Well…it looks like my decision last week to transition from the primaries to the general election was the right move. Sticking with the three categories for bullets, if for no other reason than that it helps illustrate the enormous difference between the periods before and after the convention. So here we go…
A number of events this week have begun to confirm this hypothesis from Lee Drutman at Vox: “This election will reveal which Republicans have policy principles and which Republicans are primarily partisans.” And I’m filing this here, rather than under the General Election category, because if anything is likely to lead to problems at the convention, it is this divide. On one side you’ve got what I’ll call the principled policy people – conservatives like Paul Ryan who genuinely believe in the rightness of a certain approach to government and who want to use power to align policy with their principles. On the other side you’ve got the pure partisans, people for whom politics is essentially a tribal conflict and who want nothing more than to punch their opponents in the face. For more than two decades, these two factions have existed in the Republican coalition side by side without much tension, and particularly so over the last seven years. The first group has been opposed to Democratic policy proposals, while the second has seen blocking the advance of those policies as a fantastic way of “winning the day.”
But now that we’re entering an incumbent-free election, and now that Republicans have settled on the candidate with the least clear record of support for conservative policy positions, everything is different. Walk with me through some of this week’s biggest stories:
- The biggest is obviously Paul Ryan’s very public refusal to endorse Trump. Lots of people seem to think that this is just his attempt to gain some leverage over Trump, but I don’t think that’s all that is going on here. Check out this line from Ryan’s anti-endorsement speech on Thursday: “This is the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of Jack Kemp.” Unless you paid particularly close attention to Republican politics in the 1990s, you’re probably wondering about one of those name. Lincoln and Reagan are obvious, but Jack Kemp? I happen to have been a Republican back in the 1990s, and from the perspective of my youth Kemp was one of the main reasons why, so this reference jumped out to me right away. Kemp was Ryan’s mentor as Ryan was working his way up through the Republican power structure in DC. He was a true believer in the power of conservative policy to uplift the poor, and it is thanks to Kemp’s mentorship that Ryan is often seen as a policy wonk. Point is, Ryan really does believe in this stuff. He’s not just in the arena to punch Democrats in the face. He wants to affect real change irrespective of what it means for the party that opposes him. And Trump? Trump is his mirror image. For Trump, tribal warfare is everything and policy is nothing. Everything is negotiable but for the warfare. As you will see as we move through these bullets and through the election season.
- But not far behind should be the Southern Baptists. Reagan’s ability to bring evangelical Baptists into the Republican coalition was one of his greatest political triumphs, and if Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is to be believed, Trump has them on their way out the door. As you read the op-ed from which the following quote is taken, remember that the Southern Baptists are the single largest Protestant denomination in the US, and for the last forty years they have been extraordinarily reliable Republican voters. I’m not remotely naive enough to think this will sway large numbers of voters in the short-term, nor am I unclear on the fact that many of the members of this church are Christians in word but not deed, but even so, the long-term implications of this shouldn’t be underestimated. It was the denomination’s leaders that brought their flock into the Republican fold, and there’s no reason that over the long run they couldn’t lead them right back out. Just listen to this: “The Bible calls on Christians to bear one another’s burdens. White American Christians who respond to cultural tumult with nostalgia fail to do this. They are blinding themselves to the injustices faced by their black and brown brothers and sisters in the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. That world was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals. This has gospel implications not only for minorities and immigrants but for the so-called silent majority. A vast majority of Christians, on earth and in heaven, are not white and have never spoken English. A white American Christian who disregards nativist language is in for a shock. The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking “foreigner” who is probably not all that impressed by chants of “Make America great again.”
- In reaction to this, Trump of course started throwing punches, because on his side of the divide that’s the entire point of politics. First he suggested that he was blindsided by all this, going so far as make up a series of phone calls and meeting that Paul Ryan’s people say never happened [Wait…you support Trump? Fine, prompting Paul Ryan and his people to deny that a series of phone calls ever took place. Choose your poison, doesn’t matter a whit to the point I’m making]. Then, because that was insufficiently aggressive, Trump then suggested he might move to remove Paul Ryan, former VP candidate and current Speaker of the Hosue of Representatives and leader of his party in congress, as chair of the party’s nomination convention in July. This then led Sarah Palin, another member of the politics-as-tribal-warfare camp who was the party’s nominee for Vice President prior to Ryan, to publicly back the man challenging him in an upcoming primary election, declaring that Ryan’s political career is “over” for his refusal to support Trump. Even if neither happens we’re already well into unprecedented territory just by virtue of the threats themselves.
- Returning to the other side of the fence for a moment, more traditional movement conservatives are continuing to threat all manner of things, the least of which is the promised refusal to vote for Trump in the Fall. I’m seeing lots of people argue that they will all come around in the fall, and no doubt many of them will. But some wont, and I think it’s safe to say that the more ones financial future rides on their being a principled conservative movement, the more likely one is to make good on that threat. And here it’s important to keep in mind that the two camps I’m positing aren’t either/or. When policy and partisanship align, it’s possible to be in both camps. Erick Erickson illustrates this nicely: dude has no problem, for example, referring to a sitting member of the Supreme Court as a “goat fucking child molestor,” so even though he describes himself as a Christian he clearly enjoys punching his opponents in the face. But he’s also deeply committed to his particularly warped version of Christianity, quite possibly even more committed to that than to the punching. and it’s that story, right there, that I expect to see playing out in a variety of ways over the coming months as Republicans grapple with the things Trump says and does, including…
- Did you know Trump no longer supports his own tax plan? That he’s open to raising taxes on the wealthy? That he wants to raise the minimum wage? That he’s hired a long-time Democratic fundraiser from Wall Street to run his fundraising operations? That he’s no longer self-funding his campaign, whatever hat might have originally meant? If you’re on team “Donald Trump will punch that bitch in the face,” this is meaningless to you. In fact, because it annoys liberals like me you might actually laugh and cheer it. If you’re on team “conservative principles and policies matter,” this is heresy. Hence the Ryan vs. Trump vs. Palin pile-up. And sure thing, maybe all these people can all figure out some way to put aside their differences long enough to run an election, but there’s just no way all of them will. Will it be enough to matter in the end? Depends how it all plays out and how Trump responds as it does, yeah?
- But here’s an interesting tidbit, this from the man himself: “”Does it have to be unified? I’m very different than everybody else, perhaps, that’s ever run for office. I actually don’t think so. I think it would be better if it were unified, I think it would be — there would be something good about it. But I don’t think it actually has to be unified in the traditional sense.” And look, from the perspective of Team Punching People, it doesn’t! Why make nice with people who refuse to submit to your will when there’s quite literally nothing that says you don’t have to? Nothing, that is, except election returns, only those provide their information to late to alter behavior.
- At a much higher level, I think this distinction helps explain why Trump’s support, contrary to what most people thinks, is coming from voters with incomes above their state’s median. These aren’t working class people, they are upper-middle class. They may well be angry, and they may well feel left behind, but it’s not their personal economic situation that’s driving their rage. What they want is to “make America great again” by “returning” it to a social and political order more like the one they remember from the past, and there’s no amount of conservative policy papers that can help them get there. In fact, the policy papers that men like Paul Ryan might offer up very well might lead in the opposite direction! And thus, the version of conservative identity politics championed by Trump that leads to…well…see above!
- But let’s say you’ve made it this far and still aren’t convinced. How about this: The Bushes have publicly refused to support Trump, while Dick Cheney just endorsed him. J That’s the divide, right there, separating the previous Republican President from his Vice Presdient. Go ahead and explain that another way. I’ll wait.
- On this side of the divide, the primaries and caucuses continue along. Bernie picked up a bunch more delegates from Wasington, while Hillary won the island of Guam. At this point, the only thing that can stop Clinton is the Super Delegates, and everyone except the most die-hard Bernie fan knows that’s not going to happen. So as I pointed out last week, the only question is how this whole thing wraps up, and what role Bernie gets to play at the convention and as a Clinton surrogate in the Fall. I’m so unconcerned about this transition that I actually have nothing to say here. Bernie knows what’s at stake, and he will do what’s needed to bring his supporters home, at least in the short term. Longer term is a much more interesting question, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.
- Clinton is already working the back channels to unify the party, and although Drudge readers will no doubt cry foul, I promise you, Trump’s ascendency to the “presumptive nominee” status brought the entire party together in one fell swoop. Feel free to dream about “Democrats in disarray” if it makes you feel better, but nope, not this time.
- The Cook Political Report is the gold standard of non-partisan electoral analysis, and they’re out with their first update since Trump essentially locked things up. The short version: things look very, very good for Team Blue. Cook moved 11 states in Dems’ direction and redefined Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin from being toss-up to lean Democratic. In the House, the Report now places 23 races into their “toss-up” category, of which a full 19 are currently held by Republicans, and another 35 as likely or lean, of which 26 are currently Republican. For now, that’s Team Blue on offense, Team Red on defense, and oh boy does it get worse for them in the Senate. Because in the Senate, there are 34 seats in play, 24 of which currently held by Republicans and six of which have become toss-ups. I’ll be all over those races once we get post-convention, but for now it’s enough to say that this is NOT where the Republicans were hoping to be at this point in the process. No doubt – everything might change! – but even if it does, it wont change the fact that at this moment they aren’t anywhere near where they want to be.
- People always say, “no one could’ve seen this coming.” That’s just flat wrong. Norm Ornstein, the dean of non-partisan congressional analysts, saw this coming from years away. He’s been screaming about it to anyone who would listen, so it’s worth spending a moment checking in with him to get his take on where things stand. His long-view take is both interesting and concise. For example, speaking on the influence of Newt Gingrich: “He tribalized the political process. He went out and recruited the candidates, and gave them the language to use about how disgusting and despicable and horrible and immoral and unpatriotic the Democrats were. That swept in the Republican majority in 1994. The problem is that all the people he recruited to come in really believed that shit. They all came in believing that Washington was a cesspool. So what followed has been a very deliberate attempt to blow up and delegitimize government, not just the president but the actions of government itself in Washington.”
- I don’t know if Matt Kerbel saw this all coming, but I do know that he sees quite clearly what is happening now. And this comparison to some of the nuttier races of 2010 and 2012 is I think spot on: “The upcoming presidential contest promises to be unlike any other, but if there is a roadmap for what to expect it is probably contests like these where the preferences of primary voters differed greatly from the preferences of everyone else.” Given that I used some of Matt’s research in my dissertation it isn’t surprising that I would agree with him, but still…
- Matt’s analysis feeds quite nicely into this from David Atkins: “Trump Can’t Win. But Clinton Could Lose By Ignoring America’s Desire for Change.” Which isn’t all that different from this other piece by Matt: “Clinton Is a Poor Fit to the Election Cycle. Trump Is a Poor Fit to the Electorate.”
- Did you know that nearly half of all working-class voters aren’t white?
- Did you know that Trump thinks it’s a winning political strategy to blame a wife for her husband’s infidelity? As I said on Facebook, men’s rights activists will love this, and Republican partisans will find it funny, but the other 65% of us will be horrified by this line of attack. I don’t have the energy to fully explain why right now, and anyways, we’ll see that I’m right soon enough. Maybe that would’ve worked in the days when “America was great,” but in the world we actually live in today it will be an unmitigated disaster. Remember how Bill Clinton’s popularity ROSE during his impeachment proceedings? That was a helluva trick to pull, but they clearly didn’t learn much from the experience.
- But Benghazi and emails and infidelities, they’ll sink her! No. Here’s how this will work. Just as these “scandals” will be all over Drudge and Breitbart, so too will there be an endless stream of reports about Trump University and other Trump catastrophes on DailyKos and other lefty sites, each with breathless reporting describing the “panic” that is setting in among opponents. Both sets of reports will be ridiculous, as both will reflect the prejudices and interests of people who already oppose the other candidate, with each group of supporters operating inside their own information bubble. If it isn’t in the mass media, it isn’t having an effect on anyone other than committed partisans, and in that phrase the word committed is absolutely key.j
Last but not least, a parting thought: “It’s a lot more impolite to go blow up a bunch of people for no good reason than it is to say “fuck” every now and then.”