance) I discovered lots of people hadn't moved their cars, there was no ticketing or towing, and the city hadn't even plowed the even side of many streets.

In other words, the norms of the system had broken down and thus the institutional aspect of it had as well, and vice versa. After all ticketing and towing cars works as an incentive if only a few people break the rule, if lots of people don't do it there's just no way to possibly to punish everyone. Likewise if everyone starts ignoring the rule, you can't plow close to the curb as there are cars in the way, and so what once was a solvable problem becomes giant unmovable ice mounds that cause people to park closer together and close off the street.

What struck me that night as I pondered whether to move my car to the semi-plowed even street and risk a ticket, wait until 8 pm to do it and be sure it would be okay, or just wake up early and on Monday was that this was a good metaphor for an underappreciated problem with politics in The Trump Era.

Any political scientist could tell you that democracies are not just based on written rules and systems but also upon informal agreed upon norms that are there to make sure the system works. In other words the city can't force everyone to comply with snow emergency rules, people have to agree to follow them to some degree. Moreover once those norms breakdown, ie people start not caring about Snow Emergency announcements because it's not clear anyone else does, it's really hard to get them back.

And that's a big part of what the problem Trump poses to our democracy as he's breaking down democratic norms every chance he gets. To cite a few examples:
A list like this could go on for pages.

I think the poses a huge problem for liberals who are starting to think about what a post-Trump political era might look like. Liberals generally like "good government" reforms and so there's a lot talk about that, see Michelle Goldberg for a typical reformist agenda in a recent column that calls for things like tougher ethics rules. But at the end of her column she quotes political scientist Steven Levitsky who points out that simply changing the rules, without norms to back them up, is ultimately unlikely to work (he's written a book about this whole point).

You can see this in my Snow Emergency anecdote. What sort of "reform" would fix this this problem? Higher fines might discourage some, but then again if there's no way to fine everyone and so lots of people will still ignore it, and it's hardly fair or an effective deterrent if infrequently applied (see this classic example here). More and better equipment could plows the streets quicker, except if people don't move their cars in which case it becomes basically impossible. Better outreach might get the word out more broadly (there is already an app, a Twitter account, a email and text alert service, however) but if people just ignore it that won't work.

In other words, the norms are an important part of Snow Emergencies (and democracy) that more rules and technocratic reforms can't really make up for.

The good news is the City just declared another Snow Emergency on Sunday and people seemed to take it more seriously so the streets are much better. Plus its warming up so maybe climate change will save us all. But it's also quite possible the first botched one will cause real damage in the future, much like even a single failed Trump term could cause real lasting damage to the social norms of our collective City On A Hill for a long time.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Survey Thing

Not a real post, but I wanted to let everyone who reads this know that a team of researchers from Stony Brook University have asked me to help them study the role that emotion plays in politics. I have completed the survey myself, and it only took me a few minutes to finish. The survey is completely anonymous. 

Click the link below to begin the survey:

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Trump One Year In

While I missed the official one year anniversary, I would like to submit my views on where we are after one year of President Game Show Host. Of course trying to predict Trump and what our politics will look like in January of 2021 is going to be pretty hard. Especially for someone like me who really didn't think he'd win the GOP nomination. But at the same time we're over 25% through the first (and hopefully only) term and I think some pretty major trends have already emerged.

A little over a year ago when we were looking down the barrel of a Trump Administration economist and old school blogger Brad DeLong wrote a nice post predicting what might happen that's really stuck with me. DeLong suggest four possible outcomes for the Trump Era. He opens with Trump as Reagan, that is a president presiding over a bunch of different factions, who believed a bunch of contradictory things, and who did a bunch of contradictory things (some good, some bad) and it will not be clear what was important for a while:
People with Trump's baton will try to implement everything he said on the campaign trail. Some will succeed. Most will fail. Policy will be random. Which random part? We don't know. Will he protect and expand Social Security and Medicare? Is he going to deport 5 million people in the next two years and build a wall? Is he going to make Mexico pay for it? Is he going to somehow "renegotiate" NAFTA? Is he going to somehow reach into the WTO and try to kick China out of it? Is he going to impose tariffs? Is he going to promote a substantial fiscal stimulus? Is he going to make America great again?
I think it's fair to say that one year in, Trump is no Reagan, so we can discard that one.

Delong then offers three other possibilities:
...Trump will be like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was governor of California--an office he won in a "discontent with normal politics" election. Arnold had substantial personality similarities with Trump: the word in Sacramento was that no woman should ever get into an elevator alone with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As California governor he tried to make Hollywood-style deals and failed comprehensively. The state government went on autopilot. He hung out in his smoking tent with his cigars. It was eight years of missed opportunities to address the challenges facing California.

The third possibility is Berlusconi. An awful lot of public money going astray and into the pockets of the kleptocrat and his friends. An awful lot of random policy decisions, with occasional bursts of technocracy as something leads the leader of the bunga-bunga movement to think that this is an issue area where, you know, somebody with real expertise should be handling the situation. This kind of bunga-bunga governance is definitely a possibility. Italy lost a decade of economic growth, I think, because of Berlusconi.
...
The fourth possibility is one that I do not want to put on the table but that I have to put on the table: Mussolini. 
These three possibilities are what I want to talk about because as I see it we are probably some where between "The Governator" and Berlusconi.

Personally I think the "Mussolini Possibility", while might have made sense as a tail risk back a year ago is obviously now wrong. Trump isn't a powerful president who might be able to storm into Congress and have everyone arrested Charles I style. After all he had trouble getting the military to follow through with his stupid "Transgender Ban" which is now tied up in the Federal Courts.

Even the strongest case that he is an authoritarian posed to seize power, one rooted in the whole Russia-Mueller thing is pretty weak evidence. The timeline here is important: basically Trump got worried the FBI director was asking too many questions so fired him, this resulted in a political crisis where his own Attorney General recused himself from decision making, and the number two man at the DOJ appointed a respected special prosecutor to investigate things. This prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is already indicting close Trump allies for serious federal crimes and God know what else he and his team have discovered.

This isn't a nascent dictator, it's a desperate president in a weak position.

And that in my opinion is the key to understand the Trump Era one year in. Political scientist Matt Glassman wrote the full "Trump as weak president" argument up in an excellent long form piece for Vox this year and I think he's spot on. Glassman is basing his argument on the works of political scientist Richard Neustadt's classic studies of the presidency that argue it's statutory a pretty weak office (it is compared to say Britain's Prime Minister) and thus presidents who want to be effective have to find ways to "bargain" with say Congress or bureaucracies or whoever through the careful use of political skill.

Trump is not good at these sorts of thing, thus he hasn't had a good first year.

Or as Glassman puts it:
Trump has had a disastrous first year. His professional reputation is awful. Major figures from his own party routinely criticize his impulsive rhetoric and chaotic management, belittle his intelligence, mock his political ideas, and bemoan his lack of policy knowledge. The White House issues talking points, and high-ranking Republicans simply ignore them. Multiple Republican-led congressional committees are investigating his administration on topics ranging from ethics violations to foreign electoral collusion.

Similarly, the president’s public prestige, measured by approval ratings, is among the worst in the polling age. He entered office with record-low approval, 45 percent, and it has steadily declined into the 30s. No other president has had an approval lower than 49 percent in December of his first year; the average is 63 percent. Such numbers sap Trump’s power to leverage popularity into persuasion. They also depress party loyalists concerned about 2018 and embolden potential primary challengers for 2020.
I think this is exactly right.

In other words the Trump's first term represents an already profound missed opportunity, it usually is the most productive year an administration in terms of legislation after all. Trump has succeeded in rolling back environmental, labor, and consumer protections yes. As well a nominate a lot of conservative judges to the federal bench that have been confirmed by the Senate. But that's normal for Republican presidents. Meanwhile many of his top White House staff, Cabinet Members, and agency heads are have had to resign and/or were fired due to scandals, White House failures, or losing Game Of Thrones style power struggles.

To put it bluntly this is a failing, unpopular, weak presidency, which makes it look something like options two or three above, and that's the key part.

To be sure Democrats or other anti-Trump folks shouldn't be gleeful about this, because there are real dangers here. Glassman pointed out these dangers in the end of his piece this way, "A president unable to effectively govern the bureaucracy or lead American foreign policy poses a distinctly nonpartisan problem for the nation." In other words Trump might try to do even stupider stuff than he's tried so far to compensate for his weakness. Like starting a trade war that will damage the economy or creating a crisis with North Korea that could result in nuclear war. These are risks that seem very real with Trump, although who knows if they will happen. 

Which isn't to say he's having no impact. I think he is changing American politics, but will leave writing about that for another day.

But one year in what I see is a weak president, exhausted by the job, and becoming reactive to events, even if he does this by screaming on Twitter. This is bad, and while it's not clear what the next three years hold, this is where I think we are at.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

President Oprah Is A Terrible Idea

In case you've missed it while living on the Moon for the past week, or like me don't watch Hollywood awards shows, the hot new idea for how to fix American politics is the having Oprah Winfrey, yes the one and only, become president.

My general position on this as a liberal Democrat and someone who wants to see American politics "work" is this: please for the love of God no.

Don't get me wrong, if the Age Of Trump has taught us one thing it's that anyone who secures the nomination of a major political party has a chance of winning a general election, so yes Oprah could win.

Moreover while the Democratic Party seems to have a better grip on its presidential nomination than the Republicans who lost it to Trump due to a combination of media coverage, party dysfunction, "resentment", and bad luck, Oprah still could win the nomination as she shares with Trump many, but not all, of his key strengths as a candidate. She has sky high name recognition and approval, she could spend an almost unlimited amount of her own money. And as political scientist Matt Dickinson pointed out about Trump, the likely resulting media circus with overwhelming coverage of her while her opponents are ignored could be a major asset too.

So she could win the nomination and become the 46th president. But while some people are quite enthusiastic about the idea on the internet that doesn't change the fact that it's still terrible.

Jonathan Bernstein summed up why pretty bluntly on Monday morning:
The truth is the same as always: The presidency is a real job, and a damn hard one. The easily visible parts -- the speeches and the interviews, even the moral leadership -- are a relatively small part of the responsibilities of the office. There's simply no substitute for a good grasp of public policy and government affairs.

There's also no substitute for political skills, which require training and experience, and are simply different from business skills, or cultural mastery, or the ability to perform. 
I think that's exactly right.

In other words Oprah has many admirable qualities. For example, unlike Trump she is actually a self-made billionaire overseeing a vast business empire. But that's not really that helpful when it comes to running the government. In her business role Oprah deals with staff members she can hire and fire, celebrities eager to court her favor, or vendors and corporations who'd like to strike deals with her. But she can't work that way as president because that's neither the people she'll be dealing with nor how presidents do business.

Cabinet members can't just be hired, they have to be confirmed by the Senate. Likewise bureaucrats are protected by civil service laws and their ability to thwart presidents is the stuff of Washington legend. Federal judges have lifetime appointments and can have been on the bench for decades before a new administration arrives in Washington. And members of Congress are ultimately only beholden to their own constituents and caucuses; they can tell the president to go pound sand if they want to (and frequently have throughout history). I doubt Oprah's TV show or magazines were run that way.

Good presidents are usually able to compensate for this by having lengthy experience of working in, well, politics. That is being members legislative bodies. Or finding the levers of power and influence in bureaucracies. Or learning how to turn a political opponent into an ally or when an ally ultimately is more trouble than they're worth. Oprah has a lot of experience in life but as far as I can tell little in this vein.

Likewise there's not a whole lot of evidence that Oprah knows much, or is interested much, in the finer aspects of public policy. I don't mean this as a putdown, few people do know this stuff, but it's really important for a president to know it to be able to do things like bargain or oversee a White House able to craft politically and practically viable ways for tackling problems.

I mean honestly, what does Oprah (or anyone) really know about foreign trade, tax policy, climate change projections, the power grid, solar energy, driver-less cars, fracking, early childhood education, decommissioning nuclear plants, monetary policy, agriculture, changes in health care cost inflation, changes in workforce participation, mass transit, the 2020 Census, charter schools, the Social Security Trust Fund, student loan debt, waste water treatment, disaster management, an aging federal workforce, court reform, cloud computing, flood prevention, treaties with Native American Tribes, potential earthquakes, deforestation, or any other number of domestic non-military policy issues?

Now Oprah is by all accounts an intelligent and driven woman so she can (hopefully) learn this stuff especially with the help of good advisors, but one thing that should be clear to everyone over the last 12 months is the presidency is "no place for amateurs" as a smart people have long said, and on the job training has some very real downsides. And that's not mentioning her unfortunate tendencies to promote quacks, at least when it comes to health care "policy" as it were, which is something the president has to deal with as well.

Moreover there's not a whole lot of evidence she's that interested in foreign affairs or how to be a good commander in chief, which is fine for a celebrity. Most people and many politicians don't know about these things, but this is also huge parts of the job as well. It's one thing to interview the nicest man on the planet his Holiness the Dahlia Lama, it's another to deal with the Syrian Civil War.

All of which isn't to say I don't understand Oprah's appeal. It would be nice to have a president who isn't a horrible person like Donald Trump and does something to empathize charity, honesty, and empathy in public life. These are good things. But I'm fairly confident that candidate or president Oprah wouldn't be a very good vessel for transmitting these ideal across American society, because she wouldn't be "Oprah" anymore, she'd be another politician. In other words, Oprah right now is a popular celebrity, but once upon a time the Hillary Clinton who had left politics had approval ratings of 65% or so. Things changed once she ran for president, and the those same powerful forces could change Oprah's standing relatively quickly as well.

It's important to note that I could be wrong, I was dead wrong about Trump winning the Republican nomination after all, and Oprah might be able to rise above these challenges and be a good president. But it's a crazy gamble to take in my opinion. A politician who's spent a career seeking the White House has strong institutional incentives to do the things necessary to win the nomination and lead a functional administration (at least in theory) to craft a politics that "works" at least to some degree. With Oprah (or Ric Flair, or Ross Perot, or Waka Flocka Flame) there's no institutional reason to believe this at all, and if Democrats are going to just trust "their gut" or whatever they might as well just select nominees by lot.

The good news is the Democratic Party doesn't suffer from the same level of dysfunction as the GOP. Their party's groups and actors care a lot about creating viable policy and I suspect (hope?) are as skeptical of choosing a celebrity and political amateur as me. Likewise while the foolish progressive push to reduce the number of superdelegates is going forward there still will be some (and hopefully the DNC will just junk the idea of reducing them due to the threat of Oprah) to help coordinate party support and act as an important backstop if necessary. Likewise the Democrats have state-wide proportional representation rules in their delegate allocation which means Oprah would have to win a majority of votes to win a majority of delegates. Not the plurality of votes that gave Trump a majority of delegates due to GOP winner take all and winner take most rules. Add in the fact that it seems highly unlikely Oprah would want to subject herself to the awfulness that is running for president in order get the most demanding and stressful job in the world, and I'm pretty confident we'll be okay.

But sadly I'm a lot less confident than I would have been a week ago that the Democrats would emulate the Republicans and go with a inexperience celebrity candidate in 2020 rather than Harris, Booker, Warren, O'Malley, Kaine, Gillibrand, Patrick or any number of other qualified nominees who'd make fine presidents in my eyes. Especially due to the enthusiasm many progressive figures seem to have towards the whole idea.

And I think this says something damning about where the progressive movement is. The political media has strong economic and normative incentives to support crazy celebrity candidacies for the presidency. Trump may be hated by most journalists but he's been a boon for newspapers. But it's quite unsettling to see many people who purport to care about things like health care reform or climate change policy get interested in someone who'd be poorly equipped to persue change in these  areas if they did get in the White House for reasons as yet unexplained.

Thomas Chatterton Williams put it recently in an aptly titled column, "Oprah, Don't Do It":
In a way, the conversation of the left (and the anti-Trump right) around Ms. Winfrey is more troubling than the emotional immaturity and anti-intellectualism pulsing out of the red states that elected Mr. Trump. Those voters have long defined themselves in opposition to the intellectual seriousness Democrats purport to personify...

The idea that the presidency should become just another prize for celebrities--even the ones with whose politics we imagine we agree--is dangerous in the extreme. If the first year of the Trump administration has made anything clear, it's that experience, knowledge, education, and political wisdom matter tremendously...The presidency is not a reality show, or for that matter, a talk show.
I get that people, especially progressives, are angry. I get that people distrust institutions. I get that people hate politics these days. But while Oprah is the answer to many things, she is not the answer to your political prayers.