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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

October 14: Could Trump Still Win?

Towards the end of this remarkable week in the presidential contest, I found myself wondering aloud at New York: Is it actually over? Could Trump still win?

[P]artly because of the impact of the recently released Access Hollywood video and the subsequent sexual-assault allegations against Trump, the trajectory of the race for the Republican nominee is terrible at exactly the moment he is running out of time to do much about it. And so it’s probably time to ask quite soberly: Is the presidential election over?

At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten approaches this question from the point of view of historical precedent. Has anyone (at least in the modern era when polls were available) come from as far behind as Trump is at present to win? The answer is no. Going back to 1952, no one has trailed at this point in the cycle by the 6 points and change by which Trump currently trails Clinton and gone on to win. There are three elections with large late shifts (or perhaps polling errors, if you prefer to look at it that way), but (a) none of them reversed the outcome and (b) none of them especially resembled 2016. To be specific, in 1992, Bill Clinton lost half of his lead over Poppy Bush down the stretch, but still won in a walk; really sure winners often lose late votes to complacency, boredom, or (as definitely occurred in 1992) third-party candidates. In 1980, Reagan had a late surge against Carter, but that involved a challenger who had yet (at this point) to post his impressive performance in that year’s one debate, beating an incumbent at a time when economic conditions in the country were by anyone’s judgment terrible and America was suffering a high-profile international humiliation at the hands of Iran. Trump may claim the U.S. is in similar straits now, but the economic indicators and public perceptions say otherwise.

As Enten notes, 1968 is the closest example we have of the kind of comeback Trump needs:

“[T]he most encouraging precedent for Trump is probably 1968. In that year, Democrat Hubert Humphrey was down by 5 percentage points and ended up losing by 1 point. Humphrey consolidated a divided Democratic base — just as Trump needs to do now with Republicans. Humphrey was also likely aided by a major October surprise — the halting of bombing in Vietnam by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. That’s not a bad template for Trump — it would be difficult and he would need some outside help, but you can imagine it happening. Still, Trump is losing by a wider margin than Humphrey was, and the October surprises so far in 2016 seem to be working against Trump rather than in his favor.”

That’s the big picture. How about the little picture? There’s always been a nontrivial chance Trump could win the electoral vote without ever catching Clinton in the national popular vote. How’s he looking there?

The signs are not great for Republicans (at least those who want to see Trump win). The states that were earlier putting Trump within shouting distance of 270 electoral votes seem to be turning away from him. The first post-Trump video survey from Ohio (from Baldwin Wallace) had Clinton up by 9 points among likely voters; a more recent poll from Marist showed Trump back up by 1, but in a state he really must win, Clinton’s now pulled ahead in the polling averages. Even before the tape emerged, Clinton was beginning to build leads in the key swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. In Pennsylvania, the keystone to one Trump path to the presidency, Clinton’s leading by more than her national average. If that state is truly gone for Trump, he cannot lose much anywhere else in the states (Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada) where he once led narrowly before his sexual behavior became central to the campaign. And there are reports that internal GOP polls taken after the video hit show big problems for Trump in Georgia. If that state, which no Democrat has won since 1992, is even close, Trump’s not going to win the states he must have.

Yes, the dynamics could turn around to some extent; you can find at least one new national poll (albeit one from the GOP-leaning Rasmussen) showing Trump bouncing back. But unlike some of the late-surge candidates in the past, Trump does not have the kind of resources normally associated with playing catch-up against a candidate like Clinton. The base-mobilization strategy he signaled he was pursuing with his abrasive comments during and after the second debate could be neutralized to some extent by the effect it will have in helping Clinton mobilize her base. He doesn’t have the infrastructure for a quieter and more targeted get-out-the-vote operation, and it’s far too late to acquire one. He’s also at a serious disadvantage in early voter operations, and early voting will soon on a daily basis reduce the voters available to sustain a comeback — in effect increasing Clinton’s lead by allowing her to “bank” votes. Team Trump is also trailing Team Clinton in paid ad spending. And beyond all that, there’s the fight Trump has engaged in against the congressional Republicans who are clearly inviting voters to split tickets. Maybe that will not hurt him as badly as some observers assume, but it’s unlikely to give him a boost, either.

It’s really hard to find any current indicator that looks good for Donald Trump, truth be told. It’s entirely possible his latest travails have simply and finally put a ceiling on his vote that no degree of wild base-energizing rhetoric can overcome. So about the best reason I can find to hold off declaring him dead in the water is the vague and almost superstitious feeling that it’s been an unpredictable cycle. If new polling data coming out over the next few days shows convincing signs of even deeper national and battleground-state damage from the various sexual allegations and from intra-GOP infighting, it will be time to say this race is over.

And for many of us with shattered nerves from watching this long and strange cycle unfold, it will be not a moment too soon.


October 13: Time For Clinton To Go All Our For a Democratic Congress

With Donald Trump melting down and continuing to slip in the polls, political opportunities for down-ballot Democrats could significantly improve. At New York I discussed why building on that trend should be an urgent priority for Hillary Clinton.

Now there’s a glimmer of hope for at least two years of frenetic legislative activity for Clinton if Democrats win the four net Senate seats and 30 net House seats they need for control of Congress. Democrats have long had even or better-than-even odds for winning the net four Senate seats needed to take over the upper chamber, assuming Tim Kaine has the tie-breaking vote as vice-president. What’s changed during the last two weeks of trouble for Trump and Republicans is that control of the House is once again in play. In 2006, Democrats gained 31 House seats by winning the national popular vote by 8 points. They need to gain 30 to win control this year. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Democrats leading by 10 points in the congressional generic ballot measuring which party voters support in House races. If that’s a solid trend rather than a blip, and Clinton’s own polling surge holds, a Democratic House is no longer a fantasy, though Republican gerrymandering and efforts to encourage ticket-splitting mean it’s still a bit of a long shot.

The payoff for a Democratic sweep makes going for it well worth the effort.

The old reality was nicely represented by the remark she made to New York Times Magazine columnist Mark Leibovich, which he used as the headline for his long thumb-sucker on her campaign: “I’m the Last Thing Standing Between You and the Apocalypse.”

While that idea is a pretty good motivator for those who hate or fear Trump, in the end it’s not very inspiring. I used to have a boss who had a framed motto on his wall that I have never forgotten: “Avoiding disaster is an insufficient agenda.” For Clinton, it’s also unnecessary for the moment. Her long litany of policy proposals sometimes had the appearance on the campaign trail of being props: answers to the argument that she didn’t really have any new ideas. Now there’s a chance, if not an overwhelming one, that she can actually get some of them enacted, and without pretending she can talk more than a handful of congressional Republicans into helping her.

At a time when her main remaining challenge is energizing Democrats and left-bent independents, aggressively and explicitly campaigning for a Democratic Congress that can actually accomplish big things makes abundant sense. And besides, she might as well strike back at congressional Republicans who are pretty clearly pivoting to a “checks and balances” message that they’ll thwart anything Clinton tries to do. She can point to the choice down-ballot voters face of more gridlock or the pragmatic and generally popular agenda she’s outlined during the campaign.

In weighing this option, Clinton and her campaign team should realize they have nothing to lose other than the near-certainty of a presidency that is tragically limited by Republican obstruction in Congress. It would be difficult for her to lose to Trump at this point no matter what she does. And she might as well give herself a fighting chance to be successful in office.

There are already signs the Clinton campaign is moving in that direction. It’s not a moment too soon.


October 6: Ryan’s Revolutionary Plans

If anyone out there is looking for a good motivational device to convince meh Democrats or progressive independents there’s a good reason to get out there and vote, House Speaker Paul Ryan just supplied one, as I discussed at New York.

Combined with the illusion that the filibuster would give Senate Democrats a veto over anything egregious, the Republicans-in-disarray meme has lulled a lot of Democrats, and the media, into a drowsy inability to understand how close we are to a right-wing legislative revolution if Donald Trump becomes president and Republicans hang on to Congress.

Now Paul Ryan has given Washington a wake-up call. Reportedly angry that Beltway types were yawning at his plans for 2017 on the grounds that the usual gridlock would stop anything major from happening, the House Speaker held a presser to explain how he could cram a generation’s worth of legislation into a budget reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered, as Politico’s Ben Weyl reports:

“Ryan peeled back the curtain on his strategy at a news conference after a reporter suggested he would struggle to implement his ambitious agenda next year. After all, it was noted, Republicans are certain to lack the 60 votes needed in the Senate to break Democratic filibusters on legislation. So Ryan gave a minitutorial on congressional rules and the bazooka in his pocket for the assembled reporters.

“’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.”

It’s unclear why the press is “seemingly unconvinced” that the budget reconciliation process is indeed a “bazooka in his pocket.” It’s been around as a device to package and speed through Congress vast policy changes since Ronald Reagan and his allies used it in 1981 to rewrite the tax code and enact far-reaching budget cuts and program changes. Republicans had the same revolutionary plans for its use four years ago if Mitt Romney had won and the GOP held on to the Senate. And they conducted a dry run at the very beginning of this year by enacting a sweeping reconciliation bill that nobody paid much attention to because they knew Obama would veto it. President Trump would not.

One major reason congressional Republicans conducted this dry run was to set a precedent that reconciliation could be used for seemingly non-budget items like repealing key elements of the Affordable Care Act (notably the individual mandate and purchasing subsidies). The GOP-appointed Senate parliamentarian, ostensibly the traffic cop whose job it is to stop non-germane riders, waved it on through. Democrats can whine about it, but if the GOP wins the trifecta in November, they will not be able to do a thing. So a future reconciliation bill would not only cripple Obamacare and strip millions of Americans of health coverage obtained via the exchanges, but also kill the Medicaid expansion and throw millions more out of coverage. Indeed, there is zero reason to think it would not include turning the original Medicaid program into a block grant to the states (probably along with the food-stamp program), as both Trump and congressional Republicans have proposed, while implementing Ryan’s own controversial plan to voucherize Medicare.

Those are just a few nasty features we can expect on the spending side of the budget. On the tax side, the only problem Republicans will face is cutting a deal with Trump on the relatively few differences between their tax schemes and his.

“Trump and House Republicans have proposed different tax plans, but they are largely in sync on major principles. Both would cut the top tax rate for individuals to 33 percent from the current 39.6 percent. The corporate rate would drop to 15 percent under Trump’s plan and 20 percent under the House GOP plan, from 35 percent today. Both plans also would drain federal coffers of several trillion dollars and give the biggest boost to the wealthy. By the end of the decade, the richest 1 percent would have accumulated 99.6 percent of the benefits of the House GOP plan, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.”

Think there’s some chance Trump won’t play ball? I don’t. One of the advantages of using reconciliation is that the entire toxic ball of reactionary legislation can be whipped through Congress and placed on Trump’s desk while he’s still looking for the washroom keys. He may still maintain big differences with congressional Republicans on matters like trade policy and immigration policy and NATO. But he’s given us no reason whatsoever to think he’d pause before rubber-stamping a bill that kills Obamacare and gets rid of all that “welfare” crap his supporters hate — while giving people like himself a historic tax cut billed as a job-generator.

Ryan may have conducted his explainer in order to get the word out to wavering Republican opinion-leaders that even though there are risks in placing Trump in the Oval Office, there’s a huge payoff as well that he can point to with considerable specificity. But it should be a warning to Democrats as well, and something that with imagination and persistence they can convey to those critical progressives who are meh about voting for Hillary Clinton and don’t think the identity of the president much matters. Even if you think Clinton is a centrist sellout or a Wall Street puppet, she’s not going to sign legislation throwing tens of millions of people out of their health coverage, abolishing inheritance taxes and giving top earners still more tax benefits, shredding the safety net, killing Planned Parenthood funding, and so on through Ryan’s whole abominable list of reactionary delights. If Democrats think a scenario so complicated that it’s lulled the press to sleep cannot be explained to regular voters, maybe they should break out the hand puppets. There is no more urgent and galvanizing message available to them.


October 5: Is Pence the Future of Trumpism?

A lot of smart people have published a lot of smart takes on the vice presidential debate at Longwood University. But regardless of who “won” or “lost” that debate, Mike Pence showed himself to be one of the more unusual running-mates in living memory. He’s generally understood to be a human bridge between Trump and conventional conservatism. Is that what he served as last night? I tried to answer that question at New York:

[Pence] delivered a textbook conservative disquisition on deregulation and lower taxes being the key to reviving the economy. Because neither the moderator nor Tim Kaine so much as mentioned Trump’s promises to abrogate or renegotiate a long series of trade deals that Pence has supported, that area of conflict between Trumpism and conservatism was left unexamined.

Something similar happened on foreign policy, where Pence articulated an attitude toward Russia, Syria, and NATO that must have reassured neoconservatives that their claim to the GOP was not totally lost. (Both Kaine and the moderator brought up Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin and his hostility to NATO as currently constituted, but did not get into the mogul’s broader Jacksonian foreign-policy views.)

But as much as he tried to keep the debate away from his running mate, it’s not true that Pence ignored Trump’s distinctive messaging entirely. As Dara Lind argued at Vox today, you can make a pretty good case that the Hoosier governor embraced Trumpism even as he detached its themes from the Big Man’s personal flourishes.

“When Pence talked about the issues that Trump has made his bread and butter — immigration, terrorism, race — he talked about them through Trump’s lens and in Trump’s terms. If you don’t have borders you don’t have a country. Islamic radicalization in Europe is proof that we shouldn’t allow Syrian refugees into the US. The real problem with race relations in America is bias against police officers.”

In other words, the absence of Trump’s often brutal language and crude dog whistles to racists does not necessarily mean Pence represents pre-Trump conservatism, much less some post-Trump, post-racial moderation. It’s more like Trumpism with a human face, to borrow the late Cold War term for Eurocommunism.

“[Pence] didn’t articulate an “alt-right” conservatism. But he didn’t articulate a pre-Trump conservatism — the conservatism of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, a ‘post-racial’ conservatism that dismisses any discussion of racial difference — either. He was identifying the same problems as Trump — threats from abroad and within — and the same priorities in fixing them. That’s a big shift from the doctrinaire conservatism of the last decade or two, with its focus on fiscal issues and sexual morality.”

If Trump and Pence lose by a respectably narrow margin, which is the most likely outcome at the moment, the hope of #NeverTrumpers that the whole Trump phenomenon will go away like a bad dream is probably naïve. Maybe a kinder, gentler Trumpism, with its appeal to white-identity concerns and fears — a “law and order” conservatism that encourages profiling of suspect populations in immigration, anti-terrorism, and policing strategies — has a serious future within the GOP. That could be in the form of Mike Pence, or it could be through appropriation of Trump’s themes by other ambitious pols.

Should Trump win, of course, Trump himself will be large and in charge.


September 30: National Service a Clinton Family Tradition

In what was universally described as a bid for millennial support, Hillary Clinton went to Florida today and unveiled a full-fledged national service proposal. For us old-timers, it was a nostalgic moment, as I explained at New York:

Millennials themselves won’t remember this, but Bill Clinton made national service a major theme in his 1992 presidential campaign, and managed to create a full-time national-service program, known as AmeriCorps, before Republicans took over Congress and began a guerrilla campaign to kill or at least starve the initiative.

What’s interesting about Hillary Clinton’s current proposal is that she seeks to significantly expand AmeriCorps — tripling its size and doubling the post-service education benefit — while directly connecting it to the kind of part-time, uncompensated voluntarism Republicans tend to prefer as an alternative to national service. Her proposed National Service Reserve would mobilize for emergencies or other urgent public priorities up to 5 million Americans, with the expanded AmeriCorps membership deployed to “recruit, train and lead” them. This hybrid approach of full-time and occasional service was endorsed by George W. Bush, who made it the centerpiece of one of his State of the Union addresses, and has won over several other prominent Republicans, notably Colin Powell and John McCain.

This proposal and the themes it allows Clinton to invoke are clearly a twofer in her efforts to drive up her support levels among millennials. The ethic of service is valued highly by young Americans, and a robust post-service educational grant nicely complements Clinton’s other proposals to make college more affordable.

Lord only knows if or how Trump may respond. He has a generation’s worth of conservative smears against AmeriCorps to draw upon, up to and including comparisons to the Hitler Youth (a particularly common if psychotic characterization made when Obama proposed an AmeriCorps expansion). If her proposal becomes a significant moment in the campaign, and she wins, it could either be the basis of a rare bipartisan opportunity in 2017, or another idea for Republicans to demonize because of its doubled-down connection to the Clintons. Any way you look at it, fighting for national service has become something of a family tradition.


September 29: Clinton’s Millennial Challenge

As we continue to sort through the implications of the first presidential candidates debate, there is a particular area of the electorate Hillary Clinton’s campaign is surely focusing on, as I discussed at New York:

According to Jeff Stein at Vox, there is some (admittedly limited) evidence her performance in the first candidate debate helped her among millennials.

It’s not that she took millennial votes away from Donald Trump. He doesn’t have many. As Harvard’s John Della Volpe, who conducted a debate-night focus group of young voters, told Stein: “The millennial vote isn’t Hillary versus Trump … It’s Hillary versus Gary Johnson versus sitting on the couch on Election Day.”

So Clinton’s appeal to these voters needs to be multidimensional: She must reduce the antipathy toward her from young Sanders supporters and those whose knowledge of her is limited to media characterizations, while convincing them this is a close contest whose outcome will have a big impact on the world millennials will soon inherit.

It seems she made some headway on the first challenge.

“’She wasn’t the caricature her foes and the media had created of her,’Della Volpe says, summarizing what his interview subjects told him about their reactions to the debate. ‘I think in the eyes of millennials, she comported herself well in tone and substance. My sense was that they are beginning to take a fresh look at her.'”

Still, only 20 percent of Della Volpe’s focus-group participants said the debate made them more likely to vote for Clinton (10 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Trump). And it’s unclear how many of them were sufficiently horrified by Trump to develop the sense that voting against him is worth the effort. As I noted immediately after the debate, there’s even the perverse possibility that all the talk about Clinton “crushing” or “destroying” Trump at Hofstra could enhance the belief that she’s already won the election, making a “protest vote” for Johnson or Stein or nonparticipation a consequences-free action in the eyes of millennials who have meh feelings about Clinton.

Some targeted messaging to millennials stressing some of Trump’s more horrific positions — his climate-change denialism, for example, or his support for torture, or his casual attitude about nuclear weaponry — and hinting that he’s within reach of total power, might be advisable. And she does have an emergency fall-back option in the fight for millennial votes: coming out squarely for marijuana legalization.

She could also perhaps find ways to remind people that Gary Johnson’s Libertarians would be perfectly happy with privatizing not just prisons, but pretty much every government function short of raising an army. Indeed, some of Clinton’s allies are already on the job:

“NextGen Climate, the group run by liberal billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer, is on the ground in eight battleground states with a message that is almost exclusively aimed at reaching the millennial voters who are energized by the issue of climate change.

“Last week, the group threw six figures behind digital ads mocking Johnson as a climate change denier and warning millennials that climate change will cost them trillions of dollars.”

Beyond those messaging tweaks, it would be smart for Team Clinton to systematically tamp down the triumphalism as Election Day approaches, and instead create and sustain a sense of urgency, even anxiety. The contest is clearly turning into a mobilization battle, and anything the Clinton campaign can do to maintain a healthy fear of the opposition will make minor-party candidacies, or the couch, a less tempting option for millennials.


September 23: Clinton’s Got a Massive Policy Agenda–If Anyone Cares

Veteran policy wonk Jonathan Cohn took a deeply informed look at what Clinton has done to lay out an agenda she would pursue as president, and found it to be comprehensive and progressive:

“Clinton’s policy operation has churned out more than 60 papers outlining plans for everything from housing for people with serious mental illness to adjusting the cap on loans from the Small Business Administration. The agenda includes extremely big items, like a promise to ensure no family pays more than 10 percent of income on child care, and extremely small ones, like investing in smartphone applications that would make it easier for military families living in remote locations to receive services available only on bases.

“Some of these ideas are more fleshed-out than others. The childcare plan, for example, is missing crucial details, like a price tag. And because the multitude of initiatives doesn’t cohere under a galvanizing theme, the whole of the agenda can seem like less than the sum of its many, many parts. Even so, Clinton’s plans are as unambiguously progressive as any from a Democratic nominee in modern history—and almost nobody seems to have noticed.
And that’s the rub: In a competition dominated first by Bernie Sanders’s plans for a “political revolution” and then by the broad and largely anti-intellectual thematics of Donald Trump’s campaign, Clinton’s characteristic wonkery has been overshadowed and then ignored.”

As Cohn indicates, some of the problem could be the forest-and-trees issue: The very heft and detail of Clinton’s policy offerings have undermined her ability to convey a broad and clear message. But the idea that she has nothing positive to say to complement her attacks on Trump is simply and almost laughably wrong.

Aside from the dynamics of the campaign, though, the other big question Cohn addresses is the relevance of Clinton’s policy agenda to the realities she will face if she is elected president. She will very likely face a Republican-controlled House (and possibly a Republican-controlled Senate) that will not be any more interested in helping her rack up accomplishments than they were when Barack Obama was reaching out to them in the name of an increasingly anachronistic bipartisanship. And to the extent she does try to work with Republicans, she and her administration will have to deal with a revived and vigilant progressive wing of the Democratic Party alert to any signs of a centrist sellout.

“The people in Clinton’s close orbit understand all this. They know that their boss has been preparing herself for this job for much of her adult life. They are confident that she will achieve progress in the White House by drawing on the qualities they admire about her the most: her belief in the potential of public policy to change lives, her tenacity. And they believe that advancing her agenda piece by hard-fought piece, laying the foundation for bigger legislation at some future point when the politics permit it, is a deeply meaningful accomplishment.”

“When the politics permit it” is a pretty important proviso for Clinton’s ability to win policy achievements. The intra-party tensions that represent one horn of the dilemma on which she might founder are actually growing less severe; one of the important phenomena Cohn explains is the recent movement of centrist economic thinkers toward positions once thought to be left-wing (misunderstood by conservatives and mainstream journalists as a purely political rather than intellectual development). But the vast gulf between the two parties has not shrunk at all, and a post-Trump GOP trying to rebuild itself is very likely to make total obstruction to a Clinton administration its unifying touchstone.

So, all in all, there is a tragic dimension to the story Jonathan Cohn tells: The wonkiest presidential campaign ever could find itself at sea in both this savage general election and in post-election Washington. But it has no choice but to move forward as though each policy paper or position statement matters as much as it should.


September 22: Clinton Needs To Stay Aggressive in the First Debate

As the first presidential candidate debate of the general election grows nigh, what strategy should Hillary Clinton pursue? I offered my two cents earlier this week at New York:

[I]f what we have seen the last week is what we will get going into Monday’s first presidential debate, then logic would dictate a very aggressive Clinton strategy during the debate itself.

Clinton’s two fundamental problems are persistently high minor-party undecided votes that allow Trump to remain competitive despite low absolute numbers, and growing indications of a GOP turnout advantage attributable to greater enthusiasm. The simple solution to both problems is to use the debates to raise the stakes for the election by leaving no one under the illusion that a “protest vote” or a decision to stay home will have anything less than apocalyptic consequences.

With Clinton’s speech targeting millennial voters yesterday, it is becoming clear she understands that left-leaning voters who are contemplating a vote for Johnson or Stein — or who may just stay home — are as big a threat to her prospects as the stubborn Republicans who are manifestly not following #NeverTrump conservative elites out of the Trump column. Monday’s first debate offers a heaven-sent opportunity for her to make it clear there is indeed a lot more than a dime’s difference between the two major-party candidates, and that life will take a turn for the worse for each and every meh liberal voter if Trump becomes president. Fortunately for her, the same aggressive tactics that could wake up such voters might also light a fire beneath the “base” voters who seem inclined to mosey on down to the polls on November 8, while Trump’s angry legions snake-dance toward victory in a slow-motion white riot.

Conversely, you’d figure Trump would be perfectly happy with the current dynamics, and might well spend the debate burnishing his thin credentials for knowing something about actual issues and offering a respectable, if occasionally incendiary, option for a change in America’s direction. I would not be surprised if that’s where Trump-whisperer Kellyanne Conway is pushing his debate prep. But Trump can never be counted on to act logically if there is a viable alternative, so the debate could wind up being a true slug-fest. To the extent that Hillary Clinton cannot afford a bored and complacent electorate, that could be very good for her.


September 14: Why Many Republican Insiders Want Trump to Lose

As Donald Trump began to climb in polls last week, there were reports of panic among GOP Beltway types. I explain the phenomenon at New York:

Non-Republicans may be forgiven for feeling confused by a report from BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins that many Republican insiders are privately freaked out by the renewed possibility that Donald Trump could actually be elected president. Wasn’t their horror toward Trump mostly a matter of fearing he’d be a disastrous loser who’d drag the whole ticket down with him? If he’s doing well enough to be a threat to win, won’t that make it infinitely easier to hang on to a Republican-controlled Congress?

These are good questions, but the truth is GOP-insider fear of Trump was never just about his 2016 general-election prospects. Some Never Trump conservatives sincerely fear the man on some of the same grounds many liberals feel. Others are worried about what Trump is doing to conservatism itself.

But there is an underexamined reason for a secret GOP desire to see the mogul lose in November: The immediate future of the Republican Party could actually be pretty rosy under a President Hillary Clinton. Unless the GOP loses the House along with the Senate, it should have the power to pretty much stymy anything the 45th president tries to do. If they hang on to the Senate, their obstructionist power might extend to Supreme Court and other appointments. Either way, 2018 would be set up as a boffo year for the “out party” up and down the ballot. The Senate landscape that year is already astoundingly positive for Republicans, and there’s no reason to think the GOP will immediately lose the midterm-turnout advantage that proved so useful in 2010 and 2014. Indeed, a President Trump is about the only thing that could screw up 2018 for Republicans.

A third straight Democratic term in the White House, moreover, would greatly improve Republican odds to finally break their presidential losing streak in 2020. That’s an even bigger deal than you might immediately imagine, since that’s the election year that will determine control of the state legislatures that will conduct congressional and state redistricting for the next decade. By contrast, a 2020 reelection campaign for President Trump would be a dicey affair, particularly since he’s pretty likely to draw a primary opponent.

And then, of course, there’s the big X factor for those Republicans who don’t care for Trump: If he loses, he could quite possibly be disposed of quickly as a factor in Republican politics. Yes, Republicans would have to figure out some way to keep the white ethno-nationalist passions he aroused at bay or better yet channeled in a more constructive direction. But there’s a good chance Republicans could treat the near disaster of 2016 as a cautionary tale and go back to fighting among “movement conservatives” and “reformocons” and pragmatists over control of the party, perhaps even finding ways to detoxify the party for Latino and millennial voters.

If Trump wins, of course, you can add to his prestige as the Republican who broke the Democrats’ grip on the White House the vast patronage powers of the executive branch and the even greater power of presidents to define their party in the public’s eye.

Yikes!


September 13: Christian Right Stuck With a Philistine

This weekend Christian Right leaders held their most important election-year clambake, and the dynamics were fascinating, as I noted at New York.

As a couple of thousand Christian Right activists gathered in Washington for the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit this weekend, it was more obvious than ever that the GOP is straining the loyalties of the faithful. The star attraction, Donald Trump, was, after all, the fifth-place finisher in the presidential straw poll at last September’s VVS.

But like a long-suffering spouse, the Christian Right is sticking with Donald Trump as we head toward Election Day because he is convincingly the enemy of its enemies and is willing to make a few key gestures in the direction of the righteous, albeit in a clumsy and offhand way.

None of the Christian conservative leaders who have made opposition to Trump (e.g., Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention) a matter of conscience were allowed near the podium of the VVS. Still, much anxious rhetoric was aimed at those who are thinking about voting third or fifth party or staying home. Former representative Michele Bachmann characteristically used the most extreme words possible to condemn that temptation, comparing the election to the choice God gave the Hebrews in presenting his covenant with them: “I have set before you life and death. Which will you choose?”

But while there may be some questions about turnout rates on the margins, you did not get the sense listening to Trump address the gathering that he is especially worried about this particular slice of the electorate. He did not bother to mention abortion or same-sex marriage (though his promises to appoint “Federalist Society” Supreme Court justices in the mode of Antonin Scalia was a well-understood dog whistle on those subjects), which may be a first for a Republican nominee talking to this kind of gathering.

As has been his habit when in Christian Right company of late, Trump placed greatest emphasis on promising something of interest almost exclusively to evangelical clergy: repealing the “Johnson Amendment” that prevents candidate endorsements and other electioneering from the pulpit for tax-exempt religious (and for that matter nonreligious) organizations.

As Amy Sullivan has pointed out, the evangelical rank and file don’t appear to support this idea — yet it always gets big applause from the leadership, and also illustrates the purely transactional nature of Trump’s appeal to politically active Christian Right elites. They really have nowhere else to go now that Trump has conquered the GOP, yet he’s willing to promise them a tasty policy snack that makes it easier for them to swallow their misgivings about supporting this crude philistine.

For the benefit of the more credulous, Trump’s running-mate Mike Pence, the designated conservative whisperer of the ticket, came along and told the VVS attendees on Saturday that “at the very core, the very heart, of this good man is … a faith in God and a faith in the American people.” This is about as convincing as James Dobson’s unsupported claim that Trump is a “baby Christian,” like one of those ancient barbarians who converted to Christianity but needed a while to figure out the new faith was incompatible with slaughtering prisoners or keeping concubines.

Trump mostly has faith in himself and in the golden calf of worldly success. But he’s the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, and thus leader of that mess of pottage for which Christian Right leaders have exchanged their birthright. So what are they to do?

They cheer.

Selah.