Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Republican Party, the conservative movement and competing incentives

The basic problem that both the Republican Party and the conservative movement face right now is, obviously, Donald Trump.  He has no loyalty to the party, no ideological commitment to the conservative cause, and no compunction about tearing down either or both if spurned.  Understanding the problem, though, requires understanding that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are not the same things, and their incentives have started to diverge.

The Republican Party is, um, a party.  What does that mean?  Let's go back to the classic political science definition from V.O. Key.  (Valdimer Orlando.  Yes, really).  He divided the party into what we all memorized in grad school with "PIG-PIE-PAO."  Party in government, party in the electorate, and party as organization.  Now you won't forget it either.  Mmmmm... Pie...

In government, the national Republican Party right now is the Republican House and Senate delegation.  At the state level, it consists of governors and state legislators.  In the electorate, the Republican Party is the set of self-identified Republican voters.  Finally, there are the RNC and affiliated groups.

The conservative movement?  That's trickier.  It is a strange coalition of Christian conservatives who care primarily about restricting abortion, gay marriage, etc., Chamber of Commerce types who care primarily about tax cuts and deregulation, and other odd assortments of single-issue groups motivated by guns, immigration, etc.

How do you get your way in American politics?  Through parties.  The critical link is the PIG part of PIG-PIE-PAO.  You don't get legislation without elected officials on your side, and you get that by linking yourself to their party.

In the mid-20th Century, the Republican Party was much more moderate.  It was only loosely connected to the conservative movement, such as it was.  The great success of the conservative movement in lowering tax rates at the national level, and broadly at the state level, has come from making the conservative movement deeply entwined with the Republican Party.  PIE members lean right, the PAO is connected to the interest groups in the conservative movement, and that puts the PIGs in a position such that they carry out the will of the conservative movement.

The PIGs, so to speak, get something from the deal too.  In addition to being movement members who get policy outcomes, they get elected.  And they care about that.  A lot.  Being in Congress is a career, and my old mentor, Nelson W. Polsby wrote his most important paper on the process of it becoming so.  A confluence of interests.

What happens, then, when those interests diverge?  The whole PIG-PIE-PAO system benefits the PIGs by keeping them in office.  They need it to stay there.  They need to preserve the whole shebang.

The conservative movement?  They don't have any incentive to preserve it when it stops being a useful vehicle for conservative policy.

What does this have to do with Donald Trump?  Stealing the nomination from him at the convention will incur his wrath.  This is not a guy who forgives.  Anything.  Ever.  He wants to be president, and he will burn down the party if he leads the delegate count, and doesn't get the nomination.  This is the kind of thing that has the potential to collapse the party.  Is it probable?  No, but it is a serious risk.

To Paul Ryan and the other real leaders of the Republican Party, that's too risky.  He is currently Speaker of the House, and the other people in positions of power also, well, have power.  If the Republican Party collapses, they may not maintain their positions.

The conservative movement, on the other hand, may be OK with the Republican Party collapsing.  Once it stops being a vehicle for conservative policy, they may be better off blowing up the party and hoping to get control of whatever rises in its ashes.  And Donald Trump is not a vehicle for conservative policy.  A party that nominates that guy, well, it's either a one-off, or the greatest shark-jump since Fonzie.

So, who are the actors capable of blocking Trump at the convention-- the party or the movement?  It's the party!  If Paul Ryan and the rest of the leaders of the party aren't on board with nomination-blocking Trump at the convention, it won't happen.  And they need the party not to break apart.

Is Donald Trump a lock?  No.  This year, anything can happen (my standard 2016 disclaimer).  But, if Trump leads in both the delegate count and the polls, stealing the nomination at the convention is too dangerous for the people who would actually have to do the dirty work.

As I keep saying, watch the national polls.  Trump is leading Ted Cruz by more than 10 points on average, and closing in on 50%.

I bet you're expecting Pink Floyd now.  Here's Les Claypool instead.

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