Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Crisis and Conservative Intellectual Renewal

Matt Continetti's "Crisis of the Conservative Intellectual," published last week, has set off a bit of a conversation.  In recent days, Ross Douthat, Ben Domenech, and Conor Friedersdorf have responded to it.  While I posted some of my own thoughts on Continetti's piece at NRO, I thought I might add a few more observations here.

Domenech makes a solid point in his argument that a loss of faith in American institutions and a broader collapse in social trust paved the way for Trump.  One thing we might take away from Domenech's piece is the importance of conservatives working to restore that public trust and rebuild the various civic and political institutions of this country.  Part of that restoration and rebuilding will involve encouraging virtue, tolerance, empathy, and competence (something that Friedersdorf and Douthat also talk about).  This enterprise is not just about policy, but it will in part require some hard thinking about how various policies can strengthen our communities (and also how to avoid policies that weaken them).  Some promising work has been done along those lines, but more, I think, will be needed.

I'm not as confident as Friedersdorf that a more temperate version of Trump would have lost the Republican primary.  Still, the penultimate paragraph of his essay offers a provocative take on the challenges facing the right:
So long as a significant faction on the right is driven by ressentiment to embrace adversarianism, so long they’d rather see their enemies attacked than achieve anything constructive, and they choose their champions based on their stridency more than their virtues or competence, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible for anyone to win a Republican presidential primary and a general election. And so long as the Republican establishment fails to grapple with the failures of its foreign policy ideology, to purge its hucksters, and to construct policies for its base more effectively than it does for its donor class, it will fail to win back enough voters from adversarianists, whose grievances have some truth to them.
One thing worth saying in passing is that a disconnect between the Beltway GOP and its voters' preferences actually contributes to a kind of adversarianism.  If one wants to muster populist energies without actually delivering on populist policy priorities, invoking the language of radical adversarianism might--in the short term, at least--seem a promising avenue.  It rallies the populist base without actually making any policy concessions.  Over the long term, though, a party that employs such a strategy ends up feeding an ever-swelling shark of rage, which imperils the party's ability to institute a governing agenda.  As Friedersdorf suggests (and I might not agree with all the details of the picture he paints above), more directly addressing the key concerns of many Republican voters would be a way of lessening adversarian tendencies, which would give the party more flexibility in crafting and implementing a policy agenda.  Trying to address the real concerns of voters both inside and outside the GOP coalition could also lead to some good policy outcomes, too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Fighting for What?

Some seem to be laboring under the misconception that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 because he didn't "fight" hard enough.  In reality, Governor Romney ran a disciplined campaign and  launched a number of attacks against President Obama.  Where the governor struggled was his ability to convince working-class Americans that his agenda would help them; exit polls suggest that his underperformance with working-class and middle-class voters likely cost Romney the election.

This has implications for the current presidential race.  Donald Trump is fighting hard--and not just with Hillary Clinton.  Yet, despite all this fighting, he continues to sink in the polls.  Clinton's 3-point lead in early October has grown to a 7-point one, according to RCP.  Trump's major polling deficits are in questions about his temperament and judgement; the groups he struggles with are women and college-educated votes.  Without improving his standing with those voters, it's hard to see how he wins the White House.  Lashing out at all comers might provide a momentary frisson, but it's unclear if such a strategy provides that many electoral benefits.

Anger is rarely a foundation for a national political coalition.  For those seeking elected office, fighting is less important than working to build a winning coalition.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Contra Radicalization

At NRO, I argue that we need to beware indulging in radical despair in response to the upcoming election:
There’s something troubling about a presidential candidate’s openly championing the idea that he or she alone is the last defense against the apocalypse or tyranny. It might help rally a candidate’s base, but it also sows the seeds of alienation: In a presidential contest, someone is bound to lose, which means that tens of millions of that person’s supporters are likely to be disappointed. In a healthy political system, those disappointed millions take the loss in stride, return to their daily lives, and work for victory in the next electoral cycle. When presidential campaigns trumpet their candidate as the only hope, they risk causing this disappointment to curdle into a political radicalization. To court this radicalization is to play with fire.
If Donald Trump loses on November 8 by five points (about how much he is down in the polls right now), it would not be because of a rigged system, vote fraud, or a sinister globalist cabal operating from the shadows. He would lose because of his traits as a candidate and the choices of his campaign. Nor would his loss be the final nail in the coffin of the American republic. We would muddle through, as we always have. A Clinton presidency – especially if backed by a Democratic Congress – could take a toll on the nation and set back many hopes of limited government. But, with hope and prudence, the nation would persevere.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Temperament, Temperament

Heading into his second debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump has a central task: convincing people that he has the temperament to be president.  According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, only 33 percent of likely voters think that Trump has the temperament to serve effectively as president, and 34 percent of voters think he is prepared to be president (Clinton scores in the high 50s on both qualities).  Giant rallies won't change that popular perception, nor will attacking the New York Times or the Clintons' marriage.  Going beyond crude dominance politics, tempering his language, and showing more policy fluency might, however.  Many voters want a change, but they will keep their distance from Trump unless they can be assured that he's not too risky a bet.

Trump will need to appeal particularly to women and college-degree holders. Some polls suggest that Trump is racking up healthy margins in exurban and rural communities, he often needs to improve his standing in inner-ring suburbs.  For instance, a CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-September showed Clinton with a 2-point lead among registered voters in Pennsylvania (other recent polls show her with a larger lead); while Trump did well in the central and western regions of the state, he trailed Clinton in the Philadelphia suburbs by over 20 points.  According to Varad Mehta, Mitt Romney only lost the Philly suburbs by 10 points in 2012.  Without improving his performance in the suburbs, Trump will see a much narrower path to the presidency.  Addressing concerns about temperament would help Trump pull GOP-leaning suburbanites into his coalition.

He can do that by tempering his displays of anger with a policy fluency so that Trump can explain in detail how exactly his policies would improve the lives of voters.  Part of that deescalation would involve toning down or eliminating insults, especially against private citizens.  In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump needs to run as a presidential candidate--not a reality TV star--if he wants to close the deal with voters.

That will also entail more polished and disciplined debate performances.  In light of those concerns, Trump might have a few strategic goals in the upcoming debate:
  • Be willing to rephrase questions so that his answers to them can advance his broader strategic imperatives.
  • Not try to counterpunch on all of Clinton's attacks.
  • Avoid insults (especially against private individuals).
  • Focus more on advancing a positive agenda rather than litigating past controversies.
  • Emphasize message of inclusivity.
  • Bring up policy specifics.
  • Raise questions about Clinton's record and policy vision.
  • Favor optimism and restraint over anger.
  • Show empathy and courtesy in interacting with townhall questioners (even if they ask harsh questions).
  • Avoid looking rattled or defensive.