washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

August 18: Democrats Beating the Spread in 2017 Special Elections

As part of our continuing look ahead at 2018, I offered these thoughts about 2017 developments at New York.

Projecting what will happen in midterm elections is always tricky. Yes, the party controlling the White House almost always loses House seats — though that didn’t happen in 1998 and 2002. Sure, the president’s approval ratings seem to have a very significant impact on the White House party’s losses or (in rare occasions) gains. But predicting approval ratings is tough.

But one bit of objective data you can track that’s not simply a matter of projections is the performance of the two parties in special elections heading toward the midterms. And while no one special election necessarily has predictive value, if you add them up it starts mattering.

That’s what Harry Enten did today at FiveThirtyEight, and better yet, he scored all these elections like a bookie would score a sporting contest: with a “spread.” In this case the spread was the partisan “lean” of every congressional or state legislative district that’s had a special election so far this year, based on its performance in the last two presidential elections, with the last one weighted most heavily (as one would expect). There have been five U.S. House special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in all five, by an average margin of 16 percent of the total vote (ranging from 6 percent in Georgia’s sixth district to 23 percent in Kansas’s fourth district). That’s a lot.

There have also been 25 state legislative special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in 21 of them, by an average of — again — 16 points. None of the four races where Democrats failed to do better than the partisan lean were competitive contests.

Enten notes that Trump’s approval ratings would historically suggest an 11-point GOP deficit. The generic congressional ballot has been showing a 9-point GOP deficit at present. So the special elections are showing a stronger swing to Democrats than the standard data points.

In any case, it represents a lot of arrows pointing in the same direction.


Democrats Beating the Spread in 2017 Special Elections

As part of our continuing look ahead at 2018, I offered these thoughts about 2017 developments at New York.

Projecting what will happen in midterm elections is always tricky. Yes, the party controlling the White House almost always loses House seats — though that didn’t happen in 1998 and 2002. Sure, the president’s approval ratings seem to have a very significant impact on the White House party’s losses or (in rare occasions) gains. But predicting approval ratings is tough.

But one bit of objective data you can track that’s not simply a matter of projections is the performance of the two parties in special elections heading toward the midterms. And while no one special election necessarily has predictive value, if you add them up it starts mattering.

That’s what Harry Enten did today at FiveThirtyEight, and better yet, he scored all these elections like a bookie would score a sporting contest: with a “spread.” In this case the spread was the partisan “lean” of every congressional or state legislative district that’s had a special election so far this year, based on its performance in the last two presidential elections, with the last one weighted most heavily (as one would expect). There have been five U.S. House special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in all five, by an average margin of 16 percent of the total vote (ranging from 6 percent in Georgia’s sixth district to 23 percent in Kansas’s fourth district). That’s a lot.

There have also been 25 state legislative special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in 21 of them, by an average of — again — 16 points. None of the four races where Democrats failed to do better than the partisan lean were competitive contests.

Enten notes that Trump’s approval ratings would historically suggest an 11-point GOP deficit. The generic congressional ballot has been showing a 9-point GOP deficit at present. So the special elections are showing a stronger swing to Democrats than the standard data points.

In any case, it represents a lot of arrows pointing in the same direction.


August 17: Trump Joins and Then Re-Joins the Neo-Confederacy

Like most everyone else, I was shocked by the president’s nonchalant and false-equivalence-laden initial reaction to this last weekend’s white riot in Charlottesville, and wrote a take for New York that delves a bit into the history involved:

There is a sinister congruence between the president’s reaction to the white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville yesterday and the object the rioters assembled to defend: the city’s doomed Robert E. Lee statue. Both are manifestations of Neo-Confederacy, the fierce, century-long effort of the Southern ruling class to normalize white racism so long as it did not degenerate into extralegal violence.

Like most of its counterparts across and beyond the South, Charlottesville’s Lee statue was not erected during the Civil War or in the period when ex-Confederates might be expected to remember the famed military leader of the planter’s rebellion. It was commissioned in 1917 and erected in 1924 as a monument, not to the Confederacy, but to the rebellion’s posthumous victory over Reconstruction and the Civil War amendments to the Constitution.

The Neo-Confederates and their many Yankee sympathizers viewed Jim Crow as a peaceable compromise between slavery and racial equality. In that regime’s latter days, whole generations of white Southern politicians posed as civil upholders of law and order equally opposed both to civil-rights “agitators” and to the white-trash hoodlums of the Ku Klux Klan, who were successors to the white terrorists that the “better element” of Southerners strongly supported during and immediately after Reconstruction. These politicians often condemned, as Donald Trump did yesterday, the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” that threatened the quiet tyranny of Jim Crow. They preferred a “civil” resistance to equality in Congress and the courts, and in the genteel Citizens’ Councils that, as one sociologist aptly put it, “pursued the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club.”

The Neo-Confederates lost the battle against civil rights, but maintained a cultural rearguard for many years. You heard at least a faint echo of their words every time a conservative Southern politician hailed “law and order,” or attacked “the welfare,” or demanded maximum incarceration of African-American “predators.” This sort of politics maintained an unmistakable connection to nostalgia for the Old South, an imagined tranquil place of good manners and interracial understanding.

But until Donald Trump’s election, it seemed Neo-Confederacy had finally about run its course. The display of Confederate regalia on state flags, public buildings, and even football mascots gradually became distasteful, even to many conservative politicians. In 1993, when Georgia governor Zell Miller (later a conservative hero) proposed getting rid of the Confederate symbolism on Georgia’s state flag (imposed not during or after the Civil War, but during the period of white resistance to desegregation), soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported him. And by the time South Carolina governor Nikki Haley finally had the Confederate Battle Flag taken down from the statehouse after an outburst of racist violence — nearly 20 years after a Republican predecessor had proposed the same thing — it aroused little public opposition.

Yes, even hard-core conservatives began to understand that Confederate insignia were not just parts of history that today’s Southerners should “cherish,” to use the president’s startling allusion to the Lee statue, but part of a retroactive effort to whitewash history in the pursuit of racist lies.

But then, in the blink of an eye, the backlash to acts of simple racial decency began. It was not confined to Donald Trump’s campaign, but in many corners of the right, hostility to “political correctness” — defined as sensitivity to the fears and concerns of, well, anyone other than white men — became a hallmark of the “populist” conservatism Trump made fashionable and ultimately ascendent.

And so the relatively uncontroversial movement to get Jim Crow era Confederate insignia and memorials out of the public square and back into museums and history books suddenly faced renewed opposition — not just from the motley crew of open white supremacists who viewed the 45th president as their hero, but from politicians who saw a broader constituency for a brand-new era of white backlash. It is no mistake that Corey Stewart — who was Trump’s 2016 Virginia campaign chair until he was dumped for excessive public hostility to anti-Trump elements in the Republican National Committee — seized on the decision of the Charlottesville City Council to remove the Lee monument as an example of contemptible “political correctness” in his surprisingly successful 2017 GOP gubernatorial campaign (which fell just short of upsetting the heavily favored Ed Gillespie). Stewart, who is now running for U.S. Senate, not only defended Trump’s refusal to distinguish between white supremacists and their opponents in the Charlottesville violence, but took it to the next level in an interview with Breitbart News:

“We have the violent left which recently attacked a U.S. Congressman [Steve Scalise], which has been attacking Trump supporters across the country, and I never hear Democratic politicians condemning them. I’m not going to play their game. I am not going to condemn anyone other than the criminal. We always have to protect citizens who are trying to exercise their First Amendment rights. From my perspective, there were a lot of left-wing agitators who violently attacked citizens who were trying to espouse their views last night and today.”

So there you have it: Not only were the Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists who chose Charlottesville for their big rally simply trying to “espouse their views,” but also conservatives should not say a discouraging word to them so long as they aren’t “the criminal,” however that is defined.

Perhaps the president will eventually be convinced by his more politically pragmatic allies to draw a clear line between himself and the racists who revere him. It would be immensely more valuable if he condemned not just idiot Klansmen and neo-Nazis but demagogues like Stewart whose idea of “Trumpism” is to champion any and all types of white backlash to “political correctness” and “the Left” as legitimate.

As we now know, Trump did briefly (and not very convincincly) clarify his feelings about the white supremacists of the Unite the Right demonstration. And then he showed his truer colors in a subsequent press conference wherein he expressed solidarity with the “fine people” amongst the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who just wanted to revere the memory of Gen. Lee. And so he rejoined the neo-Confederacy after a couple of days apart.


Trump Joins and Then Re-Joins the Neo-Confederacy

Like most everyone else, I was shocked by the president’s nonchalant and false-equivalence-laden initial reaction to this last weekend’s white riot in Charlottesville, and wrote a take for New York that delves a bit into the history involved:

There is a sinister congruence between the president’s reaction to the white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville yesterday and the object the rioters assembled to defend: the city’s doomed Robert E. Lee statue. Both are manifestations of Neo-Confederacy, the fierce, century-long effort of the Southern ruling class to normalize white racism so long as it did not degenerate into extralegal violence.

Like most of its counterparts across and beyond the South, Charlottesville’s Lee statue was not erected during the Civil War or in the period when ex-Confederates might be expected to remember the famed military leader of the planter’s rebellion. It was commissioned in 1917 and erected in 1924 as a monument, not to the Confederacy, but to the rebellion’s posthumous victory over Reconstruction and the Civil War amendments to the Constitution.

The Neo-Confederates and their many Yankee sympathizers viewed Jim Crow as a peaceable compromise between slavery and racial equality. In that regime’s latter days, whole generations of white Southern politicians posed as civil upholders of law and order equally opposed both to civil-rights “agitators” and to the white-trash hoodlums of the Ku Klux Klan, who were successors to the white terrorists that the “better element” of Southerners strongly supported during and immediately after Reconstruction. These politicians often condemned, as Donald Trump did yesterday, the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” that threatened the quiet tyranny of Jim Crow. They preferred a “civil” resistance to equality in Congress and the courts, and in the genteel Citizens’ Councils that, as one sociologist aptly put it, “pursued the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club.”

The Neo-Confederates lost the battle against civil rights, but maintained a cultural rearguard for many years. You heard at least a faint echo of their words every time a conservative Southern politician hailed “law and order,” or attacked “the welfare,” or demanded maximum incarceration of African-American “predators.” This sort of politics maintained an unmistakable connection to nostalgia for the Old South, an imagined tranquil place of good manners and interracial understanding.

But until Donald Trump’s election, it seemed Neo-Confederacy had finally about run its course. The display of Confederate regalia on state flags, public buildings, and even football mascots gradually became distasteful, even to many conservative politicians. In 1993, when Georgia governor Zell Miller (later a conservative hero) proposed getting rid of the Confederate symbolism on Georgia’s state flag (imposed not during or after the Civil War, but during the period of white resistance to desegregation), soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported him. And by the time South Carolina governor Nikki Haley finally had the Confederate Battle Flag taken down from the statehouse after an outburst of racist violence — nearly 20 years after a Republican predecessor had proposed the same thing — it aroused little public opposition.

Yes, even hard-core conservatives began to understand that Confederate insignia were not just parts of history that today’s Southerners should “cherish,” to use the president’s startling allusion to the Lee statue, but part of a retroactive effort to whitewash history in the pursuit of racist lies.

But then, in the blink of an eye, the backlash to acts of simple racial decency began. It was not confined to Donald Trump’s campaign, but in many corners of the right, hostility to “political correctness” — defined as sensitivity to the fears and concerns of, well, anyone other than white men — became a hallmark of the “populist” conservatism Trump made fashionable and ultimately ascendent.

And so the relatively uncontroversial movement to get Jim Crow era Confederate insignia and memorials out of the public square and back into museums and history books suddenly faced renewed opposition — not just from the motley crew of open white supremacists who viewed the 45th president as their hero, but from politicians who saw a broader constituency for a brand-new era of white backlash. It is no mistake that Corey Stewart — who was Trump’s 2016 Virginia campaign chair until he was dumped for excessive public hostility to anti-Trump elements in the Republican National Committee — seized on the decision of the Charlottesville City Council to remove the Lee monument as an example of contemptible “political correctness” in his surprisingly successful 2017 GOP gubernatorial campaign (which fell just short of upsetting the heavily favored Ed Gillespie). Stewart, who is now running for U.S. Senate, not only defended Trump’s refusal to distinguish between white supremacists and their opponents in the Charlottesville violence, but took it to the next level in an interview with Breitbart News:

“We have the violent left which recently attacked a U.S. Congressman [Steve Scalise], which has been attacking Trump supporters across the country, and I never hear Democratic politicians condemning them. I’m not going to play their game. I am not going to condemn anyone other than the criminal. We always have to protect citizens who are trying to exercise their First Amendment rights. From my perspective, there were a lot of left-wing agitators who violently attacked citizens who were trying to espouse their views last night and today.”

So there you have it: Not only were the Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists who chose Charlottesville for their big rally simply trying to “espouse their views,” but also conservatives should not say a discouraging word to them so long as they aren’t “the criminal,” however that is defined.

Perhaps the president will eventually be convinced by his more politically pragmatic allies to draw a clear line between himself and the racists who revere him. It would be immensely more valuable if he condemned not just idiot Klansmen and neo-Nazis but demagogues like Stewart whose idea of “Trumpism” is to champion any and all types of white backlash to “political correctness” and “the Left” as legitimate.

As we now know, Trump did briefly (and not very convincincly) clarify his feelings about the white supremacists of the Unite the Right demonstration. And then he showed his truer colors in a subsequent press conference wherein he expressed solidarity with the “fine people” amongst the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who just wanted to revere the memory of Gen. Lee. And so he rejoined the neo-Confederacy after a couple of days apart.


August 10: Where Trump Is Really Losing Support

As always, Ron Browntein slices and dices public opinion data in an especially useful way, as I was happy to share with readers at New York:

It’s generally conceded (though not by the president himself, who argues the size of his rallies is the best indicator of his popularity) that Trump’s already weak public standing has softened somewhat. But there is less agreement about where he stands with this or that part of the electorate — particularly his “base,” however that is defined.

But now Ron Brownstein, working with some previously unpublished Gallup data from 13 current and projected battleground states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin), has given us the best snapshot yet of exactly where, geographically and demographically, Trump stands as compared to his performance last year. It shows that he is hemorrhaging the most support from college-educated white voters, though he’s lost a crucial bit of his strength from the non-college-educated white voters often considered his “base.”

“Trump’s approval rating among college-educated whites has declined relative to his 2016 vote in all 13 states. In seven of those states, his approval rating stands at least 10 points lower than his vote –a list topped by North Carolina and Florida (both 19 points lower), Georgia (18 points lower), Ohio (15 points), Virginia (12 points), and Michigan and Minnesota (11 points each.) His approval rating among these white-collar whites reaches above 50% only in Texas and Georgia, and exceeds 45% in just two other states, Nevada and Arizona. In seven states, his approval among these well-educated white voters has tumbled to 40 percent or less. (That includes four states essential to his victory: North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.)”

Some might object that Trump managed to win last year despite poor approval numbers then. But that cuts both ways: In 2016, Trump was competing with a pol who was nearly as unpopular as he was. Hillary Clinton will not be on the ballot or in the consciousness of voters in 2018 —or presumably in 2020, either.

“These anemic numbers suggest how much Trump benefited last fall from the doubts these voters also held about Clinton; standing alone, without her as a foil, he’s facing much harsher assessments. (In a separate national Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 59% of college-educated whites said they “strongly” disapproved of Trump’s performance.) “I think the doubts about her blocked how big the potential was for those voters to vote against Trump,” says long-time Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.”

Relatively speaking, Trump’s support is holding up better among white working-class voters, the core of his base. But there are still problems:

“[Trump’s] standing still represents an erosion from his 2016 vote among blue-collar whites in 12 of those states; in five of them, he’s declined by double-digits. Perhaps most important are the trends in four of the Rust Belt states that proved decisive last year: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In all of them exit polls found Trump won between 62 and 64% of non-college whites. In each case, that was a substantial increase from Romney’s performance with those voters in 2012, when former President Barack Obama carried the states.”

In those four crucial states, which were where the 2016 upset was consummated, Trump’s white-working-class approval numbers are down around the levels of support Romney achieved in losing all four in 2012.

We sometimes forget in our awe at Trump’s astonishing rise to the presidency that it was a near thing, particularly in the general election. He doesn’t have much margin for error, and nor does his party in a midterm election that usually represents a referendum on the party controlling the White House (and in this case, the much-despised do-nothing Congress as well). The drops in support among white voters in battleground states that Brownstein documents aren’t massive, but they could spell the difference between Republican success and calamity just down the road.


Where Trump Is Really Losing Support

As always, Ron Browntein slices and dices public opinion data in an especially useful way, as I was happy to share with readers at New York:

It’s generally conceded (though not by the president himself, who argues the size of his rallies is the best indicator of his popularity) that Trump’s already weak public standing has softened somewhat. But there is less agreement about where he stands with this or that part of the electorate — particularly his “base,” however that is defined.

But now Ron Brownstein, working with some previously unpublished Gallup data from 13 current and projected battleground states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin), has given us the best snapshot yet of exactly where, geographically and demographically, Trump stands as compared to his performance last year. It shows that he is hemorrhaging the most support from college-educated white voters, though he’s lost a crucial bit of his strength from the non-college-educated white voters often considered his “base.”

“Trump’s approval rating among college-educated whites has declined relative to his 2016 vote in all 13 states. In seven of those states, his approval rating stands at least 10 points lower than his vote –a list topped by North Carolina and Florida (both 19 points lower), Georgia (18 points lower), Ohio (15 points), Virginia (12 points), and Michigan and Minnesota (11 points each.) His approval rating among these white-collar whites reaches above 50% only in Texas and Georgia, and exceeds 45% in just two other states, Nevada and Arizona. In seven states, his approval among these well-educated white voters has tumbled to 40 percent or less. (That includes four states essential to his victory: North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.)”

Some might object that Trump managed to win last year despite poor approval numbers then. But that cuts both ways: In 2016, Trump was competing with a pol who was nearly as unpopular as he was. Hillary Clinton will not be on the ballot or in the consciousness of voters in 2018 —or presumably in 2020, either.

“These anemic numbers suggest how much Trump benefited last fall from the doubts these voters also held about Clinton; standing alone, without her as a foil, he’s facing much harsher assessments. (In a separate national Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 59% of college-educated whites said they “strongly” disapproved of Trump’s performance.) “I think the doubts about her blocked how big the potential was for those voters to vote against Trump,” says long-time Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.”

Relatively speaking, Trump’s support is holding up better among white working-class voters, the core of his base. But there are still problems:

“[Trump’s] standing still represents an erosion from his 2016 vote among blue-collar whites in 12 of those states; in five of them, he’s declined by double-digits. Perhaps most important are the trends in four of the Rust Belt states that proved decisive last year: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In all of them exit polls found Trump won between 62 and 64% of non-college whites. In each case, that was a substantial increase from Romney’s performance with those voters in 2012, when former President Barack Obama carried the states.”

In those four crucial states, which were where the 2016 upset was consummated, Trump’s white-working-class approval numbers are down around the levels of support Romney achieved in losing all four in 2012.

We sometimes forget in our awe at Trump’s astonishing rise to the presidency that it was a near thing, particularly in the general election. He doesn’t have much margin for error, and nor does his party in a midterm election that usually represents a referendum on the party controlling the White House (and in this case, the much-despised do-nothing Congress as well). The drops in support among white voters in battleground states that Brownstein documents aren’t massive, but they could spell the difference between Republican success and calamity just down the road.


August 4: A Huge 2020 Presidential Field Might Not Be Ideal For Democrats

It’s awfully early to be thinking about the 2020 election, but potential candidates are already seeing the next president of the United States in their bathroom mirrors, so observers must take notice, as I did at New York:

[T]here’s nothing unusual about speculation surrounding two fairly obscure Democratic House members, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio. Compadres in an unsuccessful revolt against Speaker Nancy Pelosi last November (Ryan was the alternative candidate, Moulton a vocal supporter), they are both already being mentioned in connection with 2020…. They will join another colleague who has attracted some national attention, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, as featured speakers at September’s Polk County Steak Fry, in Des Moines. This event is an effort to revive the annual Steak Fry event former senator Tom Harkin used to host in his home town of Indianola, which was a big-time magnet for future Democratic presidential candidates.

Everybody should get used to the idea of a putative 2020 Democratic field the size of an Iowa cornfield. There are three potential candidates who would each become front-runners in the 2020 race if they decide to run: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren. There are questions as to whether any or all of them are too old, particularly for a party looking to show it’s shed the barnacles exposed by the 2016 Clinton campaign. Sanders will be 78 when the 2020 Iowa Caucuses are held; Biden will be 77, and Warren will be 71 (for that matter, Donald Trump will be 73). But none of them has any particular reason to diminish their influence by declining interest in 2020. Their long shadows will make it harder for little-known alternatives to emerge. But the possibility of retirement or illness among the Big Three keeps open the gate to dark-horse fantasies.

If Sanders, Biden, and Warren do fall by the wayside, Democrats may suddenly find themselves with a presidential field that resembles the mob that ran for the GOP nomination in 2016. And as National Review’s Jim Geraghty reminds us, that did not work out to well for those Republicans who kept expecting someone to emerge to knock off Donald Trump, right up to the moment he was nominated:

“One chunk of the field convinced itself there was an ‘establishment lane,’ leaving Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie all elbowing each other for the same base of support that proved insufficiently influential. On the other side, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker tried to occupy the ‘conservative lane.’ Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina competed with Trump for an ‘outsider lane.’ But in the end, it turned out there were no real lanes, just a traffic jam. Every non-Trump candidate’s determination to be the last one standing against Trump was the strategic miscalculation of the cycle.”

There is no Donald Trump analogue gearing up for a presidential run on the Democratic side in 2020, so far as we know. But if one emerges, she or he will be helped enormously if there is a large field against which to pose as Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Geraghty counts 18 possible candidates right now, and while some will certainly not run, others may come out of the woodwork if the Big Three give the race a pass. Indeed, the Trump precedent has made the narcissism of long shots seem a lot more reasonable.

There are some things about the Donkey Party’s procedures that might help mitigate the risk of an accidental nominee. Most importantly, Democrats award delegates on a strictly proportional basis, making the occasional sweeps that helped Trump win in 2016 impossible. The Democratic practice of awarding nonelected “superdelegates”— if they preserve it — is also a hedge against a hostile-candidate takeover of the party.

But even if they have no reason to fear the fate that befell the GOP in 2016, Democrats should begin to think through the practical consequences of a very large presidential field. If nothing else, the two-tier debates Republicans were forced to undertake would be very controversial in a party where last year’s debate scheduling and formatting were a huge bone of contention. And an undifferentiated glut of candidates might be good for party unity but not so hot for voter interest.

Maybe one or two of the Big Three (it’s hard to envision all of them running) will enter the 2020 race and either lock up the nomination early or at least cull the field of electoral weaklings. If not, then just two short years from now, at the Iowa State Fair, the candidates may be so thick on the ground that you won’t be able to stir ’em with a stick.


A Huge 2020 Presidential Field Might Not Be Ideal For Democrats

It’s awfully early to be thinking about the 2020 election, but potential candidates are already seeing the next president of the United States in their bathroom mirrors, so observers must take notice, as I did at New York:

[T]here’s nothing unusual about speculation surrounding two fairly obscure Democratic House members, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio. Compadres in an unsuccessful revolt against Speaker Nancy Pelosi last November (Ryan was the alternative candidate, Moulton a vocal supporter), they are both already being mentioned in connection with 2020…. They will join another colleague who has attracted some national attention, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, as featured speakers at September’s Polk County Steak Fry, in Des Moines. This event is an effort to revive the annual Steak Fry event former senator Tom Harkin used to host in his home town of Indianola, which was a big-time magnet for future Democratic presidential candidates.

Everybody should get used to the idea of a putative 2020 Democratic field the size of an Iowa cornfield. There are three potential candidates who would each become front-runners in the 2020 race if they decide to run: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren. There are questions as to whether any or all of them are too old, particularly for a party looking to show it’s shed the barnacles exposed by the 2016 Clinton campaign. Sanders will be 78 when the 2020 Iowa Caucuses are held; Biden will be 77, and Warren will be 71 (for that matter, Donald Trump will be 73). But none of them has any particular reason to diminish their influence by declining interest in 2020. Their long shadows will make it harder for little-known alternatives to emerge. But the possibility of retirement or illness among the Big Three keeps open the gate to dark-horse fantasies.

If Sanders, Biden, and Warren do fall by the wayside, Democrats may suddenly find themselves with a presidential field that resembles the mob that ran for the GOP nomination in 2016. And as National Review’s Jim Geraghty reminds us, that did not work out to well for those Republicans who kept expecting someone to emerge to knock off Donald Trump, right up to the moment he was nominated:

“One chunk of the field convinced itself there was an ‘establishment lane,’ leaving Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie all elbowing each other for the same base of support that proved insufficiently influential. On the other side, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker tried to occupy the ‘conservative lane.’ Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina competed with Trump for an ‘outsider lane.’ But in the end, it turned out there were no real lanes, just a traffic jam. Every non-Trump candidate’s determination to be the last one standing against Trump was the strategic miscalculation of the cycle.”

There is no Donald Trump analogue gearing up for a presidential run on the Democratic side in 2020, so far as we know. But if one emerges, she or he will be helped enormously if there is a large field against which to pose as Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Geraghty counts 18 possible candidates right now, and while some will certainly not run, others may come out of the woodwork if the Big Three give the race a pass. Indeed, the Trump precedent has made the narcissism of long shots seem a lot more reasonable.

There are some things about the Donkey Party’s procedures that might help mitigate the risk of an accidental nominee. Most importantly, Democrats award delegates on a strictly proportional basis, making the occasional sweeps that helped Trump win in 2016 impossible. The Democratic practice of awarding nonelected “superdelegates”— if they preserve it — is also a hedge against a hostile-candidate takeover of the party.

But even if they have no reason to fear the fate that befell the GOP in 2016, Democrats should begin to think through the practical consequences of a very large presidential field. If nothing else, the two-tier debates Republicans were forced to undertake would be very controversial in a party where last year’s debate scheduling and formatting were a huge bone of contention. And an undifferentiated glut of candidates might be good for party unity but not so hot for voter interest.

Maybe one or two of the Big Three (it’s hard to envision all of them running) will enter the 2020 race and either lock up the nomination early or at least cull the field of electoral weaklings. If not, then just two short years from now, at the Iowa State Fair, the candidates may be so thick on the ground that you won’t be able to stir ’em with a stick.


August 2: “Trust Women” Is the Only Principle Democrats Need on Abortion Policy

One strategic conflict that Democrats can’t seem to shake involves abortion policy. I addressed this controversy at some length at New York:

Earlier this week Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the fundraising wing of the House Democratic Caucus) touched a chronically sore point with the vast majority of Democrats who are pro-choice:

“Democrats will not withhold financial support for candidates who oppose abortion rights, the chairman of the party’s campaign arm in the House said in an interview with The Hill

“‘There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,’ said Luján, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. ‘As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.'”

Luján’s initial mistake, I would argue, was in framing the question as a matter of “litmus tests.” Unlike their counterparts in many other countries, America’s major political parties don’t have formal membership protocols, much less binding “tests” of what is or isn’t a common position on controversial topics. When it comes to candidates, the national party — and for that matter, state parties, in most cases — has no control over who calls her- or himself a “Democrat”; that’s the job of party primary voters.

The DCCC does make decisions every day about how to use its financial resources to maximize the number of House Democrats, and would probably cheerfully funnel money to a Koch brother if it added a vote to Nancy Pelosi’s column in the next House balloting for Speaker. Confusing that hammer-headed perspective with some sort of official pronouncement on the relative importance — or nonimportance — of reproductive rights is a bad idea from the get-go.

But as some of Luján’s critics immediately noted, it is not a good thing that a commitment to reproductive rights is often so high on the list of progressive principles Democratic officials seem willing to throw over the side in the pursuit of electoral victory — or as Luján put it, creating a “big family in order to win the House back.” Would anyone go out of their way to suggest, for example, that Democrats are happy to find and back candidates who oppose progressive taxation or want to radically reduce immigration? How about opponents of Social Security or of civil rights? Why is the right to choose so disposable?

It’s not a matter of intra-party democracy. According to the most recent Pew survey of how Americans feel on the basic matter of whether abortion should be mostly legal or mostly illegal, self-identified Democrats are pro-choice by a 79/18 margin. Pew also finds that Democrats oppose overturning a constitutional right to choose by an even larger 84/14 margin — an opposition that has been in every Democratic national platform since 1976, just as overturning Roe v. Wade has been a staple in Republican national platforms since the same year. No one is stopping individual Democrats, including candidates, from dissenting from that long-established consensus position. But the implicit encouragement of heterodoxy on abortion policy that Luján (like other party leaders) offers cannot help to be maddening to the many millions of Democratic women for whom this is a question of basic personal rights, not some policy preference. That this suggestion came from a man makes it even worse.

Political parties inevitably encompass multiple views on multiple things. But some are more fundamental than others, touching on values and mutual respect…. The conviction that women should have control of their reproductive health is clearly a value; protecting it is also clearly a policy goal. Exactly how to do that is another matter, and I don’t think any pro-choice Democrats are insisting on uniformity as to the details of abortion policy.

If Democrats continue, as they probably will, to argue about this topic, there is another level of self-discipline that Democratic men should exercise. The most appropriate slogan for progressive men is the one the late Dr. George Tiller adhered to, right up until the time he was murdered during Sunday services at his own church: “Trust women.” And if you can’t bring yourself to trust them with decisions over their own bodies, Democratic men, at least respect them enough to keep your own counsel about it.


“Trust Women” Is the Only Principle Democrats Need on Abortion Policy

One strategic conflict that Democrats can’t seem to shake involves abortion policy. I addressed this controversy at some length at New York:

Earlier this week Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the fundraising wing of the House Democratic Caucus) touched a chronically sore point with the vast majority of Democrats who are pro-choice:

“Democrats will not withhold financial support for candidates who oppose abortion rights, the chairman of the party’s campaign arm in the House said in an interview with The Hill

“‘There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,’ said Luján, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. ‘As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.'”

Luján’s initial mistake, I would argue, was in framing the question as a matter of “litmus tests.” Unlike their counterparts in many other countries, America’s major political parties don’t have formal membership protocols, much less binding “tests” of what is or isn’t a common position on controversial topics. When it comes to candidates, the national party — and for that matter, state parties, in most cases — has no control over who calls her- or himself a “Democrat”; that’s the job of party primary voters.

The DCCC does make decisions every day about how to use its financial resources to maximize the number of House Democrats, and would probably cheerfully funnel money to a Koch brother if it added a vote to Nancy Pelosi’s column in the next House balloting for Speaker. Confusing that hammer-headed perspective with some sort of official pronouncement on the relative importance — or nonimportance — of reproductive rights is a bad idea from the get-go.

But as some of Luján’s critics immediately noted, it is not a good thing that a commitment to reproductive rights is often so high on the list of progressive principles Democratic officials seem willing to throw over the side in the pursuit of electoral victory — or as Luján put it, creating a “big family in order to win the House back.” Would anyone go out of their way to suggest, for example, that Democrats are happy to find and back candidates who oppose progressive taxation or want to radically reduce immigration? How about opponents of Social Security or of civil rights? Why is the right to choose so disposable?

It’s not a matter of intra-party democracy. According to the most recent Pew survey of how Americans feel on the basic matter of whether abortion should be mostly legal or mostly illegal, self-identified Democrats are pro-choice by a 79/18 margin. Pew also finds that Democrats oppose overturning a constitutional right to choose by an even larger 84/14 margin — an opposition that has been in every Democratic national platform since 1976, just as overturning Roe v. Wade has been a staple in Republican national platforms since the same year. No one is stopping individual Democrats, including candidates, from dissenting from that long-established consensus position. But the implicit encouragement of heterodoxy on abortion policy that Luján (like other party leaders) offers cannot help to be maddening to the many millions of Democratic women for whom this is a question of basic personal rights, not some policy preference. That this suggestion came from a man makes it even worse.

Political parties inevitably encompass multiple views on multiple things. But some are more fundamental than others, touching on values and mutual respect…. The conviction that women should have control of their reproductive health is clearly a value; protecting it is also clearly a policy goal. Exactly how to do that is another matter, and I don’t think any pro-choice Democrats are insisting on uniformity as to the details of abortion policy.

If Democrats continue, as they probably will, to argue about this topic, there is another level of self-discipline that Democratic men should exercise. The most appropriate slogan for progressive men is the one the late Dr. George Tiller adhered to, right up until the time he was murdered during Sunday services at his own church: “Trust women.” And if you can’t bring yourself to trust them with decisions over their own bodies, Democratic men, at least respect them enough to keep your own counsel about it.