washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

April 20: Do White Working Class Voters Care That Much About Comey and Stormy?

During a week that featured a heavy dose of Trump scandal coverage, one of my favorite journalists, Ron Brownstein, wondered how it was all going over in different demographic groups. It was an important enough of a question that I wrote about it at New York:

[A] lot of things about the man who became the 45th president that worry upscale Republicans (and their elite #NeverTrump representatives) just don’t matter as much to the white working-class folk who have provided Trump’s sturdiest base of support. Some of it may have to do with news consumption habits: If you watch Fox News rather than read National Review, you got a very different impression of the options available to conservative-leaning voters in 2016.

It’s also entirely possible that white working-class voters are more cynical than their more highly educated counterparts about the moral tone of politicians who are not named Trump; “They’re all crooks” is a pretty common sentiment in those circles. In any event, this is a question that is not important strictly as a matter of retrospectively figuring out how a man of Trump’s character and background managed to get himself elected in the first place; as Ron Brownstein observes, it may well determine the political impact of the continuing Trump scandals we are hearing about nearly every day:

“All three national polls released this week placed Trump’s approval rating among whites without a college degree below his commanding two-thirds in 2016. But he remained positive with those voters overall, and in each survey they preferred Republicans over Democrats for Congress by at least 13 percentage points. That’s despite last week’s nonstop news about Comey’s new book; the continued sparring between Trump and Daniels, the adult film star; and the FBI’s raid on Cohen, the president’s longtime ‘fixer.'”

Trump is taking much more of a beating among college-educated white voters, who are also an important part of his coalition, and that’s not surprising. They are to some extent Comey voters:

“Comey embodies precisely the voters the GOP has been shedding under this president—even despite his unusually personal reasons to recoil from a Trump-led party. The former FBI director, after all, is a white man with a post-graduate education who’s long leaned Republican.”

Brownstein thinks this is a problem for Democrats not just because white working-class voters are relatively indifferent to evidence that Trump is a little bit piggy and a little bit thuggy. The saturation media coverage of the president’s scandals is also interfering with anti-Trump messaging about his broken promises to precisely this element of the electorate. To put it bluntly, if all these voters hear is the familiar tale they’ve heard for years about Trump’s womanizing and shady business practices, they may not hear more compelling information about Trump selling them out to Wall Street and gorging himself and his rich friends on the perks of public office.

A vote is a vote, of course, and losses among college-educated voters may (particularly if supplemented by less dramatic losses among non-college-educated voters) be enough to give Trump a black eye and Democrats control of the U.S. House. But as Brownstein notes, a significant erosion of support among Trump’s white working-class base could represent the difference between a modest and a large Democratic victory: “For a sunny outcome this fall, Democrats probably need more health care and taxes—and less Comey and Stormy.”

As we continue to absorb data on the larger-than-originally-realized size of the white working-class portion of the electorate, this is a dynamic worth watching closely. As much as the chattering classes may marvel at the ever-increasing evidence of the president’s corruption, outrage doesn’t earn the outraged any extra votes.


Do White Working Class Voters Care That Much About Comey and Stormy?

During a week that featured a heavy dose of Trump scandal coverage, one of my favorite journalists, Ron Brownstein, wondered how it was all going over in different demographic groups. It was an important enough of a question that I wrote about it at New York:

[A] lot of things about the man who became the 45th president that worry upscale Republicans (and their elite #NeverTrump representatives) just don’t matter as much to the white working-class folk who have provided Trump’s sturdiest base of support. Some of it may have to do with news consumption habits: If you watch Fox News rather than read National Review, you got a very different impression of the options available to conservative-leaning voters in 2016.

It’s also entirely possible that white working-class voters are more cynical than their more highly educated counterparts about the moral tone of politicians who are not named Trump; “They’re all crooks” is a pretty common sentiment in those circles. In any event, this is a question that is not important strictly as a matter of retrospectively figuring out how a man of Trump’s character and background managed to get himself elected in the first place; as Ron Brownstein observes, it may well determine the political impact of the continuing Trump scandals we are hearing about nearly every day:

“All three national polls released this week placed Trump’s approval rating among whites without a college degree below his commanding two-thirds in 2016. But he remained positive with those voters overall, and in each survey they preferred Republicans over Democrats for Congress by at least 13 percentage points. That’s despite last week’s nonstop news about Comey’s new book; the continued sparring between Trump and Daniels, the adult film star; and the FBI’s raid on Cohen, the president’s longtime ‘fixer.'”

Trump is taking much more of a beating among college-educated white voters, who are also an important part of his coalition, and that’s not surprising. They are to some extent Comey voters:

“Comey embodies precisely the voters the GOP has been shedding under this president—even despite his unusually personal reasons to recoil from a Trump-led party. The former FBI director, after all, is a white man with a post-graduate education who’s long leaned Republican.”

Brownstein thinks this is a problem for Democrats not just because white working-class voters are relatively indifferent to evidence that Trump is a little bit piggy and a little bit thuggy. The saturation media coverage of the president’s scandals is also interfering with anti-Trump messaging about his broken promises to precisely this element of the electorate. To put it bluntly, if all these voters hear is the familiar tale they’ve heard for years about Trump’s womanizing and shady business practices, they may not hear more compelling information about Trump selling them out to Wall Street and gorging himself and his rich friends on the perks of public office.

A vote is a vote, of course, and losses among college-educated voters may (particularly if supplemented by less dramatic losses among non-college-educated voters) be enough to give Trump a black eye and Democrats control of the U.S. House. But as Brownstein notes, a significant erosion of support among Trump’s white working-class base could represent the difference between a modest and a large Democratic victory: “For a sunny outcome this fall, Democrats probably need more health care and taxes—and less Comey and Stormy.”

As we continue to absorb data on the larger-than-originally-realized size of the white working-class portion of the electorate, this is a dynamic worth watching closely. As much as the chattering classes may marvel at the ever-increasing evidence of the president’s corruption, outrage doesn’t earn the outraged any extra votes.


April 19: If Trump Is Reelected in 2020, It Will Be an Even Bigger Surprise Than His 2016 Election

There was some buzz this week about the possibility that Trump might have an easier time getting reelected in 2020 than we’ve generally assumed. I looked at some historical precedents and offered a take at New York:

The belief that 2017 to 2021 is the danger zone for really serious Trumpian damage to the republic has lent some additional urgency to the Democratic drive for a big midterm victory that will neuter Trump until such time as he departs — voluntarily or under compulsion — the White House, cursing and boasting at every step.

Reinforcing this one-term assumption is the remarkable number of Republicans who will not commit to supporting Trump’s reelection, despite the GOP’s largely supine surrender to his takeover of their party.

But Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has published a warning to the complacent based on predictive models (mostly drawn from international samples) that suggest the power of incumbency is a bigger factor in reelection contests than is normally believed.

“[A]ssuming Trump is on the ballot, and assuming his approval rating stays around the 40% mark, it would probably be wrong to assume he’s an underdog for reelection. That’s not to say he would be a sure winner, but he wouldn’t be a sure loser, either.”

Placing a higher-than-normal value on incumbency has the benefit of helping explain why Trump managed to win in 2016: There was no Democratic incumbent, and moreover, it was (to use the title of political scientist Alan Abramowitz’s model, which predicted a Trump win) “Time for a Change,” since Democrats had held the White House for two terms. Here’s Abramowitz’s general take on how incumbency matters initially and then erodes as a party continues to hold the presidency:

“[C]andidates running for reelection after only one term in the White House enjoy a substantial advantage. In fact, in the past hundred years there has been only one election in which a party lost the White House after only one term — the 1980 election in which Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. After two or more terms in the White House, however, it appears that this advantage disappears. Even if the incumbent president is a candidate, there is no incumbency advantage in third or later term elections. As a result, these third or later term elections tend to be highly competitive. And of course 2016 is another third term election.”

And 2020 is another second-term election — the kind an incumbent party rarely loses.

That’s one way to look at the historical record. But there are others.

Jimmy Carter wasn’t just the only second-term incumbent to lose; he was also the only one (since the 1940s, when presidential-approval-rating polls became available) to have Trump-like approval numbers. According to Gallup, here are the preelection job-approval numbers for presidents facing voters after their party had just one term holding the White House: Eisenhower ’56: 68 percent; Johnson ’64: 74 percent; Nixon ’72: 56 percent; Reagan ’84: 58 percent; Bush ’04: 53 percent; Obama ’12: 51 percent. Carter’s final job-approval number before the 1980 election was 37 percent.

Using the same source (Gallup), Trump’s highest approval rating was registered on the week of his inauguration, at 45 percent. Unlike his predecessors, his approval ratings appear to have a very limited range. So it is not at all clear, unless you really value non-U.S. examples, that Trump would be an even bet for reelection if he doesn’t become more popular.

There are, of course, four crucial variables we cannot possibly know this far away from the 2020 election: the possibility of a disabling scandal like the one that swept away Richard Nixon’s presidency less than two years after he carried 49 states; the performance of the economy (crucial to many reelections); the possibility of intra-party opposition (Johnson ’68, Ford ’76, Carter ’80, and Bush ’92 were all incumbent candidacies damaged badly by primary opposition); and the identity of the Democratic nominee.

You’d have to say at this moment that Trump’s reelection prospects are most definitely threatened by ever-emerging scandals, a likely pre-2020 economic downturn, and a Democratic opponent not as thoroughly unpopular as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. A primary opponent is less likely unless Trump otherwise looks like a loser.

On top of everything else, it’s worth remembering that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by more than two percentage points, winning basically the same percentage that big-time loser John McCain won in 2008. Yes, he won the electoral college via the political equivalent of an inside straight, but pulling that off a second time is significantly less likely.

Anyone would be foolish to write off Trump’s reelection prospects entirely. But even with the advantages of incumbency, he’s going to have to do a lot better than he has so far to stay in the White House beyond 2021. And the sense that this strange man is never more than an inch from the political precipice is not entirely the product of his critics’ wishful thinking.


If Trump Is Reelected in 2020, It Would Be An Even Bigger Surprise Than His 2016 Election

There was some buzz this week about the possibility that Trump might have an easier time getting reelected in 2020 than we’ve generally assumed. I looked at some historical precedents and offered a take at New York:

The belief that 2017 to 2021 is the danger zone for really serious Trumpian damage to the republic has lent some additional urgency to the Democratic drive for a big midterm victory that will neuter Trump until such time as he departs — voluntarily or under compulsion — the White House, cursing and boasting at every step.

Reinforcing this one-term assumption is the remarkable number of Republicans who will not commit to supporting Trump’s reelection, despite the GOP’s largely supine surrender to his takeover of their party.

But Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has published a warning to the complacent based on predictive models (mostly drawn from international samples) that suggest the power of incumbency is a bigger factor in reelection contests than is normally believed.

“[A]ssuming Trump is on the ballot, and assuming his approval rating stays around the 40% mark, it would probably be wrong to assume he’s an underdog for reelection. That’s not to say he would be a sure winner, but he wouldn’t be a sure loser, either.”

Placing a higher-than-normal value on incumbency has the benefit of helping explain why Trump managed to win in 2016: There was no Democratic incumbent, and moreover, it was (to use the title of political scientist Alan Abramowitz’s model, which predicted a Trump win) “Time for a Change,” since Democrats had held the White House for two terms. Here’s Abramowitz’s general take on how incumbency matters initially and then erodes as a party continues to hold the presidency:

“[C]andidates running for reelection after only one term in the White House enjoy a substantial advantage. In fact, in the past hundred years there has been only one election in which a party lost the White House after only one term — the 1980 election in which Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. After two or more terms in the White House, however, it appears that this advantage disappears. Even if the incumbent president is a candidate, there is no incumbency advantage in third or later term elections. As a result, these third or later term elections tend to be highly competitive. And of course 2016 is another third term election.”

And 2020 is another second-term election — the kind an incumbent party rarely loses.

That’s one way to look at the historical record. But there are others.

Jimmy Carter wasn’t just the only second-term incumbent to lose; he was also the only one (since the 1940s, when presidential-approval-rating polls became available) to have Trump-like approval numbers. According to Gallup, here are the preelection job-approval numbers for presidents facing voters after their party had just one term holding the White House: Eisenhower ’56: 68 percent; Johnson ’64: 74 percent; Nixon ’72: 56 percent; Reagan ’84: 58 percent; Bush ’04: 53 percent; Obama ’12: 51 percent. Carter’s final job-approval number before the 1980 election was 37 percent.

Using the same source (Gallup), Trump’s highest approval rating was registered on the week of his inauguration, at 45 percent. Unlike his predecessors, his approval ratings appear to have a very limited range. So it is not at all clear, unless you really value non-U.S. examples, that Trump would be an even bet for reelection if he doesn’t become more popular.

There are, of course, four crucial variables we cannot possibly know this far away from the 2020 election: the possibility of a disabling scandal like the one that swept away Richard Nixon’s presidency less than two years after he carried 49 states; the performance of the economy (crucial to many reelections); the possibility of intra-party opposition (Johnson ’68, Ford ’76, Carter ’80, and Bush ’92 were all incumbent candidacies damaged badly by primary opposition); and the identity of the Democratic nominee.

You’d have to say at this moment that Trump’s reelection prospects are most definitely threatened by ever-emerging scandals, a likely pre-2020 economic downturn, and a Democratic opponent not as thoroughly unpopular as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. A primary opponent is less likely unless Trump otherwise looks like a loser.

On top of everything else, it’s worth remembering that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by more than two percentage points, winning basically the same percentage that big-time loser John McCain won in 2008. Yes, he won the electoral college via the political equivalent of an inside straight, but pulling that off a second time is significantly less likely.

Anyone would be foolish to write off Trump’s reelection prospects entirely. But even with the advantages of incumbency, he’s going to have to do a lot better than he has so far to stay in the White House beyond 2021. And the sense that this strange man is never more than an inch from the political precipice is not entirely the product of his critics’ wishful thinking.


April 14: Democrats Debate Impeachment; Republicans Use It To Rile Up Their Base

As the president’s behavior continues to offer frightening glimpses of a would-be authoritarian, the “I-word” naturally irises from time to time. But it’s being discussed in very different ways among Democrats and among Republicans, as I noted this week at New York:

One of the big, burning arguments among Democrats heading into the midterm elections is whether candidates (or their supporters) should be openly advocating impeachment of Donald J. Trump. By and large, candidates (following the advice of congressional Democratic leaders) are avoiding the question or addressing it indirectly by talking about “holding Trump accountable” or “upholding the rule of law” or pledging to investigate Trumpian actions that congressional Republicans are ignoring. One argument made by progressive opinion-leader Markos Moulitsas is that by focusing on driving Trump from office, Democrats would be passing up more effective messages that take advantage of the Republican Party’s unpopularity. Journalist Elizabeth Drew contends that Democrats shouldn’t “go there” until there is the kind of bipartisan support that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. And the extreme improbability of a Senate conviction of Trump even if he’s impeached is a broadly shared concern. Do Democrats really want to excite “the base” by making a promise they are in no position to keep?

But the question won’t go away. For one thing, billionaire activist Tom Steyer is in the process of spending $40 million on ads advocating Trump’s impeachment, which are designed to keep the issue on the table for Democratic candidates and officeholders alike. And a variety of progressive voices are passionately arguing that ignoring the impeachment option represents a white-washing of Trump’s behavior, and a normalization of unacceptable presidential actions. Brian Beutler, for example, believes that Trump’s day-to-day refusal to step away from his business empire is an ongoing impeachable act, whether or not Robert Mueller identifies collusion with Russia or other overt crimes and misdemeanors.

Beutler is not demanding that Democrats “commit” to impeachment proceeding going into 2018. But he does think it’s imperative to argue Trump deserves it.

The same argument is made in slightly varying forms by those who believe impeachment enthuses Democratic voters like no other cause, or that it’s the only thing that can vindicate the rule of law against someone like Trump, or that it’s the only proper means for reining in rogue presidents.

It’s generally conceded, of course, that new revelations from Robert Mueller’s investigation or other sources of outright criminal acts, such as obstruction of justice, could push the debate among Democrats in the direction of making impeachment a clear option if the party retakes control of the House. A Democratic House, obviously, would have the wherewithal to launch investigations and yes, impeachment hearings. And that looks more realistic each time a fresh hint of unsavory or illegal conduct, like the Stormy Daniels hush money saga, comes to light. Trump’s increasingly wild reactions to his investigatory tormenters, which could soon lead to the firing of Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, may also increase the atmosphere of confrontation with Congress that leads naturally to impeachment.

But even as the possibility of impeachment waxes and wanes among Democrats, something interesting is happening among Republicans, who are increasingly prone to using the threat of impeachment to mobilize their own base. Jonathan Martin of the New York Times recently wrote a much-circulated report on that phenomenon:

“What began last year as blaring political hyperbole on the right — the stuff of bold-lettered direct mail fund-raising pitches from little-known groups warning of a looming American “coup” — is now steadily drifting into the main currents of the 2018 message for Republicans.

“The appeals have become a surefire way for candidates to raise small contributions from grass-roots conservatives who are devoted to Mr. Trump, veteran Republican fund-raisers say. But party strategists also believe that floating the possibility of impeachment can also act as a sort of scared-straight motivational tool for turnout.”

It makes some political sense. Unlike most previous presidents facing toxic midterms (e.g., Bill Clinton in 1994, George W. Bush in 2006, and Barack Obama in 2010) Donald Trump is wildly popular among members of his “base.” And much of his bond with hard-core conservatives involves a shared persecution complex involving sneering elitist liberals who despise their values and want to disenfranchise or even silence them. The idea that talk of impeachment portends a “coup” to reverse the 2016 election returns does not seem that outlandish to people who think Democrats are disloyal to America and only believe in democracy when it suits their subversive purposes. Trump has already told them that their enemies routinely stuff ballot boxes and plan to win future elections by inviting hordes of illegal immigrants to come across the border and vote themselves lavish government benefits while running criminally amok. So why wouldn’t they “purge” Trump without justification, given the opportunity?

Building a backlash to impeachment is not a completely novel idea. It is arguably what happened in the 1998 midterms when Democrats used the impeachment threat to Bill Clinton to motivate their own base while making Republicans appear extremist and power-hungry (though high job approval ratings for Clinton–something Trump is very unlikely to enjoy–contributed to the results).

And the traditional midterm strategy for the president’s party of ignoring the commander-in-chief and “localizing” elections just isn’t available to Republicans in this Trump-dominated year, particularly given the MAGA-madness of their party base.

For the foreseeable future, conservatives are very likely to fight any move to impeach Trump with a furious intensity, barring a descent into the kind of self-destructive flailing about that made Richard Nixon’s bipartisan impeachment an afterthought and his resignation an almost universally welcomed end to what his successor called “our long national nightmare.”

And absent that sort of consensus, it’s inevitable, especially in the current climate of polarization, that Democrats and Republicans will view impeachment from completely different perspectives: the former as a solemn duty for purposes of maintaining the constitutional order, and the latter as an act of partisan political expediency. Perhaps that’s inevitable given the decision of the Founders to make impeachment a legal action carried out by politicians rather than judges.


Democrats Debate Impeachment; Republicans Use It to Rile Up Their Base

As the president’s behavior continues to offer frightening glimpses of a would-be authoritarian, the “I-word” naturally irises from time to time. But it’s being discussed in very different ways among Democrats and among Republicans, as I noted this week at New York:

One of the big, burning arguments among Democrats heading into the midterm elections is whether candidates (or their supporters) should be openly advocating impeachment of Donald J. Trump. By and large, candidates (following the advice of congressional Democratic leaders) are avoiding the question or addressing it indirectly by talking about “holding Trump accountable” or “upholding the rule of law” or pledging to investigate Trumpian actions that congressional Republicans are ignoring. One argument made by progressive opinion-leader Markos Moulitsas is that by focusing on driving Trump from office, Democrats would be passing up more effective messages that take advantage of the Republican Party’s unpopularity. Journalist Elizabeth Drew contends that Democrats shouldn’t “go there” until there is the kind of bipartisan support that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. And the extreme improbability of a Senate conviction of Trump even if he’s impeached is a broadly shared concern. Do Democrats really want to excite “the base” by making a promise they are in no position to keep?

But the question won’t go away. For one thing, billionaire activist Tom Steyer is in the process of spending $40 million on ads advocating Trump’s impeachment, which are designed to keep the issue on the table for Democratic candidates and officeholders alike. And a variety of progressive voices are passionately arguing that ignoring the impeachment option represents a white-washing of Trump’s behavior, and a normalization of unacceptable presidential actions. Brian Beutler, for example, believes that Trump’s day-to-day refusal to step away from his business empire is an ongoing impeachable act, whether or not Robert Mueller identifies collusion with Russia or other overt crimes and misdemeanors.

Beutler is not demanding that Democrats “commit” to impeachment proceeding going into 2018. But he does think it’s imperative to argue Trump deserves it.

The same argument is made in slightly varying forms by those who believe impeachment enthuses Democratic voters like no other cause, or that it’s the only thing that can vindicate the rule of law against someone like Trump, or that it’s the only proper means for reining in rogue presidents.

It’s generally conceded, of course, that new revelations from Robert Mueller’s investigation or other sources of outright criminal acts, such as obstruction of justice, could push the debate among Democrats in the direction of making impeachment a clear option if the party retakes control of the House. A Democratic House, obviously, would have the wherewithal to launch investigations and yes, impeachment hearings. And that looks more realistic each time a fresh hint of unsavory or illegal conduct, like the Stormy Daniels hush money saga, comes to light. Trump’s increasingly wild reactions to his investigatory tormenters, which could soon lead to the firing of Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, may also increase the atmosphere of confrontation with Congress that leads naturally to impeachment.

But even as the possibility of impeachment waxes and wanes among Democrats, something interesting is happening among Republicans, who are increasingly prone to using the threat of impeachment to mobilize their own base. Jonathan Martin of the New York Times recently wrote a much-circulated report on that phenomenon:

“What began last year as blaring political hyperbole on the right — the stuff of bold-lettered direct mail fund-raising pitches from little-known groups warning of a looming American “coup” — is now steadily drifting into the main currents of the 2018 message for Republicans.

“The appeals have become a surefire way for candidates to raise small contributions from grass-roots conservatives who are devoted to Mr. Trump, veteran Republican fund-raisers say. But party strategists also believe that floating the possibility of impeachment can also act as a sort of scared-straight motivational tool for turnout.”

It makes some political sense. Unlike most previous presidents facing toxic midterms (e.g., Bill Clinton in 1994, George W. Bush in 2006, and Barack Obama in 2010) Donald Trump is wildly popular among members of his “base.” And much of his bond with hard-core conservatives involves a shared persecution complex involving sneering elitist liberals who despise their values and want to disenfranchise or even silence them. The idea that talk of impeachment portends a “coup” to reverse the 2016 election returns does not seem that outlandish to people who think Democrats are disloyal to America and only believe in democracy when it suits their subversive purposes. Trump has already told them that their enemies routinely stuff ballot boxes and plan to win future elections by inviting hordes of illegal immigrants to come across the border and vote themselves lavish government benefits while running criminally amok. So why wouldn’t they “purge” Trump without justification, given the opportunity?

Building a backlash to impeachment is not a completely novel idea. It is arguably what happened in the 1998 midterms when Democrats used the impeachment threat to Bill Clinton to motivate their own base while making Republicans appear extremist and power-hungry (though high job approval ratings for Clinton–something Trump is very unlikely to enjoy–contributed to the results).

And the traditional midterm strategy for the president’s party of ignoring the commander-in-chief and “localizing” elections just isn’t available to Republicans in this Trump-dominated year, particularly given the MAGA-madness of their party base.

For the foreseeable future, conservatives are very likely to fight any move to impeach Trump with a furious intensity, barring a descent into the kind of self-destructive flailing about that made Richard Nixon’s bipartisan impeachment an afterthought and his resignation an almost universally welcomed end to what his successor called “our long national nightmare.”

And absent that sort of consensus, it’s inevitable, especially in the current climate of polarization, that Democrats and Republicans will view impeachment from completely different perspectives: the former as a solemn duty for purposes of maintaining the constitutional order, and the latter as an act of partisan political expediency. Perhaps that’s inevitable given the decision of the Founders to make impeachment a legal action carried out by politicians rather than judges.


April 11: Ryan’s Failed Fight Against the New Deal and Great Society

In the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement announcement, I had some thoughts about his legacy, which I wrote up at New York.

In the long run, Ryan may best be remembered as a Republican politician with the ambition and (it seemed, for a moment) the means to undertake a mission that had thrived in the conservative dreamscape since the days of Barry Goldwater: the unraveling of the New Deal/Great Society safety net, also known as “the welfare state.” Unless he and his destructive agenda make a major comeback, he will have to be adjudged a failure in that endeavor.

It’s true that Ryan’s most concrete contributions to the anti-welfare-state cause — all those annual “Ryan Budgets” that Republicans approved during the Obama presidency — were mostly symbolic measures sure to be vetoed by a Democratic chief executive. But they served to solidify Republican interest in Ryan’s twin goals of “entitlement reform” (fundamental overhauls of Medicare —converting it to subsidies for private health insurance — and Medicaid — making it a block grant to the states) and anti-poverty “strategies” that included killing off most existing public-sector programs.

Then, in October of 2016, apparently annoyed that media types were yawning at his agenda, Ryan offered a glimpse of what Republicans might do if they managed to pull off a “trifecta” and gain control of both the Executive and Legislative branches.

“’This is our plan for 2017,’ Ryan said, waving a copy of his “Better Way” policy agenda. ‘Much of this you can do through budget reconciliation.’ He explained that key pieces are ‘fiscal in nature,’ meaning they can be moved quickly through a budget maneuver that requires a simple majority in the Senate and House. ‘This is our game plan for 2017,’ Ryan said again to the seemingly unconvinced press.”

He even called the reconciliation process a “bazooka in my pocket.” And for a while there it seemed very likely that it would be the vehicle for a health-care-focused budget bill that would block-grant the old Medicaid entitlement while repealing the new Obamacare entitlement, thus giving Ryan and Republicans a historic victory.

But as we now know, the “bazooka” wasn’t powerful enough to blast the bill through the Republican-controlled Senate, and complicated matters on many occasions by subjecting the legislation to all sorts of arcane parliamentary rules that limited its scope. And so both Obamacare, and Medicaid-as-we-know-it, survived 2017.

Yes, Republicans did enact a tax cut that, for them, salvaged the year, and that had to be gratifying to the inveterate supply-sider Ryan. But when he talked about reviving his most important passion — “entitlement reform” or in its demagogic form, “welfare reform” — in 2018, he was brusquely shot down by Mitch McConnell and the White House.

So looking ahead to a straitened GOP margin in the House — if not a Democratic House — next year, and the prospect of having to wait until 2021 at the earliest to resume the fight against the welfare state (and that assumed the mixed blessing of a Trump reelection), Ryan decided to go home to Wisconsin and regroup. He’s only 48, and has plenty of time to gird his loins for another crusade against the New Deal and the Great Society.

But what Ryan’s setbacks should have taught him — as they earlier taught Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — is that there is not and may never be a solid political foundation for a successful assault on popular programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, or even Obamacare, food stamps, and disability benefits. When push comes to shove, even Republican voters are squeamish about implementing their party’s rhetoric supporting the free market or the states as superior mechanisms for providing income security or health care. Crude, ignorant, and erratic as he is, Donald Trump seems to understand this basic reality. True believers in conservative ideology like Paul Ryan don’t, and thus tend to fail.


Ryan’s Failed Fight Against the New Deal and Great Society

In the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement announcement, I had some thoughts about his legacy, which I wrote up at New York.

In the long run, Ryan may best be remembered as a Republican politician with the ambition and (it seemed, for a moment) the means to undertake a mission that had thrived in the conservative dreamscape since the days of Barry Goldwater: the unraveling of the New Deal/Great Society safety net, also known as “the welfare state.” Unless he and his destructive agenda make a major comeback, he will have to be adjudged a failure in that endeavor.

It’s true that Ryan’s most concrete contributions to the anti-welfare-state cause — all those annual “Ryan Budgets” that Republicans approved during the Obama presidency — were mostly symbolic measures sure to be vetoed by a Democratic chief executive. But they served to solidify Republican interest in Ryan’s twin goals of “entitlement reform” (fundamental overhauls of Medicare —converting it to subsidies for private health insurance — and Medicaid — making it a block grant to the states) and anti-poverty “strategies” that included killing off most existing public-sector programs.

Then, in October of 2016, apparently annoyed that media types were yawning at his agenda, Ryan offered a glimpse of what Republicans might do if they managed to pull off a “trifecta” and gain control of both the Executive and Legislative branches.

“’This is our plan for 2017,’ Ryan said, waving a copy of his “Better Way” policy agenda. ‘Much of this you can do through budget reconciliation.’ He explained that key pieces are ‘fiscal in nature,’ meaning they can be moved quickly through a budget maneuver that requires a simple majority in the Senate and House. ‘This is our game plan for 2017,’ Ryan said again to the seemingly unconvinced press.”

He even called the reconciliation process a “bazooka in my pocket.” And for a while there it seemed very likely that it would be the vehicle for a health-care-focused budget bill that would block-grant the old Medicaid entitlement while repealing the new Obamacare entitlement, thus giving Ryan and Republicans a historic victory.

But as we now know, the “bazooka” wasn’t powerful enough to blast the bill through the Republican-controlled Senate, and complicated matters on many occasions by subjecting the legislation to all sorts of arcane parliamentary rules that limited its scope. And so both Obamacare, and Medicaid-as-we-know-it, survived 2017.

Yes, Republicans did enact a tax cut that, for them, salvaged the year, and that had to be gratifying to the inveterate supply-sider Ryan. But when he talked about reviving his most important passion — “entitlement reform” or in its demagogic form, “welfare reform” — in 2018, he was brusquely shot down by Mitch McConnell and the White House.

So looking ahead to a straitened GOP margin in the House — if not a Democratic House — next year, and the prospect of having to wait until 2021 at the earliest to resume the fight against the welfare state (and that assumed the mixed blessing of a Trump reelection), Ryan decided to go home to Wisconsin and regroup. He’s only 48, and has plenty of time to gird his loins for another crusade against the New Deal and the Great Society.

But what Ryan’s setbacks should have taught him — as they earlier taught Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — is that there is not and may never be a solid political foundation for a successful assault on popular programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, or even Obamacare, food stamps, and disability benefits. When push comes to shove, even Republican voters are squeamish about implementing their party’s rhetoric supporting the free market or the states as superior mechanisms for providing income security or health care. Crude, ignorant, and erratic as he is, Donald Trump seems to understand this basic reality. True believers in conservative ideology like Paul Ryan don’t, and thus tend to fail.


April 6: Up Close, 2018 House Landscape Looks Rockier For Republicans Than Ever

After reading for some time about 2018 indicators improving for Republicans, I thought it made sense to pay more attention to the small ball of particular races as analyzed by the Cook Political report, and wrote up some observations at New York:

In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, the Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot (which basically projects, with some accuracy, the national House popular vote) has dropped from 12.5 percent at the beginning of the year to 7.5 percent today. Meanwhile, another important indicator of how things will go in November, the president’s job approval rating, has improved slowly and marginally as well; it’s now at 41.5 percent according to RCP, as opposed to 39.8 percent on January 1.

But if the big-picture indicators are looking a tad better for the GOP, the landscape in terms of individual House races continues to deteriorate as contests firm up. That’s made clear by a fresh analysis from the Cook Political Report, whose House specialist, David Wasserman, is a generally recognized wizard at this stuff. As he explains, a combination of open seats and vulnerable incumbents adds up to a big problem for Republicans under current conditions:

“There are 36 districts where Republicans [are] not running for reelection in 2016, including 12 at serious risk of falling to Democrats (Lean Republican or more vulnerable). Only 18 Democrats are exiting, and just four represent seats at serious risk of falling to the GOP. Additionally, Democrats are competitive in an August 7 special election in Ohio’s 12th CD to replace GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned in January.

“If Democrats pick up at least eight Republican open seats (and today, eight of the 36 are leaning their way), they’ll already be a third of the way to the 23 they need for a majority. Beyond those, there are 18 Republican incumbents in the Toss Up column and another 20 in the Lean Republican column —- including five in California, three in Texas and three in Virginia. Private partisan polling continues to show most GOP incumbents in much weaker positions than last cycle — even in districts Trump won.”

Add in the four to six seats in Pennsylvania that Democrats are in a position to pick up after the state’s Supreme Court invalidated a GOP gerrymander, and you can see how strong a foundation has been laid for flipping the House. All in all, the landscape is looking very blue:

“Our latest ratings feature 55 competitive seats (Toss Up or Lean Democratic/Republican), including 50 currently held by Republicans and five held by Democrats. There are also three non-competitive seats poised to switch parties thanks to Pennsylvania’s new map (PA-05 and PA-06 to Democrats, PA-14 to Republicans). Overall, Democrats would need to win 27 of the 55 competitive races to win a majority. We continue to view Democrats the slight favorites for House control.”

That’s a pretty conservative projection since “wave” elections tend to gain momentum as Election Day approaches, with districts originally looking marginally competitive becoming red-hot down the stretch. According to some data Wasserman sent me by email, in 2010, the last really big GOP wave election, Cook showed 38 Democratic districts as having competitive races at the beginning of the cycle. By the end that number had swollen to 91.

And that process seems to be occurring this cycle. In January Cook showed 38 Republican seats as being in competitive races. That number’s up to 50 now, not counting Pennsylvania. The trend continues, with Wasserman moving four seats into the competitive column in his latest forecast.

It’s always possible, of course, that the meta trends as measured by the generic ballot and Trump’s approval ratings will improve enough for the GOP to shift some of the newly vulnerable House seats back into safety while boosting its odds of winning half or more of the barnburners. But at this point such widely discussed pro-GOP factors as gerrymandered districts and incumbency are already baked into the cake. The landscape you see is probably the landscape you’ll get when things get deadly serious in the late summer and fall. And if there’s a tiebreaker, it’s likely to be the Democratic enthusiasm advantage that’s been so apparent in 2017 and 2018 special elections. That matters more in relatively-low-turnout midterms than in presidential cycles.

There are obviously a thousand small factors affecting individual races. We’ll find out in June, for example, whether Republicans have succeeded in “blocking out” Democrats from the general election in several GOP-held districts under California’s top-two system, thanks to there being too many Democratic candidates.

But for the most part, what the GOP most needs right now is a good economy, no international crises, and a stretch of time when the president isn’t dominating the news with threats, scandals, or White House turmoil. They should be so lucky.


Close Up, 2018 House Landscape Looking Rockier for Republicans Than Ever

After reading for some time about 2018 indicators improving for Republicans, I thought it made sense to pay more attention to the small ball of particular races as analyzed by the Cook Political report, and wrote up some observations at New York:

In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, the Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot (which basically projects, with some accuracy, the national House popular vote) has dropped from 12.5 percent at the beginning of the year to 7.5 percent today. Meanwhile, another important indicator of how things will go in November, the president’s job approval rating, has improved slowly and marginally as well; it’s now at 41.5 percent according to RCP, as opposed to 39.8 percent on January 1.

But if the big-picture indicators are looking a tad better for the GOP, the landscape in terms of individual House races continues to deteriorate as contests firm up. That’s made clear by a fresh analysis from the Cook Political Report, whose House specialist, David Wasserman, is a generally recognized wizard at this stuff. As he explains, a combination of open seats and vulnerable incumbents adds up to a big problem for Republicans under current conditions:

“There are 36 districts where Republicans [are] not running for reelection in 2016, including 12 at serious risk of falling to Democrats (Lean Republican or more vulnerable). Only 18 Democrats are exiting, and just four represent seats at serious risk of falling to the GOP. Additionally, Democrats are competitive in an August 7 special election in Ohio’s 12th CD to replace GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned in January.

“If Democrats pick up at least eight Republican open seats (and today, eight of the 36 are leaning their way), they’ll already be a third of the way to the 23 they need for a majority. Beyond those, there are 18 Republican incumbents in the Toss Up column and another 20 in the Lean Republican column —- including five in California, three in Texas and three in Virginia. Private partisan polling continues to show most GOP incumbents in much weaker positions than last cycle — even in districts Trump won.”

Add in the four to six seats in Pennsylvania that Democrats are in a position to pick up after the state’s Supreme Court invalidated a GOP gerrymander, and you can see how strong a foundation has been laid for flipping the House. All in all, the landscape is looking very blue:

“Our latest ratings feature 55 competitive seats (Toss Up or Lean Democratic/Republican), including 50 currently held by Republicans and five held by Democrats. There are also three non-competitive seats poised to switch parties thanks to Pennsylvania’s new map (PA-05 and PA-06 to Democrats, PA-14 to Republicans). Overall, Democrats would need to win 27 of the 55 competitive races to win a majority. We continue to view Democrats the slight favorites for House control.”

That’s a pretty conservative projection since “wave” elections tend to gain momentum as Election Day approaches, with districts originally looking marginally competitive becoming red-hot down the stretch. According to some data Wasserman sent me by email, in 2010, the last really big GOP wave election, Cook showed 38 Democratic districts as having competitive races at the beginning of the cycle. By the end that number had swollen to 91.

And that process seems to be occurring this cycle. In January Cook showed 38 Republican seats as being in competitive races. That number’s up to 50 now, not counting Pennsylvania. The trend continues, with Wasserman moving four seats into the competitive column in his latest forecast.

It’s always possible, of course, that the meta trends as measured by the generic ballot and Trump’s approval ratings will improve enough for the GOP to shift some of the newly vulnerable House seats back into safety while boosting its odds of winning half or more of the barnburners. But at this point such widely discussed pro-GOP factors as gerrymandered districts and incumbency are already baked into the cake. The landscape you see is probably the landscape you’ll get when things get deadly serious in the late summer and fall. And if there’s a tiebreaker, it’s likely to be the Democratic enthusiasm advantage that’s been so apparent in 2017 and 2018 special elections. That matters more in relatively-low-turnout midterms than in presidential cycles.

There are obviously a thousand small factors affecting individual races. We’ll find out in June, for example, whether Republicans have succeeded in “blocking out” Democrats from the general election in several GOP-held districts under California’s top-two system, thanks to there being too many Democratic candidates.

But for the most part, what the GOP most needs right now is a good economy, no international crises, and a stretch of time when the president isn’t dominating the news with threats, scandals, or White House turmoil. They should be so lucky.