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Election Day 2018

Election Day 2018November 6th, 2018
12 months to go.

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Trump and the failure of the bully pulpit

The Republican promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues to be a problem, despite its members controlling the executive and legislative branches. After having many motions go down to defeat including the “skinny repeal,” Republicans face an uncertain future on health care.  Recent polls show that the ACA is the most popular it has been and various versions of House and Senate replacement bills languish with less than one-quarter of Americans approving any version of a replacement.

Although health care reform is difficult because of intra-party differences among Republicans, President Trump’s unwillingness or inability to perform one of the most basic tasks of presidential leadership—using the bully pulpit—makes Republican legislative victories in the future unlikely.

Just over six months into his presidency, Donald Trump has shown little inclination to use traditional methods of presidential persuasion to sell his policy ideas, instead relying on Twitter threats and small group meetings with legislators to push for policies like the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). In comparison, President Barack Obama gave a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009, along with many other speeches and national interviews before the ACA passed in 2010.

From Barack Obama’s speeches on health care reform or human rights and even as far back as Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches on behalf of the Panama Canal, the policy speech and full-blown communication campaign have been critical for major policy initiatives to be successful.

Called the “rise of the rhetorical presidency” by political scientists such as Jeffrey Tullis, this type of presidential persuasion aims to shape public opinion rather than convince legislators directly.  The messages themselves changed from ones based on formal logic and argumentation to more of a narrative structured message filled with emotional appeals.

Historically, there have been many examples of successful policy campaigns by modern presidents. Ronald Reagan was masterful at employing the rhetorical tools of the modern presidency by weaving stories rich in American mythology with reasons often lacking rational proof. His Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, speech was typical of this approach as he wrapped the story of America’s fundamental goodness with claims about military hardware systems that were unproven. President George W. Bush campaigned to use military intervention in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein using a similar narrative logic meant to move public opinion, even if the opinion of many military and foreign policy experts did not support Bush’s position.

Likewise, Barack Obama’s campaign for the Affordable Care Act was a full blown public campaign of speeches and media appearances in which the messages about health care reform were framed as part of a longstanding attempt by presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to the present to make health care accessible and affordable to all Americans. He argued that the plan would protect the free market for health insurance and bring down the costs of care, promises that later proved problematic.

Policy speeches and public campaigns are no guarantee of success. Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations campaign in 1919 was a dismal failure. After a grueling year of speeches and appearances across the nation by Wilson, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty authorizing U.S. participation in the League. Likewise, Bill Clinton’s campaign for health care reform in 1993 failed, not because of a lack of effort on Clinton’s part, but in part because his administration’s rhetoric about the need for and promise of health care reform was met by a more powerful narrative in the “Harry and Louise” ads produced by the health care industry.

Instead of making a major nationally televised policy speech advocating a clear health care reform bill or traveling the country sharing stories of how a new law will change lives, Trump prefers exhortation. He promises great health care for everyone and criticizes the ACA for being a disaster. This is not persuasion that will help Republicans get health care reform across the finish line.

Presidential persuasion, as demonstrated by many of his predecessors, still matters, but as President Trump has illustrated with many other White House traditions, the policy speech may be a thing of the past.

Who will lead the Senate health care debate?

Senate Republicans voted by the narrowest of margins – 51-50 – to begin debate to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Several days ago even this procedural victory appeared unlikely.

McConnell scheduled today’s vote even though several polls show the bill’s low public approval. With the help of President Donald Trump, McConnell pressured just enough senators to vote in favor of the motion – including Dean Heller and Rand Paul – who previously said they had concerns with Republican reform ideas.

Although McConnell and Trump successfully used their positions to pressure critics such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of the most vocal critics of the process used in the Senate, it is unlikely the tactics used to squeeze 50 Republican senators to vote to allow debate will translate into a Republican bill that repeals and replaces Obamacare.

The likely leaders in the next phase of the Republican attempts to reform health care will come from different parts of the caucus. Their arguments in the upcoming debates will be forceful and not amenable to the pressures of McConnell or Trump.

Susan Collins of Maine, one of two Republicans who voted against the motion to debate, leads the group of moderate Republicans and has been clearest about the need for starting over on reform.

McCain made an emotional return to the Senate floor to cast his vote to proceed with debate, even while criticizing the Republicans’ bill and the process used by McConnell. McCain represents the mainstream Republicans who want to follow a more traditional legislative process.

McCain: “We’re getting nothing done.”

Rand Paul of Kentucky, speaking for the libertarian wing, argues that nothing short of a complete repeal of the ACA with no reform that offers government subsidies is the best solution.

The Republican caucus remains divided about the way forward on health care reform. However, with a weakened majority leader and an unpopular president, it will be interesting to see who emerges as a leader in the next few weeks.

One party is ‘racist,’ the other ‘losers’? Ut-oh

After Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address last month, N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger delivered a hard-edged response in which he said: “the institutions of the Left – the press, the Democratic Party, and liberal special interests – have ginned up great controversy and false outrage. They organize vulgar rallies and protests. They disrupt public meetings. They attempt to sabotage our state’s economy and put regular North Carolinians out of business. They call Republicans ignorant, dishonest, immoral, racist, bigoted, anti-women, anti-voter, anti-education – even treasonous.”

A senator since 2000, Berger has held leadership positions since 2004 and has a reputation for civility. The tone and content of his response to Cooper’s speech was thus out-of-character, but perhaps understandable given the pressures Berger is under with a Democratic governor and constant attacks from in and out of the state over HB2 and other controversial laws.

That a large majority of North Carolinians think that the nation and state are highly polarized is not surprising, given the 2016 election and its aftermath. However, when we asked open-ended questions about what people thought about conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, the intensity of citizens’ perceptions of those different from them was surprising and concerning.

The most often-used word that Democrats used to describe conservatives and Republicans was “racist,” with terms like “evil,” “stupid,” and “uncaring” all being used by a significant number of registered Democrats. Likewise, registered Republicans most frequently used descriptions of liberals and Democrats as “dishonest,” “whiny,” “losers,” and “evil.” Unaffiliated voters had equal disdain for conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, with “liars” being most commonly used, followed by “hypocrites,” “weak,” and “out of touch.”

In addition to the language used, 93 percent of Democrats think the GOP is more extreme and 94 percent of Republicans believe Democrats are more extreme.

These results don’t bode well for those who hope that hyper-partisanship subsides and that political discourse becomes more civil. Instead, these results point to some long-term implications:

1. Elected leaders will continue to stake out extreme policy positions and view compromise as politically untenable, especially on hot button issues.

2. Political parties will continue to lose influence over increasingly larger segments of the population, as people decide that neither party represents them. Because party identification is a large part of voting, this may mean that turnout will drop precipitously.

3. Citizens will continue to see protests and legal actions as their main ways of affecting the outcomes of policies they disagree with.

There are many causes of the hyper-partisanship affecting North Carolina and the United States, but few easy solutions. However, civil discussion and compromise are essential to a functioning democracy, so we must continue to try.

After HB2 repeal, there are no winners, only losers

For just over a year, North Carolina roiled in the controversies surrounding House Bill 2 and, after several failed attempts, the governor signed legislation that repealed elements of the original law. Although organizations like the Atlantic Coast Conference have said that the state is now eligible to host athletic championships, HB2 will have lasting effects on the state and its politics.

2016, 2017, and Beyond

One year ago, I sat down to make my predictions for 2016. Although many of my predictions turned out to be correct, my election predictions for president and North Carolina governor were wrong. I underestimated the impact of voter anger–from rural voters who were angry at Washington and voted for Trump to NC voters who disliked Pat McCrory and voted for Roy Cooper in a good Republican year.

Now it is time to look forward. The next year promises to be a turbulent as the year we are ending. In North Carolina, we will have a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled General Assembly that is already at war over issues like HB2 and about distribution of power between the two branches. At the federal level, we will have the most unpredictable president since Andrew Jackson, who is threatening to completely blow up many domestic and foreign policies that have been a part of the American political fabric for decades.

Let’s start with some predictions for North Carolina:

  1. House Bill 2, or the infamous bathroom bill, that had defined North Carolina nationally and internationally for almost nine months, will not be repealed by legislative action, but will be struck down as unconstitutional by the federal district court.
  2. In other legal actions, the North Carolina Supreme Court will rule that the bill removing the governor’s ability to appoint members of the State Board of Education is unconstitutional, extending the string of rulings overturning the actions of the Republican-led General Assembly. Also, Republicans will redraw legislative maps in North Carolina for 2017 special elections and these will be ruled unconstitutional. The court will ultimately redraw the legislative districts.
  3. Despite the problems with gerrymandered maps, a bill to make redistricting done by a non-partisan (or at least bi-partisan) panel of judges will once again die in committee.
  4. Legislative elections will be held in 2017 and Democrats will pick up enough seats in both chambers so that Republicans no longer have a super majority in the General Assembly.
  5. A new voter bill will pass the North Carolina General Assembly. This bill will eliminate same day registration at early voting sites and contain a new provision that people show a photo id in order to vote. The bill will be vetoed by Governor Cooper, but the override will narrowly fail in the NC House, as some Republicans vote with Democrats to uphold the veto.
  6. Governor Cooper will seek Medicaid expansion under provisions of the Affordable Care Act, while Republicans in Washington are dismantling most of the 2010 law. Republicans in the General Assembly will attempt to pass legislation limiting Cooper’s ability to seek Medicaid expansion. This law will end up in federal court.

Predicting what will happen in North Carolina is relatively easy, compared to predicting what will happen when the Trump administration takes over on January 20. Nevertheless, here is what I see happening:

  1. The Trump administration has a rocky start as three of his cabinet nominees–Sessions (AG), Tillerson (State), and Pulzer (Labor) face difficult committee hearings in the Senate. At least two of these are not confirmed.
  2. Senator Chuck Schumer proves to be even more of an obstructionist to Donald Trump as Mitch McConnell was to Barack Obama. Not only does he lead the attempts to block some of Trump’s cabinet nominees, but he proves effective in fighting the Republican’s attempt to overturn Obamacare and overhauls of Medicare and Medicaid.
  3. The first major foreign policy challenge that President Trump faces is with North Korea, after intelligence reveals that it’s nuclear program is more advanced than previously thought and that China is not exercising any control over North Korea’s dictator. Despite Trump’s campaign boasts, his reaction to North Korean aggression is just as measured as that of his predecessor.
  4. President Trump does not attempt to build a wall across the southern boundary of the United States, but instead seeks a modest increase in the budget to extend what President Obama started–more border agents and increased use of technology along the border.
  5. The House Oversight Committee begins an investigation of Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest in May as even conservative talk radio hosts, like Rush Limbaugh, start raising questions about the obvious conflicts.
  6. Donald Trump nominates Justice William Pryor of the 11th District Court of Appeals for the vacancy on the US Supreme Court. He passes easily and is seated as the Court’s ninth justice.

Politics in 2017 promises to be just as messy and partisan as it was in 2016, just without a presidential campaign to raise the volume. I will make one more prediction for the years–that at least four prominent names will emerge as major party candidates for president in 2020, including at least two prominent Republicans who will be disillusioned by the first few months of the Trump presidency. One of those names will be Paul Ryan.

Debates are game-changers . . .well, no

With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump just hours away, the media hype about this campaign event is in full-swing. Pundits are promoting the debate as a “make-or-break” performance for both candidates. Cable news networks have spent the better part of the weekend leading up to the debate discussing the strategies that each candidate will use and today will feature CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC over-analyzing everything from moderator Lester Holt’s political affiliation to what the candidates will wear.

Despite the hype, the reality is that presidential debates rarely change the dynamics of the campaign that are already established this late in the election season. Political science research demonstrates that even the most memorable moments over the last five decades have really produced no game-changers, despite claims to the contrary.

Political scientists Robert Erickson and Christopher Wlezien performed regression analysis on the pre and post-debate polling results from 1960-2008 and found little difference in the support for each candidate after the debates, even though many believe that major changes occurred.


For example, in 1992, President George H. W. Bush was criticized for looking a his watch in the three-way debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with pundits claiming that he was disinterested. The data show, however, that his action had no difference.

The one debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 appears to be the outlier. There we signficant differences in the polling results after the debate in which Gerald Ford infamously commented that Eastern Europe was free from Soviet domination. However, contrary to public memory, the direction of public opinion was toward Gerald Ford, not away from him. He began the campaign against Jimmy Carter almost 30 percentage points behind, primarily because of his pardon of Richard Nixon in 1975. By Election Day, even after the Eastern Europe gaffe, Ford closed Carter’s lead and lost the election by two percentage point–hardly a game changer that hurt him.

If history is a lesson, then tonight’s debate will not change the overall dynamics of the race between Clinton and Trump. Polls show that the race is close, but that Clinton has a narrow lead in national surveys. Unless something really extraordinary happens–well beyond what we have seen in previous presidential debates–even a gaffe of Trumpian proportions may affect this race very little.

The Presidential Leadership Qualities of Clinton and Trump

For most of 2016 voters have been bombarded by absurd campaign promises by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Building a wall across our southern border with Mexico, rapidly defeating ISIS, or quickly reducing income inequality are impossible or unrealistic in the short term. Likewise, voters have been subjected to media stories too often focused on things only tangentially related to a president’s ability to govern.


As the campaign for the presidency approaches the final weeks, voters need to cut through the clutter and focus on the leadership qualities that each major contender would bring to the job. In our constitutional system, presidential leadership is highly institutionalized and presidents must mobilize support from the bureaucrats, Congress, and the public.


Effective presidential leadership is a complex calculus of many different qualities. In examining whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton has the potential for presidential greatness, their skills need to be judged against a set of criteria for effective leadership.


Using political scientist Fred Greenstein’s six criteria for effective leadership, the following observations can be made of Clinton and Trump:


Effectiveness as a public communicator. An effective political leader must be able to persuade citizens about policy positions. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan used very different rhetorical styles in getting public support around many of their major initiatives. Neither Clinton nor Trump comes close to the persuasive skills of those or other effective presidential communicators.


Hillary Clinton’s public communication style can best be described as efficient. Her speeches are logically organized and demonstrate a thorough understanding of policy issues. Clinton’s rhetoric rarely soars, even in her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech. At her worst, in speeches and interacting with the press, she lacks an emotional connection with her audience and can revert to sarcasm, as she did in characterizing many Trump supporters as “deplorables.”


Donald Trump favors unscripted communication events where his natural bombastic style can energize supporters and anger critics. His speeches tend to ramble and repeat soundbites rather than make substantive policy arguments. Trump draws energy from his audience and, at his worst, makes unsubstantiated and outrageous comments that divide rather than unify.


Organizational Capacity. An effective president must assemble a strong team and use that team to vet policy positions. Those on the team should have the ability to disagree with the president to reduce the likelihood of poor decisions. Franklin Roosevelt was well known for encouraging his advisors to disagree with one another and him on policy matters, while Dwight Eisenhower encouraged advisors to articulate very different points of view on foreign policy matters. Both Clinton and Trump prefer loyal, but silent, advisors.


Hillary Clinton values loyalty among those around her, which can create a cohesive team of advisors. However, while these loyal advisors can defend Clinton against outside attacks, they can be less effective in arguing with Clinton over her ideas and approach to politics. Creating a team with more devil’s advocates might have prevented many of her troubles with her late decision to oppose the Iraq War or her stubbornness in dealing with the email controversy.


In business Donald Trump always values his instincts and hires people to carry out his plans, not disagree with his ideas. Throughout much of the presidential campaign, Trump has exhibited disdain for advisors who attempt to change his way of thinking. Only recently with his third campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has Trump exhibited a willingness to follow advice.


Political Skill. Effective presidents recognize that the executive branch is only one part of the federal government and use their interpersonal skills to persuade, cajole, or threaten their way to getting legislation passed. Lyndon Johnson was the modern president whose political skills were the most successful in getting a sometimes recalcitrant Congress to pass legislation. Hillary Clinton demonstrated political skill as US senator, while Donald Trump relies on bullying to get results.


As a senator, Clinton demonstrated the ability to work with Democrats and Republicans alike. For example, she worked with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on legislation rewarding US manufacturing, and, after 9/11, worked closely with military leaders to promote more benefits for the military and keep US bases open.


Policy Vision. Effective presidents often create a consistent, transcendent vision out of their policy positions. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are two presidents whose policy visions inspired citizens to believe in their leadership. Neither Clinton nor Trump exhibits such a clear policy vision and this lack of vision creates problems for both on the campaign trail.


Hillary Clinton often has visionary ideas, such as the health care plan she prepared for her husband’s administration. Too often, however, Clinton retreats from policy positions, like on the Iraq War or the Trans Pacific Partnership, therefore appearing less visionary than opportunistic.


It is rare in presidential politics that a candidate, like Donald Trump, appears to have no policy vision. Trump has relied more on his campaign slogan and superlatives about his abilities than on clearly connected policy statements. Even on the one issue he has staked his campaign on—immigration—Trump vacillates on the means and goals of his policy.


Cognitive Style. Presidents must understand the complexities of policy issues and use vast amounts of

information to craft positions on these issues. Even before he entered the White House, Richard Nixon understood the changing dynamics of foreign policy toward the USSR and China and created an innovative approach to move beyond the Cold War policies of earlier presidencies. In terms of strategic intelligence, there is a vast different between the analytical approaches of Clinton and Trump.


Hillary Clinton possesses an analytical mind that reduces problems to their component parts. When she studies an issue like health care or how to renovate and modernize public schools, Clinton pours over data, talks to experts, and becomes a policy wonk on the issues. Having such an analytical approach can be problematic for Clinton because, like with her email controversy, it makes her fail to see the broader implications of the policy.


In business and politics, Donald Trump has an intuitive approach to problems. He follows his instinct and does not delve deeply into the intricacies of policies. Possessing above average intelligence, Trump shows little interest in learning about policy matters, putting a lot of pressure on his advisors who must accurately and succinctly analyze issues and give Trump policy options.


Emotional Intelligence. Effective presidents must manage their emotions and not be ruled by them. George H. W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower generally managed their emotions when facing domestic or foreign situations, or on the campaign trail. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was ruled by his temper and paranoia to the point that it led to his downfall. Although far from perfect, Clinton rarely is controlled by her emotions, while Trump’s emotions hold him hostage.


For almost three decades in public life, Hillary Clinton has managed her emotions in public through scandals, investigations, and difficult policy matters. She never appears to make an important decision when angry or frustrated. The emotional intelligence skill that is Clinton’s greatest challenge is demonstrating empathy. Her comments about West Virginia coal miners, for example, created many problems for her.


While Donald Trump’s supporters treasure his ability to state what he is thinking, Trump is often ruled by his anger. After discovering that the Mexican president disclosed that he told Trump that Mexico would never pay for the wall between Mexico and the United States, Trump angrily changed his major policy speech on immigration to reflect the toughest possible stance on immigration and contradict statements Trump made earlier the same day.


This analysis demonstrates that both Clinton and Trump have leadership deficiencies, but that Donald Trump lacks every leadership quality associated with presidential greatness.