Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Splendor of the Purple One

This blog is about Union. Well, so was Prince. Many tributes to him are rightly describing how otherworldly he was, an artist of genius, inspiration, and overwhelming power. True, all of it. But he was also quintessentially American. No other nation could have produced him; no other artist so perfectly represented the nation in their time. He was the strong force consolidating all the contradictions of American cultural life into a comprehensible whole one hit record at a time. Virtuosity and soul, sex and god, male and female, starfish and coffee.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

New York Primary Night


From Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight:
Clinton’s chances of becoming the next president are now 71.4 percent, according to Betfair, the highest she’s been at any point of the election cycle.
The results: Clinton re-establishes control of the Democratic race while #NeverTrump suffers takes a body blow. Seems like another shift in momentum, but it was always going to happen.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Republican Diagnosis: Second Opinions

I've made the case (most recently here and here) that the Trump insurgency in the 2016 nomination race has exposed the ideological cancer devouring the Republican Party. Trump's success is the clearest indicator yet that radical measures -- realignment, reinvention, (I've used the term "reckoning") -- will be required to save the American political right.

Some political scientists, however, are unconvinced that significant change is in the offing, at least in the near future, and their arguments are worth a closer look. Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson of Berkeley published an op-ed in The New York Times stating plainly that "predictions of a Republican crackup should be greeted with skepticism." The reason according to Hacker and Pierson is that a long series of presidential election losses has caused their party to evolve into a quasi-permanent opposition party. They can't match the Democratic coalition in high-turnout presidential election years, but they can consistently win in low-turnout state and Congressional election years. They can't govern, but they can blame government for every social ill. Here's the more likely scenario they foresee:
It’s 2017. After Mr. Trump’s landslide defeat, President Clinton has a Democratic Senate and House of Representatives. The Republican National Committee has just released its latest post-mortem — it probably looks a lot like the post-2012 soul-searching exercise, the Growth and Opportunity Project, which encouraged moderation in tone and inclusiveness in policy.

But that blueprint is ignored. Instead, the party quickly regroups in opposition to the incoming administration. Most Republican voters hate Mrs. Clinton even more than they hated Mr. Obama. The conservative apparatus for sowing discontent with a new administration is in place, flush with cash and battle-tested.

For Republicans in and outside government, it will be a time not for facing up to hard truths but for doubling down on hardball tactics.
 Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics has a simpler explanation, that economic growth is the essential determinant of party victories along with a healthy dose of chance:
Here’s why I think the GOP hasn’t won many presidential elections recently: It wasn’t supposed to....

I’m not a “fundamentals fundamentalist”; campaign effects do affect outcomes, and there are decent reasons to believe that Donald Trump would underperform fundamentals significantly.  But the truth is, Republicans losing the popular vote in six of the last seven elections is as meaningless as Democrats losing the popular vote in seven of the 10 elections from 1952 to 1988 (eight if you count Richard Nixon as the winner of the popular vote in 1960).  As a matter of fact, even if we decided elections by coin flips, we’d expect to see runs like this with almost the exact same frequency as we actually see them. 
Far from dysfunctional, Trende sees a Republican Party that is as strong as it's been in a century, comfortably ascendent in Congress and dominant in its control of state and local government. Losing another presidential election might provoke some soul-searching, but nothing revolutionary.

Astute as they are, I think these arguments miss some crucial aspects of this campaign cycle and the current Republican position. It is true, for instance, that the power of the Republican Party in state and local government is significant (in some cases bringing disastrous results), but suggesting this is an adequate counterweight to the expanding power of the national executive is unconvincing. Even Congressional control isn't what it used to be. In the last sixteen years, critics of Bush and Obama have decried the growth of the "imperial presidency." There's no denying that many national policies have been set and enacted from the Oval Office.

The best example of this might be President Obama's Clean Power Plan. Recall that back in 2010, Congressional Republicans with a handful of Democratic allies killed a cap-and-trade bill designed to limit greenhouse gases. Knowing it was a non-starter, Obama never asked Congress for such a bill again. Instead five years later he used existing EPA powers to issue directives directly to the states regarding greenhouse gases. This wasn't a pale reflection of what might have been had Congress passed a bill that the President signed into law; as Will Oremus at Slate wrote, "Obama's Climate Plan Is Basically Cap And Trade." No Congress required.

The landmark Paris Agreement is another circumvention. This is no Kyoto Treaty; it's not a treaty at all, since Congress would have to ratify it. Obama will sign the agreement himself. No Congress required.

Taking stock, what has absolute Congressional obstructionism gained the Republican Party in the last eight years? They could not block action on the environment, on healthcare, on immigration, on an Iran nuclear deal, on same-sex marriage, or on opening up Cuba to name just a few major issues. The lasting influence of an otherwise feckless Republican opposition has been to create an executive branch that has assumed more legislative responsibilities than ever before, excepting perhaps the wartime presidencies of Lincoln and FDR. (Americans of every political stripe might someday rue this development.) Steven Rattner at The New York Times has gone further, arguing quite convincingly that Republican tactics have brought about the rise of Donald Trump.

And the last defense against a powerful liberal executive, a conservative Supreme Court, disappeared overnight when Justice Antonin Scalia died. In political terms, this was the fall of Paris.

So if Hacker, Pierson, or Trende are right that another loss in November (hardly assured) will not bring about substantial change to the Republican Party, we have to wonder how much longer the Party can sustain such dramatic political reversals without becoming obsolete.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Friday, April 8, 2016

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Stable Race

In case you're out there wondering what other twists and turns this political season might have in store for us—Is Trump actually imploding? Will Bernie overtake Hillary? Can Ted Cruz steal the nomination?—a few words of caution:

This race, in spite of the media freak-outs about contested conventions, riots, white knights, and populist revolutions, is at this point pretty stable. The remaining primaries probably won't have much of an effect on the outcome, at least in terms of delegate apportionment.

First, let's look at the Democrats. (Pace Bernie devotees but) Hillary Clinton is going to win the nomination. Consider that his big win in Wisconsin came in a state that is tailor made for him to do well: northern, pro-labor, mostly white. And he did do well! Sort of. Except he's so far behind in delegates, he still fell short. Mother Jones, borrowing some data from Fivethirtyeight, has a rundown of the data here, but the long and short of it is that, even in about the friendliest territory imaginable for Bernie, he still came up a little short in his delegate haul. He'll have to win by even greater margins to overtake Hillary, and that's just not going to happen.

Then the Republicans. Trump's popularity has taken a hit in the past two weeks largely because of self-inflicted wounds, and that has derailed his efforts to win enough a majority of delegates and therefore the nomination outright. As Nate Silver calculates, Trump needs over 40% of the vote in the remaining primaries but his vote share in primaries isn't increasing enough to consistently break that 40% threshold. On the other hand, even the most obtuse of political observers like Charles Krauthammer can't help but notice that Trump still got 35% of the vote after two weeks of non-stop gaffes. Wisconsin made it a lot clearer what Trump's floor and his ceiling are. They might change a little bit in different states, but probably not enough to significantly change the outcome of the nomination contest.

Trump will come to Cleveland shy of the 1237 delegates he needs to win but far more than his nearest competitor, Ted Cruz. Cruz will try to wrest the nomination from him, possibly with the help of Republican Party establishment figures. Trump's delegate lead will be substantial, though, making it politically difficult to deny him the nomination regardless of how party elders might manipulate the rules. But maybe Trump is so toxic that the party will, in fact, turn its lonely eyes to Ted Cruz.

Either way, I don't think it will matter. Let's consider the two most likely scenarios:
  • Scenario A has Clinton facing Trump in the general election, still by far the likeliest outcome. (Sam Wang, polling and data guru, noted when prediction markets had Trump's chances for the nomination plummeting that it was a good time to buy Trump shares.) That Trump can only garner only 35% of the Republican electorate, however, tells us what a weak general election candidate he'll be. That 70% of women view him unfavorably (not to mention 58% of men) spells certain death in November. Barring a black swan event, Hillary will win.
  • Scenario B has Clinton facing Ted Cruz in the general election. In this scenario, Cruz has succeeded in plucking the nomination out of Trump's hands in spite of Trump's initial advantage in pledged delegates. But Trump supporters, convinced that Trump will have been robbed by Cruz and the loathsome establishment forces that drove them to support Trump in the first place, won't line up behind Cruz. They'll stay home or vote for Trump in an independent, third-party, or write-in campaign. (Plus, as Jonathan Chait reminds us, Ted Cruz is also a horrible general election candidate.) This would be game over as any split in the Republican electorate of even a few percentage points means that Hillary will win.
There's a lot of political theater in Scenario B, which is mainly what people are writing about, but it only distracts us from a relatively straightforward conclusion. Nomination markets for Trump and Cruz have shifted substantially and even Hillary's numbers have dropped a bit to 89% (which is still too low), but the market for the general election has been remarkably stable since mid-March, with Democratic chances for winning the White House in the low 70s.

A lot can happen in seven months so America hasn't escaped a Trump or Cruz presidency yet. But it's heartening to consider that, at this point, Hillary's chances of becoming President are about equivalent to the UConn women's chances of winning the 2016 championship at the start of the NCAA tournament. UConn won every game handily.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Trump Self-Destruct Watch

Latest update from the betting markets at 10am Sunday morning: