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.

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