Saturday, July 29, 2017

All Hail The New Chief Of Staff!

Quite the news week right? I think my favorite explanation of news cycles in the Age Of Trump is that their not really news cycles at all, but rather "that episode from Battle Star Galatica where the Cylons attack every 33 minutes."

I'm still trying to digest what the downfall (knock on wood!) of Trumpcare means, and why it happened (although I think my blog post from the winter held up pretty well.) So rather than dwell on that stuff let's talk about White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus getting the hook on Friday afternoon and what comes next.

To begin with it's important to realize that Reince, whatever you think of him, is simply not the sort of person you'd want to be White House chief of staff for the simple reason that he doesn't really have any experience working as a government professional at all. He is, after all, a party and campaign guy, not a person like Jack Lew (or Howard Baker if you'd prefer a Republican) who has spent a lifetime running government agencies, serving in Congress, or dealing with complex policy issues. But rather Reince has spent his life doing what party big wigs do. That is raise money, give rah rah speeches, shake hands with junior staffers in obscure field offices and such.

In short, he was always a terrible choices to be a White House chief of staff for any president, but for a new president with no experience in public office and the...uh...personality traits of Donald Trump, he was an even worse pick.

Which is pretty indicative of the whole staffing problem this administration is facing. Greg Kroger, a political scientist at the University of Miami, and Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who writes for Bloomberg, talked about this on first and so far only Mischeifs of Faction Podcast. To begin with this administration, right down through the agencies is pretty understaffed over all. And while most of the White House staff jobs are filled, you can basically lump most staffers there into a couple of big buckets (they starts on this about 39 minutes in) none of which are very good at running a modern White House.

I'll list these groups out with fun colorful names of my own devising:
  • "The Rels" ie people related to the president (Jared, Ivanka, Junior etc)
  • "The Hacks" ie campaign and RNC people (Reince and folks he brought with him)
  • "The Traders" ie all the Wall Street people (Anthony Scaramucci comes to mind but there are a bunch of others)
  • "The Breitbarts" ie the people who mix pseudo-intellectual claptrap with bigotry and showbiz style flair (Bannon is the classic example, Gorka as well)
To be fair people like this have been in past administrations (Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General etc), but the big thing to remember here is that these groups are basically all that Trump's got. As Greg points out even Vice President Pence, who's suppose to be the adult in the room or something, was much more of a bomb thrower in Congress than a serious legislator who'd craft policy or make deals.

Add into this mix the fact that Trump himself seems to be trying to run his White House in a chaotic The-Wolf-Of-Wall-Street style like he did his various companies. WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, had a nice article about this whole mess featuring an interview with a woman named Gwenda Blair who's written some biographies on The Donald and other Trumps:
"I think [Donald Trump] may be the only person in the White House who is really happy with all the chaos," she noted. "Because that makes him the one fixed point. It makes everybody scared ... and super loyal to him, not to each other."

Creating that kind of chaotic and hyper-competitive dynamic is part of Trump's management style. "He calls is 'creative competition,'" Blair continued. "He has people on his staff, sets them against each other, sometimes giving them overlapping responsibilities ... It's exactly the same M.O. as throughout his career." 
This is important because as as Jonathan Bernstein points out in the podcast during the second half of the 20th Century there was a big debate about how best to organize an White House among students and practitioners of presidential politics. Republicans adopted a model created by Eisenhower which he brought to his administration from his career in the Army. In the "Ike model" you basically have a strong person in charge, a "Chief of Staff" as it were, to run the the place. While Democrats kept trying to recreate FDR's model of decentralized system of different people, competing with each other, a "team of rivals" as it were.

The reality though is that Democrats could never recreate FDR's model, in no small part because FDR hardly had what we would consider a modern White House staff at all in the first place. So whenever a new Democrat came into the White House they'd try to set up a "team of rivals" and it wouldn't work, and by the end of that particular administration they'd have reverted to the "Ike model."

This whole debate was thought ended for good in 2009 when Obama adopted the "Ike model" right off the bat in the form of making Rahm Emanuel a powerful chief of staff.

As Bernstein said in the podcast, and remember this recorded back in the spring, the crazy thing here is Trump seems to be trying to recreate the failed model that clearly doesn't work in the modern age. Add in a staff as I outlined above and of course disaster ensues. As he put it, "So there's nobody who knows anything basically, and guess what? It's disorganized and it doesn't work! Because we know that it doesn't work with quality people. Bill Clinton had quality people, LBJ had quality people, it doesn't work."

In other words Trump doesn't have enough staff, the staff he does have are really bad choices for their jobs, and it's all set up in a haphazard way. So yes of course it's a disaster zone.

But in the here and now we're getting a new CoS in the form of former four star Marine general, and one time Secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly. I don't really have a whole lot to say, other than that I think some of the chatter on Twitter that this is some prelude to a military coup as being very silly. Trump can't even get the military to enforce his "trans ban", let alone arrest Congress for him.

Will Kelly be able to turn things around for Trump? Who knows, but there are a few reasons to have hope.

To begin with never underestimate the bureaucratic and organizational skills one can pick up in a successful military career. So maybe he could sideline "The Rels", ease out "The Traders", have Bannon and Gorka thrown out the building, and keep the best of the junior hacks while finding important jobs for the others in the Office of Insular Affairs and other such places.

All while Kelly might be able to bring in new people to take over. Maybe Kelly could set up a organized professional White House with clear rules about who reports to who. While also making the president stop watching hours of cable news and instead read briefing materials and such. Maybe Kelly could then get people to have loyalty to each other as a team, instead of their own selfish career ambitions, and in turn have the President reward that loyalty with trust and forgiveness for minor screw ups. Maybe he could get Donald Trump, to, like Prince Hal, contemplate the tremendous responsibilities of the office he now inhabits and cast off his petty vanity and selfish impulses, and, like Prince Hal did, ride forth to defend the Kingdom in this great hour of national need!

Can Kelly do it?!? Is this dream possible!?!?!?

As Theodoric of York would put it the most likely answer is "Naaaaaahhh!"

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Azari Vs Masket: The Final Battle

There was recently an interesting blog exchange between a number of political scientists I really like, respect, and follow. Despite this blog post's silly title it would be quite a stretch to characterize this as fight. Rather it was more of a blogging disagreement. But about a pretty interesting topic, that you may have hear of: what is to be done when it comes to Trump's Twitter account?

Seth Masket, who is at the University of Denver, wrote a post at his Pacific Standard digs (it's a good magazine, you should check it out!) about why Twitter should follow their own guidelines and suspend Trump's account because how he keeps violating their terms of service. As Seth puts it:
One such rule is, "You may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others." This is a Trump specialty. He has repeatedly threatened and insulted people on Twitter. He threatened James Comeyshortly after firing him, and then baselessly accused him of perjury last week. He used Twitter to try to intimidate Sally Yates. He has dismissed members of Congress with belittling nicknames like "Cryin' Chuck Schumer" and "Pocahontas." [ed note Seth has a bunch of links in this quote but I couldn't get them to transfer to Bloger [sub-ed note, this is an okay way to note scholar articles right?]]
In addition:
The Twitter rules do seem biased toward freedom of expression, but they note that an account may be suspended "if a primary purpose of the reported account is to harass or send abusive messages to others." It's a bit unclear how they define "primary purpose" here. But as political scientist Luke Perry notes, roughly half of Trump's tweets as a presidential candidate were attacks and insults. Just over one-third have been insults since he became president. This would seem to qualify. [ed note, got it to work that time!]
Which means while Twitter will certainly take a economic hit, it makes sense for the good of the country, themselves, and the human race (I guess) to shut down Trump's account:
By shutting off the president's account, Twitter would flex a great deal of power over the presidency while making an important statement about online discourse. It would be a dramatic and bold move, and one that could yield substantial benefits for both the company and the country.
Seth was in some ways working from an piece by Paul Musgrave, a professor of government at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the very real damage Trump's tweeting is doing to my country and the world. And I have to agree. Trump's tweets have been bad for America and the world as far as I can see, and Twitter the company has a clear reason to end his account.

So why the dumb title of this blog post? Well because Julia Azari, a political scientist who is at Marquette, wrote a great rejoinder to Seth's (and to a lesser degree Paul's) piece about why he should keep tweeting. The post's subtitle "We deserve to know who our president is" sums it up pretty well. As Azari puts it:
But as vile and painful as the president’s tweets often are, they’re performing an important role in American democracy right now. One of the functions of presidential communication is transparency, and Trump’s tweets serve as a constant reminder of who he is and what his administration values...The best outcome in this very bad situation is for us to be confronted, over and over, with the nature and beliefs of our president. There is very little for democracy to gain by hiding this president under a cloak of conventional phrases. We don’t want his aides to take his phone and mute his tendency to attack, or his habit of making false claims and smearing the media outlets charged with holding the government accountable.
Azari's argument is farily complex, read the whole thing as the kids say, but I think her last paragraph sums it up:
Norms about presidential communication address anxieties around the office, but can vary greatly in how they suit individual presidents. Twitter amplifies what made Trump an effective campaigner, and exposes his unfitness to govern. The ideas expressed in his tweets are reminiscent of the crude, loyalty-oriented, and exclusionary politics of this bygone era. In this regard, Twitter, this most contemporary of media, performs a crucial democratic function.
Seth wrote a nice follow up piece entitled "Should we Child-Proof the Presidency?" That I thought was pretty good, but like me re-watching Mulholland Drive just raised more questions than it answered. Again read the whole thing, as those wacky kids say.

If I had to give a debating score to the the whole exchange I guess Azari got the better of Masket. But I think they are missing an important point.

That is to say both are focusing on Donald Trump the person and who and what he really is, via his terrible Twitter feed, which of course is important. But both are eliding that fact good staff could solve a lot of these problems. Note the whole "child-proof" title in Seth's piece (he might not get to pick his PacStand blog post titles but it's a not that unfair summation of his points about the danger of trying to reform the presidency based on Trump).

Likewise note Julia's point about about, "We don’t want his aides to take his phone and mute his tendency to attack..." 

I agree the President acts like a big baby, his Twitter feed is bad for my country and the world at large, and we should never lose sight of the man he is. But look, lots of presidents behaved poorly at times, did bad things for the world, and have important questions to examine about who they really were in their lives as opposed to the ideas they spoke for (Thomas Jefferson comes to mind).

But while these questions are important lots of other things matter too. In other words don't miss how important staff and others were at bridging the gap between the president the actual human, and the holder of that high office. 

Just imagine LBJ's Twitter feed! Where he screams at MLK or says why he thinks Bobby Kennedy is a horrible person? Or Nixon's, you know, the fun Tweet where he rants about how Jewish grocers are causing inflation, not Nixon's economic policies of course, by jacking up the price of beef (Nixon apparently screamed that at some of staff according to Rick Pearlstein's Nixonland). How about FDR saying "LOL fourth martini and it's just 2 pm!"

Would they have been like that? Well no (ok Nixon might have gone crazy on Twitter towards the end) but staff would have kept them from doing that.

And that's the big point I see both Azari and Masket are missing, that is while Trump's Twitter rants are certainly part of his presidency, they don't necessarily have to be. And just because he's, in my humble opinion, a bad president and not the type of man I would aspire to be, doesn't mean that things couldn't be improved with a modern professional staff. And even if you think he should stop for the good of American democracy, or think he should continue, that misses the point that he doesn't have to be doing this, he could in fact change if he really wanted to.

I don't see it happening, but I agree with Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who's now a full time Bloomberg writer, that bringing in a new professional chief of staff with the mission of cleaning house and setting up a modern professional White House could really turn things around. As Bernstein puts it:
I keep thinking back to Ronald Reagan. The Reagan administration after the Iran-Contra scandal broke was in such disarray, and the president so ineffective, that insiders worried that he might be losing his capacity to govern, and that a 25th Amendment removal from office might actually be necessary.  
And yet it turned out that Reagan suffered mainly not from early-stage dementia, but from a dysfunctional White House and a terrible chief of staff, Donald Regan. Once Regan was deposed and Howard Baker was brought in to run things, it turned out that Reagan was more or less the same he had ever been; it's just that he was always a politician who needed an above-average level of staff support.
Would such a change involve new aides taking away Trump's phone? I suppose so, but it would also probably involve pieces of "why you can't blurt out racist stuff in public" advice Nixon and many other presidents certainly took to heart. Likewise such a staff change would involve the president not being allow to say horrible things about women in public, no matter what so many other presidents have certainly said in private.

In other words, Trump shouldn't tweet like he does (he will), Twitter should probably kill his account if they want to really enforce their standards (they won't and don't seem to want to), but whatever its value a better staff could make this account be better, and improve a lot of other things. And the quest to know who presidents "really are" is in some ways a fools errand. I'll never know who Hillary Clinton really is (despite 25 years of journalists clamoring to find this out) but her Twitter account was largely normal and I think she would have been a fine president.

Then again the lesson here might be simply never tweet.