Thursday, February 11, 2016

How to Channel Populist Energies in a Conservative Way: Or, An Experiment in Tilting at Windmills

Some on the right view the current populist insurgency with something like horror. Criticisms of Donald Trump, who has anointed himself a populist tribune, have often included dark references to a sinister populism that necessarily threatens conservative ideas and limited government. (Of course, one can criticize Trump without criticizing populist sentiments, and many anti-Trumpers have also shown themselves more sympathetic to populism in general.)

I nurture a somewhat quixotic suspicion that a partial rapprochement of conservatism and populist tendencies is possible. At least four trends seem to have antagonized the current populist insurgency: economic decline, identity politics, elite incompetence, and ideological transnationalism. There are policy and political responses to these challenges that are within the spectrum of conservative thought.

As an attempt to explore where such a rapprochement might look like, I offer the following portfolio of policy hypotheticals. I'm not necessarily endorsing all these policy ideas, though I am sympathetic to many of them. Many of these ideas are also offered in the spirit of compromise; they might not satisfy all conservatives or all populists, but they might be at least somewhat acceptable to many in each camp.  We might denote populist-conservative fusionism as a "popucon" approach to politics. (And, yes, I know "popucon" sounds rather like "poppycock.") Many current Republican candidates already have a touch of popucon tendencies, and there are numerous intellectuals and elected officials that popucons could take inspiration from--including David Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru, and the rest of the reformocon crew, as well as Jeff Sessions, Dave Brat, and Mike Lee.

Many in Republican circles are currently seeking to crown an anti-Trump. If Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich really do want to supplant Trump, they may be more likely to succeed if they do not just run as an anti-Trump but co-opt some of Trump's issues. In order to win the nomination, a candidate will have to give voters something to vote for--not just a cause to vote against.

So, in the spirit of fusionism, I offer the following possible popucon strategies. Again, these are offered in the mode of possibility and the hypothetical.

Go beyond "amnesty" on immigration: Immigration has given Trump his opening. The Beltway's preferred version of immigration "reform"--instant legalization, Potemkin enforcement, and expanded guest-worker programs--manages to be both anti-conservative and utterly indifferent to popular needs. Instead of this tired orthodoxy, an evolved version of immigration reform that encourages civil integration, economic opportunity, and the rule of law could win over populists and self-identified conservatives.

Popucons might find that trumpeted opposition to "amnesty" probably won't be enough. Voters have begun to catch on that "amnesty" is a particularly slippery term in a politician's vocabulary. Instead, popucons could make specific commitments on legal immigration, guest-worker programs, enforcement, and the eventual timing of a legalization program (if there is to be such a program at all). Attacking guest-worker programs and the abuse of them would seem particularly low-hanging policy fruit. Trump and Cruz have already moved against these programs, but other candidates still have an opportunity here, too.

In tax reform, think more about Fishtown and less about Belmont: Popucons might focus their tax-reform pitch on those policies that will help voters in the middle and working classes. Capital-gains tax-cuts might be nice, but voters will need to be convinced that tax reform will work for them. Tax credits for families and low-income workers might be part of the popucon strategy.

Take a more critical eye to trade orthodoxy: Many conservatives take as a point of faith that defending current global trading patterns is key for conservatism because such patterns are free trade. Popucons might note that, in reality, much of what goes by the name of "free trade" is a globally-managed neomercantilism that distorts the market in order to supply cheap imports to wealthy nations. Perhaps this system ultimately benefits the average citizen, and perhaps it doesn't. But it certainly isn't the free movement of the market. When, for instance, the People's Republic of China demands that Boeing (and many other companies) open up a factory that is co-owned by a Chinese-backed corporation in order to have access to the Chinese market, that's not the organic product of the marketplace.

Popucons could meet populists halfway by expressing skepticism about expanding that system of managed trade. Even a guy like Kevin D. Williamson, no small devotee of free trade, has said that TPP is so flawed that free-market conservatives should probably oppose it. Many trade compacts have failed to live up to the promises made by their advocates, so popucons might argue that we should re-access exactly how to construct compacts that actually do advance American prosperity and reinforce American sovereignty. This skepticism might not mean blowing up current trading agreements, but it might place different priorities on trade agreements going forward.

Defend entitlements: At a time of economic disruption, many voters look to entitlements as something they can count on. Social Security remains very popular with the electorate as a whole as well as with Republicans--even conservative ones. A 2014 Pew poll found that 59% of even "consistently conservative" Republicans wanted Social Security benefits to remain the same or to be expanded. Only 12% of that group want to phase it out. Moderates--a group where populists are well represented--are even more defensive of Social Security. The funding issues for Medicare are much more dire than Social Security, but many voters want to see Medicare funding increase rather than decrease. Both plans are probably in need of reform, but, in order for that reform to take place, voters will need to be convinced that they will not be left without a safety net.

Popucons could defend entitlements in a pro-market and pro-growth way: Economic stagnation, especially the hollowing out of the middle class, makes Social Security less affordable, and a lack of market-based competition increases the price of medical care (including the cost of Medicare). A popucon economic platform can make these entitlements more fiscally sustainable. Popucons would lead not with talk of Social Security privatization but instead with efforts to rebalance payment and taxation structures. As Marco Rubio's Social Security plan suggests, there's plenty of reform that's possible without requiring privatization of Social Security.

Focus on expanding and improving health-care: In discussing the Affordable Care Act, popucons would focus on replace rather than repeal. The ACA is an unpopular bill, but some of its provisions aren't. Popucons might argue that their approach to health-care will not only improve care for those who already have health-insurance but also for those who don't. Policy wonks like Avik Roy have spent considerable time writing about how to offer market-based reforms that expand and improve coverage, so there are considerable intellectual resources for popucons to draw upon.

Speak out against the drug epidemic: As Robert VerBruggen noted earlier this year, the rate of drug-overdose deaths skyrocketed almost 250% between 1999 and 2014. The explosion of opioid abuse has hit economically depressed areas especially hard. Drug abuse cannot be solved simply by public policy, but policy measures can be taken to combat drug abuse. Moreover, popucon candidates lend their words to the cause of fighting against the alienation that feeds drug abuse. Donald Trump has made pledges to crack down on drugs a major theme of his stump speech, but John Kasich and (former candidate) Chris Christie have spoken out frequently on this topic as well.

Defend the institutions of law and order: The United States has made major strides in combating crime over the past 25 years, but anti-police hysteria and ill-considered policy measures risk causing the nation to backtrack. Especially in an era of unrest, many voters crave stabilizing forces, and the police can be one such force. Popucons can buttress a law-and-order message with targeted efforts at criminal-justice reform and attacking official malfeasance, but they would also keep the rhetoric of public safety at the forefront.

End Too Big to Fail: Post-Dodd-Frank, financial consolidation has continued. Advocates of libertarian populism, like Tim Carney, have called for breaking up the big banks in order to end the era of Too Big to Fail. Many voters view the federal government as defending certain players against the interest of the middle class and the principles of the free market. By taking an assertive stand on financial reform, popucons could channel popular anxiety about a rigged economic game while also advancing free-market principles.

Attack identity politics: Much of what goes by the name "political correctness" is actually a species of Marcusian identity politics, which has become so poisonous that voices across the political spectrum are rising up against it. Mike Gonzalez at the Heritage Foundation has outlined how identity politics can break apart the civic compact. Conservatives and populists can come together in attacking an ideology that fears freedom of thought and rational debate. Moreover, popucons might note that vulgarity is not the same as a rigorous challenge to the identity-politics behemoth.

Call for competence: In the current primary, Republicans have squabbled about whether the failures of the Obama administration are due to flawed ideology or incompetence. Popucons might argue that both ideology and ineptness have led to the failures of the past seven years. A government with a mistaken philosophy might fail no matter how competent its officials are, but incompetent officials can cause a government to fail to achieve even its most legitimate aims.

Support localism in education and elsewhere: Decentralizing power is a common conservative goal, and something many populists want, too. "Common core" has in part become a dirty phrase because many fear a transfer of educational power from local communities to federal bureaucrats and corporate boardrooms. The fact that the Obama administration now seeks to run the discipline programs of schools across the nation might be something popucons could talk about--as well as its efforts to federalize local zoning laws.

These are not the only possible areas where populists and conservatives could find some common ground, but they might provide a starting point for further discussion. An unchecked populism can lead to calls for an absurdly and impossibly perfect strongman, but a conservatism that addresses popular concerns could revitalize the American republic and the hopes of limited government.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Trump, Buchanan, and Populist Pressures

In the lead-up to Donald Trump's victory in the New Hampshire primary tonight, some pundits have drawn parallels between Trump's candidacy and other populist insurgencies, including Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and Pat Buchanan in the 1996 primary. However, Trump won New Hampshire by a much bigger margin than Buchanan did in 1996.

Moreover, even if Trump only does replicate the Buchanan coalition (and there's considerable evidence he'll be able to go beyond this), it would be a mistake to dismiss the Trump phenomenon with a shrug. Whether or not one agrees with the policies of Buchanan and Perot, the fact remains that the Republican party has struggled to forge a national presidential majority coalition since Perot's 1992 insurgency. The rise of Perot, Buchanan, and Trump point to deep structural risks and opportunities for the Republican presidential coalition.

Within the adult lifetime of the average American, the GOP presidential candidate has won a popular vote majority only once--in 2004--and that skin-of-your-teeth victory is likely at least partially because of a weak Democratic nominee. To note this poor performance is not to besmirch the skills of GOP political handlers, many of whom are cunning tacticians. But the structure of presidential politics--the so-called "Blue Wall"--has shifted so much against Republicans that, in order to win with the current coalition, a GOP nominee has to do everything right. Since 1992, Democrats have been able to afford losing a few major swing states; Republicans have not enjoyed that luxury. In six elections in a row, the GOP has failed to get a popular-vote victory margin of above 3 percent, an unprecedented sequence for the party; Democrats enjoyed a similar period in the desert in between the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. Democrats have been able to win big, but Republicans have struggled to win at all.

Since 1992, Republicans have enjoyed much more support at the state and federal level. Part of this is perhaps because of Democratic success in presidential contests--GOP gains in 1994, 2010, and 2014 were in part reactions against Democratic presidents. These congressional and state-level victories can also be attributed to the fact that these races are diffuse. Congressional Republicans do not run on one slate of policies, but each candidate can calibrate his or her message to a local electorate. That's not been the case in presidential races, however; a presidential candidate can only run on a single set of policies.

In recent years, reformers and conservative populists have called for the party to expand its appeal to the working class and the economic middle. Economic stagnation, a weakening middle class, radical identity politics, and growing socioeconomic stratification do not bode well for the future of limited-government conservatism. With imagination and policy reform, Republicans can adapt to these challenges.

Populist energies have transformed both the Republican and Democratic primaries this year, and, by responsibly channeling these energies, the GOP can reap major electoral dividends. Such a channeling will not mean succumbing to angry chest-beating: it will require approaching the topics inflaming populist sentiment with realism, empathy, and policy sophistication. By offering reforms on trade, immigration, health-care, taxes, and other issues, Republicans can put forward policies that could improve outcomes for many working and aspiring American families.

Dis-Trumption is a sign of tensions in the GOP coalition, but it could also be the birth-pangs of a re-energized GOP and forward-looking conservatism. If Republicans rise to the challenges of this populist insurgency, they can champion policies that offer economic uplift and social renewal. Other Republican contenders who want to supplant Trump as well as activists who want to win in November would be wise to think about how to address some of the very real challenges facing the American people.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Setting Expectations in the Granite State

In the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary tomorrow, I thought it might be helpful to lay out some thoughts on expected performance in the Granite State.

Probably needs to win first: Donald Trump.  If Trump's polling lead in New Hampshire melts to a second-place finish, Trump risks looking like a paper tiger.  Not only will the Iowa debacle be repeated, but he will have given up an even larger lead than he had in Iowa.  If Trump can't win in New Hampshire, a state with a large independent and maverick-y primary electorate, his path to the nomination narrows considerably.  Trump has shifted his strategy a bit since Iowa, but we'll see tomorrow if he shifted it enough to win.

Depends on a strong second-place finish: Marco Rubio. Even though he had been in third place in the Iowa polls for weeks, Marco Rubio's campaign was able to use a stronger-than-expected showing in Iowa to grab the Big Mo.  After Iowa, Rubio's polling numbers rocketed up in the Granite State, and, by the middle of last week, it looked like he might be on a trajectory to catch Trump.  That ascent has been interrupted, but Rubio's campaign has projected a second-place finish in New Hampshire for a while.  If Rubio finishes within 5 or so points of Trump (assuming Trump's first) and outpaces his rivals by a similar margin, he'll be better able to make the claim that he is the center-right candidate who unifies the party.  A strong second place by Rubio would put a lot of pressure on Bush, Christie, and Kasich to start inching toward the exits.  A weaker finish, though, would be an expectations loss for his candidacy.

Needs to be close to or better than Rubio: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich.

There are variations in the stakes of a strong performance in New Hampshire for each of the three governors.  In order to have a path forward, Christie and Kasich both probably need either to do better than Rubio in New Hampshire or to come within a few points of him.  Both have centered their campaigns around New Hampshire; according to one count, Christie has spent more days campaigning in New Hampshire than Carson, Rubio, and Trump combined.  Without getting close to or beating Rubio on Tuesday, they'll have a hard time marshaling the resources to compete in later states.  (There is a slight variant here: either Christie or Kasich could also help maintain their viability even if they come substantially behind Rubio as long as they also beat the candidates below them by a solid margin.)

Jeb Bush is in a slightly different situation.  He has a substantial campaign infrastructure and considerable financial resources.  Bush's team seems to be digging in to compete in later states no matter what, so New Hampshire might not be a do-or-die state for him.  However, a poor performance in New Hampshire would cause much of the political establishment to unleash intense pressure on Bush to drop out.  On the other hand, Bush has essentially been left for dead by much of the chattering class, so even a double-digit result could be seen as a sign of political revival.  If Bush gets close to Rubio, his campaign could argue that Bush has regained momentum.  Rubio's allies are obviously concerned about that possibility: Rubio's Super PAC has been spending big against Bush recently.

Fiorina and Carson already face significant obstacles in the GOP primary.  They can hang in the race for a while, but double-digit finishes in New Hampshire would help reinvigorate their campaigns.

Has only upside: Ted Cruz.  As the first-place finisher in Iowa, Cruz does not need New Hampshire to maintain viability.  A strong performance will help him, but a weak one probably won't hurt him.  Whatever the outcome, the big story of Tuesday night will probably not be how badly Ted Cruz performed.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Is Trump Serious about Winning?

As Byron York noted yesterday, one of the major themes of Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal is the importance of flexibility--especially in the face of adversity.  Adapting to changing conditions is key for success in both business and politics.  Successful presidential campaigns take challenges in stride and modify their strategies in response to failure.  Unsuccessful ones degenerate into a circular firing squad and remain stubbornly committed to tactics that have led to failure.

So it will be interesting to see whether Trump's campaign learns from the Iowa debacle.  Iowa was a blow to Trump not just because he came in second, but because he expected to come in first.  Clearly, there was a gap between model and reality, and, if Trump can't update that model, he will likely face more defeats in the weeks ahead.

A subtheme of Trump's campaign has been the notion that he can win by growing the electorate.  Iowa suggests that there may be some merit to this strategy.  According to exit polls, he won 30% of those who had never caucused before (to 23% and 22% for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, respectively).  However, he was blown out among those who had participated in caucuses before, getting only 19% of the vote compared to 32% for Cruz and 24% for Rubio.  Trump's appeal to voters at the margins of the Republican coalition might be an advantage in both the primary and general election, but this strategy will not work if he also radically alienates the core of the GOP.  As the field narrows, Trump will have to build his coalition if he wants to remain a viable contender.

In terms of messaging, Trump's campaign has so far relied on dominance in the news media, mega rallies, and a skillful use of social networking sites.  This three-pronged strategy has helped give Trump a substantial lead in the polls, but it might not be enough to win as the primary campaign expands.  Cruz and Rubio were able to tap on vast networks of activists in order to deliver stronger-than-expected performances in Iowa.  The ground game will continue to be important, and a sign of Trump's commitment to winning will be increased investment by his campaign in analytics, turn-out, and so forth..  The presidency is in part about management, and managing a turn-out operation is relatively simple compared to the vast machinery of the federal government.

It also remains to be seen whether Trump will buttress his polling- and personality-driven campaign with a more rigorous discussion of the issues.  It seems that many Iowa voters were not entirely comfortable with the idea of Trump as commander-in-chief, and a more in-depth discussion of the issues could help quell worries about his lack of experience in government.  Moreover, if Trump hopes to increase his appeal to the GOP electoral core, he will need to do more to convince them that he could responsibly implement conservative-leaning solutions to various national problems.  (Conversely, getting into petty spats with Republican candidates beloved by the grassroots is only likely to make the task of reaching out to the conservative base even more difficult.  If he hopes to get to a majority of delegates, Trump will need at least some of the supporters of Ted Cruz and others.)

In short, time will tell whether Trump can turn his celebrity brand into a presidential one.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Trump l'oeil

Donald Trump started today with the bright sheen of the frontrunner in Iowa.  Now, he's struggling to get a second-place finish.  Obviously, Iowa isn't everything (just ask Rick Santorum), but the sharp divergence between Trump's poll numbers a few days ago and his performance in the caucuses tonight is nevertheless striking.

So what are some possible reasons why Trump has fallen?

The conservative media assault has left a mark: Over the past couple weeks, many conservative organs--including National Review and The Weekly Standard--have taken a howitzer to Trump.  In the aftermath of this assault, Trump's numbers have dropped.

So has the battle with Ted Cruz: Cruz and Trump entered a titanic struggle in the weeks leading up to the caucuses.  This battle drove up Trump's negatives and drew fire from conservative talk radio.  While Cruz and Trump tangled, Rubio kept his distance and was able to pick up voters.

The ground game matters: Ted Cruz's ground game was reputed to be very formidable--and it looks like it lived up to its reputation.  Cruz and Rubio both tapped into networks of Iowa activists.  Retail politics still counts a lot.

The celebrity brand is a double-edged sword: Trump's brand as a pugnacious celebrity has helped draw attention to his campaign.  However, in the voting booth, that same branding might alienate some on-the-fence voters.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Trump Brand

One of the reasons for Donald Trump's success in the polls is his understanding of that quintessential postmodern skill: branding.  Trump has cultivated a personal brand over decades.  The Trump Brand seems to be about being hard-edged, over the top, at least slightly outrageous, and aggressive.

This branding gives him a massive advantage in public recognition, but it has also helped him in his battles with his fellow Republican presidential candidates.  So far, two main attacks have been used against him.  One of them seems to have failed, and the other has uncertain prospects.

The first attack--popular among anti-Trump Twitterati--is personal: using either the politics of shame against him or outright picking a personality-oriented fight with him.  Both of these lines of attack have not borne much fruit because they reinforce Trump's brand.  When people attack Trump for being out of line, that's like attacking Gucci for being too expensive: the overreach is part of the brand.

Head-to-head personality battles have also so far proven a fraught enterprise for many of his opponents.  That's in part because his rivals have tried to create politician brands rather than media personality brands: Ted Cruz is the True Believer, Marco Rubio is the Next Gen Reformer, Jeb Bush is the Experienced and Earnest Wonk, and so forth.  To call them "politician brands" is not an insult (presidents are, after all, politicians), but this difference in branding genus has implications for how they can attack Trump.  In a battle of personal nastiness, Trump can win without damaging his brand; folks with standard politician brands usually can't (Christie might be an exception to this).  We expect a kind of restraint from politicians that we don't demand from media personalities.  Thus, when candidates get into a head-to-head personal match-up, Trump can go places that they really can't.  And so Trump wins exchange after exchange.  There's a reason why Marco Rubio has avoided getting into a direct personal battle with Trump: it would very likely injure his own brand.

Campaign surrogates or independent journalists/activists have also had limited success when attacking Trump personally.  These personal attacks only feed into Trump's brand as a polarizer.  Moreover, these attacks keep him in the news cycle as someone important.  So far at least, the oxygen given to Trump's campaign by personal attacks has helped him far more than these attacks have damaged his brand.

The second strategy is to argue that the Trump Brand is not a conservative one.  In many years, this might be effective.  But, this cycle, many Republican primary voters are (rightly or wrongly) so suspicious of conventional politics that they fear that, even if they vote for a "conservative" candidate, they will not get conservative outcomes.  Republicans have had such great support for outsider candidates during this presidential cycle because many of them fear that conventional politics no longer constitutes an effective vehicle for realizing their policy preferences.  Voters feel that they know the Trump Brand--he fights!--and thus they might think that they know what they're getting with Trump.  I'm not here arguing that these perceptions are necessarily true, but they do seem to exist.

Moreover, conservatism is having a rather large debate within itself about what exactly "conservatism" means in response to current problems.  Can conservatism make peace with populism?  How compatible is it with the vision of open borders?  What should be the national-security and foreign-policy goals of conservatives?  What is the role of reform for conservatism?  The proliferation of these questions makes it harder to police the bounds of conservatism.  (These questions may also help prompt a re-energized conservatism, too.)

Having a well-known brand isn't everything, of course.  Perhaps Trump will prove more effective at filling arenas than at actually winning caucuses and primaries.  Voters may tire of the Trump Brand or may view it as ultimately incompatible with the presidency.  It's also possible that attacks on Trump's conservatism will cause Republican voters to turn against him.  However, at the moment, these attacks have not toppled Trump.

Looking at the failures of other Republicans to take down Trump, David Frum has suggested that other candidates might do more to hammer home policy alternatives that address the concerns of Trump's supporters:
Or maybe it’s time for the party’s elites to let go of some of their cherished inward-facing policy priorities...Instead, they might try actually addressing the fears and anxieties of the American middle class: jobs, wages, retirement security. Negative advertising has been aired without success. Perhaps a positive program would do better? Before it’s too late?
Even many critics of Trump--such as Yuval Levin--have noted his skill in diagnosing the anxieties of many Americans.  There's an opportunity here for candidates who clearly address these anxieties and explain directly how their policies will respond to them.  Policy nostalgia or vague invocations of conservative stalwarts might not be enough to win the primary or the general election.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

National Review v. Trump

Whether one agrees or disagrees with National Review's anti-Trump manifesto, it would be a grievous mistake indeed to say that the institution has been a lapdog of unthinking Beltway consensus.  On many issues, National Review has risen to the challenge of forward-looking conservative policy innovation.

It has attacked executive overreach, led a charge or ten against the disastrous Gang of Eight bill, called for the GOP to move in the direction of pro-middle class policies, and has again and again fought against the transnationalist siren-song that has proven so dangerous to the hopes of republican governance and personal liberty.  National Review has devoted worthy and needed attention to a variety of cultural issues, including religious liberty, socioeconomic stratification, and a vibrant public square.  When many in the corridors of power have rushed to declare a "New Normal" of imperial executive power and economic decline, National Review has continued to defend a narrative of limited government.

Many of Donald Trump's supporters like that The Donald has been willing to challenge a dysfunctional status quo.  Well, National Review has also been advancing that critique of elite malfeasance and economic stagnation.

(Disclosure: I contribute to NRO semi-regularly.)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pete Wilson in Hindsight

At National Review, I indulge my contrarian streak and dispute the claim (much beloved by consultants and pundits) that Pete Wilson lost California for the GOP by running as a staunch opponent of illegal immigration during his 1994 reelection campaign.  According to the conventional narrative, Wilson's hawkish stand on illegal immigration might have helped him in the short term but over the long term sent the California Republican party into a demographic death-spiral.  Pundits always cite Pete Wilson as a warning to the national GOP to not get too strenuous in opposition to illegal immigration.

However, as I suggest in this piece, if you look at the evidence, it seems that broader, architectonic shifts caused California to trend Democratic over the past 20 years. At least those shifts had a bigger influence on GOP voters in California than did Pete Wilson's opposition to illegal immigration.

(One brief note: in this piece, I use the conventional language of ethnic categorization--such as "white"--not because I necessarily endorse conventional narratives of ethnicity and race or the reifications of identity politics.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Value of SCOTUS on Executive Actions

The Supreme Court announced today that it would rule on the dispute between the Obama administration and 26 states over the White House's decision to grant unilaterally work permits to millions of illegal immigrants:
The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to entertain four legal questions raised by Obama’s immigration action.
Three of the questions were laid out by the Justice Department in the petition asking the justices to take up the case: whether states create legal standing to challenge the deferred actions grants by providing benefits to such immigrants, whether the actions Obama ordered in 2014 were arbitrary and capricious under federal law, and whether the administration was obliged to go through a formal notice-and-comment period before proceeding with its plan.
The fourth question, added by the justices in their Tuesday order, is whether Obama’s actions violated the Constitutional provision requiring him to “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed”—in essence, whether existing law bars the president from making the kinds of enforcement changes he sought to make.
The 26 states backing the lawsuit the court will take up argue that Obama did breach his duty to "take care" that the laws are enforced and that his actions amounted to a power grab that violated "the Constitution’s separation of powers more generally."
The Supreme Court might have allowed this case to wend its way through the appeals process; Daniel Horowitz has some thoughts about why defenders of checks and balances should be wary about this SCOTUS intervention.

It's understandable, though, why the Supremes have decided to weigh in on this.  Beyond the partisan squabbles, we have seen the Obama administration advance a theory of the executive in which the president gains the ability to act when Congress doesn't.  This obviously turns the principle of checks and balances on its head, and Candidate Obama ran proclaiming his belief in limiting executive power.  However, as often happens, the enticements of power won out over the commitments of the campaign.  The president has already rewritten health-care and immigration law, and, in his final year, the White House has pledged the "audacious" use of executive power.

This shift toward the audacious executive could have dire implications for constitutional traditions regarding the balance of power in the federal government.  In the wake of the Obama administration, leading presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, have pledged to build on this precedent of executive supremacy.

A new paradigm of governance is potentially evolving, and this case could give the Supreme Court a chance to weigh in on this paradigm: will it defend constitutional checks and balances, or will it endorse executive supremacy?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Expanding the Coalition

Henry Olsen has a very interesting piece up that talks about how the GOP needs to expand its electoral coalition by appealing to blue-collar voters.  In this piece, Olsen draws on the 2014 Pew political typology, a work near and dear to my heart.  He finds that one of the key types that the GOP might expand with is the "Hard-Pressed Skeptics."  These Skeptics are more economically populist, mistrust government, and have sympathies with a number of conservative values.

Skeptics voted heavily Democratic in 2012, but they seem perhaps the Democratic type that could be most open to Republican overtures (though I think gains could be made in the Faith and Family Left, too).*  Olson suggests that winning over this group would demand at least understanding its worldview:
Winning the support of blue-collar voters means gaining their trust, and that means first affirming the core elements of their worldview. They have to believe that the GOP nominee understands that they have been the losers in the transition to a modern economy. They have to believe that the nominee will be on their side when the chips are down and that he is willing to take on the powerful.
Gaining among Skeptics, Olsen suggests, could require policy reforms for immigration, taxation, and other issues.

As this Washington Post story hints, some Republican presidential candidates are coming around to the understanding that, to win in November, the GOP nominee will have to be able to appeal to working-class voters.  One of the underlying arguments in the 2016 primary has been about whether and how to make this appeal.

*And, obviously, Republicans should try to offer an inclusive, expansive message that could win a variety of voters.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Vacuousness of Change

In tonight's State of the Union speech, Barack Obama returned to the form of his 2004 DNC address: broad, thematic, heavy with hopes of a newly united America.  But now he speaks not as a fresh-faced political newcomer but a man who has been president for seven years.

President Obama had affecting and eloquent moments in this speech, as he does in many remarks.  But this address had many limits.  Some of the claims were mistaken.  For instance, it's hard to blame technology on the declining income of many nontradeable service jobs, such as home-health aides, which are projected to increase over the next decade.  While the president rightly noted the declining incomes for the middle, he did not explain how his efforts to increase the number of guest workers would increase these incomes.

As Tim Carney has noted, President Obama has failed to deliver on many of his promises (on health-care, lobbying, and so forth).  On financial reform, the president blamed the financial crisis on large financial institutions.  But his administration has defended Too Big to Fail.

This failure of aspiration is particularly striking for the more thematic points of this address.  The president is right to claim that reaffirming the bonds of trust is crucial for strengthening the Republic's foundations.  However, his administration and its allies have often subverted rather than supported this trust.  The president castigates partisan polarization--when his party attacked the filibuster.  The president rightly criticizes tribalism as an opponent of civil republicanism.  But, unfortunately, many of the president's allies and the administration itself have indulged in identity politics.  One of the great threats to the public trust is the fear that leaders can set themselves above the law, and the executive supremacy championed by the White House inflames public passions and discounts legislative solutions.

Perhaps one of the biggest failings of this speech is its reliance on a false choice.  The president has a tendency to conceive of "Change" as a force with its own agency.  Change is coming, he tells us, and we can either be on the side that accepts this change (i.e., my side) or the one that futilely fights against it.

However, men and women have agency, and change in part depends upon their desires.  People have every right to interrogate Change so that it is in accord with their values.  The vision of Change promulgated by progressive mandarins is not the only one, and one is not a retrograde troglodyte for having doubts about a given course of change.  "I believe in change," President Obama said at the end of his remarks, but this statement says less than he might think.  What kind of change--in what places, to what degree, in what manner?  Change can be good, but it can also be bad.  As we have some limited power to direct change, we have the responsibility to weigh which particular changes to make.

It is especially ironic for the president to cast himself as the avatar of the future when he has so often clung to the past.  As I've suggested in the past, the president has too often fallen into the nostalgia trap:
The president talks much about History and the importance of being on the “right side” of It. However, so much of what counts as “progressive” these days seems like a tired remake of Sixties politics: The Great Society meets New Left radicalism but with iPhones and skinny jeans. As with many remakes, this version is less exciting (we’ve seen how this movie ends) and less current. I don’t mean to discount the differences between the Great Society and the Great Disappointment of the Obama years. For instance, a globalized faux cosmopolitanism — simultaneously tribalist and anti-national — seems to have taken much greater hold in the current administration (and perhaps even among some of its supposed political opponents). Yet the Left’s allegiance to the comfortable pieties of the Sixties seems part of the reason for its many failures.
This worldview sees a rural good ol’ boy clinging to his guns and his religion as the greatest foe of “progress.” Thus, it is woefully unprepared to confront the reality of black-robed fanatics beheading religious minorities, enslaving villages, and setting fire to the Middle East. Because of its limited moral imagination, it also struggles to persuade a heterogeneous body politic. Early proponents of Great Society welfare policies might not have foreseen how, too often, well-intentioned government dictates could destroy communities, tear apart families, and destroy the foundation of economic opportunity. Experience has — or should have — disabused us of this naïveté. And say what you will about the dangers of central planning, the technocrats of the past were at least able to do things like put a man on the Moon. The mandarins of today struggle to get a health-care website up and running. Outside the narrowly political realm, as the Far Left claims a resurgent voice in cultural affairs, we have increasingly seen how radical progressive politics are a cultural dead end: Rather than a spirit of creativity, exploration, and accomplishment, radical leftism gives us only the petty tyranny of a Maoist struggle session.
There are real challenges facing the nation: middle-class stagnation, diminished opportunity, a disintegrating public square, increasing global uncertainty, strained entitlements, exploding drug-overdose deaths, decentralized terrorism, and many more.  It is not pessimism or alarmism to note them.  It's realism.  We need responsive thinking--not the warmed-over pieties of the New Left--to address them.

For all its good intentions, the Obama administration has so often failed to confront the problems of the present with the pragmatism, deliberation, and openness to dialogue that the president praises in the State of the Union and many other speeches.  Rhetoric and political action differ, but some of the seeds of the failures of the president's political actions can be seen in the underlying assumptions of his political rhetoric.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Public Interests, Public Interest

Earlier this week at RealClearPolicy, Robert VerBruggen had a thoughtful piece exploring how the facts have caused him to have some doubts about his libertarian inclination to legalize drugs.  In addition to questions of principle, VerBruggen had thought that the negative consequences of legalizing drugs would be relatively few:
But I did think legalization would easily pass a practical cost-benefit test: reduce incarceration, if perhaps not as much as some might think; end an illegal market whose violence spills far beyond our borders; and expand personal freedom, all for the acceptable price of an extra overdose or other health problem here and there, plus maybe some extra property crimes by addicts stealing to feed their habit.
Drug addiction couldn't go up that much. The War on Drugs is an utter failure and drugs are widely and cheaply available anyway. Everyone knows that.
However, as VerBruggen notes, some of the facts seem to indicate that a more permissive approach to various powerful drugs might increase the real risks of drug addiction after all.

Due to a variety of reasons (including a more permissive approach to opioid prescriptions and, probably, a drop in the price of heroin), the rate of drug-overdose deaths has skyrocketed.  VerBruggen marshals CDC data to find that the drug-overdose death rate has gone from 6 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 14.8 per 100,000 people in 2014.  Thus, over 15 years, the drug-overdose death rate has more than doubled.

VerBruggen notes that a lot of forces influence drug usage, but this picture causes him some concern:
I don't know; this is not an issue I write about frequently or have studied in much depth. But it sure looks like loosening control of a drug made all hell break loose, and that's not what I would have predicted, say, ten years ago.
Regardless of whether a substantial increase in deaths from legalizing drugs would be a sufficient argument against drug legalization (and Jonah Goldberg says that it might not be), there's another perspective we can use here: that of public concern.

For months now, President Obama and many in the media have devoted great attention to the challenges of "gun violence."  Often, the language of crisis has been used in talking about firearms.  Some on the left have even moved in the direction of supporting gun bans (and perhaps even confiscation) in the name of ending gun violence.

However, unlike drug overdoses, the rate of firearm homicides has dropped substantially over the past 20 years.  Drawing on federal data, Pew finds that the firearm-homicide rate dropped from 7 per 100,000 in 1993 to 3.4 per 100,000 in 2014.  Most of this drop occurred in the late 1990s, but it has declined a bit since 2000, too.  This drop in the homicide rate likely cannot be simply attributed to improvements in medical technology over the past 20 years; the non-fatal firearm crime victimization rate has plummeted as well (it's about a quarter of what it was in 1993).  People today are much less likely to be shot and/or killed by firearms than they were 20 years ago.  (The overall firearm death rate has been fairly stable since 2000; a drop in the homicide rate has been counterbalanced by a rise in the suicide rate.)

Thus, we have seen many of those in positions of power and influence devote great attention to gun-related deaths, even though the gun-homicide rate is lower than the drug-overdose death rate and is shrinking rather than growing.  In 2014, the drug-overdose death rate was about 435% the firearm-homicide death rate.  Since 2000, the risks of dying from a drug overdose more than doubled, while the risks of having someone kill you with a firearm went down.

Obviously, we can work solve multiple problems at once.  Let's leave to the side for a moment whether President Obama's executive actions on firearms would actually do anything to reduce violent crime and whether they are in accord with Constitutional principles (including the Bill of Rights and separation of powers).  Those are clearly huge questions.  But we shouldn't overlook the fact that, in terms of public safety, drugs are currently racking up more bodies than firearms in the United States.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Integration and Liberty

In my NRO piece today, I argue that, just as the struggle against totalitarianism was one of the central challenges of the 20th century, the struggle against sociopolitical disintegration may be one of the great battles of the 21st.  I suggest that technocratic transnationalism, among other forces, has helped undermine senses of local community, and this undermining has led to a more economically and socially polarized society.  Economic stagnation, social alienation, and the terrorist threat can all be connected to this broader trend of disintegration.

This piece continues to explore a long-standing theme of mine: the connection between the institutions of union and the preservation of liberty.  Things like a vigorous public square, a well-earned faith in governing institutions, and a sense of the civic commonwealth provide a crucial infrastructure for defending our freedoms.  A society that dissolves into tribalistic identity politics is, I fear, one less likely to cherish the recognition of individual rights.

Disintegrating trends have also had a substantial impact on contemporary political currents.  Because the public has not yet been convinced that the so-called "establishment" has solutions to its underlying concerns, it is more open to the appeals of outsider politicians, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  The middle class has now experienced a decade and a half of economic stagnation (median household income levels peaked in 1999), and some suggest that the "new normal" of stagnation might go on for many more years.  Corporate cronyism like Too Big to Fail and expanded guest-worker programs distort the market and feed into the cycle of alienation.

Some--including Rich Lowry, Matt Lewis, and others--have worried about the United States succumbing to a pessimistic demagoguery, which substitutes tribalism for principle and seeks to cast blame rather than find solutions.  If we want to ward off that kind of demagoguery, we'll have to find responsible solutions to those real problems.  Policy elites can't shame them away; they need to confront them with imagination and diligence.

I'm hopeful that these disintegrating trends can be addressed in a way that is in accord with the principles of ordered liberty.  We can have forward-looking policies that adapt to the challenges of the 21st century and advance the causes of  happiness, virtue, and liberty.  However, it will take some reform to arrive at those policies.

(PS: On the theme of integration as it applies to immigration, Reihan Salam's latest NR piece is well worth reading.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Why the H-2B Provision Is So Problematic

Everyone--well, almost everyone--understands that the power of any majority in Congress is limited.  Even if a majority wants to get something done, it might not be able to accomplish that due to our system of checks and balances.  Thus, one can understand why Republicans might relent on defunding a program that is one of the President Obama's top priorities because defunding that program might lead to a round of budgetary brinkmanship.

But the omnibus's quadrupling of the H-2B visa program is not because of limits on Congressional Republicans' power--it's a policy that they have used their power to realize.  It's not like Barack Obama would have vetoed the omnibus had it not included the H-2B expansion.  Congressional Democrats would not have shut down the omnibus over a lack of H-2Bs.  No, as Conn Carroll, Mike Lee's communications director, put it, the H-2B expansion is a "'Republican' ask."  Republican leadership chose to make expanding the H-2B a priority--when they did not make priorities out of reforms to refugee programs, funding of the border fence, or cracking down on "sanctuary" cities.

From a Republican point of view, expanding the H-2B program makes little political sense. Republicans face a grassroots rebellion, and they also need to do more to reach out to the economic middle.  The H-2B expansion inflames this rebellion, and it further undermines the working class; it also runs contrary to the principles of the free market.  Embracing a pro-opportunity conservatism seems a better route to a majority coalition than being the party of K Street.