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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

July 12: Do Republicans Even Support Health Insurance?

As congressional Republicans continue to stumble around in search of a workable and politically non-toxic health care plan, it occurred to me, and not for the first time, that there’s something very old-school about their rhetoric on health insurance. I wrote up my ruminations at New York:

As Senate Republicans go through the valley of the shadow of death for their health-care plan, questions are again being raised about what they really want. Is it lower premiums for individual health insurance, particularly for the people (presumably many of them Republicans) who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Obamacare’s purchasing subsidies? Is it “entitlement reform,” focused on rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and then capping that program’s growth forever as a government-shrinking exercise? Is all the talk about health policy really just a disguise, as many liberals suspect, for an agenda of high-end tax cuts and low-end spending cuts that have little or nothing to do with Obamacare?

The answers to these questions may be as various as the micro-factions of the GOP in Congress, and a lot of the answers most definitely lack coherence. But one policy impulse shared by some conservatives is important to understand because it encourages a very destructive attitude toward the existing health-care system. Some conservatives really just don’t like the idea of health insurance as we know it.

This has again become apparent in some of the senatorial reactions to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of how many Americans (22 million) would lose health insurance under the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Here’s the classic from the number-two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn:

He wants to celebrate the “freedom” of Americans to go without health insurance, though he surely understands most of the 22 million would not “choose” this option if affordable health insurance was available.

That’s not as exotic a belief as you might imagine.

Conservatives have long believed that “third-party” health insurance — health insurance provided by employers or the government — encourages over-utilization of health services and thus is responsible for high rates of medical inflation. And many believe the only legitimate purpose of health insurance should be to cover catastrophic costs, not the routine medical services that people used to pay out-of-pocket in the days before a combination of tax subsidies, collective bargaining, and employer competition made employer-sponsored comprehensive insurance plans common.

So, unsurprisingly, most conservatives who can be coaxed into a discussion of their actual aims propose getting rid of or expanding to individuals the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health plans, to reduce the incentive to access care whenever you think you need it. And they envision a system in which everyone pays for routine care via a tax-preferred health savings account — basically paying the doc out-of-pocket the way Americans did back in the Good Old Days of individual responsibility — and has a relatively cheap catastrophic-care policy to cover life-threatening conditions.

Whether you find this vision frightening or invigorating, it is clearly very different not only from the Obamacare status quo, but from the status quo ante long before Obamacare. This longing for really old-school health-care policy causes all sorts of political problems for the Republicans that harbor it. For one thing, it cuts against the hatred of high out-of-pocket costs that unites most middle-class folks regardless of party or ideology. And for another, as Cornyn has learned, treating comprehensive health insurance as a socialistic vice corrosive of American values just does not accord with the actual values of actual Americans.

At the moment, Republicans clearly do not have the power or the popular support to impose an early-1950s vision of health care on the country. They nonetheless fight every feature of the health-care system that involves spreading the risk — and the cost — of poor health, which is the basic function of private as well as “government” health care.


July 7: The 1996 Democratic Presidential Win Was a Lot More Complicated Than a “Move to the Center”

When former Bill/Hillary Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn kicked up a storm with some controversial “lessons” from a campaign many of us graphically remember, I waited for the dust to settle a bit and then weighed in at New York.

Unlike many left-of-center commentators, I do not automatically begin to froth at the mouth when the name Mark Penn comes up….

I have actually written a semi-positive review of a Mark Penn book, and don’t necessarily think he has always exuded the smell of brimstone (though his Clinton White House colleague Dick Morris most definitely did), or that he personally doomed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. But Penn’s trajectory into Fox Democrat hackery has been confirmed by a new op-ed [co-authored with Andrew Stein], principally because he’s now mischaracterizing the very 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign he helped engineer as the peak of his political career.

Here’s the Penn/Stein summation of what happened in 1996:

“After years of leftward drift by the Democrats culminated in Republican control of the House under Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton moved the party back to the center in 1995 by supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform, a crime bill that called for providing 100,000 new police officers and a step-by-step approach to broadening health care. Mr. Clinton won a resounding re-election victory in 1996 and Democrats were back.”

That is at best a massive oversimplification of what happened in 1996. For one thing, if Clinton “moved the party back to the center,” it was in 1992, when he billed himself as a “different kind of Democrat” and won a plurality victory that indeed broke a long Democratic losing streak. His “centrist” agenda alienated a lot of more-traditional Democrats, and the Donkey Party lost a historic landslide defeat in the 1994 midterms. In 1996, the Clinton-Gore campaign, as Mark Penn knows quite well, did not just “move to the center,” but fought and benefited from the GOP extremism that the “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich represented.

The signature mantra of the Clinton-Gore ’96 campaign was nicely presented by the vice-presidential candidate in a debate with his rival, Jack Kemp:

“The plan from Senator Dole and Mr. Kemp is a risky, $550-billion tax scheme that actually raises taxes on 9 million of the hardest pressed working families. It would blow a hole in the deficit, cause much deeper cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.”

This mantra — Medicare, Medicaid, education, environment — was so formulaic that it was reduced, literally, to a formula: M2 E2. Perhaps the welfare-reform and community-policing initiatives helped make the election revolve around M2 E2. But the idea that this was how Democrats won is really sketchy. The more plausible theory of 1996 is that Gingrich’s Republicans overreached in attacking very popular New Deal–Great Society safety-net programs, and the Clinton-Gore campaign made them pay the price. This is exactly what the Democratic “resistance” to Donald Trump plans to do in 2018 and beyond, and it is more than a little ironic that Penn and Stein are touting the 1996 campaign in attacking them for it.

Beyond that, as many Penn/Stein critics have pointed out, a lot has changed since 1996, particularly in the Democratic Party’s own base.

But again, it’s not clear Mark Penn and Andrew Stein are really all that interested in influencing Democrats. If they offer dubious advice Democrats are sure to reject, then they are mainly recommending themselves as apostates ready to bash the donkey on conservative media. That’s a very profitable line of business, and if Mark Penn pursues it, his most adamant progressive critics will be entirely vindicated.


July 6: Toomey Reveals a Secret: GOP Didn’t Plan For a Trump Win

As Senate Republicans battled to get to 50 votes for their Obamacare repeal-and-replacement bill, a broader GOP problem suddenly appeared, as I discussed at New York:

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey offered a simple, remarkable explanation this week for why Republicans have struggled so mightily to find a way to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“‘Look, I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win, I think most of my colleagues didn’t, so we didn’t expect to be in this situation,’the Pennsylvania Republican said Wednesday night during a meeting with voters hosted by four ABC affiliates across his state.”

According to the Washington Post’s Paul Kane, this is almost certainly why congressional Republicans agreed upon a “repeal and delay” strategy for dealing with Obamacare soon after the election: They had no real clue how to do anything else. But the lack of advance planning has also been evident in the inability of Republicans in the Executive and Legislative branches to reach any kind of agreement on how to proceed with other very basic agenda items — also achievable without Democratic votes — like “tax reform” and the federal budget. And the disarray extends beyond the legislative process:

“Perhaps nowhere did the surprise factor of Trump’s victory show its impact more than in the effort to fill top jobs inside the administration. Clinton’s campaign, fully expecting victory, was stocked with hundreds of volunteer advisers who were already angling for sub-Cabinet-level posts in key agencies including the departments of State, Justice and Defense. Many of them were current or former senior staff to congressional Democrats.

“But with Republicans, those connections were rare because few believed them to be worth the effort.”

It is hard to overstate the difference for Republicans between the “Trump wins” and “Clinton wins” scenarios. After all, the GOP had been rehearsing the politics of obstruction and enjoying the innocent pleasures of passing consequences-free legislation for six long years after Republicans retook the House in 2010 (and then the Senate in 2014). The transition from gesturing to governing was especially tough for the anti-government party, and it did not help that the new GOP president was so unorthodox, unpredictable, and inexperienced a figure. Republicans did not, as Toomey said, “expect to be in this situation,” so they did not go through the difficult process of airing their differences and putting together pre-vetted consensus plans. On issue after issue, they are doing that now, on the fly, using — as Toomey puts it— “live ammo.”

It’s not going very well.


June 30: Trump Brings Back Gingrich’s Inability To Admit He’s Trying To Cut Medicaid

When Donald Trump sent out a certain tweet about Medicaid this week, it brought back some distinct memories. I wrote about it at New York.

How does Trump justify supporting GOP health plans that violate his pledge during the campaign to oppose cuts in Medicaid spending?

It seems POTUS does not understand how Medicaid funding works, and thus what constitutes a “cut.” He appears to think if any program’s funding goes up year-to-year, it hasn’t been “cut.”

This is rarely true, actually. Even with programs that are subject to annual appropriations, providing the same services from one year to the next usually costs more, thanks to inflation and population growth. Demographic changes and economic circumstances can aggravate or ameliorate the need for more funding. But you cannot point to a rise in funding and say, “That’s not a cut,” without knowing a lot more about the program, its services, and the specific population it serves.

With an entitlement program like Medicaid, moreover, in which defined categories of people receive defined benefits automatically, annual spending increases are virtually guaranteed unless the population is shrinking or the economy is really booming. As it happens, Medicaid spending under current policies is going up significantly in the immediate future thanks to at least three factors: the expansion of eligibility 31 states have elected to pursue under the Affordable Care Act; medical inflation, which generally exceeds consumer inflation; and the rapid growth in the senior population, adding to the number of Medicaid’s most expensive beneficiaries.

You can argue, as many Republicans do, that policy makers should act to curb Medicaid’s rising costs. But you can’t claim such efforts are not “a cut.” For the Medicaid expansion population at greatest risk of losing eligibility entirely under the House and Senate health-care bills, that would definitely represent “a cut.” The same is true of any Medicaid participants who may have to deal with reduced benefits or increased “cost-sharing” requirements as states adjust to a per capita cap on federal Medicaid payments.

Since we will never entirely agree on what the “normal” or “natural” funding levels for a program like Medicaid should be, the only rational way to look at Medicaid proposals is to compare how much money it would take to finance Medicaid under current law, and how much the proposals would change those costs. That is precisely what the Congressional Budget Office — who are not “Democrats,” mind you, but hires of a Republican-controlled Congress — did in describing the Better Care Reconciliation Act as “cutting” Medicaid spending by $772 billion over ten years. That does not mean reducing Medicaid spending by that much on a year-to-year basis. But it does mean that according to CBO’s best estimates BCRA will undershoot by $772 billion what it costs to provide the same Medicaid services to the people now deemed eligible. And that’s a “cut.”

Now it is entirely possible Donald Trump understands all this and is simply hoping readers of his tweets don’t. That was the calculation his friend Newt Gingrich made back in the 1990s when he perpetually insisted in a highly publicized argument with Bill Clinton that the Medicare and Medicaid cuts he was proposing weren’t cuts at all but simply “reductions in the rate of growth.” (Indeed, Gingrich is saying the same thing now, which may be where Trump got the idea.) He did not win that argument with Clinton then, and Trump is not likely to win it now, particularly since congressional Republicans, whether or not they support their party’s health-care plans, are not buying this line. When real, live people lose things they would otherwise have, they have been “cut.” Pretending otherwise represents ignorance at best and cynical demagoguery at worst.


June 29: Democratic Unity Aided By the GOP’s Lack of a Political Strategy

Watching the continuing struggle of congressional Republicans to enact a health care bill that is increasingly unpopular with the public led me to wonder aloud at New York about their motivations:

One of the much-predicted things in politics that has not actually happened this year (so far, at least) is the defection of congressional Democrats from districts or places carried by Donald Trump. There are 12 Democratic House members who fit that description, and all of them, obviously, will face voters in 2018. And there are famously ten Democratic senators up for reelection next year who represent states carried by Trump.

While some of those senators supported Trump on Cabinet confirmations more than their blue-state counterparts (particularly when the result was not in doubt), on big votes there was more unity. Only four Democrats failed to join the filibuster against Neil Gorsuch, even though everyone knew that would trigger the “nuclear option” which would eliminate judicial filibusters, maybe forever. A smattering of House Democrats voted for resolutions repealing late Obama regulations — mostly on guns and abortion — but such actions were rare in the Senate (except for one regulation involving coal, which attracted four coal-state Democrats).

But on the big measures that are preventing all the other GOP-sponsored big measures to proceed, Democrats are holding fast. The fiscal year 2017 budget resolution that made this year’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation possible passed both Houses without any Democratic votes. No House Democrats voted for the American Health Care Act. No Senate Democrats have breathed a word suggesting they might support the Better Care Reconciliation Act, however it is amended.

For those whose memories only date back to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, this opposition-party unanimity might seem normal. But it is actually very unusual by historic standards. Last time Republicans had control of the White House and Congress, during the George W. Bush administration, a significant number of Democrats regularly crossed the aisle to support GOP priorities, from No Child Left Behind to the Medicare prescription-drug benefit to comprehensive immigration reform — not to mention the authorizations and appropriations for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What’s the difference now? In part, it could be the simple result of polarization and the example set by congressional Republicans when Barack Obama was president. And in part, some credit for Democratic unity is owed to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, not to mention the millions of progressive activists who have urged Democrats to hold the line against Trump and the GOP.

But there’s something else going on as well. During the W. years, Republican initiatives were built around Karl Rove’s swing-voter strategy for building a permanent GOP majority. Most Bush domestic initiatives were aimed at converting a segment of Democratic-leaning voters, from the seniors who were the targets of the Medicare prescription-benefit legislation to the Latinos favoring immigration reform. And the swing-voter strategy was enfolded in a more systemic (and successful) effort to mobilize Republican voters — especially conservative Evangelicals.

What’s remarkable about the very similar House and Senate health-care bills that Republicans are struggling to get to Donald Trump’s desk is that they don’t seem to be based on any particular strategy, beyond checking off the box of “repealing Obamacare,” which many conservatives don’t even believe the legislation will do. Indeed, these bills have virtually no curb appeal for swing voters, and also heavily and overtly wreak havoc on the lives of the very swing voters — particularly white working-class voters — that elected Trump and have been trending Republican for years. Here’s how Ron Brownstein puts it:

“Drafted without any Democratic input, the House and Senate legislation presents an unusually explicit statement of priorities. Tax cuts emerge clearly atop that list: The Congressional Budget Office calculates that through 2026 the House bill reduces federal revenues by an annual average of $100 billion, and the Senate bill by an average of $70 billion. In each chamber, the biggest cut is the repeal of ACA taxes on income and investment profits that apply only to individuals earning at least $200,000 or families earning at least $250,000 …

“On the other side, the cuts’ corresponding benefit reductions would hit lower-income and older workers hardest, particularly in the last years before retirement. Those are cornerstone Republican voters: Nationwide, over two-thirds of all adults ages 45 to 64 are white and Trump dominated among them.
So these bills manage to offend a sizable majority of the electorate at a time when Republicans ought to be thinking about defending their congressional majorities in 2018 and helping Trump consolidate his support for 2020.”

There’s no pressure on Democrats to cross lines and help get these bills enacted because they make no sense politically — not even for Republicans, much less for Democrats.


June 22: Democrats’ 2017 Losing Streak Likely To End in November

After the agony of Election Night for GA-06 on January 20, I thought it might be a good idea to offer Democrats some immediate hope. So I wrote up the electoral prospects for the rest of 2017 at New York:

[M]any Democrats are undoubtedly wondering when the impressive anti-Trump passions of 2017 will produce a win in a nationally significant and competitive contest. The two remaining scheduled special elections this year are not very promising for the Donkey Party. The first, in November (assuming a battle over control of the special election between the governor and legislature is resolved) is in dark-red Utah, in the district of Representative Jason Chaffetz (who is resigning at the end of this month), the 16th-most Republican House district in the country according to the Cook Political Report. There are 15 Republicans, as compared to four Democrats, who are running for the Chaffetz seat at this point.

In December (after primaries in August and party runoffs in September), Alabama will hold a special election to formally choose a successor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Republican Luther Strange at least temporarily holds the seat he was appointed to by disgraced former governor Robert Bentley, who resigned shortly after filling the seat). There is a lot of intrigue around the crowded GOP primary for this seat, and potentially some divisive intra-Republican activity, but no one at this point is giving any Democrat a chance. Perhaps that could change if the infamous “Ten Commandments judge,” Roy Moore, wins the GOP nomination. But Moore has won statewide as recently as 2012, which is something no Alabama Democrat can say. Democrats haven’t held a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama in 20 years, since Howell Heflin was replaced by Jeff Sessions.

So more than likely Democrats looking for a boost going into the midterm-election year of 2018 will rely on their solid prospects in the two states holding regular gubernatorial elections in November, New Jersey and Virginia.

The Garden State contest looks like a very solid bet to break the Democratic losing streak. This remains a fundamentally Democratic state; Hillary Clinton handily defeated Donald Trump 55–41 there in 2016, and the state legislature has been under Democratic control since 2004. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy (a former ambassador to Germany and one of the remarkably large cast of former Goldman Sachs officials in politics these days) has money to burn and is fresh from an easy June 6 primary win over a large field. Republican Kim Guadagno won her primary pretty easily as well, but as lieutenant governor she is laboring in the large and dark shadow of Chris Christie.

According to a post-primary Quinnipiac poll, Christie’s job-approval rating has dropped to an astounding 15 percent, the worst Quinnipiac has found in any state for any governor in the last 20 years. (Not that he cares.) Unsurprisingly, the same poll showed Murphy leading Guadagno by better than a two-to-one margin (55 percent to 26). The best news for the Republican is that half of voters don’t know enough about her to have an opinion of her — though it is unclear where Guadagno will get the money or the credibility to convince them she’s what the state needs.

In Virginia, the Gillespie/Northam campaign has just begun, but a new Quinnipiac poll shows Northam leading 47 percent to 39. Aside from a united party and the support of reasonably popular incumbent governor, Terry McAuliffe, Northam has history on his side: Nine of the last ten Virginia gubernatorial races were lost by the candidate from the party controlling the White House (McAuliffe, in fact, was the one exception). Things could change, but Donald Trump does not seem like the kind of president who will help his party buck that trend in a state he lost last year.

So Democrats who are wondering why they cannot have good things may only have to wait for a little less than five months for some validation.


June 21: Lessons From the Sixth District of Georgia

After overcoming an emotional hangover, I had this to say about the Handel/Ossoff race at New York:

As I noted as the returns were still coming in, the spin wars over the meaning of this contest will be nearly as intense as the contest itself. Here are some things we legitimately learned from GA-06:

Democrats aren’t the only voters with sufficient enthusiasm to turn out in today’s political climate. The template for a Democratic win in what is after all a congressional district Republicans have easily held since it was created was fairly simple: mobilize aroused Democrats, Democratic-leaning independents, and anti-Trump Republicans to the max and count on GOP divisions and doubts about Trump to produce a crucial turnout advantage. It looked like it might work in the special election’s first round, when several GOP rivals went after front-runner Karen Handel with hammers and tongs and Democratic turnout reached midterm levels. But Ossoff fell just short of a majority. Had Georgia followed its usual practice of a quick runoff election, he would have probably won. But with two months to work with and plenty of national GOP money on hand, Team Handel slowly but surely built an effective turnout machine for the runoff. In the end, Handel nearly erased Ossoff’s big first-round advantage in in-person early voting, and total turnout soared well above midterm levels, reaching 259,000 (as opposed to 210,000 in 2014).

With skill and luck Republicans can walk the tightrope between embracing and repudiating Donald Trump. GA-06 was the only competitive House district on this year’s menu where Trump did relatively poorly in 2016. Indeed, after last night the president retained his record as having the worst performance of any congressional or presidential candidate in GA-06 (in its current, North Atlanta incarnation) ever. So the trick for Karen Handel was to keep her distance from Trump without antagonizing his supporters. For the most part she succeeded. She may have received some inadvertent help in this respect from her opponent, who more or less abandoned his original “make Trump furious” messaging in favor of validating himself as acceptable to swing voters. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel points out, Team Ossoff did not run a single ad tying Handel to Trump. So she was able to have it both ways. For all of the president’s crude chest-thumping and self-congratulations after the race was called, he was less of a factor in this election than probably anyone expected.

Negative ads still work. The clear and consistent focus of the GOP message in GA-06 was to remind the district’s dominant Republicans that Jon Ossoff is a Democrat, and to convince them his mild, centrist persona disguised a monstrous radical leftist who is “not one of us.” This conveniently fit in with Karen Handel’s constant emphasis on Ossoff’s non-residency in the district. The barrage of anti-Ossoff ads financed by outside GOP groups was relentless and even to my jaundiced eye unusually shrill and, well, stupid: again and again Ossoff was depicted as a puppet of Nancy Pelosi and her godless San Francisco hippie allies. Once comedian Kathy Griffin became a national pariah via her own stupid (and universally denounced) video of a beheaded Donald Trump, she began to be featured heavily in these ads on the specious grounds that she endorsed Ossoff on Twitter (she had no actual contact with the campaign in any way, shape, or form). Every anti-Ossoff ad I saw also featured anarchists shattering windows and setting fires. The very worst ad, appearing on Fox News just before the election, included images of shooting victim Representative Steve Scalise alongside the suggestion that Ossoff’s “extremist” friends had to be stopped by the voters of GA-06. It was so evil that is was actually condemned by Handel. But while this particular ad was put up by a relatively obscure right-wing PAC, most of the hate-filled cascade of anti-Ossoff ads were sponsored by the official House GOP party committee and by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s PAC. Whether or not they really made a difference, Handel won, which means we are going to see a lot more like them in 2018.

Issues don’t matter much if you don’t address them. One of the most frequent criticisms we will hear of the Ossoff campaign is that it was not really “about” any of the issues that separate candidates, mobilize supporters, and attract swing voters. Had Handel lost, she would have received exactly the same criticism. Yes, the candidates had two debates that were actually pretty wonky. But despite some skirmishing on health care, taxes, and spending — and a rare Handel gaffe when she said she did not “support a livable wage” — the campaigns were more about sending signals than crusading for or against policy proposals. Thanks to the basically conservative nature of the district and the candidates’ own calculations, messaging in this race really boiled down to the Republicans calling Ossoff an out-of-touch lefty’s lefty and Ossoff saying “I’m not!” Ossoff presumably decided specific issues would not help him with swing voters, and that his own base would turn out robustly thanks to the desire to smite Donald Trump and his campaign’s massive get-out-the-vote operation. So now Democrats are left wondering if a campaign that obsessively tried to exploit the unpopular health-care bill Handel said she would have voted for, or embraced popular progressive causes from environmental protection to education to protection of Social Security and Medicare, might have done better. We may never know.

The campaigns in GA-06 may have proven it is possible to contact voters too much. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that the “ground game” in GA-06 was so intense and relentless that by the time June 20 rolled around many voters just wanted it all to end. And in part because the money-and-volunteer-rich Ossoff campaign was engaged in this level of effort from the beginning, the Democrat may have been unequally affected by voter fatigue, as this report from Business Insider suggests:

“I have received non-stop calls, texts emails for two months solid. It’s harassment honestly,” local artist Sydney Daniel told Business Insider. “I liked Ossoff before but now I don’t want to vote at all because of how obnoxious and ruthless they have been.”

Pretty much everyone agrees that the skyrocketing early voting numbers —just over a fourth of voters cast ballots early before the first round, while over half did so in the runoff — was in part driven by people who wanted to get themselves off campaign contact lists and stop the phone calls and knocks on the door. Add in the saturation-level and highly redundant ads, and you have a recipe for taking the fun out of voting. It is not surprising that some of the informal hindsight commentary you heard from Democrats yesterday was that the Ossoff campaign should have devoted less money to hounding the same group of “likely voters” and more to registering and mobilizing marginal voters.

The idea that it is possible to overkill in get-out-the-vote efforts is a highly heretical one that political professionals will resist. And most campaigns aren’t going to have the kind of money that makes it possible. But it’s a phenomenon worth watching.

The results in Georgia, and in other 2017 special elections, should be encouraging to Democrats — but they don’t guarantee a big midterm win. Yes, a lot of Democrats are depressed over what many had expected to be an Ossoff win, and more generally, on the failure of the Donkey Party to convert anti-Trump passion into a special election victory this year (the earlier contest in CA-34 which was dominated by Democratic candidates was never competitive, and two future special elections in heavily Republican Utah and Alabama probably won’t be, either). But as virtually every observer who was not simply spinning has pointed out, the special House elections in Kansas, Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina (the scene of an surprisingly strong if unsuccessful June 20 Democratic candidacy) were all on GOP turf — as one might expect since the vacancies to be filled were created by Trump’s appointment of incumbents to his Cabinet! And without question, all four Democratic candidates in these elections performed well above historic expectations (as House election wizard David Wasserman measured it, these Democrats won on average 8 percentage points more than the character of the districts they were running in would have suggested). Even more fundamentally, these results indicate that the recent pattern of Democrats struggling to turn out their voters in non-presidential elections may have come to an end, just in time for the 2018 midterms.

It is impossible to tell from these or any other special elections what will happen next year — particularly when the main variable in every midterm, the performance and popularity of the president of the United States, is so difficult to predict with any precision. But Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight probably expressed where we are right now as well as anyone could:

“The results simultaneously suggest that an impressively wide array of Republican-held seats might be competitive next year — perhaps as many as 60 to 80 — and that Democrats are outright favorites in only a fraction of these, perhaps no more than a dozen.

“In order to win a net of 24 seats next year — enough to flip the House — Democrats may therefore need to target dozens of Republican-held seats and see where the chips fall. They can variously attempt anti-Trump, anti-Republican or anti-incumbent messages depending on the district….

“[A] ‘pretty good’ year for Democrats might yield a gain of only 15 seats for the party, whereas a ‘very good’ year — if the political climate is just a few points more Democratic-leaning — could produce a 50-seat swing instead.”

So while Republicans have earned a moment of celebration for holding off a Democratic assault on their home territory, Democrats should stay focused on the big picture, and the still robust possibility of a 2018 “wave” in their favor.


June 16: The AHCA Isn’t Just Unpopular Nationally–It’s Unpopular Everywhere

Watching Senate Republicans struggle in the darkness with their health care bill this week, I began to realize how difficult a task they have brought upon themslves. I outlined their main problem at New York:

[A]t a meeting with Republican senators, [the president] reportedly called the House-passed American Health Care Act “mean” and a “son of a bitch.” Assuming he did not mean these words as complimentary, they were definitely embarrassing, given his stout support for and intensive lobbying on behalf of the self-same “mean son of a bitch” bill in the House.

But there is another possible explanation: Maybe the president has just been indulging his taste for polls. As two political scientists writing for the New York Times explain, the AHCA is not just unpopular nationally: It’s unpopular everywhere:

“We found that Republicans have produced a rare unity among red and blue states: opposition to the A.H.C.A.

“For example, even in the most supportive state, deep-red Oklahoma, we estimate that only about 38 percent of voters appear to support the law versus 45 percent who oppose. (Another 17 percent of Oklahomans say they have no opinion.) Across all the states that voted for President Trump last year, we estimate that support for the A.H.C.A. is rarely over 35 percent. A majority of Republican senators currently represent states where less than a third of the public supports the A.H.C.A.”

Might this matter in 2018? The GOP senator thought to be most vulnerable, Dean Heller of Nevada, is from a state where the approval ratio for AHCA is a really dismal 28/53. Perhaps the second-most-vulnerable Republican senator, Jeff Flake, is a bit luckier: Arizonans only disapprove of AHCA by a net margin of 14 points. Given the evidence that support for Obamacare had a negative effect on Democrats running in 2010, some warning signs should be flashing for congressional Republicans generally.

And that brings us back to Trump’s comments and the really difficult political maneuver the GOP is trying to pull off in the Senate. Senators very much need their bill to be perceived as much less damaging to the American health-care system than the House bill. But at the same time, it needs to be close enough in reality to the House bill that the ultimate House-Senate conference product can still get through the lower chamber.

Presumably Trump is focused on the first task of suggesting — or pretending — there’s a world of difference between the two pieces of legislation. So maybe the leak of his derisive comments was intentional. But someone in the White House needs to be calling up key House Republicans to explain that this is all for show.


June 15: We Need a Universal Condemnation of Political Violence

My immediate reaction to the Alexandria shootings was to propose a universal condemnation of political violence, as articulated at New York:

In the wake of the horrifying mass shooting of five people at a Republican congressional baseball practice today, we will hear a lot of understandable but not necessarily meaningful talk about overcoming partisan differences. There will also be some opportunistic efforts to use the incident as a weapon to paint legitimate criticism of the president or his party in the lurid colors of this abominable act.

It will be helpful if the former impulses outweigh the latter, and we can only hope the president’s initial remarks on the shootings, and the gestures of unity in the Capitol, are signs of a more careful tone.

What the moment really calls for is something more specific and meaningful: a mutual denunciation of political violence and the potential incitement of political violence by Democrats and Republicans, the right and the left. What happened in Alexandria this morning was not an exercise in “Trump-hatred” or progressive political protest, but an act that violates the most basic norms of a constitutional democracy governed by the rule of law. Left-of-center people — a group that includes myself — need to examine their consciences and their words to ensure that we in no way give even the slightest sense that violence against political opponents might ever be justified. We cannot leave the impression that we think the Alexandria shooter took legitimate grievances just a bit too far.

Instead of pointing fingers at the political factions or parties or ideologies to which the alleged shooter belonged, right-of-center people need to examine their own consciences and words, particularly given the temperature of their own discourse today on social media. A good starting point for conservatives would be renunciation, once and for all, of rationales for the Second Amendment that suggest the population needs to arm itself in order to shoot police officers and members of the military in case a government they consider “tyrannical” appears.

Redrawing the essential line between violent and nonviolent political activity will not always be easy. But if the civil-rights movement, led by women and men suffering from much greater injustices than today’s keyboard warriors of political conflict will ever experience, was able to find and hew to the right side of that line, so can we.


June 9: GOP Attacks On Ossoff Grow Savage As He Moves Ahead in GA-06 Polls

I used to live in the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia. I can assure you the people of that suburban area have never seen a political fight quite like the special election runoff contest between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff. I offered an update at New York this week:

Ossoff has led Republican Karen Handel in all four public polls released since the April 18 first round. The latest, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shows the Democrat up 51 percent to 44 among likely voters.

Early voting in the district is looking significantly stronger than it was in the first round, with nearly 70,000 votes cast already, and a trajectory of perhaps 100,000. Ossoff handily won among the 55,000 early voters in the primary, when the total vote was only 159,000. So this could be another good sign for him, although, as Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman says: “The extraordinary pace has Republicans optimistic they’ve awoken their dormant base.”

Lord knows they are trying. Earlier pro-Handel ads from national GOP groups focused on linking Ossoff to Nancy Pelosi, depicting the whole Ossoff campaign as a stealth effort to give San Francisco another congressman. The idea was to remind sixth-district Republicans that the mild-mannered, bipartisan-sounding young man was in fact a Democrat. But now anti-Ossoff ads have taken on a frantic urgency and some of the most over-the-top mischaracterizations of an opponent in living memory. The fake-Trump-beheading Kathy Griffin (who offered an unsolicited endorsement of Ossoff in a tweet not long ago but otherwise has no connection to the campaign or to the candidate) has replaced Pelosi as the demon-figure, as in a new ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The message, which is about as subtle as a 5 a.m. jackhammer, is that any Republican who doesn’t bother to vote against Ossoff will be enabling “childish radicals” (an allusion to Ossoff’s youth, which apparently makes him suspiciously similar to the window-smashing anarchists in the ad) to destroy the country. The ad even mentions President Trump, which Team Handel has generally avoided in this district he only won by a single point last year. The capper is a quick, grainy image of Griffin high-fiving a young man. It’s actually fake-Trump-beheading photographer Tyler Shields, but in the flash of a moment he could sure pass for Jon Ossoff. It should be reasonably clear Republicans are counting on older voters to win this thing.

The two candidate debates (there could be more, though none have been confirmed) have been largely wonky affairs punctuated by Handel stressing Ossoff’s inexperience and residency outside the district and Ossoff calling Handel a “career politician.” Handel did make one gaffe in the first debate, saying she didn’t support a “livable wage,” but that was probably not a game changer in this wealthy, conservative district.

With the airwaves super-saturated from now until June 20, the outcome of this election probably depends on the ground game. One theory about why early voting is so high is simply that voters want to get off the campaigns’ contact lists and stop the constant phone calls and knocks on the door, which are occurring at levels Georgians have never before experienced. The silence after June 20 will be deafening.