Monthly Archives: July 2019

The Democrat’s Agonizing Choice

It is possible that whichever candidate the Democrats nominate to run against Donald Trump will win. Perhaps Trump’s apparent ceiling in public approval of around 45% is also the upper limit of his share of the vote in the next election. The fact that Trump’s approval rating has been the least variable of any sitting president may suggest that how Americans respond to Trump’s strong and unusual personal characteristics will decide the next election. If so, then he will surely lose not only the popular vote but also the electoral college.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that Trump could win no matter which Democrat opposes him. In normal circumstances, an incumbent president would be almost impossible to beat given the favorable economic indicators now in evidence. True, many economists expect a slowdown ahead, but it may arrive too late to impact the general election of November, 2020. Indeed, the June employment data were unexpectedly positive, there are few signs of inflation growth and the Fed is sending signals of a possible rate cut, which might extend the current record growth stretch that is nearing a decade in length.

Under either of the above scenarios, it matters not who the Democrats nominate but instead whether votes focus more on Trump’s personality and character (since a majority disapproves, Trump loses) or upon the state of the economy (absent a serious downturn, Trump wins).

If you believe that either of these sets of factors will prove decisive, then you should vote to nominate the Democratic presidential candidate who most closely matches your own preferences, whether these center upon policies, character, experience, etc. There is no need to worry about which Democrat has the best chance to beat Trump since factors outside the control of the Democrats or their candidates will decide the outcome in any case.

At present, however, polls and other data forecast a close election, suggesting that neither judgments about the president’s personal traits nor economic fundamentals will necessarily prove decisive.

This allows for a third possibility. The election could turn on which Democrat is nominated. If this were the case, then primary/caucus voters have to consider electability. Personal preference may be trumped (so to speak) by strategic considerations. Some voters may bypass their preferred candidate in favor of someone they believe has a better chance of victory in January.

But how to figure who is more electable? There are two theories.

The conventional wisdom is summed up by the median voter theorem, which says that the candidate who most closely matches the preferences of the median voter – i.e., the voter precisely in the middle of the relevant ideological spectrum – will win. According to this theory, the Democrats should nominate a candidate most likely to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans – the swing voters who typically decide elections. Such a nominee would necessarily be more moderate (i.e., less liberal or progressive) than the majority of Democrats.

But why would Democrats nominate someone further to the right than their own position, especially if more liberal candidates are available? This could happen if the liberal vote is divided among a larger number of candidates while the moderate voters within the party gravitate to one candidate. It could also happen if Democratic voters expect a close general election and believe that a moderate candidate has a better chance of victory in the fall – i.e., if they vote strategically rather than according to ideological preference.

Recent evidence does not offer much support for the idea that the Democratic Party would have a better chance of winning by nominating someone more moderate than the party’s own center of gravity in hopes of attracting independents and some Republicans. After all, the party has nominated a long list of centrist candidates who lost – e.g., Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and Hillary Clinton. In fairness, however, Bill Clinton won by tacking to the center (but with help from Ross Perot in 1992) while Gore and Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote, despite losing the electoral college.

Some advocates of the centrist strategy argue that Clinton’s 2016 electoral college loss was due to poor campaign strategy rather than the ideological position of the candidate. A shift of 70,000 votes across three upper Midwest states that typically vote Democratic would have changed the outcome. Unfortunately, Clinton took victories in these states for granted and failed to devote the time or money needed to successfully defend this Democratic “blue wall.”

According to this analysis, the lesson is not to shift leftward in 2020, but instead to focus on regaining the support of the white working class voters of the Rust Belt that were lost in 2020 due to Clinton’s inattention combined with targeted appeals by Trump.

The alternative approach is to consider 2020 a base election. Rather than seeking to attract independents and moderate Republicans by tacking right, the path to victory lies in driving up enthusiasm and turnout among those groups that make up the core of Democratic Party support. This worked in 2008 when the party nominated Barack Obama, who positioned himself to the left of Clinton in the primaries (although he governed from the center in office) and who managed to increase turnout among core Democratic constituencies in the general election.

Advocates of this approach point out that there are relatively few genuine swing voters in the center. Rather, the political climate is increasingly polarized. Under these conditions, the key is to get your own people to the polls. That requires a nominee who represents the party’s own center of gravity, even if he or she is to the left of the country as a whole.

Of course, the Democratic Party’s center of gravity has moved significantly to the left in recent years. A nominee that far left could drive up turnout on the Republican side – Republicans lukewarm about Trump who would stay home if the Democrats put up a centrist candidate might feel obliged to cast a vote for Trump in order to prevent a more liberal/progressive Democrat from reaching office.

The real wild card for the Democrats are young people. Young Democrats are far more liberal than their elders. But they do not traditionally vote in large numbers. By nominating a very liberal candidate, the Democratic Party would be betting that young people would be enthused enough to vote in November. In fact, victory would probably require it. The youth vote did expand in the 2018, helping Democrats take the House. Yet it still remained low compared with older Americans.

The choice is agonizing because Democrats badly want to beat Trump. Yet young Democrats, especially, also see a historic opportunity to change the Democratic Party into one that is more inclusive, less deferential to corporate interests and less driven by caution and fear. These tensions show up in racial, regional and inter-generational divides within the party.

Another important factor has to do with down-ballot races for the Congress and state legislatures. Many of the Democrats who flipped red seats blue in 2018 ran as moderates. If the Democrats run too far to the left at the presidential level in 2020, then some of these gains could be placed at risk.

Yet progressives point to a number of high profile races in 2018 where Democrats in traditionally red or purple states either won or lost by unusually small margins by adopting a populist message that not only energized the Democratic base but also attracted traditional non-voters whose views do not fit easily within the traditional left-right spectrum. Moreover, even moderate Democrats embraced more liberal positions than in past electoral cycles. The 2018 results are thus open to interpretation.

If Trump’s approval ratings are a good predictor of the next presidential election, then any Democratic candidate is likely to win. If voters based their choice upon so-called economic fundamentals, then Trump is likely to win (unless the economy tanks between now and then).

But if 2020 turns out to be a close election – like 2016 – it could matter greatly who the Democrats nominate and what ideological and strategic choices they make. Do we need a candidate who can attract centrist voters and win back the industrial midwest? Or do we need a candidate who can bring out the base by representing the liberal values of core Democratic constituencies and young people?


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Hong Kong Erupts

The past few weeks have witnessed massive and historic protests in Hong Kong. One demonstration brought an estimated 2 million people (out of a population of 7 million) into the streets. Most recently, a small group of protesters escalated matters by occupying and defacing the Legislative Council Building, a move that will surely bring further confrontations with police and threatens to dissipate the broad-based support for the original protests.

In the face of massive resistance, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been compelled to “suspend” a proposed extradition law that would have opened the way for China to gain access to criminal defendants for trial in mainland courts for certain types of crimes. Lam also promised to pay more heed to public sentiment and consult more broadly in the future. But Lam’s failure to fully withdraw the extradition bill and her unwillingness so far to heed demands that she resign from office have ensured continued unrest.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement failed in its efforts to force Beijing to allow the fully democratic election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Subsequently, several leaders of the 2014 protests were jailed and several young militants elected to the Legislative Council were removed over their failure to properly repeat the oath of office. These and other recent setbacks for Hong Kong’s democracy movement failed to stimulate large protests or force a change in course on the part of Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved leaders.

Why has the current case proved so different? Although the 2014 protests brought tens of thousands of dedicated demonstrators into the streets and managed to cut off a key transportation artery for close to three months, the movement was unable to draw the broad-based popular support that the anti-extradition protests have marshaled. This is partly because many Hong Kongers saw Beijing’s proposed election reform  of 2014 as a step forward (it would have allowed the Chief Executive to be selected through popular vote as opposed to chosen by a 1200 person Elective Committee largely controlled by mainland authorities; however, the nomination process itself would still be managed by the Election Committee, ensuring, in practice, that representatives from the pan-Democratic camp would never be allowed to run for Chief Executive) while the critics failed to coalesce around a clear alternative.

Moreover, the confusing strategy pursued by the pro-democracy camp ensured that the old election procedures remained in place, even though they were less democratic than the alternative advanced by Beijing.

The Umbrella Movement included some voices that called not just for greater democracy in Hong Kong, but also for independence from China. Many Hong Kongers reject independence, either because they share a sense of political identification with China or because they fear provoking Beijing into a crackdown against all dissent in Hong Kong.

In sum, the issues and strategic questions raised by the Umbrella Movement limited the breadth of support that it could muster. The fact that Hong Kong authorities avoided tough tactics and simply allowed the protests to collapse from sheer exhaustion also played a role in the movement’s failure.

Yet the failure of the Umbrella Movement is actually an aberration in the record of popular protest in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers took to the streets in massive numbers in 2003 to oppose a proposed “anti-subversion” law that would have curtailed political rights and free expression. In 2011, a student group called Scholarism gained popular support for its objections to a proposal originating in Beijing for the infusion of pro-Communist “moral and national education” into Hong Kong schools. As with the extradition bill, the Hong Kong government was forced to shelve both measures. These examples show that popular pressure can work in Hong Kong.

Whereas Beijing’s election proposal of 2014 was seen by some as a step in the right direction, the extradition bill was viewed with alarm because it potentially subjected Hong Kong citizens (as well as visitors) to a mainland legal system that most view as arbitrary and unfair.

Crucially, big business interests in Hong Kong – ordinarily eager to align with Beijing’s preferences – opposed the extradition bill out of fear that they would be caught up in the mainland’s anti-corruption campaign. Many Hong Kong business leaders are vulnerable due to histories of bribe-paying or engagement in illicit activities, such as the use of prostitutes. Although Lam narrowed the scope of the bill, this failed to curb concerns from the business community.

The extradition controversy also led to calls by some American elected officials and pundits for the withdrawal of Hong Kong’s special trading status with the United States if the bill went through. The prospect that extradition issue might hand the Trump Administration another club with which to threaten Beijing in the ongoing trade war increased pressure on Lam to back down.

Lam’s apparent failure to anticipate popular revulsion at the extradition proposal underscores the appalling political record of the Chief Executives installed by Beijing since the 1997 handover. The first CE, Tung Chee-hwa, was forced to resign after he mismanaged the 2003 anti-sedition law controversy and lost the confidence of Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005. Donald Tsang, CE from 2007-2012, was plagued by scandals and convicted on corruption charges after leaving office (although the conviction was subsequently overturned on appeal). CE Leung Chun-ying left office after a single term with abysmal public approval ratings.

Like her predecessors, Carrie Lam has proven unable to manage the unique challenges facing any Hong Kong Chief Executive. The CE in Hong Kong lacks the legitimacy that a popular electoral mandate would provide. With backgrounds in public administration or business, the occupants to date have lacked practical political experience. They are ultimately answerable to the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, yet must also appear responsive to popular sentiment and to the local business and professional constituencies that dominate the Legislative Council and the Hong Kong economy. The CE must try to lead a city that falls under China’s sovereign rule and is utterly dependent upon the mainland but that also possesses a wavering autonomy subject to constant contestation.

The “one country, two systems” formula has proven unsuccessful at ensuring political stability and stable governance in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s youth are pessimistic about the future and are increasingly attracted to militancy in their periodic confrontations with Beijing and its local partners. The Hong Kong people’s spirited defense of the rule of law and the civil liberties that they have largely enjoyed to date is admirable. Whether it will be enough to ensure Hong Kong’s distinctive place within China’s orbit remains unclear.


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