IGS Goes to Washington

panelists at IGS DC conference
December 5, 2016

Bringing the analytical power of the world’s best public research university to the nation’s capital, the Institute of Governmental Studies hosted a conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Nov. 29, entitled “Election 2016: California and the Country.”

The event, which drew a large crowd to the Grand Ballroom at the National Press Club, included three panels of scholars, politicians, and journalists analyzing one of the most extraordinary campaigns in the country’s history.

At a time when some people are questioning the ability of America’s political institutions to confront the nation’s challenges, IGS Director Jack Citrin noted in opening the conference, it is good to remember Lincoln’s dictum that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Bill Brandt, the Chair of the IGS National Advisory Council, also made opening remarks, noting that after an unusual and divisive election campaign, the nation has begun reframing the election “back into the mainstream of American thought” – a process that can only be helped by serious scholarly analysis.

The conference, which was supported by Gold Sponsor KP Public Affairs and Blue Sponsor Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, was the first IGS event in Washington, and is part of a new effort launched by Citrin and Brandt to bring the Institute’s unique mix of scholarly analysis and practical politics to Washington.

The event included three panels, one on the California results and the potential lessons for the nation, one on the media and the 2016 election, and a final roundtable on the prospects for national governance in a Trump Administration and a unified Republican Congress.

The roundtable discussion included both optimism and pessimism about the political future. Despite Trump’s lack of public service experience – unprecedented for a new president – IGS Visiting Scholar Steven Hayward said the President Elect’s early Cabinet choices differed “not a bit” from what he would have expected from a President Ted Cruz, a sentiment that was largely echoed by moderator Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report (though Walter noted that White House Adviser Steve Bannon is an exception). 

Echoing that optimism, Duf Sundheim, former Chair of the California Republican Party and a member of the IGS National Advisory Council, said he believes that incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer – a powerful figure because of his party’s ability to filibuster – is more inclined to cut deals with Republicans than was his predecessor, Harry Reid, and thus it is possible that “the stars are aligning,” as Sundheim put it, for productive legislation.

But there was also a negative interpretation, much of it focused on Trump’s controversial and divisive personal qualities. IGS Senior Research Fellow Tom Mann, an old Washington hand from his long tenure at the Brookings Institution, predicted that the new President will be more likely to look for bipartisan deals than Republican leaders in the House and Senate will be, but Mann also noted Trump’s personal tendency to strike out immediately at anyone who doesn’t like him.

”This is the United States of America and we’re looking like a banana republic,” Mann said. Ultimately, he said, the question is the durability of American democracy “in the face of electing a demagogue.”

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who is also a member of the IGS National Advisory Council, predicted that as President, Trump will pursue an ad hoc approach to problem-solving. “There is not going to be a pattern,” Hart said. “It’s going to be patchwork.”

The roundtable also included discussion of the election, with most panelists agreeing that voters were seeking a change. Sundheim said he was shocked at how many people in his Illinois hometown had voted for President Obama twice but then voted for Trump this time, largely because they had a sense of falling behind and wanting a change. “They don’t necessarily want Trump,” he said, “but they want something completely different.”

Kelly Jane Torrance, deputy managing editor of the Weekly Standard, speculated that voters might have wanted a different result than they actually produced. Noting that Congressional Republicans out-performed Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote, Torrance wondered if perhaps voters expected Clinton to win the White House, but were voting for Congressional Republican candidates in hopes of producing divided government. At the same time, Torrance also rose slightly to the defense of Trump supporters, saying she disagrees with critiques that suggest racism was the sole reason for voters to back the Republican.

The opening panel of the conference featured a lively discussion of California politics and the implications for the nation’s political future. Thad Kousser, a Professor of Political Science at UC-San Diego who was a Graduate Fellow at IGS while completing his doctorate at Cal, began that session by comparing Trump’s 2016 campaign to California Governor Pete Wilson’s 1994 re-election, in which he played on fears of immigration to generate strong support among white voters. Although Wilson won that election, many analysts believe he alienated minority voters in the process, ensuring California’s long-term lurch toward the Democrats. If Trump is comparable to Wilson, Kousser noted, 2016 could portend a period of national Democratic dominance.

But Kousser added three notes of caution for Democrats. First, Democrats began to run up huge California margins among voters of color by delivering policy achievements popular in minority communities, something they may not be able to do at the national level because of Republican control. Second, Democrats nationally must “stop the bleeding” among white voters, something they have not been able to do. Third, the rising Democratic tide in California was fueled in part by the speedy processing of naturalization applications under the Clinton Administration, something that may not occur under the Trump Administration

California Assembly Speaker Emeritus John A. Pérez agreed with Kousser that “demography is not destiny,” adding that Democrats cannot rely solely on increasing diversity of population to eventually hand them victory. He also noted that the California economic recovery of the 1990s failed to bring back many “medium-skill jobs,” producing a working-class anxiety not unlike today’s national mood.

Jim Brulte, Chair of the California Republican Party, noted GOP successes in local races in California, but he also agreed that the party must figure out how to appeal to minority voters. “If we can ever figure out how to get it right,” he said, “we will provide a road map for the rest of the country, because the rest of the country is looking more like California.”

Politico writer Carla Marinucci discussed the unusual role of California’s tech innovations, noting that some of the advanced technologies so popular in the Golden State can help to produce angst among working-class voters elsewhere, as technological advances and globalization often strip away blue-collar jobs in heartland states.

The second panel of the conference focused on the changing role of the media in the 2016 election. Much of that discussion focused on Trump’s unusual candidacy. For example, CNN Senior Political Correspondent Brianna Keilar was asked what the media would have done differently had they known that Trump would be a serious candidate, and she answered that her network would not have aired unfiltered Trump rallies without fact checking.

Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, said that in her view there were simply many Trump stories that were not covered during the campaign or were covered too late, adding that they should have been done “much, much earlier.” But Tamara Keith, White House Correspondent for NPR, said that part of the reason was the need to also cover Clinton, also a controversial candidate with her share of scandals and other stories.

Jason Johnson, a Professor in the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University, noted that the phrase “the media” can mean many different things to many different people, pointing to the fact that even people who say they dislike “the media” often like some particular journalism organization, whether it’s NPR, Fox News or The New York Times. 

Full video of the three panels can be found on YouTube.