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The Era of Post-Regime Politics

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Julia Azari had a really good piece recently arguing that Trump is likely to be the new Carter. It’s a rich argument worth reading in full, but the basic premise is that in terms of Skowronek’s “political time” Trump is a “disjunctive” president coming at the end of the Reagan regime and therefore likely to encounter a lot of political problems. I think it’s a powerful analogy, and at a minimum given the very fluky nature of his win and unprecedented unpopularity he’s unusually likely to be a one-termer. I also agree that there’s more likely to be tension between Congress and Trump than there would be with a more generic Republican.

In a piece at the New Republic, though, I do see two limitations of the Trump/Carter analogy, both based on my conviction the concept of “political regimes” has limited value in a context of increasingly coherent and polarized parties. The first difference is that the Republican coalition is much more coherent than the Democratic one was under Carter and likely to accomplish a lot more:

The relationship between Carter and Congress was famously dysfunctional. Four years of unified Democratic control of the federal government yielded very little legislative accomplishment, certainly nothing comparable to the pillars of the Obama administration. Showing that presidents make politics but that politics also make presidents, arguably the most notable domestic legacy of the Carter administration was the beginning of the deregulation and defense build-up that would fully bloom under Reagan.

Unfortunately, the current Republican Congress is far more cohesive than the Democratic caucus of the late 1970s. Far from checking the corrupt president-elect, the Republican Congress has signaled that it will be happy to let Trump and his family loot the Treasury and staff the executive branch with almost comically unqualified plutocrats. The reason for this is simple: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell see the opportunity to enact a radical policy agenda. There will definitely be huge upper-class tax cuts, fire sales of federal land, draconian cuts to discretionary spending, and other upward distributions of wealth.

This is not to say that it will be all smooth sailing. Having a buffoon in the Oval Office without any expertise or long-standing policy commitments will make it harder to prevail in the most important battle of the next year, over the future of the Affordable Care Act. There will be times when Republicans overreach and fail. But unlike the Democratic Congress under Carter, they know what they want to do and will do a lot of it. A lot more of an ideological agenda will be accomplished by this Congress than under a typical disjunctive presidency, which tends to entail broadly popular compromises or stasis.

Democrats in the Carter era were a famously ungainly mix of old-school New Dealers, Gary Hart New Politics types, and Southern conservatives and moderates, and it’s not surprising that this caucus didn’t accomplish much.  Republicans under Trump, conversely, know exactly what they want to do and are determined to do it. And while Trump might make it more difficult to accomplish some delicate lifts like ACA repeal, I’d also be careful in assuming he’ll make it harder for congressional Republicans across the board. Especially on less salient issues, I think it’s very possible that Trump’s extraordinary ability to consume media oxygen will make it easier for Ryan and McConnell to ram stuff through.

The second limitation, which has been more important to some other follow-ups to Azari’s article, is with respect to Obama’s position in the political sequence. If Trump is a disjunctive president, this implies that Obama was a “preemptive” president in the mode of Carter or Nixon or Ike or Cleveland, fundamentally working within the paradigm established by a dominant opposition. The main problem I see with the assumption is that this just isn’t how Obama governed:

The problem here is that the “preemptive” label just doesn’t fit the facts. Obama’s signature domestic achievements—increasing taxes on the wealthy to pay for benefits for the poor and middle class, substantially expanding both regulation and public expenditure through the Affordable Care Act, enacting wide-ranging stimulus through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and tightening regulation of the financial industry through the Dodd-Frank Act—are all ambitious statutes, squarely within the New Deal/Great Society tradition.

There are strong arguments that all of these laws were compromised by the need to win support of unsavory vested interests and/or Republican senators, and didn’t go far enough. But, of course, the same was true of the New Deal. Particularly when you also consider Obama’s aggressive use of the regulatory state on issues such as the environment, labor rights, and immigration, his governing posture was very different from Clinton’s embrace of the dictum that the “era of big government is over.”

Typically, the minority party facing a dominant regime moves towards this regime. But if this is still Reagan’s regime, the opposite has been happening with the Democratic Party. Obama campaigned to the left of Hillary Clinton in 2008. Clinton campaigned to the left of Obama in 2016 (and far to the left of her husband’s actually preemptive 1992 and 1996 campaigns). While 20 years ago Democrats would have reacted to electoral defeat by moving to the right, most signs indicate that the party will continue to move left.

Obama was neither a preemptive president nor a reconstructive one. Instead, we are in a political space in which there is no dominant regime. Two ideologically coherent parties—one increasingly committed to expanding the New Deal and the Great Society, one to inflict the crushing blows to it Reagan and Bush couldn’t—are becoming increasingly polarized. The same factors that are almost certain to cause the Supreme Court to lurch dramatically to the left or right when the median vote changes hands will also mean that narrowly decided elections will carry increasingly large consequences if there is unified government and hopeless gridlock when there isn’t.

It is of course possible that this new framework, in which increasingly polarized parties square off, won’t last. But given the incentives, I think it will be with us for a while:

And it’s likely that this post-regime politics will persist for a while. The Democrats, having won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, have a viable electoral coalition. Despite nominating an unpopular candidate facing unique headwinds, the party won three million more votes for its most progressive program in decades. Meanwhile, while it’s a minority coalition nationally, Republicans will remain competitive because of the federal system and skewed apportionment in both houses of Congress. The Democratic Party may well be able to defeat Trump after one term and even stop important parts of the Ryan-McConnell agenda—but even if they do, their opponents aren’t going anywhere. The 21st century figures to be characterized by intense polarization, not by the rise and fall of dominant regimes.

Trump can be beaten, in other words, but Ryanism isn’t going anywhere. But the Democrats are wise to carve out their own space rather than trying to play on Republican terrain.

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