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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

November 2: #NeverTrumper Republicans Release a Cry of Despair

If you are having a bad day in politics, it’s worth remembering there are some political people who almost ever have a good day. I wrote about them for New York.

As David Weigel of the Washington Post explains today, the core of the #NeverTrump movement has been regularly getting together under the auspices of a group calling itself the Meeting of the Concerned.

A lot of familiar names are apparently still in the movement: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol (who said of Trump “he’s dead to me” after the mogul’s infamous 2015 dismissal of John McCain’s POW saga); columnists Mona Charen (long associated with National Review, the magazine that early in 2016 devoted an entire issue to an effort to delegitimize Trump among conservatives) and Max Boot (a foreign-policy expert who has repeatedly challenged Trump’s mental fitness for office); Evan McMullin (who actually ran against Trump in the 2016 general election as an independent candidate); and a couple of ex-congressmen, Bob Inglis and David Jolly.

As Weigel reports, this gang of discontents have decided to issue a public statement “asking congressional Republicans to preempt any presidential action against Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election.” But ironically, what appears to have motivated them to do so is the recognition that they’ve lost the battle and the whole GOP’s in the tank for Trump.

“In interviews, members of the Meeting of the Concerned said that the Mueller issue forced their hand. Several said that the influence of conservative media, especially the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, Wall Street Journal and New York Post, made them worry that the president would fire Mueller and spark a constitutional crisis. Charen pointed to a weekend of Wall Street Journal op-eds that laid out a case for ending the Russia probe, building on months of attacks on Mueller’s integrity.”

But if The Wall Street Journal has been “Trumpified,” of what value is this motley crew of dissenters? And who is likely to be listening on Capitol Hill, particularly with the like-minded Jeff Flake and Bob Corker headed for the exits? Nobody, it seems, according to their own assessment, as articulated by McMullin’s former running mate Mindy Finn:

“‘There’s a leadership vacuum,’ Finn said. ‘Ideally we’d have more members of Congress standing up for the rule of law, being willing to challenge the president. Given that they’re not doing that, we felt that groups like this need to exist and need to speak out.'”

So this statement is less a rallying cry than a cry of despair aimed at the history books more than at today’s historymakers. Or perhaps some of them are genuinely motivated by the moral hazard of associating themselves with the president so many fellow conservatives now idolize:

“‘Donald Trump is reshaping the heart of the GOP into something that is very dark and very diseased,’ said [former congressman] Inglis. ‘My nightmare scenario is a Republican Party that loses its soul. It’s one thing to lose an election. It’s another to lose your soul.'”

And it’s another thing altogether to lose your party to Donald J. Trump.


October 28: The Fever Is Not Breaking Soon

Something Jeff Flake said this week sounded very familiar, so I wrote about it at New York:

I’m probably not the only one who had a sense of déjà vu when Jeff Flake deployed a certain medical term in an interview yesterday:

“After the senator from Arizona announced he was retiring because he couldn’t win a primary in President Trump’s Republican Party, Tapper asked: Why not make the case for why Trumpism is bad and let GOP voters decide?”

“’I think that this fever will break,’ Flake said. ‘I don’t know that it’ll break by next year.’”

During his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama frequently referred to the extremism and obstructionism that had gripped the Republican Party since he took office in the same terms, as on this occasion during a speech in Minneapolis:

“I believe that if we’re successful in this election, when we’re successful in this election, that the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that. My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again.”

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. After two more years of obstruction following the 2012 election, Republicans took back full control of Congress, and then wielded that power with a monomaniacal focus on seizing total power in 2016. To the extent that they did much of anything, it involved passing legislation they knew Obama would veto, to score ideological points and try to convince their “base” they’d tear up Obama’s legacy instantly if given the chance.

But the “fever” Republicans regularly fed to keep their activists, donors, and most committed voters revved up and howling at the moon got out of control. Out of the fever swamps emerged Donald Trump.

As Aaron Blake notes in a critique of Flake’s position, for all the peculiarities surrounding Trump, there’s less discontinuity with the recent past than some imagine:

“Trump has certainly taken the GOP in a wholly new direction on a few issues, especially trade. But the things that really define him and separate him from other Republicans — attacking basically any establishment politician, fighting culture wars that most Republicans steer clear of, shunning all forms of political correctness — have been in demand among the GOP base for the better part of the past decade or more.”

We’ll never know what might have happened to the Republican Party had Trump lost, as nearly everyone outside his immediate orbit (and some within it) expected. But for now, the raging debate within the GOP is not one between dissenters like Flake, McCain, and Corker (the “Last Hurrah Caucus” as Perry Bacon Jr. calls it) and Team Trump. It’s between the vast majority of Republican elected officials who have pledged fealty to Trump and those in the Republican base who believe that fealty is not passionate enough.

Symbolically, the fight echoes the one we just saw in Alabama between Luther Strange, the 1000-percent right-wing senator who could not utter a breath without singing a hymn of praise to Donald Trump, and Roy Moore, who embraced a more systematic radicalism aimed at Establishment Republicans who talked the talk but did not walk the walk of blowing up every conceivable limitation on full and immediate implementation of Trump’s agenda.

The GOP’s electoral base may determine the outcome of the fight between pro-Trump Establishmentarians and pro-Trump insurgents in a series of 2018 primaries. No matter who wins, though, it’s Trump’s party and “the fever” continues to rage.


October 26: Virginia May Signal Whether Minority Voters Are Likely To Turn Out in 2018

After reading a lot of back-and-forth about the trajectory of the November 7 Virginia gubernatorial election, I offered some thoughts at New York about the national implications:

For all the discussion about Donald Trump’s success among “Rust Belt” white working-class voters in 2016, another big factor in his upset win was unexpectedly low turnout among “Obama Coalition” voters (usually defined as young and minority voters), especially African-Americans. Despite Trump’s constant deployment of sub-rosa and not-so sub-rosa appeals to white racial resentments, according to census data, African-American turnout dropped from 66.6 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016, the largest presidential cycle-to-cycle turnout slump for black voters in recorded history. Latino turnout was stable, a major disappointment to Democrats who thought Trump’s constant immigrant-baiting might create a large backlash. Millennial turnout was up, but not massively.

Some reasons for the African-American turnout drop-off in 2016 are reasonably obvious: It was the first presidential election since 2004 (when black turnout was very similar to 2016 levels) when the first African-American president was not on the ballot. And as Ari Berman has demonstrated, GOP-engineered voter suppression may have played an important role in reducing African-American turnout in some key states, notably Wisconsin.

Postmortems aside, the collapse of the Obama Coalition should cast a long shadow over Democratic hopes of a 2018 wave election. That’s because these voters traditionally have not participated proportionately in non-presidential elections. Unless the pattern changes — and after 2016 we now know that Donald Trump’s presence as leader of the GOP won’t likely change it without some additional encouragement — then Democrats looking to win back the House in 2018 may need a level of success with white voters beyond anything they’ve accomplished lately. In the last Democratic midterm wave election, in 2006, Democrats won 47 percent of the white vote. Barring something really unimaginable, that is not going to happen in 2018 (Republicans have now won at or near 60 percent of the white vote in four consecutive presidential and midterm elections).

In 2014, Democrats were worried enough about the “midterm falloff” problem in their electoral base that the Democratic National Committee created and funded an initiative — known as the Bannock Street Project —to address it. Utilizing the digital voter-targeting and outreach methodologies pioneered in the 2012 Obama campaign, the $60 million project targeted pro-Democratic demographic groups in ten states. All ten of those states had Senate elections in 2014; Republicans won nine of them — a net gain of six Senate seats in this relatively small slice of the country.

There is some empirical evidence the Bannock Street Project actually did boost base turnout, making a 2014 debacle less severe than it otherwise might have been, but it’s tough to get around the bottom-line failure. And given the uninspiring numbers from 2016, Democrats face 2018 with this very large problem still unsolved.

That is one reason to look closely at what is happening in the competitive off-year gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state with a large African-American population and a growing Latino presence as well. Despite a pro-Democratic trend in presidential elections (Virginia has now gone Democratic in three consecutive presidential years, after going Republican ten straight times dating back to 1964), the party has suffered underwhelming election finishes in the last two non-presidential years: in 2013, Terry McAuliffe undershot the polls in dispatching ultraconservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli; and in 2014, Republican Ed Gillespie nearly upset Senator Mark Warner. So the possibility of midterm falloff among minority voters is and should be a big concern.

At least one observer, civil-rights activist Steve Phillips, is warning that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam and his campaign are ignoring African-American voters in the pursuit of white swing voters to an extent that may doom his candidacy:

“Northam has spent over $17 million as of October 1, 2017…. [T]he Northam campaign’s biggest line item—nearly $9 million—consists of funds given to an advertising firm led by an all-white board to run television ads. These campaign ads attack the Republican nominee for his ties to the oil company Enron. What is the strategic rationale of such an advertising campaign? Clearly, those ads are not supposed to motivate African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color to take time from their busy lives to come out and support the Democratic ticket.”

Phillips also deplores the scant attention and support pro-Democratic groups in Virginia have given to Northam’s African-American running mate, Justin Fairfax.

There are actually some signs in Virginia of Democratic concern for motivating base voters instead of simply competing for swing voters, including a high-profile appearance by President Obama. Swing-voter-focused ads have also been supplemented by more base-oriented efforts, including a flier that directly links Republican candidate Ed Gillespie to Donald Trump and to the infamous neo-Confederate protesters in Charlottesville. And it’s also possible Gillespie’s own racially tinged ads that demagogue about the MS-13 criminal gang or the restoration of felons’ rights will backfire (in one famous case, in Georgia in 1998, an over-the-top white racial appeal orchestrated by GOP operative Ralph Reed boosted African-American turnout in a midterm election significantly and produced a surprise Democratic statewide sweep).

It is not clear, moreover, that non-presidential election falloff among African-Americans in Virginia is as severe a problem as it is in some states. According to exit polls, the African-American percentage of the Virginia electorate was virtually the same (ranging from 20 percent to 21 percent) in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2016. The one exception, though, shows the potentially calamitous results of poor minority turnout: In 2009 African-Americans represented just 16 percent of the Virginia electorate, and Democrat Creigh Deeds lost decisively.

So minority turnout in Virginia (and for that matter, in the less competitive contest in New Jersey) is worth watching on November 7. Heading into 2018, Democrats would be well advised to conduct a full public discussion of the Bannock Street Project and other investments in “base” turnout, while making voter mobilization just as important a factor as swing voter persuasion in all the party’s investments.


October 20: When It Comes To Senate Races, Are Trump and Bannon Both Losers?

After reading an awful lot of articles about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump jousting over 2018 Senate primaries, I expressed some skepticism at New York about this alleged clash of the titans:

While it hasn’t been formally confirmed by the White House just yet, Politico is reporting that President Trump called up three Republican senators who are up for reelection and promised to help them fend off any primary challengers that might emerge. It’s probably not a coincidence that all three – John Barrasso of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi — have been the subject of dark imprecations and thinly veiled threats from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, that great defender of Trumpism even if that involves opposing Trump.

The three senators receiving an offer of help from Trump are a goodly portion of the incumbents under fire from Bannon. There are only eight GOP senators up next year. Bannon isn’t messing with Ted Cruz. Bob Corker is retiring. Another, Orrin Hatch may retire, too; he hasn’t announced his intentions. There are two senators that Bannon and like-minded “populists” might target but that Trump probably won’t back no matter what Mitch McConnell does: sworn presidential enemy Jeff Flake of Arizona and the less-abrasive but still unreliable Dean Heller of Nevada. That leaves the very three Trump apparently called this week.

Two potential right-wing challengers are looking at Barrasso with bad intent: gazillionaire Foster Friess, the man who bankrolled Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, and Blackwater founder (and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) Erik Prince. Bannon has talked to former Nebraska state treasurer Shane Osborn, who lost badly to Ben Sasse in a 2014 Senate primary, about taking on Fischer. And Chris McDaniel, who blew a primary runoff against Thad Cochran in 2014, is eager to run against Wicker, who had the temerity to suggest that Mississippi might want to consider ending its ancient and evil love affair with the Confederacy.

The big question is exactly what either Trump or Bannon will add to any of these three races. Trump obviously has clout and ultimate visibility as the president of the United States, and for all the #NeverTrump movement conservatives (Flake and Sasse now being their increasingly isolated representatives) who initially withheld affection for their party’s ravisher, he’s now loved by the right-wing rank-and-file as though he were the reincarnation of Barry Goldwater.

But Trump’s clumsy and narcissistic embrace of Luther Strange in Alabama should give pause to any future endorsee. A postelection study showed Trump did little or nothing to boost his candidate’s standing, even in a state where Republicans adore him. It’s possible his appeal, such as it is, simply isn’t transferrable, and it’s also possible his fans believe in doing what Trump does rather than doing what Trump says. Candidates adept at bone-charring rhetoric and provocation of the hated liberals may be irresistible to Trump’s base, no matter whom he backs.

On the other hand, Bannon’s insurgent wizardry is a bit suspect as well. The idea that he deserves much credit for Roy Moore’s primary win in Alabama is laughable: Moore was a massive celebrity in his home state (and among Christian-right folk nationally) back when Bannon’s main theater of operations was in sinful Hollywood. And Luther Strange, bless his little heart, was a great big hot-air balloon losing altitude from practically the moment he accepted appointment to the Senate from a disgraced governor he had been protecting from impeachment. It is at this point not at all certain he can go rolling into a state like Wyoming with Mercer money and screaming Breitbart headlines and take down an incumbent senator, particularly if his candidate is a sketchy character like Prince, who probably knows more about sandy plains of Iraq than about the windy plateaus of the Equality State.

It could well turn out that neither Trump nor his former sidekick and ideological shaman is going to have that dramatic an effect on GOP Senate primaries in 2018.

So much losing. Sad!


October 19: First New Hampshire Poll For 2020 Shows Trump Potentially Vulnerable

Don’t look now, but the pollsters are already out there looking at the 2020 elections. I wrote about it at New York.

Yes, it’s incredibly early to be taking polls for the 2020 presidential contest. But on the other hand, there are places like Iowa and New Hampshire where presidential politics is pretty much a constant preoccupation. So it’s worth taking a quick look at the University of New Hampshire’s Granite State Poll, the first to examine the standing of potential candidates in the first-in-the-nation primary.

Among Democrats, what jumps off the page is that there does not at the moment appear to be a deep yearning for fresh faces. Bernie Sanders runs first at 31 percent and Joe Biden runs second at 24 percent. In other words, over half of New Hampshire Democrats currently favor a presidential candidate who would seek to become the first to celebrate an 80th birthday in the White House. Even though she represents a state whose media markets extend well into New Hampshire, Elizabeth Warren is running a relatively poor third at 13 percent. Perhaps, at 68, she’s just a bit too young.

Nine other potential Democratic candidates are named, and they register a collective 17 percent of the vote (Cory Booker leads the pack with 6 percent).

Among Republicans, no potential challenger to Donald Trump is tested, but interestingly enough, only 47 percent say they “plan” to vote for the president in the 2020 primary, with 23 percent saying they’d prefer another candidate and 30 percent being unsure. The same survey at the same point in Barack Obama’s presidency showed 64 percent of Democrats planning to vote for the incumbent, 5 percent expressing support for a different nominee, and 30 percent unsure.

It’s important to remember that the cast of characters for the 2020 presidential contest has not been formed. At the same juncture four years ago, neither of the eventual winners of the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primaries, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, was even listed in the Granite State poll field. Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton, who was eventually trounced by Sanders in New Hampshire, was favored by 64 percent, with no one else being in double digits. Among Republicans, Rand Paul and Chris Christie led the 2013 Granite State Poll; Paul would drop out before New Hampshire and Christie would finish sixth. Trump ultimately led the field by nearly 20 points. Indeed, Trump’s 35 percent as an upstart candidate facing a huge group of opponents in 2016 isn’t that much less than the 47 percent he currently commands in New Hampshire as the president of the United States.

So it will be fascinating to see if any Republican arises to test Trump’s vulnerability in the early going.


October 13: Are Panicked Democrats Showing Signs of Post-Trump Stress Disorder?

After reading several articles about the Virginia governor’s race, I was moved to do some psychoanalyis at New York:

The Virginia gubernatorial race concludes in just under four weeks. Democratic candidate and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam has a lead of 6.8 percent over Republican Ed Gillespie in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. The last time Gillespie led in a public poll was in March. Northam has maintained a fundraising advantage throughout most of the general election campaign and in mid-September had twice as much cash on hand as his rival. Virginia is arguably a “blue state” now, having been carried twice by Barack Obama and then by Hillary Clinton last year (by more than 5 percent). Just yesterday Morning Consult released state-by-state approval ratio numbers for Donald Trump; in Virginia, he was at 42/53, worse than his national average. And then there is Virginia’s historical pattern in gubernatorial elections of almost always voting against the party controlling the White House; the only exception since 1974 was posted by the current Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe.

You’d never know any of these data points if all you had to go by was the mood of Democrats concerning this contest. Earlier this week the Daily Beast’s veteran political reporter Sam Stein wrote that Democrats were “panicked” over Virginia, worried about a lack of enthusiasm for their candidate and the absence of the kind of massive national small-dollar investments in the campaign that characterized the congressional special election in Georgia earlier this year. A prominent Virginia activist penned a piece that rocketed around the internet with this headline: “Heads Up—An Impending Disaster in Virginia.” And Vox’s Jeff Stein penned a classic glass-half-empty assessment noting that polls showed the race as “surprisingly close” while “worried” Democrats fretted over Gillespie’s “culture war” attacks on Northam.

So what’s up with all the “panic” and “worry” and premonitions of “disaster” for Democrats in Virginia, given all the positive objective indicators of the state of the race? Jeff Stein may have touched on the underlying reason:

“The Virginia governor’s race this year is making some on the left queasy as a redux of Election Day 2016 ….

“Fear is creeping in that instead of beginning to beat back the tide of Trumpism and race-baiting dog whistles, Democrats will once again be submerged in it.”

In other words, the more Gillespie’s campaign begins to resemble Trump’s in its borderline-racist savagery about criminal gangs of immigrants and politically correct efforts to take down Confederate monuments, the more Democrats relive Election Night 2016, when all those objective indicators of a Clinton victory proved illusory.

Democrats may be suffering from their own version of PTSD — Post-Trump Stress Disorder — in which pessimism operates as a natural defense mechanism to prevent the kind of shocked disappointment they experienced on the night of November 8, 2016. After all, nothing’s really happened since then to dispel the irrational but powerful sense among left-of-center folk that they and their country are being punished by an angry God using this terrifying president as a scourge. Hopes of a quick recovery from the Trump madness were temporarily raised by Jon Ossoff’s special-election campaign in Georgia, which at one point looked like a certain win, but then that, too, turned out to be another bitter buzzkill.

So perhaps all the bad vibes Democrats are feeling about Virginia have less to do with the race itself than with the daily reality of waking up each morning and realizing that Donald Trump is president of the United States and apparently none of us will deserve good things for the foreseeable future.


October 10: The Nearly Extinct Moderate Republican

After reading various conservative complaints about the nefarious moderate Republicans on the Senate, I decided to do some research, and wrote it all up for New York:

The Senate’s moderate Republicans have been hunted nearly to extinction over the years. Within living memory, not only moderate but by any definition liberal Republicans were thick on the ground in the U.S. Senate. But today, “moderate” is mainly just a term of contempt for any GOP senator maverick-y enough to break ranks on something the heavily conservative party has decided it needs.

To illustrate the trend, I looked at the gold standard for measurements of congressional Republicans’ ideological fidelity since 1971, the American Conservative Union’s lifetime ratings for members of the Senate. I took a less-than-50-percent rating as a pretty noncontroversial benchmark for moderation.

Forty years ago, in 1977, there were 14 Senate Republicans with a less-than-50-percent lifetime rating from ACU: Ted Stevens, Lowell Weicker, Charles Percy, James Pearson, Charles Mathias, Edward Brooke, Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, John Heinz, Richard Schweiker, John Chafee, and Robert Stafford.

Thirty years ago, in 1987, the number of “moderate” Republicans in the Senate had dropped to nine: Lowell Weicker, David Durenberger, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, John Heinz, Arlen Specter, John Chafee, Robert Stafford, and Dan Evans.

Twenty years ago, in 1997, the Senate’s moderate GOP tribe had shrunk to five: Susan Collins, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Arlen Specter, John Chafee, and Jim Jeffords.

Ten years ago, in 2007, there were two moderate Republican senators left according to the ACU standard: Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter.

And now, there’s just one: Susan Collins (who temporarily lifted herself to a 50-plus ACU lifetime rating before lapsing back into heresy).

Collins is now thinking about leaving Washington for the cozier confines of Augusta, Maine, by running for governor. Not everyone left is a hard-core conservative; Lisa Murkowski will still be around with her 60 percent lifetime ACU rating. But it’s not like there is a bench of moderate Republicans out there moving inexorably toward the U.S. Senate. So in a very real sense, Collins could be the last of the breed. It’s been a long sharp downward road to nowhere.


October 6: Trump Blunders Into the Virginia Governor’s Race

We’re now about a month out from Virginia’s gubernatorial election, one of the two being held this year. I looked at the latest developments at New York:

Yesterday morning the Washington Post released a new poll of the Virginia gubernatorial contest showing Democrat Ralph Northam blowing out to a 13-point lead over Republican Ed Gillespie among likely voters, by far the biggest lead he’s managed in a general election survey.

Early last evening Donald Trump took to Twitter with this nasty-gram:

Perhaps it was a coincidence, given the president’s spotty consumption of news and other information that is not about his own self. But it’s likely some alarms went off in the White House about an impending Gillespie loss being treated (as off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey often are after a change of administration in Washington) as a referendum on the Trump presidency. That would have gotten POTUS’s attention for sure. And the tweet itself, directly accusing the lieutenant governor of Virginia of “fighting for” a violent criminal gang, is not subtle.

We don’t know at this point whether the Gillespie campaign invited, or even had advance knowledge of, Trump’s intervention. The MS-13 smear Trump deployed does track Gillespie’s own borderline racist ads attacking Northam for breaking a tie in the State Senate against a bill that would preemptively outlaw “sanctuary cities” (Virginia has none now), which has little to do with MS-13, but whatever.

Gillespie has for the most part given his party’s president a wide berth in this race. That makes sense. Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by more than five points last year. According to Gallup, his job-approval ratio in Virginia over the first six months of his presidency averaged 39/56. The new Post poll showed Trump currently at 34/60 among the Old Dominion’s registered voters, with half of voters disapproving strongly of his job performance. In addition, Virginia has a history of rejecting gubernatorial candidates from the party that controls the White House: In the last ten gubernatorial elections, the White House party has lost nine (the only exception is actually the current, term-limited Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe).

So you wouldn’t figure that Trump leaping into the Virginia race would do much to help Gillespie, who has been in striking distance of Northam in most polls prior to the WaPo bombshell (in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, Northam’s lead is a modest 5.4 percent).

Still, the White House may be reinforcing a decision by Team Gillespie to go big on making this a “culture war” campaign. Not only are Virginia Republicans pounding the Democrat on his alleged sympathy for Hispanic criminals; they’re also trying to exploit the relatively positive feelings Virginians have toward Confederate monuments, the issue that blew up in Charlottesville this summer. This doesn’t necessarily reflect rampant racism: Virginia is saturated with Civil War monuments of all kinds (when I lived in the state, I passed through three Civil War battlegrounds on my daily commute to work). Gillespie’s primary opponent Corey Stewart, at one point Trump’s 2016 campaign manager in Virginia, made protecting Confederate monuments a signature issue and nearly upset the front-runner. Perhaps Gillespie now thinks such issues can work magic for him, too, along with fear of immigrants.

The bottom line is that, a month out, Northam has history and the polls on his side, along with a significant financial advantage. Making the race more explicitly a referendum on Trump will probably help him as well.


October 5: No, Polarization Isn’t Just a Washington Thing

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in a new Pew Research report on parties and polarization. I wrote up some key findings for New York:

[T]here is an abiding belief among some academics and professional centrists that the warring tribes of Washington are fundamentally misrepresenting Americans who pretty much agree on the important things and wonder why we can’t just all get along.

The Pew Research Center now offers some fresh and abundant data illustrating the extent, nature, and implications of polarization among regular Americans. Pew’s central finding is that Americans are indeed much more polarized than they were in 1994, when they began asking the same questions to some of the same kinds of people.

“The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.

“And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.”

Much of the Pew data reinforces the hypothesis that we are experiencing the tail end of what one influential analyst called “The Partisan Sort,” the drift of liberals toward the Democratic Party and conservatives toward the Republican Party, severing ancient partisan ties based on ethnic loyalties and events as remote as the Great Depression or even the U.S. Civil War. Here’s one particularly rich finding:

“[I]n 1994 there was substantially more overlap between the two partisan groups than there is today: Just 64% of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat, while 70% of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican. Put differently, in 1994 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 1% and 3%, respectively.”

In other words, rank-and-file voters are separating into their “natural” parties just as much as are their representatives in Congress.

The murkier question about polarization is whether voters are becoming more extreme in their ideological leanings, not just following them into one party or the other. But Pew suggests our more consistently conservative and liberal party groupings are also becoming more liberal and conservative as they sort.

“[A]lthough many Americans continue to hold a mix of liberal and conservative views across different issue areas, that share has declined over time.”

It’s increasingly clear that the great object of traditional political persuasion, the “median voter” who holds positions equidistant from partisans and ideologues, is becoming a much less dominant element of the electorate.

There are obviously multiple ways to look at these phenomena. The most common is to wring hands and deplore both partisan and ideological polarization as preventing things from “getting done,” and as thwarting the natural goodness and reasonableness of Americans.

Another approach is to applaud polarization as creating political parties that consistently stand for important principles, and that aren’t just devoted to deal-cutting and constituency-tending. There was plenty of bipartisanship in the decades prior to the 1960s, much of it devoted to maintaining or turning a blind eye to Jim Crow, and supporting the kind of consensus foreign policy that led to the Vietnam War.

Still another approach is to examine the structural impediments to “getting things done” that don’t depend on a return to a lost, bipartisan “paradise,” whether it’s the filibuster, the creaky procedures for enacting legislation, or the dependence of the federal government on states and localities to implement national policies. Perhaps Democrats are presently rejoicing at the trouble Republicans are having in implementing a party agenda while controlling Congress and the presidency, but this ongoing fiasco also illustrates that “polarization” is not the only problem bedeviling democracy.

Love it or hate it, though, polarization is real, it isn’t a purely Washington phenomenon, and there’s no reason to think it’s going away any time soon.


September 29: Roy Moore’s Abortion Extremism Is Beyond Comparison

In the brief period since Roy Moore won the GOP Senate nomination in Alabama, conservatives have tried to paint Democratic nominee Doug Jones as an “extremist” on abortion policy. As I argued at New York. nobody’s an “extremist” like Roy Moore.

Roy Moore has staked out the most hard-core position imaginable on abortion, and has maintained an uncomfortably close relationship with activists who justify violence against abortion providers and punishment of women for exercising their right to choose. And that’s aside from his regular comments suggesting that legalized abortion and homosexuality have brought down divine wrath on America.

Wherever Doug Jones would draw the line between legal and illegal abortions, there is zero question where Roy Moore would draw it: He wants to make every abortion under any circumstances illegal from the moment of conception, and punish those who procure them, regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court says. He made that clear not in some op-ed, but in an opinion from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in a 2014 case involving prosecuting a woman for endangering her fetus by using drugs:

“Because a human life with a full genetic endowment comes into existence at the moment of conception, the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ encompasses the moment of conception. Legal recognition of the unborn as members of the human family derives ultimately from the laws of nature and of nature’s God, Who created human life in His image and protected it with the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Therefore, the interpretation of the word “child” in Alabama’s chemical-endangerment statute, § 26-15- 3.2, Ala. Code 1975, to include all human beings from the moment of conception is fully consistent with these first principles regarding life and law.”

As this quote illustrates, Moore is a leader in the “Personhood Movement,” which holds that from the moment of conception a zygote enjoys the full protections of the Equal Protection Clause, which precedes and preempts any claim by the woman involved. If there was any doubt about Moore’s position, it should have been removed by a 2012 amicus brief he and his Foundation for Moral Law signed in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a proposed personhood constitutional amendment in Oklahoma. Moore and his group noted they were promoting a personhood initiative in Alabama similar to Oklahoma’s, and then argued:

“While Personhood laws may challenge the legitimacy of the so-called ‘right’ to abort that person under Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, by blocking personhood protection for every preborn child, ‘threw the baby out with the bathwater’ and rejected the many other ways a state may protect the life and dignity of the preborn child.

“Finally, the Holy Scriptures provide additional support for the personhood of the preborn child. Though some interpretations of scriptural passages try to devalue the preborn, the Bible, rightly divided, consistently protects the life of preborn persons from murder and assault as equally as it does those already born.”

How extreme is the zygote-personhood position, which would arguably ban in vitro fertilization clinics and various forms of contraception? Extreme enough that initiatives to place personhood provisions into state constitutions have failed by large margins on the five occasions they’ve made it to the ballot: three times in Colorado, once in North Dakota, and perhaps most relevantly for Alabama, once in arch-conservative Mississippi.

Even though it had widespread support from Republican and even a few Democratic elected officials, Mississippi’s Amendment 26 was defeated by a 59–41 margin in 2011.

Roy Moore’s position on abortion was too extreme for Mississippi. Is it just right for Alabama? Perhaps that question should be answered before anyone starts picking apart Doug Jones’s interview answers. But without question, Jones needs to occupy more, not less, of the vast ground between Moore’s positions and those of regular Alabamians, who may frown on late-term abortions but don’t want to treat women as distrusted, ungodly bystanders in the reproductive process.