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Beware The Teflon Don

Yesterday I was interviewed by the WCAX reporter Darren Perron for his weekend show You Can Quote Me, an experience I always enjoy because of Perron’s sharp questions. The interview topic this time around, not surprisingly, was the recent “bombshell” revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. agreed to meet with what he thought was a representative of the Russian government who claimed to have information that could undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Perron wanted to know if, finally, this was the event that would serve as the proverbial “smoking gun” precipitating Trump’s political downfall. My paraphrased answer was, “Probably not.”  In fact, as I explained to Perron, I suspect the latest revelations won’t have much impact on Trump’s public support at all, at least not without additional incriminating detail.

As evidence, I pointed to the failure of any number of previous incidents, ranging from the Comey firing to Trump’s infamous Mika Brzezinski bleeding facelift tweet, to appreciably affect Trump’s popularity, despite being touted at the time as potential tipping points in terms of Trump’s support. Indeed, one of the remarkable and underappreciated facets of Trump’s presidency so far is that despite a historically unprecedented barrage of negative news coverage, his polling numbers have barely budged for more than two months. As Thomas Patterson documents in his study of news coverage by major media markets during Trump’s first 100 days, the tone of Trump’s coverage has been almost uniformly negative; in his words:  “Trump has received unsparing coverage for most weeks of his presidency, without a single major topic where Trump’s coverage, on balance, was more positive than negative, setting a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president.”  Indeed, as this accompanying chart from the Report indicates, Trump’s negative coverage is unprecedented compared to that received by his immediate predecessors.

There’s no evidence of which I know suggesting coverage has gotten any more favorable since the study was concluded. Mind you I make no judgement here on whether the predominantly negative tone of Trump’s coverage is warranted. But deserved or not, it seems not to be having much of an impact on Trump’s popular approval, at least not since late March, when opinions toward Trump seem to have settled in after a very brief and not very favorable honeymoon. According to the Huffpost aggregate poll, on March 27 Trump dipped to his lowest approval rating to that point, with only 40.7% saying they approved of the job he was doing.  Today, two and a half months later, Trump’s approval number stands at – drum roll please! – exactly 40.7%.  In the interim between March 27 and today it fell as low as 39.6% and rose no higher than 43.7% in aggregate polling.  In short despite the steady stream of media accounts breathlessly “Trumpeting” variations on the theme of  “White House in crisis”, “Embattled Presidency”, etc., Trump’s public standing, at least measured by polls, seems remarkably impervious to the overheated media coverage.

So why would the Trump, Jr. story be any different?  One answer is that it reveals, for the first time, concrete evidence that a member of Trump’s campaign team actively solicited information from the Russian government intended to undermine the Clinton campaign.  Despite Trump Jr.’s insistence that this was standard opposition research, most campaign veterans will tell you that opposition research doesn’t typically involve secret meetings with foreign governments. Nor is it normally conducted by the candidate’s offspring – far better to keep this type of activity as far from the candidate as possible.  Indeed, after prodding by Senator Lindsay Graham, Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee to head the FBI, told the members of the Judiciary Committee that, “[A]ny threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation state or any nonstate actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know.”  That statement from Trump’s own nominee seemed to undercut the President’s defense that this meeting was par for the course when it comes to campaigns.

So this story seems to be different in kind from the previous stories alleging some type of collusion between Trump and the Russians.  At least superficially, it seems to provide the long-sought after smoking gun that proves collusion. Or does it?  As I told Perron, despite the effort of the Times to make the case that it was not a coincidence that public statements by Trump, Sr. on the campaign trail regarding Clinton’s emails followed closely on the heels of his son’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, it is still not clear that anything of value was transmitted to Trump, Jr., or that the meeting had any impact on the campaign at all.  So once again we are left with rampant speculation, but no concrete evidence regarding actual collaboration between Trump and the Russians during the 2016 election.  Yes, Trump, Jr., might have violated campaign norms, but does the meeting conclusively show collaboration between the Russians and the Trump campaign that influenced the election? And how, if at all, does this meeting link to the President?  There’s still a lot we don’t know.

If I am right that, in the absence of additional information documenting actual collusion, the latest “bombshell” will likely be met with a collective political shrug by Trump supporters, the question is why?  Why are Trump supporters seemingly unconcerned with what my Twitter feed and email inbox assure me are actions that are almost certainly going to lead to the destruction of the nation, or of Trump’s presidency, or both?

One explanation, often touted by Trump’s critics, is that his supporters are a bunch of no-nothing dupes who are blind to any evidence contradicting their racist, xenophobic, narrow-minded world view.  To a certain degree, hyperbole aside, we are all subject to confirmation bias, although it seems particularly pronounced among strong partisans. So this is probably part of the explanation.  Nonetheless, as I’ve discussed in other posts, in talking extensively with Trump supporters during the campaign I found them quite knowledgeable about current events and quite willing to criticize Trump when they thought the criticism warranted.

Another explanation, offered by the New York Times, is that conservatives are not alarmed by Trump colluding with the Russians because they actually admire Vladimir Putin, the Russian allegedly behind the effort to throw the 2016 election to Trump. As the Times puts it: “The veneration of Mr. Putin helps explain why revelations about Russia’s involvement in the election — including recent reports that members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle set up a meeting at which they expected a representative of the Russian government to give them incriminating information about Hillary Clinton — and Mr. Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge it, have barely penetrated the consciousness of the president’s conservative base.”

Again, that may be part of the explanation. However, I suspect there’s another, more important reason to explain why  stories alleging collusion aren’t having the expected impact – one that media outlets such as the Times may be reluctant to acknowledge: most Trump supporters don’t think the allegations of collusion have been proven.  And they don’t trust the media to report this story accurately.  As evidence, note that a recent Pew survey shows a whopping 85% of Republicans believe the national news media has a negative effect on the country.  (Democrats don’t view the press very positively either, for what it is worth.)

I suspect that mistrust is fueled in part by a suspicion among Trump supporters that, given the overwhelmingly negative tone of the coverage documented by Patterson, the major news outlets must have a hidden agenda – one designed to portray the Trump administration in the most negative light possible. Editorials such as the one issued by the Times that claimed a link between Sarah Palin’s PAC ads and the shooting of Representative Gabby Gifford (a claim since retracted), only fuel this suspicion.  So, in the absence of conclusive evidence showing collusion, their default position is to mistrust the media coverage.

Again, it bears repeating that it may be the case that the negative coverage of Trump to date simply reflects the fact that Trump’s presidency has been unusually controversial and even ineffective, at least compared to his predecessors, and so the overwhelmingly negative tone is perfectly appropriate.  My sense from talking to Trump supporters, however, is that they think this coverage is motivated instead by the media’s ideological agenda, rather than any dispassionate coverage of events. Thus, absent clear evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians, they remain skeptical that there’s as much to the story as the pervasive media coverage would have one believe.  Moreover, most of them would prefer that the media focus on more important issues that concern them, such as jobs, health care, tax reform, and the economy.  Instead they get a steady diet of stories based on unnamed sources alleging potential conspiracies between Trump and the Russians.  It’s not surprising, then, that these stories, so far at least, haven’t seemed to gain much traction among Trump supporters.  I suspect the latest twist in this ongoing saga will be no different – Trump supporters will view the allegations with their customary skepticism.  But time (and additional evidence) will tell…

In the meantime, perhaps we should not be surprised by the stability in Trump’s approval ratings. We saw a similar dynamic during Obama’s presidency. After the end of his post-election honeymoon, one that was much more favorable and long-lived than Trump’s anemic first few months, Obama’s approval got stuck in a very narrow band between about 44% approval and 52% disapproval, (with a brief positive second honeymoon after his 2012 reelection) for most of his presidency, until the 2016 presidential campaigned elevated him to “elder statesmen” status and his approval ticked up to finish at a robust 56.1% – a level undoubtedly driven by how well he stacked up in public perception compared to the two presidential candidates!

This is reminder that in this era of ideologically distinct and well-sorted parties, presidential approval ratings seems to be governed primarily by partisan dispositions, and barring an unusual event of national significance, once opinions have been baked in we aren’t going to see much fluctuation. Hence, for all the talk about how Trump’s presidency isn’t normal, when it comes to popularity, it seems very normal indeed.  And we shouldn’t be surprised.

Just call him the Teflon Don.  And if Don, Jr. somehow gets run over by the media, beware the barrel of acid.


To My Favorite Student, On Commencement Day

Another year has passed – this one more eventful than most.  Middlebury is about to hold its commencement ceremony, and as I have done ever since I came to live here in the Green Mountains, I will celebrate by sitting down by the fire, pouring a single malt, and raising a toast to you, My Favorite Student.

Who, you ask, is My Favorite Student? You know who you are.

Four years ago you dragged yourself across campus in the dark to make that first 8 am class in Twilight Hall, only to doze off six minutes into my opening lecture on why you should study American politics.  And yet you kept coming, week after week, likely inspired by my promise that “90% of success in life is just showing up.”  By the semester’s end, you realized that it truly was “great to study American politics in America” and you signed on to become a political science major (or at least learned to regret not becoming one).

Four years later you have reaped the many benefits from this decision.  Perhaps none is more consequential than getting added to the distribution list to this Presidential Power blog.  Your participation during the Live Blogging (Fill in the Election) results made listening to Wolf Blitzer so much more tolerable.

You heard my impassioned plea regarding the consequences of a legal career (the rhinoplasty to repair damage from your cocaine habit, the estranged children, the massive debt, the adultery with the pool boy, the long hours writing briefs defending BP [“It was just a little spill! In Louisiana, for god’s sake!”] and, of course, the terminal cancer) and still asked me for a letter of recommendation to law school;

You listened, amazed, at my lecture on the American Revolution, during which I quote from memory and with perfect inflection Captain Kirk’s famous speech about the Constitution – “We, the PEOPLE!… Down the centuries you have slurred the meaning of the words!” – and then asked your classmate: “Who’s Captain Kirk?”;

You now understand that political science is the “queen” of the social sciences, and why after four years this major has better prepared you to improve the world than if you had chosen any other discipline (but especially economics) – unless you blow it and go to law school;

You know now that just because a pundit says it is so, you still need to ask for evidence;

You didn’t make me explain “Teabagging” during my lecture on the Tea Party movement;

You gave me a gift of a bottle of scotch after the final class lecture that wasn’t Old Smugglers and didn’t come in a plastic bottle;

You figured out that my political views and partisan affiliation are exactly the same as yours;

You entered my blog contests for a chance to win an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt, and then sent me a picture of you wearing your prize;

You stifled a gasp when entering my office, and managed not to fixate on the coffee stains and food remnants;

You learned, from “my son”, how to really do “the wave”;

You laughed at all my jokes, even the second time through (“Did you hear about the two hunters from Ripton who drove to Yellowstone to shoot grizzly?  The sign said ‘Yellowstone – Bear Left’, so they went home”);

You understood that when I hectored you in class, it was to make a broader teaching point, and not (necessarily) to humiliate you, although that was an ancillary benefit;

You remembered not to bring your Strawberry, U-Pad or other hand-held electronic device to exams;

You took on responsibility for sending the seemingly endless stream of emails the night before exams, asking all the questions that the other students wanted to ask;

You know that when we next see each other, I will not recall your name, but I will remember everything you ever said to, or wrote for, me during your entire four years at Middlebury.  (Which means at our next meeting you must greet me by first telling me who you are);

You brought me free beer during Election Night at the Grille, so that by evening’s end I was spouting utter nonsense even though all my electoral projections were dead on (well, except for predicting the winner);

You understand now what really happened when they tried to “Free Willy”;

You know as well how to survive a nuclear holocaust;

You stayed home until you were sure you could not infect me;

You became part of my twitterverse by joining the other Twits who now receive my infrequent  twitterings.

And, finally, you taught me more than you realize during your four years here.  Students often don’t appreciate that my interactions with them provides the impetus and the spark for keeping up with developments not just in my area of expertise but in society more generally. How else would I learn about The Cable, or FaceSpace, or the myriad other technological innovations?  Always remember that the questions you ask often inspire lectures or blogs or tweets!  In short, education at Middlebury is an interactive process – a two-way street – from which I benefit as much, or more, than do you. That is why I stay in this job despite the fact that, as I have reminded you countless times, Middlebury pays me next-to-nothing.

At times that learning process was contentious, particularly during this last year.  We didn’t always agree, but we learned to listen to each other despite those disagreements, and we were better for having done so.  And trust me – my views have changed because of you.  I suspect yours have as well.  That is perhaps the greatest lesson to take away from your four years here.  I hope you continue to listen, particularly to those with whom you may not agree.

So, assuming you don’t get heat stroke, let me end by sending you – My Favorite Student – best wishes in all your future endeavors.  Do stay in touch, and remember to thank your parents for getting you vaccinated; for rousing you out of bed for all those 5 am trips to the skating rink and summers at soccer camp; for the endless piano lessons; for reminding you to finish those application essays; for instilling a strong sense of values based on discipline, hard work, and rooting for Boston sports teams; and for forking over the $83,000 a year (none of which went to me) to attend Middlebury College.  They did all this because they love you and they want to be sure you don’t have to move back home again.

And parents, as you move your kids out of the dorms for the final time (and wonder why they are still packing) you should realize that although you won’t ever see that money again, and that your kids are in fact going to move back home for a bit, it was well worth the investment. Contrary to what you probably believe deep in your soul, your child did not squander your retirement money on endless nights of booze and partying. They actually learned to think and to communicate and to treat anything they read in the New York Times with skepticism. Nor did s/he waste four years by majoring in political science.  Read the papers.  Listen to the news.  More than any other discipline, it is politics that most determines whether tomorrow will be an improvement over today.  Your child has a head start in fulfilling that promise.

So, to paraphrase the late, great Richard Neustadt, “Trust the kids.”  After all, you were one too and look how your life turned out!  (Ok, maybe a bad example….)

And finally, if you don’t want to take the elevator down while your spouse holds the bag, remember to always, always, know your limits.

Good luck, stay in touch, and may your scotch bottle never run dry…

With fond memories,

Matt (which you may call me only after you are handed your diploma!)

P.S. To My Favorite Student: If you would like to continue to get direct email notifications of new presidential power blog postings, please remember to provide me with an updated email address before your Middlebury email expires. And the same goes for you parents out there who also wish to get blog notifications.  Unlike the Middlebury alumni office, I’ll never ask for money.  (But I won’t turn down an endowed chair!)

And now, back to the bluebooks (well, back to a book…..)


Murray and Middlebury: What Happened, and What Should Be Done?

Dr. Charles Murray, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,  came to Middlebury last Thursday to discuss his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

It did not go well.

Murray was invited by the Middlebury student AEI chapter, and his talk was cosponsored (but not funded) by the Political Science department. The decision by the Political Science department to cosponsor the event was not universally supported on the Middlebury campus, nor even within the political science department itself, as chair Bert Johnson discusses here. Nonetheless, after extensive campus debate, the College administration remained committed to allowing Murray to speak, although they decided that only those with valid Middlebury i.d.’s would be allowed in Wilson Hall so as to prevent outsiders from shutting down his talk.  Despite this precaution, as chronicled in numerous national news stories, Murray never got the chance to present his views before a live audience.

This was not for lack of commitment by the administration to upholding the College’s policies on free speech. At the start of the Murray event Middlebury communications director Bill Burger reminded students about College policies regarding protests and the right of speakers to be heard. Middlebury College President Laurie Patton also took the stage to note that while many – including her – did not agree with all of Murray’s research, the College was committed to upholding its policies regarding the free exchange of ideas.  But when Murray was introduced, the student crowd erupted in a barrage of chants and sign waving designed to prevent Murray from speaking. They chanted, “Who is the enemy? White Supremacy!” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!” I was not able to get into the event due to long lines so, after lingering for some time watching the protests outside the event, I went back to my office to view the event on the Middlebury website. However, you can get a sense of just how quickly the event degenerated into mob rule in this YouTube video shot by Middlebury student Will DeGravio.

Additional video can be found on the Middlebury campus student newspaper website here.

After about 20 minutes, when it became clear that the students would not let Murray speak, administration officials escorted him to an adjoining room.  There he was interviewed by my colleague Allison Stanger who pushed back against some of his research regarding the role of race and genes in intelligence and asked him to clarify his views on other issues, drawing in part on questions submitted by other faculty. Students were able to join the debate by asking Murray questions via twitter as well.  The event was streamed live on the Middlebury College website and broadcast to the audience in Wilson Hall, but it was interrupted numerous times as fire alarms were pulled and students continued chanting slogans that were picked up by the audio feed. (It will be posted by the College on its news site sometime later.)

The chaos didn’t end after the interview concluded, however.  When Murray, Stanger and Burger, accompanied by school security, attempted to leave the building and go to the car that would take them to dinner, a crowd formed to block their path.  During the ensuing shoving, Stanger was grabbed by the hair and her neck twisted with such force she eventually went to the local hospital to be treated for whiplash.  (She is home now and recovering.)  Although they made it into the car, the crowd prevented them from easily leaving, with people leaning on the hood and climbing on top. Eventually, after nearly running over a stop sign someone had displaced in front of the car, they managed to break free and head toward the campus location for dinner. When they arrived, however, rumors began circulating that the raucous protesters were on their way to shut that down too, so the small dinner group relocated to a nearby private restaurant, where Murray dined and conversed with more than a dozen Middlebury students and faculty late into the night.

Judging by the dominant reaction online and among most of those with whom I have talked, the effort to block Murray’s speech is viewed as an ugly display of intolerance and violence, one that has made almost every national news outlet, and which has reignited debate regarding issues of free speech and ideological diversity on U.S. college campuses.  At Middlebury, the repercussions of this event are still unfolding even as I write this post. In an email to the Middlebury community, President Patton apologized to Murray and Stanger for how they were treated, expressed her deep disappointment at the reception Murray received, and pointedly noted that “We will be responding in the very near future to the clear violations of Middlebury College policy that occurred inside and outside Wilson Hall.” It seems inevitable that disciplinary action of some sort will be taken against the rioters, although how and in what form remains to be seen. (If I happened to be the parents of some of those students caught on the numerous video recordings of their violating College rules by shutting down speech, I would be worried right now.) At dinner that night after the event, Murray noted that it was the worst demonstration he had ever encountered and that he feared for his safety.  He later tweeted, “The Middlebury administration was exemplary. The students were seriously scary.” Amazingly, in a student-run blog site at Middlebury, someone posted the Orwellian claim that the protestors were the ones who had been assaulted by Burger and others. Their logic?  That they had only blocked the sidewalk and stood in front of the car, but it was Burger and others who were the aggressors in trying to reach the car and drive away.  Thus the protesters were the ones under assault.   (Note. This is not, as far as I can tell, an example of satire, although I deeply wish it was.)

Clearly the student riot has left an ugly stain on Middlebury’s reputation, although it is too early to say how indelible it might be. One alumnus noted to me that while he still hoped his children would attend Middlebury, his wife was now dead set against the idea.  I expect many others feel this way as well. How many depends, I assume, in part on how the College administration responds.  In the short run, of course, the protests prevented those students who wished to engage with Murray from hearing him speak and, more importantly, it prevented them from pressing back against his research.  Two days before Murray’s talk I spent my entire weekly politics luncheon discussing Murray’s research in the Bell Curve, and acquainting students with many of the critiques of his findings.  My presentation was attended by a packed audience of students and local residents, and many of the students went away primed to do battle with Murray.  A few of them, drawing in part on my slide presentation, put together a pamphlet outlining five criticisms of Murray’s argument in the Bell Curve, which they placed on every seat in Wilson Hall.  Unfortunately, due to the actions of protesters, my students never had the opportunity to engage Murray beyond a few questions directed at him via Twitter.  What’s worse, they now find themselves inaccurately characterized in media outlets as coddled, immature “snowflakes” and “liberal fascists” bent on promoting intolerance and hate.

The ability of a vocal minority of students to impose their will on the majority of their peers – and evidently to feel no compunction in doing so – raises some important questions regarding Middlebury College’s central mission and whether and to what degree it is in danger of slipping away. To be clear, as I noted above, not everyone was comfortable with the decision by the AEI student chapter to invite Murray in the first place, nor with the College’s choice not to rescind that invitation. Some of my colleagues felt strongly that allowing him to speak gave him a platform to spread views that they found racist and hurtful, and which many argue are based on shoddy research.  Others disagreed, noting that Murray’s views as expressed in the Bell Curve were not particularly controversial among some experts even when they first came out. Moreover, they pointed out that he wasn’t even presenting that research this time around.  Nonetheless, when it became clear that a group of students were determined to protest, I am told that administration officials reached out to them to negotiate how those protests might be conducted in a peaceful and appropriate manner consistent with Middlebury’s stated policy.  It soon became clear, however, that the protesters would accept nothing less than a complete shutdown of Murray’s talk.  This prompted the administration to develop the backup plan which they implemented when the students’ chanting prevent Murray from speaking.

Note that this is not the first controversial speaker we have invited to campus.  In fact, Murray himself came to Middlebury to give a talk a few years back and was met with no overt opposition. So what, if anything, has changed since Murray’s previous visit? When asked this question by a Boston Globe reporter early today, I openly wondered whether Donald Trump’s election, and more importantly some of the College’s reaction to his victory, may have inadvertently appeared to license the kind of behavior we saw on Thursday. It may be, I speculated, that in reassuring students that we did not support the more inflammatory rhetoric that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, some students took that as a sign that speech which they felt was hurtful could and should be shut down. To repeat, this is pure speculation on my part, as I made clear to the reporter.  But something seems to have changed to persuade a minority of the current generation of Middlebury students that if they don’t like what someone is saying, it is appropriate to make sure no one else hears it as well, regardless of whether they would like to.  (Elsewhere I have pointed out that even Trump’s supporters did not agree with all that he said even though they voted for him. However, that distinction has sometimes been lost on a few of my students.)

In my public comments on social media regarding the Murray incident, I have stressed the need for dialogue to discuss why the disturbing effort to shut down speech occurred, and what lessons are to be learned.   But I am increasingly worried that the time for dialogue has passed. It is understandable why some students may find Murray’s research findings offensive, although I also believe many protestors actually have almost no familiarity with what Murray actually wrote.  It is less clear, however, why so many believe that the appropriate response was not to simply skip his talk, but instead to prevent others from hearing him and, in so doing, inadvertently give him the platform and national exposure they purportedly opposed. For some reason a vocal minority of Middlebury students now believes that if they find speech hurtful, it is their right and obligation to act on those feelings by shutting that speech down.

In his magisterial work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. (italics added.)”

It easy to blame those Middlebury students – and many do – for not fully understanding the importance, particularly at an institution of higher learning, of the free expression of ideas and the need to tolerate opposing views. (After all, Mill is a dead white male!) However, I wonder whether we, as faculty, should shoulder some – most – of the blame for their ignorance?  Are we teaching students why we hold so strongly to these ideals?  Perhaps if we spent as much time discussing the reason why even speech they view as hurtful should not be suppressed as we do explaining the College honor code, Thursday’s event might not have happened.  If we do not explain to students what underlies the College’s rules regarding speech, how are they expected to understand why their actions last Thursday are viewed by so many, including almost every Middlebury student with whom I have talked, as abhorrent and unacceptable, and why some may face disciplinary action?

For understandable reasons the administration decided beforehand not to respond to the student protest with a heavy show of force, for fear of escalating the violence. To be sure, not everyone agrees with that decision.  But President Patton has made it clear that this type of student rioting will not be tolerated going forward.  Disciplining students, however, is in my view only the first step toward insuring that this unacceptable effort to suppress speech never blights Middlebury’s campus again.  Somehow we, as an academic community, must teach students the reason why when confronted with what they sincerely believe to be hurtful speech the proper response is not to impose their views on everyone else by shutting that speech down. I am not sure the best way to do this.  But, at the risk of appearing naive or hopelessly idealistic, or both, I am committed to trying.  I hope you are too. Let the teaching begin!

Why Putting Bannon On The NSC Is Probably A Good Idea

With the media firestorm generated by President Trump’s executive order on immigration, some news outlets were slow to pick up on another controversial and potentially more important president directive: Presidential National Security Memorandum 2, which Trump issued two days ago.  That presidential memorandum (contrary to this New York Times article, it was not an executive order) laid out the organizational structure that will presumable help guide Trump’s national security poliycmaking process (including homeland security issues) during his presidency.  Among the details, the directive stipulated that controversial White House political strategist Steve Bannon was one of those “invited as attendees to any NSC meeting.” Bannon was also extended an invitation to regularly attend the national security principals’ meetings as well (those meetings of the highest ranking NSC members not attended by Trump).  At the same time, Trump’s memorandum directed that the director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff only attend Principals Committee meetings when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” which many in the media interpreted as a downgrading of their positions. Under Obama,  by comparison, no White House political strategist was extended such a courtesy, (although Obama’s chief of staff was invited) while both the DNI and the JCS chair were regular invitees.

Not surprisingly, the decision to extend Bannon a permanent invitation to participate in the national security policymaking process generated a negative reaction from a range of individuals in both parties, including Republican Arizona Senator John McCain and former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, who reportedly called the decision “stone cold crazy”. David Rothkopf, who has written a couple of histories of the NSC, penned an op ed piece in the Washington Post that included this dire warning: “…Bannon is the precisely wrong person for this wrong role. His national security experience consists of a graduate degree and seven years in the Navy. More troubling, Bannon’s role as chairman of, with its racist, misogynist and Islamophobic perspectives, and his avowed desire to blow up our system of government, suggests this is someone who not only has no business being a permanent member of the most powerful consultative body in the world — he has no business being in a position of responsibility in any government.”

Even Bette Midler took time to tweet her concern:

Bette Midler Verified account @BetteMidler 7h7 hours ago

#Trump‘s reshuffling US National Security Council (NSC), DOWNGRADING THE MILITARY CHIEFS OF STAFF! Giving a regular seat Steve Bannon! WHY?”

What is one to make of this reaction? With all due respect to the Divine Miss M’s foreign policy chops, I want to make the argument here that giving Bannon a formal place at the national security table is probably a good idea, given the fact that he’s probably going to play an important role in Trump’s national security process whether he sits in on meetings or not. Nor do I agree that the directive necessarily indicates a demotion for the JCS chair or DNI. However, there are other aspects of Trump’s order – aspects ignored by the critics – that worry me far more than the formal status for any single individual, including Bannon.

A little bit of background to Trump’s directive will help put it in historical context. Every recent president has, very early in their administration, issued a directive similar to Trump’s that lays down the organizational template for national security policymaking. Again, here’s the full text of Trump’s presidential memorandum.  And here is Obama’s comparable directive  and George W. Bush’s. As you can see, despite the difference in titles (Obama’s is labeled a Presidential Policy Directives, or PPD, while Bush’s is a National Security Policy Directive, or NSPD) they adopt a similar format.  But neither Bush nor Obama included a White House political strategist as a regular attendee.  Indeed, according to former Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten,  Bush explicitly forbid his chief political strategist Karl Rove from sitting in on NSC meetings, for fear that it would signal that political considerations tainted his national security policymaking process.  Although Obama’s political strategist David Axelrod occasionally attended Obama’s national security meetings, he was not listed as a regular attendee and did not actively participate in deliberations. However, both Bush and Obama did include their White House chief of staffs as regular invitees. It bears noting that in Obama’s case, Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s first chief of staff, was very influential in devising political strategy for the President.

In thinking about the ramifications of Bannon’s appointment, it is worth keeping in mind a couple of points.  First, Trump’s presidential memorandum is only a blueprint – it is a first stab by the President at deciding how to decide – but it is issued when Trump has very little experience in running the NSC process, and before anyone really knows how personalities will, or won’t, interact.  So we should not read too much into this document in terms of projecting who will run the show, and based on what input. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the early evidence if media reports are to be believed (see Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration) suggests that Bannon is already playing a key role in the making of national security policy.  By virtue of his location in the West Wing, and his regular meetings with Obama Trump it seems clear that Bannon is going to make his views on national security policy known to Trump whether he’s on the invite list to NSC meetings or not. Given this reality, in some ways it might be more helpful to Trump if Bannon is exposed to alternative views in the formal NSC deliberative process – and if Bannon’s views are subject to formal critique as well. Finally, one might argue that a pure separation of national security strategy and politics is not only unfeasible – it’s a bad idea.  Politics matters even in the national security realm – if you lack a strategy for developing political support for a policy, it is likely to be more difficult to implement.  In short, politics does not stop at the water’s edge.

Let me conclude with three additional observations.  To begin, some of the most important details are left unsaid in this memo – specifically, the number and composition of the policy coordinating committees (PCC’s) which apparently will replace Obama’s interagency committees as the first level of policy development.  One of the problems recent NSC staff structures have had is the proliferation of lower-level committees, and attendant meetings that sucked up an incredible amount of participants’ time.  Each meeting requires an agenda, staff preparation, meeting minutes,  etc., and in previous administrations many participants in the process complain that they were too focused on the administrative requirements of preparing and holding meetings, and less on policy development and articulation.  One can get a sense of the number of these PCC’s by looking at Bush’s initial 2001 memo, which established six regional PCC’s and 11 functional ones. That’s a lot of paper pushing!  We shall see how Trump’s process unfolds at the lower level, which is in some respects more important than who sits on the principals committee, since it is where many policies are first incubated.

Second, a presidential memorandum can only provide a template for decisionmaking – ultimately, Trump’s priorities will decide which issues make it from the PCC’s up through the deputies’ level to the principals and the NSC.  Issues that Trump does not prioritize will get resolved through interagency deliberation at the lower level.  The key for any White House process is determining which issues rise to the top, and which do not.  In recent administrations, the NSC staff structure has become so large and unwieldy that it has developed a tendency to suck up lower-level issues into the President’s orbit when these should be more properly resolved before reaching the President’s desk.  The effectiveness of Trump’s deliberations will depend in part on how widely and deeply he wants to get involved in the policy weeds, and whether his staff process can separate the substantive policy wheat from the chaff.

Third, since at least Brent Scowcroft’s time as George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser (see his directive here), the national security adviser – in Trump’s case Michael Flynn – has managed the national security policymaking process, chairing the principals’ meeting, orchestrating the paperwork, etc.  To be effective in this role, Flynn needs Trump’s full support, so that no one (read: Bannon!) is rewarded for going around Flynn to try to influence Trump outside the formal deliberative process. At the same time, Flynn must cultivate a reputation for being an honest broker who presents all views to Trump, particularly when there is disagreement among key advisers.  This is a difficult task and historically one that often leads to friction with cabinet members, particularly the Secretary of State.  Again, I have no idea how well Flynn is suited to this task – early reports raise questions – but it will go a long way toward determining how effective Trump’s national security policymaking process is.

My takeaway point, however, is that Bannon’s influence on the national security policymaking process is not likely to be determined by whether he participates in formal NSC deliberations – it’s going to come from his direct access to Trump via the Oval Office daily meetings. Although symbolism matters in Washington in terms of signaling who is important, the real currency for any presidential aide is face time with the President.  Bannon’s going to get that whether he’s formally on the NSC and principals invite list or not, in my view.  Given that reality, forcing him to justify his views in a more formal deliberative process may not be such a bad idea.

Why Trump Won: It Was Fundamental!

In life, they say, timing is everything.  When I began doing my election-themed talks in late summer, after it was clear who the general election candidates were, Hillary Clinton consistently held a lead in the various aggregate polling results, such this one by Huffington Post, by about 5%-8%.


Nonetheless, I assured my audiences that there were good reasons to expect this race to tighten during the next two months.   As evidence, I cited the political science forecast models which, again looked at in the aggregate, seemed to indicate that this race was going to be a dead heat.  As long time readers know, these models attempt to predict the two-party presidential popular vote as a function of the “fundamentals” – that is,  how well the economy is doing, whether the country is at war, and how long the incumbent party has held the White House, to name some of the most frequently utilized variables.  While not perfect, and keeping in mind that they differ in the particulars, and thus in the final forecasts, these models nonetheless provide a decent template for understanding the context which both candidates then try to exploit in their favor.   Simply put, when things are going well, the incumbent party candidate should try to run a clarifying campaign, to use Lyn Vavreck’s term, while the opponent will seek to focus the message on something else less favorable to the party in power.  Assuming candidates make proper use of these fundamentals, the forecast models issued by Labor Day are a reliable, if not perfect, indicator of how the race will turn out.  With that in mind, the key slide in my talks, which never failed to elicit a crowd reaction, was this one:


This was based on the political science forecast models available at the time – subsequent ones changed this aggregate forecast slightly at the margins, but the essential point remained:  this election was too close to call, and could go either way.  That, of course, was not what most of my audiences wanted to hear.  As it turned out, however, the political science models – looked at in the aggregate, (which is how I typically made my prediction every four years) – were spot on in 2016.  As of today, with votes still coming in, Clinton has won about 50.2% of the two-party popular vote – or almost exactly what the political science median forecast predicted.

How, then, to explain those polls showing that Clinton was in the lead?  Early in the campaign season, I told my audiences that, assuming Trump and Clinton ran effective campaigns – that is, that they made effective use of the fundamentals in crafting their respective messages, the polling gap between the two should close.  Indeed, there is extensive evidence from previous elections, as documented by Erickson and Wlezien, that as the campaign progresses, partisans come home to roost in a way that tends to lead to a tightening in the polls. However, as the election droned on, it became increasingly clear that in my talks I had to address the 800-pound hairdo in the room:  Trump was not closing the gap with Clinton nearly as quickly as I anticipated. This was surprising, because as Drew Linzer and others have demonstrated, and as the graph below shows, election polls typically get increasingly accurate as the potential voters begin tuning in and become more informed regarding which candidate comes closer to their partisan leanings. (The y-axis in the graph is a coefficient showing how much the polling aggregate predicts the final Democratic popular vote share.)


The result, as political scientists have documented in previous presidential elections, is that as the campaign heads toward the finish line, and partisans come home to roost, the polls should prove an increasingly accurate indicator of the final vote. Indeed, Drew Linzer had correctly forecast the Electoral College vote in 2012 by updating one particular forecast model (Abramowitz’s Time for a Change model) using only state-based polls. However, in 2016 his state-level poll-based forecast consistently showed a likely Clinton victory all the way up to Election Day.  Indeed on Election eve, he predicted a Clinton Electoral College victory of 323-215.  And he wasn’t the only one to do so – other analysts who had made accurate polls-only predictions in the past, such as Sam Wang, were also forecasting an Electoral College victory for Clinton.

So why wasn’t Trump closing the gap so that polls came closer to the political science fundamentals-only forecast?  I could think of two explanations.  One was that the state polls were somehow off, and were underestimating Trump’s support. In all my talks I reminded my audience that the polls-only forecast depended on the polls being right.  (Not surprisingly, many audience members have forgotten that!)  The second was that he was running a sub-optimal campaign, one in which his continual missteps made it more difficult for him to capitalize on the fundamentals that predicted this was a 50/50 race. In the end, I went with Trump running a suboptimal campaign.  That was probably the wrong choice.  But it’s worth explaining why I made it.

In adjudicating between the two explanations, I compared what I was seeing at Trump rallies with what prior research had shown about polling accuracy at the state level. As I’ve documented in many previous posts, Trump’s rallies were huge and enthusiastic.  And in talking to his supporters, it became clear that the vast majority were not the xenophobic racists that pundits (and not a few of my colleagues) thought they were.  But I worried that focusing on rallies did not give me nearly as accurate a view of the entire electorate as did the polling numbers.   By the end of the campaign, I was concluding my talks by saying this was going to be a close race – one closer than the polls indicated – but unless those polls were completely wrong (and they hadn’t been in the past), Clinton was likely to win the election.  I summarized the Trump-as-poor-campaigner in this slide that suggested the election WAS rigged – by Trump!:


As it turned out, however, the political science forecast models had it right, and the state-level polls did not.  This is not to say that the national polls were wildly inaccurate. Indeed, as Sean Trende suggests, they were, on the whole, about as accurate as the national polls were in 2012, which on average understated Obama’s final victory margin of 3.9% by about 3.2%. It’s probably worth repeating that, as of this moment, Clinton has a popular vote lead of about 700,000 votes, or about .5% and that could grow to about 1% by the time all the votes are counted.  That’s less than the RCP final four-way average which gave her about a 3.3% margin. But that’s a difference that’s actually a tad smaller than the 2012 RCP error margin. Keep in mind as well that due to the random error associated with statistical sampling, polls in the aggregate don’t usually exactly match the final vote total, even though they typically do approach that total, as I pointed out in my lectures.

But as Linzer showed, in 2016 the state-level polls consistently underestimated Trump’s support, and that miss proved crucial in forecasting key swing states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which was enough to throw the Electoral College projections in the polls-only models off.  Generally speaking, the polls got Clinton’s support right, but they underestimated Trump’s. This graph by Linzer reveals the extent to which the state-level polls underestimated Trump’s support.

And this Washington Post table shows how much the polls missed Trump’s support in those key states.

I will devote future blog posts to examining why the state-level polls were wrong, as I expect Linzer and others will do as well.  But for now the important takeaway is that, once again, in the aggregate the political science forecast models got this right – exactly right, as it turns out (which undoubtedly will again elicit remarks about how smug we are).  And they did so because this was an election governed by dynamics that were largely unchanged from previous presidential elections, as Larry Bartels points out.  Bartels shows this by comparing Trump’s state-by-state performance with Romney’s 2012 results. As you can see, Trump did well in states in which Romney did well (with Utah a notable exception!) and not so well in the states in which Romney struggled.

The fact that Trump’s performance was both predicted, and that it doesn’t suggest a significant realignment in the electorate, is probably something that political pundits, whose professional existence depends on creating the impression that elections can and usually do change in reaction to every campaign event (Comey cost Clinton the election!), and that the outcome represents something new (and therefore newsworthy) may not want to hear.  But it’s what the evidence suggests.

Yes, some of my colleagues are expressing mea culpas for relying too heavily on the polls in making their final projections.  I understand that sentiment – by the end of the campaign season I was also telling my audiences that although the race would be close, the polls were usually pretty accurate, and that they seemed to suggest a high probability of a Clinton victory. But let’s be clear:  political science got this election exactly right, even if some political scientists (like me!) weren’t smart enough to realize it.  And here’s the proof, again provided courtesy of Linzer:

And this is a reminder that if you want to know who is going to win the presidential election, polls are (usually!) a pretty reliable indicator, although they certainly were not as accurate at the state level this time around as they have been in previous years.  But if you want to know why Trump won, the political science forecast models issued by Labor Day are a good place to start.  And they suggest Trump’s victory was, in large part, fundamental.