Friday, September 30, 2016

Losing Battles

My guess is that, if Hillary Clinton had her way, she would spend all the campaign comfortably ensconced in Chappaqua or Whitehaven (her mansion in DC), and have the whole campaign be a solo show by Donald Trump.  The Clinton campaign would clearly like to make this election a referendum on Donald Trump, and it's not clear why he should play along.  The more the Trump campaign allows the Clinton team to make Trump the central question of the election, the more it plays into her hands; the more it makes this election a referendum on the status quo, the better the odds of Trump winning the White House.

During the primary battle, Trump might have benefited from generating media controversy and engaging in blood-feuds with all who challenged him; in the primary, media oxygen was a valuable commodity, and remaining in the headlines helped make Trump the central player in the primary.  But Trump is now the GOP nominee.  Ex officio, he plays a leading role in the general election.  At this stage of the campaign, the kind of media attention is more important than the amount of it.  (That will be even more true, by the way, if Trump does become president.  The president never has to fight for headlines, but the content of those headlines can be a major source of concern or comfort.)

There is almost no way for Trump to "win" the Alicia Machado controversy.  Every day he spends litigating the 1990s is a day that keeps him from advancing his case for president in 2016.  Keeping this controversy alive also keeps the Trump campaign from fighting on favorable territory.

The media consensus seems to be that Trump was strongest in the first debate when he battled Clinton on trade and her desire to re-write history about her support for TPP.  Secretary Clinton is vulnerable on a host of policy issues; that's one of the reasons why she prefers to make this a campaign about Trump's previous statements and not her record of decisions or the exact details of her policy vision.  Delivering a sustained critique of Clinton's policy agenda and offering an alternative vision might not generate wall-to-wall media coverage, but the actual coverage might be more helpful to the Trump campaign.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Round One

I won't even try to get into who won/lost tonight's Clinton/Trump debate (this cycle has frustrated far too many horse-race analyses).  Instead, a couple reflections on strategy:

Hillary Clinton continually attacked Trump.  Many of her policy answers pivoted to attacks on him, and she also assailed his character.  Throughout the campaign, Clinton has tried to make the campaign a referendum on him (something the questions at tonight's debate might have helped).  Interestingly, she also reversed strategy from earlier in the campaign.  For months, she has been trying to isolate Trump from the rest of the GOP.  Tonight, though, she instead tried to tie Trump to the GOP, suggesting that he was just a return to old Republican policies.  Clinton seemed throughout the night to be trying to rally the democratic base.  She presented more of a negative case against Trump than an affirmative one on her behalf.

Donald Trump instead focused on a single goal: emphasizing the challenges facing the nation and arguing that the election of Hillary Clinton would not address those challenges.  Again and again, he tried to tie Secretary Clinton to the status quo.  He attempted to use Clinton's experience against her by casting her as more of the same.  At least early in the debate, he also tried to present a more restrained persona.  His attack on her over TPP also emphasized a favorite Trump theme (trade) and underlined divides in the Democratic coalition.

A few questions: Will this debate move the needle at all?  What effects will it have on woman voters and voters with college degrees?  Did Trump seem like a plausible alternative to Clinton in a "change" cycle?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Better than That

At NRO, I look beyond partisan optics to examine some of the deeper--and troubling--presumptions of Hillary Clinton's remarks about Donald Trump's "deplorable" voters:
Secretary Clinton has now expressed “regret” for saying that half of Trump’s supporters are such “deplorables,” but what does it mean when a candidate for president could so glibly say that about a quarter of Americans are essentially trash people who have no claim on the body politic (“not America”)? One of the great political cancers of our time — and one that folks on the left and the right can succumb to — is the impulse to cast out of civic discourse those with whom we disagree. Partisans might denigrate their opponents as coastal “elites” who don’t represent the “real America” or as bigoted haters on the “wrong side of history.”
Such impulses are mistaken. America contains multitudes, and “history” has all too often proven to be an arbitrary idol. Persuasion and sympathy are hallmarks of debate in a healthy republic. If politics is about excommunicating from polite society those with whom we disagree (those “deplorables”), the task of maintaining a diverse republic becomes much harder. Living in a pluralistic society means interacting with those whose opinions might differ from ours not just on trivial matters but also on serious ones. The tradition of religious liberty in the United States is in part premised on the idea that tolerance for intellectual difference is especially important for very difficult (and very personal) issues. This does not mean that we cannot champion firm moral views or even that some people might not subscribe to malicious or mistaken ideas, but we should be very wary about casting those with whom we disagree as essentially bad themselves and beyond redemption.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Conversation--Not Cocoon

As election day draws closer, tensions are increasing on the right about Donald Trump and (a distinct topic) the futures of conservatism and the Republican party.  Following in the tradition of Edmund Burke, I thought it would be worthwhile to outline a few reasons why excessive rancor would be both intellectually and politically counterproductive.

Many of Trump's opponents, especially on the right, have offered numerous scapegoats for the rise of Trump: among them, talk radio, racism, and the American public's supposed lack of virtue.  However, one of the single most important structural forces that allowed Trump to win the Republican nomination was the combination of elite incompetence and extreme cultural cocooning.  Incompetence and cocooning have served as compounding forces; without a rigorous internal debate, technocratic myopia sets in, often leading to political disaster.

The toxic combination of incompetence and cocooning has been problematic for the nation as a whole, but it has been particularly poisonous for both the Republican party and the conservative coalition.  Various efforts to purge dissenters have sapped the intellectual vitality of the right and caused a fixation on certain policy buzzwords.  A facile framing of too many debates as TrueConservatives v. the Establishment has often intensified this policy stasis.  When prudential compromise is made the enemy of intellectual principles, our thinking becomes sloppy and we set ourselves up for a politics of bad faith and rancor.

If intellectual cocooning has been a major problem for our politics, efforts at purges (whether directed by #NeverTrumpers or passengers on the #TrumpTrain) are likely to prove counterproductive.  Spraying vitriol at factional opponents is likely also not to be very helpful.  Intellectual charity usually helps advance a thoughtful discussion much more than does personal venom.  (Efforts to target folks like Laura Ingraham for supposedly being "responsible" for Trump are especially bizarre; if the GOP had listened to Ingraham more on certain issues, Trump would not have had the political opening he did in 2015-2016.)

In addition to the intellectual reason for the importance of charity, there is a partisan reason for conservatives, too.  Trump voters are an important faction of the GOP.  In a crowded primary, he won about 45 percent of the primary vote.  John McCain won 46.7 percent of the primary vote in 2008, and McCain benefited from perhaps his strongest rival (Mitt Romney) dropping out partway through the campaign.  Facing a sustained #NeverMcCain movement, Senator McCain would have likely gotten even less of the primary vote in 2008 than Donald Trump in 2016.  Trump voters are not some fringe of the Republican party, so trying to purge them all would be a dismembering of the political right.

However, the #NeverTrump and #AlmostNeverTrump factions are an important part of the Republican coalition, too.  As recent polls have suggested, the GOP will have a hard time getting to a majority without at least some of those who have been resistant to Trump.  A Trumpian GOP that hopes to purge itself of all current Trump skeptics is one that has more of a future as a rump than a national party.

Whatever happens in November, both sides will have to be able to work together to help either gain or defend a governing majority.  If the personal divisions become too hardened, that cooperation will be extremely difficult to achieve.  Keeping the current squabble from turning into an undying blood-feud is, then, another reason why those who support, oppose, and are skeptical about Trump should emphasize the virtues of courtesy and intellectual charity (and, yes, those still are virtues).  Keeping divisions from becoming too rancorous also provides a reason why there's a place for some on the right to claim a neutral ground in intrafactional debates (Switzerland, as Hugh Hewitt has termed it).

If the right wants to renew itself, it will need to be able to handle broad debates, which in turn demand intellectual diversity and a tolerance for disagreement.  The right can have a place for both Mona Charen and Michelle Malkin, for both reformocons and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and for both RedState and (The Journal of) American Greatness.  (I would add that National Review and The Weekly Standard also have a place at the conservative table, but that should be obvious!)*

*See sidebar.

(Crossposted at Praxis)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Really Over?

It's a truism among some in the Beltway that the presidential race is already over; that the GOP had best stop supporting Donald Trump* and go about saving the downballot candidates stat.

However, it would certainly be historically unprecedented for any party to do this with such a comparatively close race.  It's true that Clinton had led Trump in the RCP average for most of 2016 (aside from a brief blimp after the RNC in Cleveland), which suggests that she has an advantage.  However, as of this writing, her advantage is only 2.4 points in a four-way race, and that advantage has been shrinking.  That's not an inconsiderable lead, but rarely before has a 2.4-point gap on Labor Day weekend been taken as a sure sign of presidential doom.

According to Gallup records of the 2000 election, George W. Bush led Al Gore by over 10 points as late as October 2000, but the Democratic party didn't immediately throw in the towel on Gore, who ended up winning the popular vote in 2000.  After Mitt Romney's convention bounce wore off, President Obama led him by between 3 and 4 points in the RCP average throughout much of September 2012.  Yet plenty of observers did not then believe that Governor Romney was fated for defeat.

Conversely, in 1996, the year many 2016-is-over proponents cite, Bill Clinton was absolutely hammering Bob Dole in Gallup polling.  Throughout most of the fall of 1996, Dole usually was at least 10 points behind Clinton in Gallup polls.  Often he was down between 15 and 20 points.  Gallup is not an outlier here; Pew also showed Clinton with a huge lead in the fall.  Senator Dole ended up closing the gap in the last week or so of the election (he eventually lost to President Clinton by 9 percent of the popular vote), but polling throughout much of the fall was far more brutal for Dole than it has been for Trump so far.  Senator Dole couldn't even break 40 percent in most Gallup and Pew polling.

Now, political dynamics have changed over the past twenty years, and it's possible that a 2-point lead is the new 15-point lead.  Donald Trump is also a somewhat unprecedented candidate.  And none of this means that Trump will win; the debates and how the third-party vote shakes out in particular could change the trajectory of the race.  Nevertheless, in recent political history, no party has given up on its presidential candidate over an almost margin-of-error shortfall in the national polls.  There might be other reasons to not support Donald Trump, but the assumption that the presidential race is already over isn't one of them.

*Not by replacing him on the ballot by someone else; instead, he would stay on the top of the ticket and the party would distance itself from him and cut off financial and logistical support.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Beyond Cronyism

Over at The Weekly Standard, I outline the Democratic alliance of corporatism of identity politics, the threat this alliance poses to the GOP, and what conservatives can do to respond:
Currently, corporatism and identity politics stand as two pillars of the Democratic presidential coalition. Corporate titans in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and elsewhere—what demographer Joel Kotkin has termed the new "oligarch" caste—support the Democratic party in exchange for government subsidies and other privileges. The Affordable Care Act's passage relied upon an alliance of Democratic lawmakers and major health-care interests, Dodd-Frank has often ended up strengthening the hands of the nation's largest financial institutions, and many progressive "green" initiatives function as de facto corporate subsidies. When the Obama administration pursued financial penalties against major financial institutions in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown, it gave them the option of lessening these penalties by donating to left-leaning activist groups such as La Raza. Moreover, many of those in big business are quite willing to promote left-wing social causes (on identity politics, sexual ethics, and so forth). As the past two elections have suggested, identity politics plus corporate cronyism can be a powerful coalition—at least on the presidential level...
Assuming the right wants to be more than a performance-art faction, it will need to think critically about rebuilding itself. Pandering to business interests is likely not one of the ways do to that. In the long term, America's corporations would be better off defending the principles of the free market rather than hoping to benefit from crony capitalism. Public-private corruption often delegitimizes the market in the public's eyes, and policies that allow the unscrupulous funneling of public wealth to major corporate stakeholders will also allow for the taking of wealth from these stakeholders. Thus, it would be best for business and the Republican party for the GOP to continue to defend the free market. Republicans have further electoral incentive to resist the corporate pander. Many acts of business pandering (such as increasing guest-worker programs) will divide the GOP and compromise its ability to reach out to the middle, and efforts to take social issues "off the table" by capitulating to the left will only alienate many social conservatives, who hold beliefs that are often more popular than another round of capital-gains tax cuts.
If the Democratic party is going to become the faction of corporatism, Republicans have every incentive to emphasize the anti-cronyist tendencies of conservatism. Rather than pandering to big business, the GOP could strengthen local communities and call for a diffusion of power. This does not mean attacking business, but it does require placing one's obligations to the American people above the demands of corporate lobbyists. The GOP would also have to address with forward-thinking policies the parts of the country where opportunity has stagnated, whether in former mill towns or inner cities. It would spend more time addressing the forces that drive populist energies.
Confronting these challenges might mean thinking beyond hoary verities. The business-oriented fiscal agenda of trade deals, entitlement reform, deregulation, and tax cuts—which some in the Beltway take to be the heart of conservatism—cannot by itself constitute an electoral core for the GOP. This agenda will have to evolve to confront the realities of the 21st century, and it will need to be part of a much broader narrative of politics, one that speaks to Americans as neighbors and parents, as flesh-and-blood human beings embedded in a broader culture—not just abstracted economic actors. Instead of the calculated divisions of identity politics, Republicans could champion a common public square.
Read the rest here.

Trump's Immigration Speech

Here's the text of Donald Trump's immigration speech.  I won't begin to calculate the political fall-out from Trump's remarks.

However, a few other points.  Trump shifted the focus of the speech from THE WALL and what to do with current illegal immigrants to look instead at broader issues, including what can be done to improve interior enforcement and how the legal immigration system should be reformed.

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, it's clear that our public discussion of immigration needs to get out of a fixation on a debate over "amnesty" into a multidimensional consideration of national immigration policy.  "What should we do with illegal immigrants?" cannot be the only point of discussion for immigration.  We also need to address important questions such as,

  • How can we help recent immigrants achieve upward mobility and integrate into American society?
  • How can our immigration system encourage opportunity for both natives and the foreign-born?
  • How can we reform our legal immigration system so that it strengthens families, communities, and the economy?

For too long, media narratives of immigration (as with other issues) have been held captive by hazy nostalgia and identity politics.  We need to break those chains in order to face the challenges of the present and better secure the blessings of liberty and justice.