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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

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.


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.


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.


April 5: Bad Moon Rising For Republicans in Wisconsin

After watching the election returns from Wisconsin Tuesday night and marveling at an unexpectedly big win for a left-of-center judicial candidate, I offered some observations at New York:

Yesterday’s landslide win for progressive (and Democratic-backed) Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Dallet may be dismissed by some observers as the product of a low-turnout special election with no particular implications for the November midterms, when Governor Scott Walker is on the ballot and the massive money and mobilization effort he has generated in the past is in play. But Walker himself is not exactly exuding confidence:

It’s the startling double-digit margin of Dallet’s win that’s setting off alarm bells among Wisconsin Republicans. Yes, turnout in November will likely more than double yesterday’s million-voter performance (though it did significantly exceed average turnout in Wisconsin’s traditional spring Supreme Court elections). But it’s a combination of mobilization and persuasion that seems to have produced Dallet’s big win.

The results end a pretty impressive Wisconsin winning streak for the GOP, featuring Walker’s 2014 reelection by more than a five-point margin, and then in 2016, Senator Ron Johnson’s comeback win over Russ Feingold and Trump’s shocking victory in a state that hadn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since Reagan’s 49-state wipeout in 1984. Indeed, as conservative blogger Allahpundit noted, Wisconsin Republicans have lost a lot of ground in the last year:

“Last year Wisconsin Republicans practically ruled America: Reince Priebus was in charge in the White House, Paul Ryan was in charge in the House, and Scott Walker was a three-time gubernatorial winner in an important purple state. A year later Priebus is long gone, Ryan’s the subject of endless rumors that he’s on his way into retirement if Dems flip the House this fall, and Walker’s banging the drum warning that a Democratic landslide could bury him.”

A lot could change between now and November, and Walker has survived adverse political developments before. But he’s not invincible, as evidenced by his ignominious withdrawal from the 2016 presidential contest long before the first vote was cast. 2018 could be the year when his and his party’s remarkable run of luck in Wisconsin just runs out.


March 31: Trump’s Approval Rating Rise Mostly a Reversion to the Mean

After receiving a couple of inquiries from colleagues concerned about talk of Trump registering a dramatic rise in job approval ratings in a couple of major polls, I looked into it, and reported my conclusions at New York:

For many Republicans (and most definitely for Trump himself), every spike in any measurement of the president’s popularity is a sign that (a) Americans are getting used to him; or (b) Republican policies are making life so wonderful that people don’t care about this or that report of scandal or chaos in the White House, or (c) the anti-Trump enchantment woven by the fake-news media is wearing off. Conversely, Democrats tend to view drops in Trump approval as a sign that his party is toast in the upcoming midterms, while experiencing spikes as a sort of flashback to the evening of November 8, 2016.

There’s been a new buzz this week because two surveys absolutely guaranteed to get media attention — one from CNN and the other from the Associated Press — both showed the president’s job approval rating jumping seven points in the last month. Both, as it happens, had the same numbers both months: 35 percent in February and 42 percent in March. So once again, the speculation began: What might be lifting Trump’s popularity? Was it the economy or the tax bill? And was this the beginning of a rise that could stun the world this November, and then keep him in office through (yikes!) 2024?

In this and every other situation involving polls, it’s generally wise to look at averages rather than isolated polls, which are subject to all sorts of statistical “noise” and issues with samples, methodologies, and timing. Looking at the RealClearPolitics averages, on February 15, when the AP poll went into the field, Trump’s approval rating was 42.1 percent. On March 14 when the latest AP poll went into the field, the average rating was 41.0 percent, down just over a point. No “spike” for Trump there. Similarly, on February 20, when CNN began its polling for that month, Trump’s approval rating was at 41.9 percent. On March 22, when the latest polling began, it was at 41.6 percent. No Trump Bump there, either.

There has been, as you may know, a herky-jerky rise in Trump’s approval ratings since they bottomed out in December of last year, at a time when the tax bill he and Republicans were pushing was quite unpopular, and it looked like the GOP might finish the year with virtually no legislative accomplishments. You can get an exaggerated sense of the turnaround by looking at individual polls that showed Trump ready to be tarred and feathered in December and other individual polls that showed him well up into the mid-40s — damn near even to his disapproval rate — much more recently. But again, the averages aren’t so dramatic. His low point at RCP was 37.0 percent on December 12, and his high point, which he’s equaling right now, was 42.2 percent. That’s nice for him, but less exciting when you realize that his average approval rating was roughly the same in May and September of last year.

The more you stare at the numbers, the more it looks like Trump had a really bad month in December and now his popularity is reverting to the mean. That provides no particular reason to believe it’s going to keep drifting upward.

Some Republicans think — or hope — that growing confidence in Trump’s stewardship of the economy will continue to lift his overall approval ratings. But it’s unclear that’s the key variable. In the quite negative-for-Trump February AP poll his approval rating on the economy was 45 percent. In the much better March AP poll it was 47 percent. And it’s not exactly clear that the economic indicators for the near term are all that boffo anyway; a lot depends on how Trump’s trade war shakes out. In any event, the economy isn’t what’s exerting a drag on Trump’s popularity: it’s basically everything else, and everything else isn’t going away.

Another thing to keep in mind in a low-turnout midterm election year is that intensity of approval and disapproval matters more than in a high-turnout presidential year. In that wonderful March CNN survey, 28 percent of respondents approved strongly of Trump; 46 percent disapproved strongly. The pattern persisted among the most important subcategory of voters, self-identified independents (whom Trump carried in 2016): 24 percent of indies strongly approve of Trump, while 43 percent disapprove strongly. Noting that this adverse intensity ratio has persisted over time, CNN’s analysis concludes: “[T]he fluctuation in Trump’s ratings comes largely among those whose views on the President aren’t that deeply held.” And that’s not a good thing in terms of any positive popularity trend, particularly in a midterm year when the irresolute may simply refrain from voting.

Trump fans, of course, are ever-ready to remind us that the president wasn’t very popular when he won the presidency. That may bode well for his 2020 reelection prospects if he draws an opponent as unpopular as Hillary Clinton. But in midterms, poor presidential approval ratings invariably mean poor performance by the president’s party. The most important historical data point remains this: Presidents who go into the midterms with an approval rating under 50 percent have an average loss of 36 House seats. Democrats need 24 seats to take control. Trump and the GOP have a ways to go to become popular enough to minimize their losses.


March 30: The Second Amendment As We Know It Today Is Less Than a Decade Old

In the ongoing debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment, it is often forgotten that the NRA’s position on it was not endorsed by the courts until recently. I offered a quick refresher on that subject at New York:

In the minds of most gun enthusiasts, the idea that the Second Amendment was consciously designed by the Founders as a bedrock right to horde shooting irons, either for self-protection or to overthrow future “tyrants,” is beyond question. But as retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens reminds us today, the personal right to bear arms as a premise of constitutional law is actually less than a decade old.

“For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated militia.'”

That precedent held until June of 2008, when by a 5–4 margin in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller the court finally recognized a right to civilian firearm ownership for self-protection.

Stevens wrote the main dissenting opinion in that case, which featured this argument:

“Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature’s authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”

It wasn’t until 2010, in the case of McDonald v. Chicago that another 5–4 Supreme Court majority determined that its novel interpretation of personal, civilian gun rights would be binding on the states via the 14th Amendment. Again Stevens wrote the principal dissent, arguing that even if there’s some personal right to bear arms outside the militia context, it’s hardly the sort of “liberty interest” that requires its imposition on the states.

This treatment of the subject is far, far away from the standard conservative treatment of the Second Amendment as the most fundamental right of them all, extending not just to the sawed-off shotguns Congress was regulating in 1939 to all sorts of military and quasi-military weapons.

Yes, Stevens was in the minority in those two landmark cases, but the point to keep in mind is that the arguments about the Second Amendment assumed as being self-evidently true by gun rights advocates these days are, from the point of view of constitutional law, fragile and recent. And even conservative jurists were dismayed by the gun lobby’s efforts to change constitutional law on this subject, as Stevens points out:

“During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that [Second] amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating ‘one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.'”

Stevens understands how much water has gone over that particular dam in the years since the Heller decision. And so he is now advocating a constitutional amendment to remove the Second Amendment altogether, as “a relic of the 18th century” that is enabling gun violence.

Constitutional amendments, of course, are all but impossible to enact these days, and the zeal, paranoia, and vast resources the gun lobby would bring to bear in opposition to any effort to remove the Second Amendment make that idea a total nonstarter. What’s less fanciful is the possibility that a Democratic president or two could make Supreme Court appointments leading to a partial or even total reversal of the not-so-well-established precedent of Heller.


March 23: R.I.P. Zell Miller, a Democrat Who Zig-Zagged in Good and Bad Directions

Today’s crowded news cycle included the death of former Georgia governor and senator Zell Miller. Because many people from outside his native state have a limited view of his career, which I observed from up close, I wrote an assessment for New York:

Most news consumers remember Zell Miller, if they remember him at all, for his abrasive attacks on John Kerry — the presidential nominee of the party to which Miller had belonged for his entire, long life — at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Older folk may remember his keynote address at the 1992 Democratic Convention that nominated his close friend Bill Clinton.

People in his home state of Georgia are probably aware of additional aspects of Miller’s career, including his many years in elected office (he was lieutenant governor from 1975 until 1991, and governor from 1991 to 1999, before an appointed stint in the Senate from 2000 until 2005). They also know about his legacy initiative, the much-praised and imitated lottery-supported HOPE Scholarship program, which made college affordable for many hundreds of thousands of young Georgians while boosting academic standards at the state’s public colleges and universities by getting talented kids to stay in-state.

The length of Miller’s time in the public spotlight, and the wildly varying directions it took him, have often been encapsulated by the nickname he acquired from critics early on: “Zig-Zag Zell.” And the taunt goes back a lot further than his bookend Democratic and Republican convention addresses. Early on Miller ran twice for Congress in his native North Georgia mountains as an opponent of civil-rights legislation (a posture for which he later apologized), and then served as chief of staff for the state’s infamous segregationist governor Lester Maddox. But by 1974, Miller had managed to reframe himself as a relatively progressive Democrat in running for lieutenant governor, and by 1980 was most definitely the “liberal” candidate challenging the old reformed segregationist Herman Talmadge (losing in a Democratic runoff).

Elected governor in 1990 by running to the left of former ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and future governor Roy Barnes, Miller had a reasonably progressive record centered on HOPE and unprecedented appointments of women and minorities to executive and judicial offices. After his association with Clinton very nearly earned him defeat in 1994 (his Republican opponent ran hundreds of ads featuring Miller’s Democratic Convention speech, particularly the line, delivered in Zell’s mountain twang: “BILL CLINTON FEELS YORE PAIN”), he lost his zest for national Democratic politics. He was settling into multiple university teaching gigs and political retirement until he shocked most people he knew by accepting a Senate appointment when Paul Coverdell died in 2000.

No one was more shocked than I was, as his former (from 1992 through 1994) federal-state relations director, who had accompanied him to Washington often enough to understand his intense antipathy to the city and its culture. It surprised me less when he hated the Senate, and began lashing out at his Senate Democratic colleagues and the party to which he nominally owed allegiance. In 2003, he published a strange memoir (titled, for maximum book sales to conservatives, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat), which enveloped a proud account of his own progressive record in brief but quote-worthy attacks on Democrats. Soon afterwards, he completed his apostasy with his RNC speech embracing George W. Bush and savaging his former colleague John Kerry.

For a while there, Miller was like fellow arch-Appalachian Andrew Johnson reincarnated, turning on former friends and embracing former enemies with equal passion. It seemed there was no GOP candidate he wasn’t willing to support, the nadir probably being his establishment of a group called Democrats for Santorum, just as the right-wing senator was going down the tubes in the 2006 elections in Pennsylvania.

But in the last few years, as his health declined and he became more distant from politics, the fiery mountaineer seemed to mellow. He mended fences with old Democratic friends and advisers James Carville and Paul Begala (whom he first introduced to Bill Clinton). And in his last major political endorsement, in 2014, he supported Democrat Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign.

You can think of that as a final “zig-zag,” or as a bit of a homecoming. I personally think it reflected a complicated and conflicted man who often regretted his own political impulses, and had more of a sense of humor about it all than most people realized.

I had some evidence for that suspicion. Back when it appeared, I wrote a review of A National Party No More that basically suggested Miller had lost his bearings after going to the Senate. The title was “Zell Bent.” A few months later a friend who had visited his Senate office brought me a handwritten note from my former boss (who was normally proper but not affectionate towards staff) that read: “Your review was fair and honest, and I remain your friend and admirer.” And he signed it “Zell Bent.”

He was one of a kind, and should be remembered for more than his zig-zags.


March 22: GOP Plans to Take Down Joe Manchin Could Founder on Ex-Con Mine Owner’s Campaign

In watching the ever-changing Senate landscape for this November, an unexpected development from West Virginia caught my eye. Here’s my explanation from New York:

Of all the “Trump Ten” Democratic senators from states carried by the president in 2016 who are facing reelection this November, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin is fighting the strongest MAGA tide. Trump won his highest percentage in the Mountain State, defeating Hillary Clinton by a 69/26 margin. Enthusiasm for the 45th president in West Virginia has not flagged; according to Gallup, his average job approval rating in the state during 2017 was 61 percent — again, the highest in the country.

So despite Manchin’s popularity in the state (his job approval ratio as of the end of 2017, according to Morning Consult, was 52/36), he attracted two A-list Republican opponents: U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins, who represents coal country’s Third Congressional District, and Attorney General Pat Morrisey. But as a May 8 primary approaches, it’s a third candidate who has all the momentum and is seriously worrying Republicans: former mine owner Dan Blankenship. A prominent figure in West Virginia economic and political life for years, Blankenship gained national notoriety during his prosecution by the Justice Department for his alleged role in a 2010 mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 workers. He was acquitted of the felony charges the Feds wanted, but was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards, and served a year in a federal prison in California.

Now Blankenship has launched an unlikely Senate bid, which appears largely designed to reboot his brand. Thanks to his high name ID, his wealth, and his willingness to go after his GOP opponents, he’s soon become a formidable candidate, as Politico reports:

“Blankenship’s rise has been driven in part by his self-financed TV ads. Since launching his campaign in late November, Blankenship has spent over $1.1 million on roughly a dozen commercials, according to media buying totals, far surpassing his opponents. Morrisey has so far spent nothing on TV ads and Jenkins only about $38,000.

“Blankenship has used the ads to paint his rivals as insufficiently conservative, blasting Jenkins over his positions on Obamacare and climate change, and Morrisey on abortion. He’s positioned himself as an unshakable ally of President Donald Trump, who received 68 percent of the vote in the state.”

Jenkins is somewhat vulnerable as a former longtime Democratic state legislator who only became a Republican in 2013 when he decided to run for Congress. And Blankenship has gone after Morrisey for his law firm’s links to pharmaceutical companies, and his wife’s law firm’s representation of Planned Parenthood.

Objective public polls in this contest are hard to come by, but the consensus is that the race has become a close three-way fight. A new Morrisey-commissioned poll shows Jenkins dropping into third place behind Blankenship, who is right behind Morrisey.

A Manchin–Blankenship general election would be nasty and personal. The senator has said of the mine owner: “I believe Don has blood on his hands.” And Blankenship has charged that Manchin, who was governor at the time of the mine explosion, conspired with Barack Obama (not a popular figure in West Virginia) to send him to the hoosegow.

National Republicans understandably fear that this kind of grudge match would move a key Senate race away from the partisan and ideological issues where they have a big advantage in West Virginia. And even if Blankenship fades before May 8, he’s doing some damage to the other two candidates.

West Virginians seem split over Blankenship’s culpability in the death of the miners; their tendency to forgive him reflects the ancient dependence of the state on vanishing coal jobs and their defensiveness about federal efforts to regulate the industry. But if Blankenship makes it through the GOP primary, voters will have to come to grips with his decidedly mixed legacy.

And Joe Manchin would not be the only candidate with a bullseye on his back.


March 16: A Big Fat Elephant Loss in Pennsylvania

Late in the evening of the special election in PA-18 Tuesday night, before it was clear Democrat Conor Lamb had won, I offered some reflections at New York on how shocking it was that this race was even competitive.

While we don’t yet have a clear winner in this election, we do have a clear loser: the Republican Party. This was, as I argued some time ago, the “no-excuses” special election for the GOP. This congressional district is strongly Republican and strongly pro-Trump. Saccone wasn’t a perfect candidate, but he wasn’t a disaster like Roy Moore, either: He had enough outside money and enough get-out-the-vote help from the national party and conservative groups to counteract anything Lamb could throw at him. Plus, he had massive support from the president, his family, and his administration, in an iconic Trump Country district that almost perfectly typified the Rust Belt areas that decided the presidency. If Lamb wins, it will represent a historic disaster for the GOP. If Saccone wins, it will still send a stark warning sign to the majority party in the House as we head toward November.

Republican message-meister Frank Luntz put it plainly this evening:

Yes, this is a special election; some might imagine that in a regular election, such as the one in November, more Republican voters will show up. The problem with that hypothesis is that turnout today was at full midterm levels. There’s no reason to think turnout patterns in November will be more favorable for the GOP, particularly given the massive Trump administration attention that this district got during this contest.

Another Republican rationalization we have already heard from the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito is that Conor Lamb is not a real Democrat (because he was nominated by a convention and didn’t have to win the votes of left-bent primary voters), and thus his performance does not show how real Democrats will do in November. But, by any standard, Saccone is a real Republican who ran more than ten points behind the normal GOP vote in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. And Lamb was lifted to parity with Saccone by the very same labor movement — battered and diminished as it is — that will be fighting for Democrats in swing districts all over the country. Dismiss labor, dismiss energized rank-and-file Democrats, and dismiss the ability of the Donkey Party to find suitable candidates like Lamb, and you’re well on the way to underestimating the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November.

Yes, a lot of things can change between now and then. But we are now seeing a regular pattern of Democratic over-performance in special elections — whether they ultimately win or lose — spanning the entire Trump administration so far. This election may just be another data point among many, but put them together and they unambiguously show big trouble for Trump and his party. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if they can’t make it there (in southwest Pennsylvania), they can’t make it anywhere. And it’s time they woke up and smelled the bitter coffee.

As of this writing, Saccone still hasn’t conceded, despite his cause looking hopeless. But it could be some time before his party recovers from this one.


March 9: California Here Trump Comes, With Bad Intent

As a transplanted Georgia Cracker who now lives in California, I am acutely aware of the low mutual esteem between the President of the United States and the citizens of the nation’s largest state. So his impending trip to California led me to explain it all at New York.

For a president who managed to spend $13.5 million on travel in one year, Donald Trump actually doesn’t get out that much. As the reigning expert on the subject explains, his travel is mostly limited and predictable. He mostly travels to his other homes:

“’He seems to be traveling a lot, but so much of it seems to be traveling to second homes,’ said Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who tracks presidential travel.”

If you expand the definition of “second homes” to hotels he owns, then that covers an awful lot of his travel:

“Except for foreign trips, Trump has spent only one night of his presidency at a hotel he didn’t own. Last August, he slept in Phoenix after a rally before leaving for Reno the next morning.”

While Trump has certainly had the means throughout his life to develop and indulge sophisticated travel tastes, his habits as president are more in keeping with the persona he’s developed as a salt-of-the-earth dude whose interests beyond work are limited to golf, rasslin’ matches, beauty pageants and the occasional white nationalist rally. As the expert Doherty put it: “He seems to like to go places where he’s already very popular or is likely to get a raucous welcome.”

These precedents are freshly relevant as Trump prepares for his first trip to California next week. It’s notable for a couple of reasons. First of all, this is the latest in a presidency that a POTUS has ventured into California since FDR. Back then, of course, presidential trips to the West Coast involved long train trips, not quick flights. And California was not what it is now: a demographic, economic, and political behemoth. From a political perspective alone, the state has 55 electoral votes, a big batch of competitive House districts, and a vast number of campaign donors that give it a reputation as a “political ATM.”

The state also has a reputation, however, as a bastion of the Resistance, and a place where Trump is profoundly unpopular. His trip does not seem well designed to change that perception:

“Sources familiar with Trump’s plans say he is expected to visit California to the US-Mexico border to look at border wall prototypes in the San Diego area.”

Trump critics in California are referring to the trip sardonically as a “border wall hallucination tour.” And hallucination or not, a border wall is not an idea Californians like: a survey last fall showed them disapproving of it by a 73/24 margin. So why is Trump rubbing their noses in it?

This seems to be part of an administration-wide effort to treat the nation’s largest state not as an object of loving persuasion but as a target, and as a demon-figure for the edification and excitement of people in Trump Country. Here’s how CNN sums it up:

“President Donald Trump and his administration have very much tied his political efforts to California by essentially declaring a policy war on the Golden State. On immigration, legalized marijuana, climate change and more, California is the chief policy foil of the White House.”

That strategy was underlined earlier this week when the attorney general of the United States chose to travel to Sacramento to shriek at state officials and the mayor of Oakland about California’s “sanctuary” policies that let local law-enforcement officials choose to limit cooperation with ICE.

Now the idea of California being the source of all evil is hardly novel in the annals of conservative agitprop, at least since the GOP lost its grip on the state in the 21st century. With the state’s economy booming and the state’s budget in balance, it’s not as easy as it used to be to claim the place is one big dystopia. But on the cultural front, there’s always an audience for those who claim California is a hellscape of hippies and sodomites and snooty Hollywood and Silicon Valley elites and illegal aliens, all plotting to destroy the American Dream.

It’s not entirely clear how California Republicans feel about their state becoming a comprehensive punching bag for their administration in Washington. Some represent constituencies that don’t like hippies or immigrants much more than Trump does. But all in all, it can’t be helpful for them that POTUS and his representatives only come to California to attack it.