Monday, August 21, 2017

VPWatch2: Afghanistan Agonistes 2 & Pence's Play

Quick note, I have two blogs - this one which started out as sort of the commentary track to my dissertation on the vice president, but now is more broadly on presidents, politics, and White House process. And then Terrorwonk, which started out on terrorism and has expanded to international affairs, technology, and ideas in general. This particular rant is unique because Part 1 is at TerrorWonk because it is about the policy aspects of Afghanistan. Part 2 is about the struggles in actually making policy on Afghanistan and the Vice President's increasingly significant role.

Also, I was originally going to entitle this Sympathy for the Donald, but my sympathy for the President has evaporated.

The president is really wrestling with making policy towards Afghanistan. There are no good choices.

But besides the fundamental challenge of choosing what flavor of unpleasantness he wants to spend the rest of his presidency dealing with - the president is also facing institutional barriers to changing policy.

It is possible that the president is ready to call it quits in Afghanistan. But the National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, believes in the nation-building/counter-insurgency mission (and has some pretty serious credibility at it). So when the president asks for options, he keeps getting more counter-insurgency and less withdrawal. It is likely that McMaster has the backing of DoD (and possibly Kelly as well.) The DoD isn't going to want to lose a war it is currently fighting.

A more skilled president would know a bit more about working the system to obtain more options, but the current denizen of the Oval Office does not possess significant experience on national security issues or with large bureaucracies.

This frustration with and inability to manipulate the bureaucratic politics may have been one of the reasons the president proposed sending mercenaries.

Pence's Play
And this is where the VP comes in. According to some reports, Pence played a central role in overseeing the policy review process. While some insiders claim that Pence was allied with McMaster in pushing for more troops, Pence himself stated he played the honest broker role gathering information, mapping out scenarios, and presenting options to the president.

The first observation is that this implies that the president has a pretty high level of trust in the vice president. Pence has been exceptionally loyal and an effective ambassador on the national and global stage. That has built his internal capital with a president who values loyalty, but whose messaging has been plagued with controversy.

Essential history of NSAs
It also highlights that there may be problems in the national security process. It is not the case the McMaster is not capable. He is a PhD, best-selling author, successful battlefield commander, and successful counter-insurgency innovator. But if Pence is the honest broker in the process, then it appears that the president does not have complete confidence in his National Security Advisor.

Any review of the history of the NSA highlights the importance of a close working relationship with the president. Without this, no NSA can hope to be successful. Although, if McMaster was a constant proponent of sending more troops - which the president did not really want to do - then charging Pence with guiding the process actually makes sense.

Finally, Pence's role echoes that of Biden. Obama too engaged in a top to bottom review of the war in Afghanistan. Knowing that the military was pushing for large-scale, open ended troop commitments, Obama charged his vice president with creating alternatives. The point was to give the president time and space to make his own decision and the vice president had the standing to do it. Except that in the current case, it looks like the president - rather than getting new options - ended up with pretty much the policy his NSA was pushing.

From the outside, it appears that Pence does have some opportunities for influence. VPs always have to choose their battles. Gore stayed out of healthcare and Bush Sr. stayed out of economics policy. Cheney wasn't really interested in domestic affairs at all. With this president, who is um... mercurial, so that policy can change very quickly, it is even more important for the VP to choose where to use this hard won internal capital.

If this reporting on the Vice President's role in the Afghanistan review is accurate, it also reflects on the outsider/insider paradigm. This concept (at the core of my research) is that presidents with limited Washington experience turn to vice presidents with this experience for help. Trump has less political or Washington experience than any president in history. It would make perfect sense that he would turn to his vice president for assistance with the thorniest problems.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

VPWatch1: VP as Signal - An Experiment

We are watching an embattled presidency. Approval ratings, given a reasonably strong economy, are astoundingly low. The White House is in a constant state of leaky turmoil. And the president is frankly divorced from any understanding of basic political inputs and outputs. I could say more - my thoughts on that man in the White House are no secret - but my point here is to be analytical.

One of my themes in studying the vice presidency is using it as a lens to understand the presidency. I thought it would be a good time to start really watching the vice president. I've started tweeting a few items daily, and here is my first blog. Probably a few times a week.

But there is an analytical challenge. Over the course of several presidencies the vice presidency can be a useful indicator. But, as a short-term indicator it is more difficult to say. The signal is weak. First, most of what can be known comes out after presidents have left office and memoirs have been written. Vice presidents have traditionally kept their counsel to the president private. This was a precedent established by Mondale and - for the most part - kept since. Because of this, what we know about vice presidents may not reflect the most critical issues. Mondale (again) was involved in many things, but information about his involvement on the Soviet Union or Iran was limited. Cheney had little to say about "No Child Left Behind" or PEPFAR, two of Bush's primary initiatives.

On the other hand, when Israeli-Egyptian negotiations were flagging, Carter summoned Mondale from the White House to join the parlay at Camp David. From the perspective of studying the vice president, it highlights the value Carter placed on his counsel. From the perspective of the president's needs it indicated that Carter was not doing so well with the Israelis. Mondale had a strong relationship with them and they trusted him more than the president.

Pence's Play
Pence abroad: Chile seems cool compared to DC now
And that is a good place to begin. The Vice President has just cut short a trip to South America. It does not appear that the president summoned him. What was the point of his change in plans.

Charlottesville was a terrible thing, but extremists have marched before and sadly will again. The violence and death was truly, truly awful. Is it a national crisis on the scale of Hurricane Katrina? JUST TO BE CLEAR - I HATE NAZIS AS MUCH AS ANYONE! But in this case I'm writing from the head, not the heart (which is sick and sad right now.)

A president saying the appropriate things would have made this a smaller and shorter story - and frankly could have had a salutary affect that we could have really used. It was the president's failure to do so that has made this a crisis.

When Presidents are in political trouble of their own making, the vice president can travel and avoid the cross-hairs. So what were Pence's calculations? What was he thinking?

Does he believe he can talk sense to the president and help the administration work its way out of things? Are we close to a Constitutional crisis and Pence figures being nearby is smart? Did the White House staff beg him to return?

Tough to know, but interesting to consider.

One important note is that for all of the leaks and reported intrigue - Pence does not appear to be a central player in this cut and thrust. He rarely appears in any form in the endless reporting. In fact the only hard exercise of vice presidential influence we've seen so far is that Pence persuaded Trump to fire Flynn. This works to Pence's favor - since Flynn was a nightmare politically, professionally, and personally. But it also indicates that just maybe the President listens to Pence. After all, Flynn was deeply loyal to Trump and vice-versa. Trump's efforts to protect Flynn, as much as anything, have endangered his presidency.

This is a strong indicator that Pence thinks, or people in the White House think, that the Vice President can help put it out the self-igniting dumpster fire that is this administration.

Can he? I doubt it.

Pence on the Fence
Like most politicians, he tries to have it both ways, and has done so effectively. He condemned neo-Nazis (not a hard call really) while also saying he supports the president. His statement in Argentina on Venezuela was a perfect example:
As President Trump said just a few days ago, “We have many options for Venezuela.”
The Vice President elided the ludicrous and counterproductive Presidential statement that we may have military options in Venezuela, but still cited and supported the president.

Say what you will about Pence, he's pretty good at walking this fine line.

Stay tuned.