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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

September 21: Republicans Try To Pass the Health Care Buck to the States

After considerable analysis of the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, I discussed its irresponsible essence at New York:

Amateur psychologists everywhere are grappling with the sudden viability of this slapdash piece of legislation that seems to fail so many of the policy tests Republicans set for themselves in earlier debates over how to repeal and replace Obamacare. Most notably, it does not provide for an orderly transition out of the Medicaid expansion (it terminates it abruptly in 2020), and does not offer adequate protections for people with preexisting conditions (states can let insurers charge them crazy-high premiums). If the bill doesn’t meet basic efficacy standards that key lawmakers have already publicly wed themselves to, why does it now seem quite possible that it might pass and throw a multi-trillion-dollar sector of the economy into chaos?

The prevailing explanation is simply that Republicans have run out of time to redeem their incessantly repeated promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this bill, for all its obvious flaws, is the only available measure that hasn’t already been rejected by the Senate. And that may ultimately be the rationale for heaving this gummy mess across the finish line.

But there’s an equally basic motive that makes this particular bill an ideal vehicle for bringing the frustrating cycle of failed GOP health care legislation to a merciful close: More than past templates, Graham-Cassidy allows members of Congress to shift many real and consequential decisions on health-care policy to the states. CNN’s Lauren Fox sums it up nicely:

“One big advantage of Graham-Cassidy is that the bill outsources many of the toughest decisions about health care – what to prioritize, how to regulate the marketplace and cover health care for the poor – to the states. Graham-Cassidy allows individual senators to imagine health care policy in their own image even if outside groups have warned a number of states – some even led by Republicans – would lose federal dollars if the bill passes.”

Do those mean old health-care policy wonks mock your claims as a conservative lawmaker that we’re wasting taxpayer-financed Medicaid dollars on lazy able-bodied adults who ought to get off their duffs and get jobs? Let the states, the “laboratories of democracy,” put it to the test and see who’s right! Are you caught between insurers’ complaints about having to cover people with expensive chronic health conditions and the empathy so many have for sick people who can’t get health insurance? Why let Jimmy Kimmel beat up on you when you could just point to the nearest state capital as the proper place to sort it all out!

It’s entirely appropriate that one of the chief architects of Graham-Cassidy is former senator Rick Santorum, who is sort of the Johnny Appleseed of block grants, having run for president twice touting his responsibility for the 1996 welfare-reform bill that “solved” that ancient policy problem by handing it off to the states. Sure, states mostly used their new flexibility over cash public-assistance payments to cut eligibility, and “welfare” was a relatively small part of the means whereby poor people somehow made ends meet. But from Washington’s point of view, the problem just went away.

In reality, Graham-Cassidy would create hellish substantive and political difficulties for state policymakers who would have just two years to put together an entirely new system around the new block grants they would receive. As the New York Times’ Margot Sanger-Katz explains, the states would be flying through the air without a net:

“In contrast with an earlier bill from Mr. Cassidy, which offered a default option for uncertain states, there is no backup plan in the bill. The Obamacare coverage programs would disappear everywhere in 2020, and any state unable to make a plan and submit an application would be ineligible for the new grant funding. If a state succeeds in obtaining the funding but doesn’t have a functioning new system on Jan. 1, 2020, consumers and markets would be thrown into chaos.”

That wouldn’t be the U.S. Senate’s problem, though.

The long arc of federal health-care policy since the 1960s has been to create certain national expectations for care and coverage against a backdrop of states with different needs, different fiscal capacities, and different political dynamics. California representative Henry Waxman devoted much of his long career in Congress to incremental and bipartisan efforts to make Medicaid (and the closely associated Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP) a bit less geographically capricious every year. And the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and preemption of the crazy-quilt system of state insurance regulations took the next logical step.

Graham-Cassidy would begin to unravel all those decades of progress toward treating Americans as Americans when it comes to the right to health-care coverage. But much as it would make life more difficult for state policymakers and the people affected by their decisions, it would make life much easier for Republican members of Congress, who would not only “keep their promise” to blow up Obamacare, but would wash their hands of all the devilish complications of health-care policy for years to come. Graham-Cassidy might as well be called the Pontius Pilate Act of 2017.

September 16: The Risk of Fighting the Last War

After reading some of the initial commentary on Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which despite her candor and self-criticism has subjected her to a whole new round of criticism, it occurred to me that the 2016 “hangover” for Democrats is becoming a real problem. I wrote about this at some length for New York:

[J]ust like anyone else, the most recent Democratic nominee is entitled to a take….But worthwhile as all these assessments are, at some point Democrats will need to close the book on 2016 and fight the tendency to assume that the next presidential election will be a do-over.

The reality, as Clinton’s own self-examination illustrates all over again, is that the 2016 presidential election was so close — and the popular-vote loser winning the Electoral College by insanely close margins in three states is about as close as it gets this side of Florida 2000 — that there are multiple credible explanations. Using a “but for” test, Clinton lost because of gender bias and the email “scandal” and excessively vague messaging and media bias and James Comey and dangerous dependence on election modeling and bitter-end Sanders supporters and the Wall Street speeches and accumulated resentments against her husband and Russian hacking and fake-news dissemination and third- and fourth-party votes and GOP hypocrisy and the Trump campaign being forced by its narrow path to victory to better target resources and … on and on.

The understandable but dangerous temptation for frustrated Democrats is to throw up their hands and blame the whole mess on their centrist woman nominee, resolving right now to go with her polar opposite. That would be a left-leaning man.

As it happens, there is a left-leaning man available who nearly derailed Clinton in the 2016 primaries, and who is thought by many of his supporters to have been a sure winner against Donald Trump.

Like many counterfactuals, there is no way to prove or disprove the “Bernie woulda won” assumption. Yes, there were polls showing him enjoying significantly better approval ratings than Trump or Clinton, and there’s an argument that he would have done better than HRC in precisely the Rust Belt states that decided it all. But we’ll never know what might have happened if the vast infrastructure of the GOP, conservative media, and the MSM had devoted a billion dollars or so to exposing and attacking Sanders vulnerabilities that primary voters did not care about or that Clinton chose not to bring up. These range from his favorable rhetoric about Cuba and Venezuela to his agreement to serve as a presidential elector for the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Workers Party to his so-called “Soviet Honeymoon” with his wife, Jane (Trump’s Russian friends would have had some rich, ironic fun with that chestnut), and might have also extended to the tax increases his various policy proposals, most notably single-payer health care, could have required. Maybe none of this would have mattered in the end, particularly as compared to the vast damage to HRC’s image decades of attacks had wrought. But there is no good-faith case to be made that Clinton was the worst of all possible Democratic nominees.

As it happens, we have a very good recent example of the folly involved in excessive retrospection about a presidential defeat: the post-2012 Republicans. In the famous “autopsy report” authorized by the Republican National Committee in 2013, and much praised at the time, some very smart people reverse-engineered Mitt Romney’s nearly successful campaign and made a series of recommendations based on addressing his weaknesses. They mostly involved outreach to young and minority voters, and especially emphasized unqualified support for comprehensive immigration reform. The winning candidate and message Republicans actually took into battle just over three years later could not have been more distant from what party leaders set out to produce.

Democratic primary voters, not backward-looking pundits and activists, will ultimately decide what kind of candidate and campaign to send up against (presumably) Donald Trump in 2020. Bernie Sanders has a lot of tangible assets to take into a 2020 candidacy, as do Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. They will also be 77, 78, and 72, respectively, in 2020, making their health and durability unavoidable issues and perhaps, if they so choose, reasons not to throw their hats in the ring. Democrats also don’t know for sure if Trump will run again, and if not, whether his “brand,” for good or ill, will be passed on to his successor as Republican nominee. Depending on the condition of the country and the blame or credit born by the GOP administration, the dynamics of 2020 may or may not resemble those of 2016. The more you think through it all, there are many, many things we don’t know about the next presidential contest. That’s all the more reason for Democrats to stop fighting the last war. They’ll have plenty of options once the midterm cycle is over and things get serious, but none of them should involve a systematic effort to avoid the missteps and bad luck endured by Hillary Clinton. Praise the Lord, we will never again see a presidential election just like 2016.

September 14: Don’t Forget the “Tax Reform” Bill Will Probably Include Big Domestic Spending Cuts

After reading about the 100th article discussing which tax loopholes Republicans would choose to close to “pay for” the big tax cuts they want, I finally objected at New York:

When we look forward to congressional action (or inaction) on taxes, it is important to remember that it’s going to come packaged as a budget resolution, which means that it’s going to deal with spending as well as revenue. The draft resolution approved by the House Budget Committee in July calls for $203 billion in mandatory spending (basically, entitlement programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps) cuts. Many House Republicans think that spending-cut target is much too small.

Yet you can read for hour after hour about the dynamics of the tax bill without seeing the word “spending” mentioned at all.

The Washington Post’s latest big-picture take on the bill, for instance, begins with this description of the choices involved:

“Trump advisers and top congressional leaders, hoping to assuage conservatives hungry for details, are working urgently to assemble a framework that they hope to release next week, according to White House aides and lawmakers. But after months of negotiations, the thorniest disagreement remains in view: how to pay for the giant tax cuts Trump has promised.

“Negotiators agree with the goal of slashing the corporate income tax rate and also cutting individual income taxes. But they have yet to agree about which tax breaks should be cut to pay for it all.”

The administration, we’re told, is “pressing to eliminate or reduce several popular tax deductions, including the interest companies pay on debt, state and local income taxes paid by families and individuals, and the hugely popular mortgage interest deduction.” But there’s not a word about spending cuts. We are supposed to believe that Republicans are seriously thinking about an assault on the mortgage interest deduction, by far the most powerfully defended sacred cow in the entire tax code — but they aren’t thinking about cutting Medicaid, which they’ve been trying to do all year.

Yes, the commentariat is intermittently aware — thanks to writers like my colleague Eric Levitz — that the conservative zealots of the House Freedom Caucus have never stopped demanding cuts in “welfare” (a term they apply to any federal benefits that don’t have work requirements and time limits) as part of the tax package. Indeed, HFC leaders talk about this constantly. But journalists aren’t listening. Just today Vox reports:

“The Freedom Caucus’s alternative [to revenue-increasing offsets] is to make up the difference with deep cuts to welfare programs. Meadows said his caucus has identified upward of $500 billion in mandatory savings options Republicans could exercise.”

Perhaps HFC members are the only Republicans primarily focused on using the tax bill to force spending cuts, but others will arrive at this conclusion soon enough. Lest we forget, the whole point of the Obamacare repeal-and-replace escapade was to cut taxes and cut Medicaid, a fact that was often obscured by massively more extensive talk about changes in individual health-insurance regulations.

With tax cuts and entitlements both squarely on the table, why wouldn’t the GOP help “pay for” the former with the latter? This is, after all, the party that repeatedly and redundantly passed a series of Ryan budgets that paid for tax cuts with the same kind of deep cuts in low-income programs (plus Medicare) that HFC members dream of each night.

Congressional Republicans are going to try to slash spending. The only question is how much and how quicky.

So let’s stop calling this a “tax reform bill,” okay? It may well be something more and worse.

September 6: Knowingly or Not, Trump Punishes GOP With Spending/Debt Limit Deal

The deal Donald Trump cut with congressional Democratic leaders to bundle disaster relief with a short-term spending extension and debt limit increase has stunned Republicans. That he sprang the deal in a public meeting attended by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell gave new meaning to the term “adding insult to injury.” And the congressional Republicans weren’t the only ones blind-sided, as the New York Times reported:

“A chastened Mr. Mnuchin left the room, in what one witness described as a state of shell shock. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s fiscally conservative budget director, told Republican lawmakers later that he would do his best to cope with the new reality that his boss was dealing with the opposition.

“And Mr. McConnell, who is barely on speaking terms with the president, quietly seethed, according to two people familiar with the situation. He breezed past other lawmakers and staff members in purse-lipped silence when he returned to the Capitol.”

In terms of the substance of the deal, Trump blew up GOP hopes of postponing future debt limit votes until after the 2018 midterms, instead keeping must-pass debt limit and appropriations votes on the table for mid-December, when GOP congressional leaders hoped to be focused on tax cuts. And by agreeing to tie it all to Harvey relief and recovery funds, Trump made it almost impossible for the GOP to do anything other than to grudgingly accept it.

The key question is whether Trump was just behaving impulsively, or if instead he is punishing the GOP for failing to get more done this year, and/or for failing to make his own priorities (e.g., border wall funding) their own. One informed source, Joel Pollack of Breitbart News, certainly read it the latter way:

“By working with Democrats, Trump can bypass the Republican leadership, GOP moderates, and personal foes like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ). However, it also means that he can cobble deals together between liberal Republicans and the Democrat minority, leaving conservatives out in the cold.

“The only way to stop him is for Republicans to unite. By showing he can deal with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump may have found the one way of making them do so.”

If this is indeed Trump’s idea of a bid for GOP unity, Democrats can only hope he keeps doing it.

September 1: Guess What? Young People Really Loathe Donald Trump

This bit of polling news was of interest to me, so I wrote it up for New York:

It’s not exactly breaking news that millennials are not a hotbed of support for Donald J. Trump (or for that matter, his party). But via Axios, we learn that the latest weekly Gallup approval-rating numbers for the president among 18-to-29-year-olds have hit a dismal new low of 20 percent.

Trump’s approval rating in this age cohort has been sloping downward since late April, when it stood at a merely abysmal 36 percent.

Like most Republicans, of course, Trump’s popularity is directly proportional to the number of years poll respondents have been walking the earth. He’s currently at 33 percent among 30-to-49-year-olds; 42 percent among 50-to-64-year-olds; and 43 percent among those over the age of 65. If you have to pick where to be strong or weak, this is the pattern you’d like in the very short term, since likelihood to vote is also more or less directly related to age. These Gallup numbers are not screened for voter registration, much less likelihood to vote, so the overall profile for Trump isn’t quite as bad as it looks when it comes to people who will, for example, be voting in 2018.

In the long run, though, you don’t want your political party to be led by someone who is loathed by the voters of the future.

No, you don’t see many MAGA hats among millennials.

August 31: New Centrist Group Comes In Peace

When a new group of Democratic centrists calling itself New Democracy was formed recently, I watched carefully, and had this initial assessment at New York:

Right away, the ranks of those who are ever-ready for a “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” rejoiced, glimpsing a new factional fight. That included conservatives eager to suggest the group would be a redoubt for pro-life candidates progressives wanted to exclude; progressives quick to label it as advocating the “rich-friendly neoliberalism inflected with white identity politics” that Democrats have begun to repudiate; and mainstream-media folk looking for a new entrant in the “fight over the party’s direction….”

Those who were familiar with the New Democrats (and the organization that launched them, the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council) can be forgiven for assuming the new group would again be taking up the cudgels against “fundamentalist liberalism” and an interest-group-dominated Democratic Party — particularly given the new prominence of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and his followers. After all, New Democracy’s founder, Will Marshall, was a co-founder of the DLC more than three decades ago, and he still espouses some of the same policy views (bemoaning economic anti-globalization and pessimism) and political perspectives (embracing a “big tent” party committed to persuasion as well as mobilization of voters) familiar to participants and spectators of intra-party fights in the past.

But in an interview with Ezra Klein, Marshall disclaimed any interest in struggling for souls:

“I was interested to see that Marshall has formed a new organization: New Democracy, which promises to “expand the party’s appeal across Middle America and make Democrats competitive everywhere.” The DLC wing of the Democratic Party has been surprisingly quiet as its legacy has come under attack, and as the argument over the future of the party has centered on how far left it should go. The debate, I assumed, was about to be joined. But when I reached him, that’s not what happened.”

“’I don’t know the one true path to durable progressive majorities, and I don’t think anyone else does either,” Marshall says. “’When you’re in the minority, you need to expand in every direction.’”

When asked to live up, or down, to his reputation as a lefty-basher, Marshall demurred:

“A few decades ago, Marshall helped lead a confident ideological insurgency that reshaped the Democratic Party from top to bottom. Today, he sounds chastened. ‘We’re not interested in engaging in sectarian battles for control of the Democratic Party’s steering wheel,’ he says. ‘New Democracy isn’t aimed at safe blue districts. The Democratic Party is doing well there. We’re focused on the competitive ground where we need to make big gains.'”

Among the current and former elected officials New Democracy has signed up, most are indeed from red and purple states. But they hardly resemble the “southern white boys” the DLC was often accused of representing. Their southern contingent prominently includes two African-Americans from the reddest of red states, U.S. Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama and Columbia, South Carolina, mayor Steve Benjamin. Perhaps their best-known white Southerner is New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose conspicuous stand against neo-Confederate monuments makes the idea this group promotes “white identity politics” a bit absurd. Most typical of the New Democracy supporters is probably former Iowa governor and Obama Cabinet member Tom Vilsack, who has watched his state’s hard-won Democratic majorities unravel rapidly over the last few years, from the top to the bottom of the ballot.

I should note that I was a colleague of Marshall at the DLC back in the day. I almost certainly preceded and exceeded him in the sort of humbled reevaluation of the organization’s tenets that Klein observes, as reflected in my own conflicted assessment of the DLC when it closed its doors, in 2011. But his ecumenical spirit was exemplified by a joint statement on economic policy he co-signed with the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner — yes, the same rigorously progressive Robert Kuttner whose commitment to economic “populism” made Stephen Bannon think he might make common cause with Trump in China-bashing — back in 2004. Some of us who knew both men thought this meeting of the Democratic minds could be a sign of the End Times.

In any event, Marshall and his colleagues appear to come in peace, asking for a job some Democrats are loath to do. As Jesse Jackson once said to a DLC gathering, “it takes two wings to fly.” That doesn’t mean party conflicts can be perpetually avoided. As Klein observes, when it comes time to nominate a presidential candidate for 2020, there can only be one winner. And Marshall’s suggestion of a red-state/blue-state division of labor won’t convince populists who believe that their own message, not some squishy business-friendly centrism, is the ideal ice-breaker for white working-class voters. But with Donald Trump still raging around the White House, and Republicans still controlling most of the levers of power in Washington and a majority of the states, a delay in the intra-party fisticuffs as long as possible probably makes sense.

August 25: Trump, His Base, and White Racial Grievances

After considerable meditation on why Trump’s sympathetic attitude towards Neo-Confederates hasn’t disturbed his base, I offered these conclusions for New York:

GOP elected officials have been unusually willing to put some distance between themselves and Trump on the validity of protests to defend Confederate and neo-Confederate symbols. But as my colleague Eric Levitz pointed out last week, that sentiment has not been shared by the large pro-Trump segment of the Republican base. Indeed, these voters are far more likely to agree with Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville than with the health-care legislation he has been promoting all year.

That’s the most important reason the president’s shocking expression of solidarity with the “fine people” among the open white supremacists carrying torches in Charlottesville has not much affected his approval ratings. It’s true, as Nate Silver observed this week, that Trump’s public standing is so generally low that a negative reaction to any one development might not move the needle much. But there was a visible erosion of support for Trump that appeared after earlier missteps, such as the firing of James Comey, and his embrace of a very unpopular health-care bill. Voters expect Trump to be — well, if not racist, then anti-anti-racist. And his supporters responded to demands to take down symbols of unvanquished southern white pride much as Trump did in his infamous August 14 press conference: as just another “politically correct” imposition on perpetually hard-pressed white people. As Silver puts it:

“Issues related to race, gender, sexuality, religion and social class have long been an animating force in American politics, of course. But they’ve come back in an especially strong way in the Trump era, so much so that views on these questions tend to be stronger markers of support for Trump than views on economic and policy issues.”

Drawing on research about the attitudes of 2016 Trump voters, Thomas Edsall goes further, suggesting that the president’s base easily identifies with white protesters against alleged offenses to “our history, our legacy,” as Trump himself put it in this week’s rally in Phoenix. Indeed, political scientists looking at Trump’s emergence as the shocking front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination last year noted at the time that “white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.”

A more recent study by prominent political scientists zeroes in on the importance of white racial grievances to core Trump supporters, as Edsall explains:

“The three authors describe a rapidly “growing sense of white victimhood.” They cite surveys showing that among Republicans, the perception of discrimination against whites grew from 38 percent in 2011-12 to 47 percent in January 2016.

“A February 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute separately asked voters whether “there is a lot of discrimination” against various groups. 43 percent of Republicans said there is a lot of discrimination against whites, compared to 27 percent of Republicans who said that there is a lot of discrimination against blacks.”

These findings help us to understand the special rage Trump supporters exhibit when they (or their leader) are accused of racism. They think of themselves as the victims of anti-white racism. And Trump has frequently fed that perception, as Christopher Ingraham reports:

“Trump has used the word “racist” or “racism” at least 56 times on Twitter, according to the Trump Twitter Archive, a website that tracks and archives all the president’s tweets. In two-thirds of those Tweets, Trump levied accusations of racism at individuals or groups of people. And those accusations followed a very clear pattern: Trump has directed accusations of racism toward black people three times as often as he has done so against whites.”

Trump’s current determination to view anti-racists demonstrating in Charlottesville as just as objectionable as, if not more objectionable than, the white marchers whining about being “replaced” fits into this pattern, and has evoked a predictable, if shocking-to-elites, response from his core supporters.

You can argue all day long that this makes them, and him, prima facie racists. But racists or not, they are definitely anti-anti-racists who manifest a knee-jerk negative reaction to protests against racism as advancing the interests of non-white people who, in their view, have been coddled for too long. They oppose the removal of the statues of the Confederacy, not because they particularly care about them, but because anti-racists would like to see them removed. That is an attitude that is just beneath the surface in their attitudes toward race-tinged conflicts involving police violence and immigration, as well as monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow.

But even Trump must be careful not to take anti-anti-racism too far; there are limits to what even his core followers will support out of antipathy to his opponents. A quarter century ago, when David Duke (who was, like a political zombie, present among the white rioters of Charlottesville) was on the very brink of being elected governor of Louisiana, he wasn’t brought down by his past as a Ku Klux Klan leader. It was when photos of him wearing a swastika arm band as an LSU grad student started circulating (punctuated by opponent Ed Edwards saying to him in a televised debate, “I was working on welfare reform back when you were still goose-stepping around Baton Rouge”) that white Louisianans had second thoughts about making him their governor and national symbol. There were, of course, a lot more World War II veterans alive back then. Still, Trump must learn to keep his anti-anti-racism semi-respectable. It’s not an easy balancing act, particularly for a man of our president’s temperament.

But it could take many steps over the line to convince Trump’s base that he’s doing anything other than standing up for their rights. He may lose support for breaking economic policy promises, but on the cultural and racial front, they are quick to take his side against those they view as oppressors of the white majority.

August 24: History Says Senate Democrats Can Overcome Bad Landscape in 2018

It’s always worth looking at electoral history before looking ahead, and I did so today at New York.

[T]he [2018] Senate landscape seems impossibly difficult for the Donkey Party, which is defending 25 of 33 seats up next year, ten of them in states carried by Donald Trump last year. And of the Republican incumbents who are defending their seats, only two appear vulnerable at this point (though both, Jeff Flake and Dean Heller, are now really vulnerable, facing both primary and general-election opposition). Everyone understands that the pro-GOP landscape and the anti–White House midterm dynamics are pushing these races in different directions. But it’s hard to get a handle on the magnitude of these contending forces.

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball filled in some of our knowledge gap today, with a study by Geoffrey Skelley of Senate races in midterms dating all the way back to 1914. The numbers are pretty clear: “91% (287 of 314) of non-presidential party incumbents won reelection in midterms.” That’s much better than the 75 percent midterm reelection rate of senators from the presidential party.

Lest you imagine this is all a vestige of a bygone era of wide-scale ticket-splitting, there’s this factoid:

“If anything, out-party incumbents losing in a midterm is becoming less common: In six of the last eight midterms, including the last three (2006, 2010, and 2014), no such incumbent lost reelection.”

Here’s the fun part of the Crystal Ball analysis:

“Applying the historical averages to next year’s Senate elections would result — drumroll please — in a net party change of…zero seats. If 91% of the Democrats/Democratic-caucusing independents are reelected, that would be 23 out of 25, and if 75% of the Republicans are reelected, that would be six of eight, leading to no net change.

“Without making any predictions, such a scenario is plausible: Democrats could lose two of the incumbents defending dark red states, in states such as Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia, but otherwise hold everything else, while Republicans could lose the only two seemingly vulnerable seats among their much smaller stable of incumbent-held states: Arizona and Nevada.”

It is clear that the tendency to lump all of the so-called Trump Ten senators into the same endangered category has never made much sense. Trump carried Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by narrow enough margins that even the mildest midterm anti–White House breeze could carry Democratic incumbents over the finish line. Ohio (an 8-point Trump margin in 2016) is more promising for Republicans, with Indiana (a 19-point margin) and Missouri (18 points) even more promising, and Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia (20-point-plus margins) really ripe targets. But Democratic incumbents in all these states have their own distinctive strengths, and at the moment not one of them is trailing according to the authoritative Cook Political Report.

There is one more imponderable to throw into the mix: Will the tendency of demographic groups that have recently become central to the Democratic coalition to significantly underperform in midterms change? There is reason to believe, in part based on special elections since Trump took office, that the spirit of resistance to the 45th president will offset some if not all of that phenomenon. But it’s something to keep in mind.

In general, the shape of the Senate after 2018 is going to be conditioned by a variety of competing and conflicting factors. One thing, however, is very clear: Had Hillary Clinton won last November, we would probably be looking at big Senate — and House — gains for the GOP next year. Using the in-party/out-party historical percentages, here’s what you’d get according to Crystal Ball’s Kyle Kondik:

“Just going by the averages, we’d expect the Democrats to lose a half-dozen seats and the GOP to lose one or even zero incumbents. And the net Democratic losses probably would have been even bigger because it’s easy to imagine one or more red state Democrats seeing the writing on the wall and retiring in advance of a tough midterm, giving the Republicans an easy open-seat pickup or two.”

In other words, had Clinton won, we might be talking about a GOP drive to get a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. There are always silver linings for the party that falls short in presidential elections.

August 18: Democrats Beating the Spread in 2017 Special Elections

As part of our continuing look ahead at 2018, I offered these thoughts about 2017 developments at New York.

Projecting what will happen in midterm elections is always tricky. Yes, the party controlling the White House almost always loses House seats — though that didn’t happen in 1998 and 2002. Sure, the president’s approval ratings seem to have a very significant impact on the White House party’s losses or (in rare occasions) gains. But predicting approval ratings is tough.

But one bit of objective data you can track that’s not simply a matter of projections is the performance of the two parties in special elections heading toward the midterms. And while no one special election necessarily has predictive value, if you add them up it starts mattering.

That’s what Harry Enten did today at FiveThirtyEight, and better yet, he scored all these elections like a bookie would score a sporting contest: with a “spread.” In this case the spread was the partisan “lean” of every congressional or state legislative district that’s had a special election so far this year, based on its performance in the last two presidential elections, with the last one weighted most heavily (as one would expect). There have been five U.S. House special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in all five, by an average margin of 16 percent of the total vote (ranging from 6 percent in Georgia’s sixth district to 23 percent in Kansas’s fourth district). That’s a lot.

There have also been 25 state legislative special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in 21 of them, by an average of — again — 16 points. None of the four races where Democrats failed to do better than the partisan lean were competitive contests.

Enten notes that Trump’s approval ratings would historically suggest an 11-point GOP deficit. The generic congressional ballot has been showing a 9-point GOP deficit at present. So the special elections are showing a stronger swing to Democrats than the standard data points.

In any case, it represents a lot of arrows pointing in the same direction.

August 17: Trump Joins and Then Re-Joins the Neo-Confederacy

Like most everyone else, I was shocked by the president’s nonchalant and false-equivalence-laden initial reaction to this last weekend’s white riot in Charlottesville, and wrote a take for New York that delves a bit into the history involved:

There is a sinister congruence between the president’s reaction to the white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville yesterday and the object the rioters assembled to defend: the city’s doomed Robert E. Lee statue. Both are manifestations of Neo-Confederacy, the fierce, century-long effort of the Southern ruling class to normalize white racism so long as it did not degenerate into extralegal violence.

Like most of its counterparts across and beyond the South, Charlottesville’s Lee statue was not erected during the Civil War or in the period when ex-Confederates might be expected to remember the famed military leader of the planter’s rebellion. It was commissioned in 1917 and erected in 1924 as a monument, not to the Confederacy, but to the rebellion’s posthumous victory over Reconstruction and the Civil War amendments to the Constitution.

The Neo-Confederates and their many Yankee sympathizers viewed Jim Crow as a peaceable compromise between slavery and racial equality. In that regime’s latter days, whole generations of white Southern politicians posed as civil upholders of law and order equally opposed both to civil-rights “agitators” and to the white-trash hoodlums of the Ku Klux Klan, who were successors to the white terrorists that the “better element” of Southerners strongly supported during and immediately after Reconstruction. These politicians often condemned, as Donald Trump did yesterday, the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” that threatened the quiet tyranny of Jim Crow. They preferred a “civil” resistance to equality in Congress and the courts, and in the genteel Citizens’ Councils that, as one sociologist aptly put it, “pursued the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club.”

The Neo-Confederates lost the battle against civil rights, but maintained a cultural rearguard for many years. You heard at least a faint echo of their words every time a conservative Southern politician hailed “law and order,” or attacked “the welfare,” or demanded maximum incarceration of African-American “predators.” This sort of politics maintained an unmistakable connection to nostalgia for the Old South, an imagined tranquil place of good manners and interracial understanding.

But until Donald Trump’s election, it seemed Neo-Confederacy had finally about run its course. The display of Confederate regalia on state flags, public buildings, and even football mascots gradually became distasteful, even to many conservative politicians. In 1993, when Georgia governor Zell Miller (later a conservative hero) proposed getting rid of the Confederate symbolism on Georgia’s state flag (imposed not during or after the Civil War, but during the period of white resistance to desegregation), soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported him. And by the time South Carolina governor Nikki Haley finally had the Confederate Battle Flag taken down from the statehouse after an outburst of racist violence — nearly 20 years after a Republican predecessor had proposed the same thing — it aroused little public opposition.

Yes, even hard-core conservatives began to understand that Confederate insignia were not just parts of history that today’s Southerners should “cherish,” to use the president’s startling allusion to the Lee statue, but part of a retroactive effort to whitewash history in the pursuit of racist lies.

But then, in the blink of an eye, the backlash to acts of simple racial decency began. It was not confined to Donald Trump’s campaign, but in many corners of the right, hostility to “political correctness” — defined as sensitivity to the fears and concerns of, well, anyone other than white men — became a hallmark of the “populist” conservatism Trump made fashionable and ultimately ascendent.

And so the relatively uncontroversial movement to get Jim Crow era Confederate insignia and memorials out of the public square and back into museums and history books suddenly faced renewed opposition — not just from the motley crew of open white supremacists who viewed the 45th president as their hero, but from politicians who saw a broader constituency for a brand-new era of white backlash. It is no mistake that Corey Stewart — who was Trump’s 2016 Virginia campaign chair until he was dumped for excessive public hostility to anti-Trump elements in the Republican National Committee — seized on the decision of the Charlottesville City Council to remove the Lee monument as an example of contemptible “political correctness” in his surprisingly successful 2017 GOP gubernatorial campaign (which fell just short of upsetting the heavily favored Ed Gillespie). Stewart, who is now running for U.S. Senate, not only defended Trump’s refusal to distinguish between white supremacists and their opponents in the Charlottesville violence, but took it to the next level in an interview with Breitbart News:

“We have the violent left which recently attacked a U.S. Congressman [Steve Scalise], which has been attacking Trump supporters across the country, and I never hear Democratic politicians condemning them. I’m not going to play their game. I am not going to condemn anyone other than the criminal. We always have to protect citizens who are trying to exercise their First Amendment rights. From my perspective, there were a lot of left-wing agitators who violently attacked citizens who were trying to espouse their views last night and today.”

So there you have it: Not only were the Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists who chose Charlottesville for their big rally simply trying to “espouse their views,” but also conservatives should not say a discouraging word to them so long as they aren’t “the criminal,” however that is defined.

Perhaps the president will eventually be convinced by his more politically pragmatic allies to draw a clear line between himself and the racists who revere him. It would be immensely more valuable if he condemned not just idiot Klansmen and neo-Nazis but demagogues like Stewart whose idea of “Trumpism” is to champion any and all types of white backlash to “political correctness” and “the Left” as legitimate.

As we now know, Trump did briefly (and not very convincincly) clarify his feelings about the white supremacists of the Unite the Right demonstration. And then he showed his truer colors in a subsequent press conference wherein he expressed solidarity with the “fine people” amongst the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who just wanted to revere the memory of Gen. Lee. And so he rejoined the neo-Confederacy after a couple of days apart.