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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

December 14: Trump’s Team of Saboteurs

As Donald Trump’s proposed Cabinet takes shape, we are all a bit taken aback by the number of people he is choosing who have no experience or whose experience is a total mismatch with the job in question. But there is a more alarming feature of Team Trump, which I discussed earlier this week at New York:

[T]he most disturbing feature of the Trump cabinet so far is the number of appointees who do not believe in the core missions of the agencies they are being asked to run. Indeed, they seem designed to sabotage any effort to fulfill those missions.

We will have a pretty dramatic example in former Texas governor Rick Perry, whom Trump has tapped as his secretary of Energy. Perry famously proposed to eliminate that department (and two others) during his first run for president in 2012, and even more famously could not remember its name in a candidate debate that probably doomed his White House aspirations. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t repeat that same pledge in his subsequent presidential run, though his underlying hostility to any energy policy deeper than “Drill, baby, drill” did not seem to change.

Other Trump cabinet picks are equally conspicuous in their near-hatred for the historic roles of the entities they may soon supervise.

Perhaps by the time of his confirmation hearings, EPA Administrator–designee Scott Pruitt may be able to think of a single EPA regulation he favors. But it will take some hard work and ingenuity to find it. His official biography as Oklahoma’s attorney general boasts that this fossil-fuel enthusiast is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” The venerable Sierra Club described his appointment as “like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.”

Labor Secretary–designee Andrew Puzder, CEO of the company that owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardees fast-food chains, will if confirmed have the rare distinction of rapidly moving from being a prime target of a federal agency’s regulatory efforts to becoming its chief. He has opposed higher minimum wages, the expanded overtime pay rules promulgated by the Obama administration, and (of course) making companies that operate through franchises accountable for the labor practices of franchisees. The department he has been tapped to lead found that more than half of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. locations had wage violations, according to a Bloomberg BNA analysis this year.

Trump’s choice for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is part of a husband-wife billionaire team that has devoted its time for decades to the cause of making public funds available to private schools via vouchers or to minimally regulated charter schools. It says a lot that some education advocates are reassuring themselves that the damage she could do to public schools will be contained by the relatively limited role of the federal government in K-12 education.

It would not be accurate to say putative attorney general Jeff Sessions would just as soon shut down the U.S. Department of Justice. But it is true that in many respects he will execute a 180-degree turn in the policies and priorities of his department, much like Puzder can be expected to do. Sessions is almost certain, for example, to stop prosecuting recently proliferating incidents of state and local government voting-rights violations and instead ramp up prosecution of the phantom menace of “voter fraud.”

The appointment that is perhaps hardest to explain (other than as perpetuation of the job involved as a “diversity hire”) is Dr. Ben Carson at HUD. He has zero experience in this field. But he has manifested a strong hostility to federal anti-poverty efforts, which makes him another potential warrior against his own employees.

It is easy to say Trump has decided to make these sort of “screw you” appointments because he and/or his voters hate Washington generally, or hate do-gooder “liberal” agencies especially. But he could have used appointments to “enemy agencies” to build bridges to potentially hostile constituencies — or even to supply patronage.

Why is he waging war on big elements of the Executive branch of government that is now his own turf? That will only become clear when his administration’s full agenda is rolled out. Quite likely he plans big cuts in federal programs and/or changes of direction in the energy, environmental, labor, housing, and legal-affairs areas, and wants people in his cabinet who will cheer the evisceration of their jurisdictions instead of lobbying him to reverse it. An alternative theory is that he doesn’t much care about some of these agencies and is giving them over to people with powerfully bad intentions as a reward or inducement for loyalty. And as is the case with many new presidents, Trump could grow tired of his initial team and remake it before long.

As it stands, he’s going to need to make sure his cabinet members have funding for their own food tasters. Instead of a creative “team of rivals,” Trump seems to have decided on a destructive team of saboteurs.

December 7: Chamber Willing to Cut Grand Bargain With Trump

Remember the friction between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Trump during the presidential primaries? It is important to understand why that may not matter now, as I discussed this week at New York:

The steady drift of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce toward becoming a reliable constituency group of the Republican Party has been going on for many years. But it still represented a landmark to learn that in 2016, for the first time, the Chamber abandoned even the slightest fig leaf of bipartisanship. Every dime of the $29 million the group spent on congressional races went to Republican candidates. As recently as 2014, the Chamber was still endorsing a handful of business-friendly Democratic members of Congress.

The all-in-on-the-GOP decision-making at the Chamber is all the more remarkable because of the recent trends within the Republican Party that have discomfited its business allies. Most notably, the Chamber frowned upon the tea-party movement that threatened to take over the GOP after the 2010 midterms — mostly because said movement threatened to do terrible things like forcing a national debt default, but also because the tea people tended to oppose Chamber priorities like immigration reform, trade agreements, educational testing, and infrastructure spending. Yes, the Chamber reasserted its power in the GOP in the 2014 primaries, but many of the very things that upset business interests about the tea party were subsequently championed in a big, violent way by Donald Trump. The Chamber’s longtime president, Tom Donahue, got into a brief but intense war of words with Trump during the primaries over trade and immigration policy, and the hatchet was never really buried.

So why did the Chamber go so deep-red in its political spending? It’s pretty simple: Like most knowledgeable observers at the beginning of the general election campaign, Donahue and company figured Trump was going to be a stone loser, dragging Republican control of the Senate and maybe even the House right down to the bottom of hell alongside his bizarre garbage-fire of a campaign. So it became more important than ever to anti-Trump Republicans to invest heavily in the rest of the party. And they did, from the Chamber to the Koch network and back again.

But now this particular chicken has come home to roost: The Chamber and other Republican interests originally hostile to Trump undoubtedly helped him win by boosting Republican turnout, and have now given him a Republican Congress that could wind up rubber-stamping his agenda.

No wonder there is a new wariness in Chamber pronouncements about the new administration:

“Mr. President-elect, our country needs a strong president to help ensure peace, security, and prosperity at home and abroad. In the days ahead, we will agree on many issues and we may disagree on a few—but we share your commitment to this country and we stand ready to work with you and the new Congress to unleash a new era of growth and opportunity.”

Translation: If you give us most of what we want, we’ll look the other way when you insist on things we don’t like.

And so the Chamber’s relationship with Trump is one of those many phenomena that will depend very strictly on how the new administration gets along with congressional Republicans.

If GOPers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can agree on a common agenda of big tax cuts, regulatory “relief,” attacks on unions and pro-union policies, and a general rollback of the New Deal and Great Society programs to the extent that is politically possible, then the Chamber probably won’t get too upset if its trade and immigration preferences are ignored.

In this respect the Chamber’s transactional relationship with Donald Trump is a microcosm of the GOP’s. Many Republicans for have a price for fully supporting the Trump administration. But it may not be as high as you might imagine.

December 2: Don’t Forget About Medicaid, Democrats!

I feel like I’ve issued this reminder all too often over the years, but it’s time for it again: Medicare-focused Democrats should not forget about Medicaid! I wrote it up again for New York this week:

Congressional Democrats are gearing up for a big campaign to head off or exploit Republican plans to significantly change the Medicare program. The nomination of Representative Tom Price, the House Budget Committee chair, to serve as HHS Secretary has served as a convenient news hook for these Democratic plans, always kept close at hand ever since Paul Ryan made radical changes in Medicare a key feature of his various budget proposals. Price has long supported Ryan’s schemes to turn Medicare benefits into vouchers used to buy private health insurance, and more to the point, has urged Republicans to tackle Medicare “reform” in 2017.

We still don’t know whether the Trump administration and congressional Republicans will actually risk other elements of their common agenda to go after Medicare. But Democrats aren’t taking any chances. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is already accusing the newly ascendant GOP of incipient granny-starving: “Between this nomination of an avowed Medicare opponent and Republicans here in Washington threatening to privatize Medicare, it’s clear that Washington Republicans are plotting a war on seniors next year. Every senior, every American should hear this loudly and clearly Democrats will not let them win that fight.”

Schumer and others are comparing this moment to a similar juncture in 2004 when a newly reelected George W. Bush announced he would expend some political capital in seeking a partial privatization of Social Security. It was a big mistake, and aside from failing almost immediately in Congress as a significant number of Republicans headed for the hills, it marked the beginning of a long decline in Bush’s political fortunes punctuated by a Democratic midterm landslide in 2006.

Democrats are hoping for a similar cycle of Republican overreach and voter backlash today — or at least a tactical victory in public opinion forcing Trump (who once promised to protect Medicare benefits), Price, and Ryan to leave Medicare alone.

But there is some risk that by concentrating all their fire on Medicare, Democrats are potentially shirking other health-care safety-net programs, notably Medicaid, the low-income health-care entitlement that has been the object of conservative contempt for decades. Medicaid, after all, is inextricably connected to the Affordable Care Act (and in fact has accounted for a majority of the coverage gains attributable to ACA, despite the Supreme Court decision making Medicaid expansion optional), and if we know one thing for sure about Republican plans, it is that Obamacare repeal (if not replacement) will happen as quickly as possible using budget reconciliation rules that prevent filibusters.

GOP plans for Medicaid are as unclear as those for Medicare. Every Ryan budget has included the conversion of the program into a block grant (or a very similar fixed per capita allotment) whereby the federal contribution would be capped (if not reduced) in exchange for states having more (and perhaps total) flexibility over how to use the money — i.e., they would not have to continue the same benefits for the same population. Trump endorsed the Medicaid block-grant idea during his campaign as well. While there is no question that moving Medicaid over to block grants is intended to massively reduce federal support for low-income health care over time, there are some big questions about how it might play out. The largest is probably what to do about the 31 states that did indeed expand Medicaid under Obamacare. The budget reconciliation bill enacted by Congress last year (and vetoed by Obama) simply canceled the expansion, which would put states in the position of either abandoning new enrollees or footing the bill for their benefits. The House Republicans’ more recent “Better Way” agenda doesn’t cancel the expansion, but does eliminate the elevated federal match rate designed to encourage states to accept it. So it looks like some combination of state budgets and new Medicaid enrollees would take a big hit.

While congressional Democrats aren’t talking much about this threat to Medicaid, it’s a big deal to governors and state legislators — and the 12 Republican governors in states that did accept the Medicaid expansion are probably the biggest obstacles to a slashing federal support. One of them happens to be Mike Pence….

Perhaps Democrats think they can count on Republican governors or their congressional allies to save Medicaid from evisceration, leaving them to concentrate on Medicare. But more likely, Schumer and others are simply obsessed with the political benefits of identifying themselves as defenders of Medicare. And there’s a lot of cynical logic supporting that approach. The seniors who are most concerned about Medicare — and the middle-aged people most affected by a voucher scheme that “grandfathers” current and near-future beneficiaries — vote at much higher rates than young folks and poor folks. They are also a great electoral prize for Democrats, who have been bleeding support among older voters lately. It’s no accident that the last time Democrats had a good midterm election, in 2006, they actually won the senior vote.

There is another factor that makes the self-conscious progressives you would expect to care most about Medicaid beneficiaries instead focus on Medicare. For supporters of a single-payer health-care system, Medicare is the great model of what they want all Americans to enjoy as an entitlement. Meanwhile, Medicaid is the classic “poor people’s program” they would just as soon abandon in favor of universal single payer. In the meantime, many left-bent pols supposedly transfixed by income inequality and its victims may not expend much effort on protecting Medicaid.

But precisely because they are less politically powerful, Medicaid beneficiaries are far more vulnerable to the new Republican regime than the older and wealthier (and for that matter, whiter) population of those on or anticipating Medicare. They are also more likely to feel the hammer come down earlier, either through administrative decisions by the Trump administration or an early budget reconciliation bill that includes an Obamacare “repeal.” It would be nice to hear more about them, particularly from their ostensible champions in the Democratic Party.

December 1: The Party of Permanent Voter Suppression

Donald Trump’s tweet this week claiming he would have won the presidential popular vote had not “millions of people…voted illegally” for his opponent is chilling beyond the light it casts on the president-elect’s personality and character. I wrote about the long-term implications for New York.

Trump’s persistence in alleging — without a shred of evidence so far — massive voter fraud even after the election is most unfortunate. It will reinforce the fatal temptation on the political right, extending from non-ideological partisan hacks to the most race-crazed of white nationalists, to declare permanent open season on voting rights. And once universal suffrage stops being a principle to which both major parties subscribe in theory if not always in practice, reestablishing it could become as difficult as it was in the darkest days of the southern struggle for civil rights.

It is bad enough that loose and almost entirely unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have become routine ammunition in the battle of Republican state lawmakers and elected officials to shave a little bit here (fewer early voting opportunities) and a little bit there (unnecessary and discriminatory voter-ID requirements) from the exercise of the franchise by the young and minority voters most likely to support Democrats. What Trump seems to be buying into is something much more sweeping and ominous: the argument that large-scale voting for Democrats in any particular demographic category is prima facie evidence of fraud because Democrats are offering minority voters — specifically immigrants — inducements no legitimate government should be able to extend, from a path to citizenship to “welfare.”

The idea that the power of “takers not makers” is reaching a tipping point where confiscatory socialism becomes inevitable is an old idea among conservatives, although one they do not often broadcast. It was, after all, the basic point of Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” gaffe. In 2016, it was reflected in one of the most pervasive conservative memes: that 2016 could be the “last election” thanks to the success of Democrats in expanding the electorate to achieve a permanent majority based on lawbreakers and dependents. Indeed, some anti-Trump conservatives used this argument to justify voting for the mogul despite all their misgivings about him: It was the “Flight 93 election,” in which hurling oneself suicidally into the fight to deny liberals an electoral victory was the only patriotic course of action. But Trump himself endorsed this meme in September in an interview with Christian right journalist David Brody:

“I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’re going to have a whole different Supreme Court structure. That has to do a lot with what we’re doing because the Supreme Court, as you know with Justice Scalia gone, I think you could probably have four to five judges picked by the next president. Probably a record number, David, probably a record number of judges. If they pick the super-liberals, probably to a certain extent, people that would make Bernie Sanders happy, you will never have a Supreme Court, we’re going to end up with another Venezuela, large scale version. It would be a disaster for the country.”

If, indeed, the very continuation of constitutional government depends on resisting the enfranchisement of new Democratic voters, then efforts to disenfranchise them are always in order, in good times and bad, and even in victory as well as defeat. I am afraid that is the new reality we are already seeing in Trump’s “voter fraud” tweet.

With the election of a president who embraces the idea that universal suffrage is political suicide for the GOP and demographic suicide for real Americans, we may have already lost the hard-won bipartisan support for the proposition that voting is a right for everyone who has not done something terrible to forfeit the vote. The entity that is charged with protecting the right to vote, moreover, is being entrusted by Trump to Jeff Sessions, a man whose entire career has been devoted to maintaining and restoring the kind of highly ordered traditionalist society the civil-rights and voting-rights revolutions endangered in the 1960s and endanger now. Thanks to a conservative Supreme Court majority (soon to be reestablished and perhaps expanded by Trump) that vitiated the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Sessions will, if he wishes, be able to pursue a “voter fraud” witch hunt without significant contradictory obligations to defend the right to vote from those who would deny or restrict it.

What this ultimately means is that much of what voting-rights advocates have taken for granted for decades now is again in question. It will take some exceptionally principled Republicans to keep their party from adopting voter suppression as a day-in, day-out political strategy followed in broad daylight rather than the shadows. And the more the GOP fights letting those people vote, the more it will depend on restricting the franchise in the future if its shrinking white voter base is to continue to prevail. In effect, every election will be the “last election” unless voter suppression is not only maintained but intensified to turn back the nonwhite demographic tide.

It is always possible that Donald Trump will decide he’s made America so great in so short a time that his party no longer has to rely on giving disproportionate power to old white people in a sort of truncated quasi-democracy. But if that is where this most unlikely leader of the Party of Lincoln is headed, he is off to a terrible start.

November 18: This is Not a Pure Democracy, Folks. Small Places Have Big Power.

Like a lot of Democrats who have been mulling the 2016 election results, I am torn between signs of hope and signs of distress. But there is one basic problem Democrats must come to grips with: the implications of geography in a system where small states have enormous influence. I discussed this at New York:

In a deep dive into the 2016 presidential election returns, however, Ron Brownstein hears the distant echo of another presidential election — one dominated by a traditionalist reaction to changing times: 1920.

“This election … carved a divide between cities and non-metropolitan areas as stark as American politics has produced since the years just before and after 1920. That year marked a turning point: It was the first time the Census recorded that more people lived in urban than non-urban areas. That tangible sense of shifting influence triggered a series of political and social conflicts between big cities teeming with immigrants, many of them Catholic, and small towns and rural communities that remained far more homogeneously, white, native-born, and Protestant.

“In an extended tussle over the country’s direction, forces grounded outside of the largest cities overcame urban resistance to impose Prohibition in 1919 and severely limit new immigration in 1924. The same fear of “a chaotically pluralistic society,” as one historian put it, fueled a resurgence of religious fundamentalism and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.”

But the urbanization trend that so divided Americans in 1920 has now largely triumphed. So the latest reaction to the latest era of cultural and economic change is not nearly as powerful. In 1920, Warren Harding defeated James Cox by the largest popular-vote percentage margin (26 percent) since Monroe’s Era of Good Feelings. In 2016 the candidate of nativism, protectionism, and cultural reaction lost the popular vote.

In a twist of irony, though, urbanization has left incredible large swaths of the country behind, and in this election at least, in the camp of resistance to change. As Brownstein points out, Hillary Clinton appears to have won no more than 420 of the nation’s 3,100 counties (her husband won more than 1,500 20 years ago). “Her” counties include 88 of the nation’s 100 largest. But looking at a map of “red” and “blue” counties, it looks like Donald Trump’s country with a few strips and islands of some alien incursion.

If square mileage could vote (and it sort of can via the Senate, the Electoral College, and the various powers of state governments), the presidential election would have been even more lopsided than the one in 1920. As it is, a plurality of Americans look out across the heartland and see wonderful places to visit — in many cases to visit the hometowns of their own pasts — but not to live in and vote.

The point is, if it is not clear already, that winning a plurality or even a majority of the national popular vote in a presidential election does not matter much if the consolidated power of Republicans voting in small places gives them disproportionate control over not only a majority of the states but much of the federal government. We all know that this isn’t a pure democracy, but we are really remote from democracy today.

November 16: Tea Party of the Left to Punish Traitors Probably Won’t Work

The anti-Trump ferment in so many parts of the country is beginning to generate some serious and sustained activity–including one intra-Democratic-Party disciplinary movement that I’m skeptical of, as I noted at New York:

[A]ccording to Politico, restive progressives have a very particular and entirely understandable goal that has nothing to do with the campaign that just ended:

“’Our big goal is to support primary challenges against those Democrats who negotiate with Donald Trump,’ said the organizer, Waleed Shahid, a veteran of Bernie Sanders’ campaign who is working for a group called AllofUs, launched in September.”

The first question that must be asked about this agenda is whether Trump and his people need or even want Democrats on the other side of a negotiating table. With a solid majority in the House and a two-vote majority in the Senate (buttressed by the absence of the potentially troublesome heretic Mark Kirk of Illinois), it may not be necessary. If Trump and congressional Republican leaders can come to agreement on a budget reconciliation bill to achieve most of their common goals, from a big upper-end tax cut and more money for the Pentagon to the decimation of low-income programs and the disabling of Obamacare, then they probably will not need a single Democratic vote. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are about the only Republican senators Mitch McConnell would need to worry about, and with Mike Pence breaking tie votes in the Senate, they really don’t matter any more than the Democrats. Yes, all other things being equal, Republicans would prefer securing some Democratic votes for a Trump Supreme Court nominee and an Obamacare replacement plan in order to avoid the messy process of eliminating the Senate filibuster altogether. But it’s not mandatory, and it’s likely that Republicans, fearing midterm House losses in 2018, will want to rush through as much simon-pure conservative legislation as quickly as possible, without screwing around too much with the powerless Democrats.

But it is also possible that Donald Trump personally would like to be able to claim some bipartisan support. The way his cabinet is beginning to shape up, his idea of bipartisanship will probably be the old gibe “Let’s compromise — do it my way.” If down the road Trump has a truly decisive break with congressional Republicans, though, all bets are off. At that point, even the lefty-est of lefty Democrats might support some tactical maneuvering to split the GOP.

So for the time being you have to figure the threat of primarying “traitorous” Democrats is mainly hypothetical and prophylactic. But then the secondary question comes up: Which wavering Democrats are going to be intimidated by a “tea party of the left”?

The obvious targets for either a bipartisan Trump outreach or for disciplinary efforts by progressives are the Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018 who represent states carried by Trump. There are ten of them: Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Bill Nelson (Florida), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), and Jon Tester (Montana). You might imagine some of these states are not reliably Republican in the future, but the flip back to the Democrats won’t be automatic, either, in a midterm election when the turnout dynamics have recently favored Republicans.

Now, Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin and probably Debbie Stabenow are not the sort of Democrats who will be hankering for a way to show Trump voters they’re not all bad, and Bob Casey has his own appeal to white working-class voters that doesn’t necessarily depend on bipartisanship. But the rest of these vulnerable Democratic senators could waver.

And if they do, what exactly is “the tea party of the left” going to do about it? Joe Manchin, for one, would probably pay for left-bent protests against his “centrist” heresies in West Virginia, and would definitely welcome a progressive primary opponent to triangulate against. Heitkamp’s state went for Trump by 36 points; Tester’s, McCaskill’s, and Donnelly’s by 20 points or slightly less. Does anyone think a candidate more progressive or partisan than any of these worthies has a prayer of carrying their states in the immediate future?

At some point, would-be members of a “tea party of the left” need to come to grips with the fact that the “tea party of the right” had more geographical material to work with. Trump carried 30 states. So long as every state has two senators, and particularly if the recent trend toward straight-ticket voting persists, it will be difficult for Democrats to control the Senate. Similarly, it will be difficult for Democrats to control a majority of state governments, and that in turn gives Republicans the upper hand in House redistricting. Given that reality, is the biggest problem Democrats face really spinelessness or friendliness with Wall Street? Or is it the absence of candidates and a message that can broaden not just the Democratic popular vote coalition, but its geographical reach?

In the meantime, Democrats should not be surprised if endangered politicians in Trump country choose to “negotiate” instead of defiantly thumbing their noses at their wayward constituents. A national movement of resistance to Donald Trump and all his works may well be the only moral course of action for progressives. But there will be no-shows on the battlefield when the trumpet sounds.

November 11: A Eulogy for the Clinton Era

Like Democrats everywhere, I’ve been suffering through a difficult week. But as a long-time supporter of the Clinton project in Democratic politics, and of the Obama presidency that sustained and extended it in important way, I thought it was time to mark its likely end. And so I did so at New York:

The contrast in the bookend images of the beginning and end of the Clinton presidential campaigns could not be much starker. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign broke a Republican Electoral College lock, and he took office as the leader of “different kind of Democratic Party” — one more in sync with both centrist impulses among white voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign broke a Democratic presidential winning streak — though it did maintain a winning streak in the national popular vote.

In 1992, Bill Clinton led a so-called New Democratic movement that represented successful congressional and state and local elected officials impatient with the national party’s fecklessness. In 2016, Hillary Clinton represented a final toehold of Democratic power in Washington, even as the Donkey Party’s strength out in the states reached a low ebb.

The contrasts go on and on. In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first (and, up until now, last) Democratic presidential candidate since 1980 to carry the white working class; his campaign spent a lot of time looking at how to appeal to the “Reagan Democrats” in places like Macomb County, Michigan. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was largely done in by a historically poor performance in this same demographic, especially in states like Michigan (she lost Macomb County by more than 10 points).

In 1992, Bill Clinton was the leader of a young, insurgent, policy-oriented branch of his party challenging the “paleoliberals” who were still living in a social democratic wayback machine and the identity politicians who had forgotten how to construct a broadly appealing message. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the representative of older forces in her party; she left younger voters cold in the primaries — running against a septuagenarian social democrat, no less — and lukewarm in the general election. Her main emotional appeal revolved around her identity as a woman.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was very much on the offensive. In 2016, his wife was largely on the defensive from the beginning to the end of the whole campaign.

This story of decline is not just about the Clintons, of course. Even though he defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, the Obama administration is usually — quite rightly, I would say — viewed as a continuation of the Clinton tradition in policy and politics. Indeed, the familiar observation that Hillary Clinton was running for “Obama’s third term” this year could quite easily yield to a broader characterization that she was running for a fifth term for the Clinton-Obama brand of center-left politics.

You could certainly see this in her campaign and her government-in-waiting: crammed with the best and brightest of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns and the Clinton and Obama administrations. When the good ship Hillary sank on the evening of November 8, an enormous amount of talent and accumulated experience went into the vasty deep along with her presidential aspirations….

For all of Hillary Clinton’s vast policy chops, and the array of advisers she had at her command, she drifted away from quite a few of the old Clinton family themes. This phenomenon is almost universally attributed to political opportunism — she repudiated the TPP and emphasized a lot of old left-labor policy prescriptions, it was broadly assumed, first to preempt Bernie Sanders’s appeal and then to keep Trump from outflanking Democrats on the “populist” front. But beneath all of the politics was a much more fundamental problem: The whole conception of the relationship between activist government and the private sector the Clinton tradition had maintained just was not credible anymore.

Central to the entire Clintonian New Democratic movement (of which I was a loyal foot soldier for a long time) was the belief that the best way to achieve progressive policy goals was by harnessing and redirecting the wealth that a less-regulated and more-innovative private sector alone could generate. That seemed to work during the late 1990s and sporadically even later. But the economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration and the struggle to head off growing inequality throughout the Obama administration has made the create-then-redistribute model for Democratic economic policy less and less satisfying, while creating a backlash among those who view any Democratic cheerleading for the private sector — especially the financial community — as a de facto act of betrayal signaling a high probability of personal corruption.

As Neil Irwin noted in an especially insightful recent column, even within Hillary Clinton’s policy apparatus there was a steady trend toward abandoning the old Clintonian model and instead focusing on a predistributive economic model that sought to shift wealth from the top to the middle and bottom of the income brackets by capturing more of it for the “masses” at the very beginning — via instruments ranging from high minimum wages and employer mandates to aggressive antitrust action and strong support for collective bargaining. This very different policy emphasis, and with it a more hostile attitude toward the corporate sector, was not just a matter of “shifting to the left” to head off Bernie Sanders; it was an acknowledgement that the old Clinton (and to a large extent Obama) economic strategy had failed substantively and politically.

One way to look at it is that old-school labor-oriented liberalism has finally won its very extended argument with centrists and is ready to reassume leadership of the Democratic Party under the banner of Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown. Another way to look at it is that neither wing of the party has some magic formula. And that problem extends beyond economic policy, too. Faced with the aggressively reactionary cultural thematics of the Trump campaign, progressive “populists” often fell into their old habit of condescendingly telling white working-class voters their most fondly cherished beliefs were just neurotic symptoms of their “real” economic class grievances. And as Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate gaffe about the “deplorables” showed, centrists often had little to say to cultural traditionalists other than “Please, hurry up and die off.”

For a very long time, the Clinton/Obama style of policy and politics represented the best politically feasible vehicle progressives had devised for managing an era of enormous economic and cultural change without alienating a majority of the electorate or forgetting the big prize of a fairer and more diverse country. It all seems to be falling apart at the moment, but Democrats really do need to move beyond a choice between the best thinking from the recent or the distant past.

That’s worth remembering before Democrats undertake another “struggle for the soul of the party.”

November 10: Overconfidence Tilted the Pre-Election Projections

In the wake of what happened on November 8, Democrats have two questions: (1) How did it happen? and (2) Why did we not realize it was going to happen?

The first question will take a long time to answer. But I took a shot at answering the second at New York right after the results came in:

When something as surprising as Donald Trump’s election to the presidency happens, it is natural to blame the non-messenger: the polls that by-and-large predicted a Clinton victory somewhere in the neighborhood of Barack Obama’s in 2012. And because so much political analysis is based largely or entirely on polls, the entire commentariat — or at least the part that was not overtly cheerleading for Trump — was off, too….

It will take a while to sort through the debris and figure out how so much data and so much smart analysis got it all wrong. But the beginning point has to be that the final popular-vote margin is not going to be that far off from the final polling averages.

Hillary Clinton now leads in the national popular vote. With a lot of mail ballots still drifting in from heavily pro-Clinton states like California and Washington (where mail ballots postmarked by Election Day still count), she is almost certain to wind up winning the popular vote by about one percent. The final Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton ahead by 3.3 percent. At HuffPost, the average Clinton lead was 4.6 percent. So they were off by roughly 2 to 3 percent. That is a fairly normal polling error, as Nate Silver pointed out prophetically before the votes started coming in:

“The track record of polling in American presidential elections is pretty good but a long way from perfect, and errors in the range of 3 percentage points have been somewhat common in the historical record. Of note, for instance, is that Obama beat his national polling average by nearly 3 points in 2012, although state polls did a better job of pegging his position. In 2000, Al Gore was behind by about 3 points in the final national polling average but won the popular vote. In 1996, Bill Clinton was ahead in national polls by about 12 points, but won by 8.5.

“In three of the last five presidential elections, in other words, there was a polling error the size of which would approximately wipe out Clinton’s popular vote lead — or alternatively, if the error were in her favor, turn a solid victory into a near-landslide margin of 6 to 8 percentage points. There’s also some chance of a larger error still. In 1980, Ronald Reagan led in final national polls by slightly less than Clinton does now, but wound up winning the popular vote by almost 10 percentage points.”

The bigger polling error, if there was one, was at the state level. Even there, though, there is in some cases less than meets the eye. In Pennsylvania, the state that put Trump over the top, the final Real Clear Politics polling average showed Clinton leading by 1.9 percent. Trump won by 1.1 percent. Once again, that’s a 3 point error. In Florida, the RCP average had Trump up by 0.2 percent. He won by 1.4 percent. That’s a 1.2 percent error. North Carolina? Trump led the polling average by one percent, and won the state by 3.8 percent. Are we seeing a pattern here?

There were a couple of true shockers: Wisconsin, where Clinton led in the polling average by 6.5 percent, only to lose by a point. But there was not a whole lot of polling there for the abundantly good reason that few observers (and until the very end, even the Trump campaign) thought the state was competitive. And even more lightly polled “shocker state” was Michigan, where actually, Clinton’s lead in the polling average was only 3.4 percent, and Trump is currently ahead by a hair.

So why do so many political observers (and well-informed voters) have the sense this morning that we were taken by surprise because the “polls were wrong”? I think there are three key factors.

First, a lot of people were convinced by early voting data that Clinton was going to win states like Florida and North Carolina, making a Trump win impossible. Actually Democrats did not take much of a lead out of early voting in either state, making it entirely feasible for Republicans to “catch up” on November 8. Nevada, by contrast, was a state where (a) Democrats did take a sizable lead in early voting, and (b) early voting was an extremely high percentage of total turnout. Sure enough, Clinton won. But a lot of people over-interpreted early voting in some places, and several of the Rust Belt states that represented Trump’s breakthrough did not offer much in the way of early voting. Early news sticks though.

Second, there was a tendency to mentally add a point or two to Clinton’s poll numbers because of her big advantage in paid media and field operations. Actually, Trump closed the advantage in paid media right at the end, and Clinton did very little advertising in several of the “firewall states” that ultimately did her in. As for the vaunted Clinton get-out-the-vote machine — well, we may have to wait for more information on how that went down. It is entirely possible that the combination of RNC and state GOP resources, plus the galvanizing effect of Trump’s monster rallies, all but eliminated the supposed Clinton advantage. Or maybe she would have lost more decisively without all those field offices. It is too early to tell.

In the end, of course, the real reason Trump’s win came as a shock is because so very many people — Republicans as well as Democrats — simply could not envision the man winning a presidential election. It is still a bit difficult to absorb how he got from where he was to where he is now; like a carnival barker wandering into the Met and delivering a brilliant performance as Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Let’s don’t blame the polls for our struggle to understand the Trump phenomenon.

November 4: How Clinton Can Close the Deal

Hillary Clinton does not need my advice to get from here to Election Night and more than likely a victory celebration. But if only to counter some of the bad advice she has been offered, I went ahead with some analysis of her situation at New York:

All signs point to the tightening of a presidential race dominated by Hillary Clinton for most of the general election campaign. National trends aside, there are polls showing Donald Trump surging in such Clinton “firewall” states as Colorado and New Hampshire, creating a clear path to victory for him if he gets a few late breaks. Any thought of coasting to victory, much less winning by a landslide, has probably disappeared from the minds of Team Clinton members. And although what happens down ballot could crucially affect the ability of a Clinton administration to accomplish much of its agenda, it is also time for the presidential campaign to forget about helping Democratic Senate and House candidates. Job One is to get Clinton into the White House, and that job has not yet been accomplished.

So what can and should Hillary for America do at this late stage to secure victory?

The first thing to understand is that most of the decisions a presidential campaign can make have already been made, sometimes months ago. Paid ad time in the battleground states has all been bought up. And although the residents of such states may feel like they are under attack from both sides when they turn on the tube or the radio these last few days, the truth is that the time for Clinton to make gains based on what was once an overwhelming advantage in paid media is over. In most places, Trump is now entirely competitive on the airwaves; indeed, in some “Clinton firewall” states she’s rushing to play catch-up after letting Trump “waste” his money in states once thought to be beyond his reach. Few voters in a competitive presidential general election are going to be persuaded at this point, though carefully targeted ads could send some micro-messages to certain constituencies to boost turnout. If there is any ad time left in the battleground states on Spanish-language or African-American-interest radio or cable stations, her campaign should buy it instantly.

Although in-person early voting will reach a crescendo in some states this weekend, that, too, is a die that has largely already been cast. Plans for get-out-the-vote drives next Tuesday must now take priority over everything else. Obama campaign veterans like to say that turnout operations are like a field-goal unit in football; they only become crucial to victory in close “games.” Well, it’s late in the fourth quarter and it is no longer clear Clinton has the touchdown advantage she had as recently as last week. So the field-goal unit needs to be ready.

That means above all that the Clinton campaign and its allies should deploy whatever discretionary resources they have — and there should be plenty of money left, even after all the ads available have been bought — with a very clear sense of the path to 270 electoral votes. Yes, it would be wonderful for a Democrat to win Arizona or Georgia, but at the moment the bigger concern should be about states Clinton cannot afford to lose, alongside a final big effort in Florida, the must-win state for Trump with a rich prize of 29 electoral votes that could offset the loss of several “Clinton firewall” states.

Everything the Clinton campaign does should be be driven by turnout considerations. This is where surrogates can be crucial. One of Clinton’s big headaches right now involves reports from early-voting states of relatively low turnout among African-Americans. Since she leads Trump about 20-to-1 (or more) in African-American communities, the problem is precisely the kind that can be addressed by an intensive “knock and drag” get-out-the-vote effort. Every dollar and hour spent among black voters, giving them the motive and the means to vote, are priceless. The Obamas should be deployed with that project in mind. And both they and Clinton herself need to pound home the message that everything Barack Obama was able to accomplish, and everything he hoped to accomplish but could not thanks to Republican opposition, is on the line on Tuesday. This is valuable not just in terms of the black vote, but also in motivating millennials to abandon their flirtation with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein and vote for a candidate who can win.

Some political observers, like most sportscasters, irrationally value “momentum,” and thus would caution Team Clinton against admitting that Trump is closing the gap. I do not agree. Fear of a Donald Trump presidency is so palpable in broad swaths of the electorate — especially among minority voters and college-educated women — that it has become a precious strategic asset for Hillary Clinton, which she should exploit aggressively. Every left-leaning marginal voter should, in every form of campaign communications available, be made to feel a personal responsibility for a Trump presidency if she or he does not vote. And minority voters in particular should be encouraged to view potential Republican vote-suppression measures on November 8 as creating an imperative to vote rather than an excuse to stay home.

It is too late, by the way, for Clinton to deal with emails or the perfidy of the FBI or perceptions of her relative level of honesty and trustworthiness. There will be plenty of time for that after Election Day, if it matters anymore. I wrote this very morning that Clinton will probably face impeachment proceedings if she wins alongside a congressional Republican majority. That should not matter either, and it probably won’t to the very tough-minded Democratic nominee. Anything would be preferable to going down in history as the major-party candidate who lost to Donald Trump, imperiling the republic in ways that we are just now beginning to fully envision. Awareness of the burden of history should permeate every moment spent by Clinton and her vast army of paid and unpaid campaign operatives for the next 100 hours.

November 2: If Trump Had Some Ham, He Could Make a Ham Sandwich, If He Had Some Bread

Donald Trump and Mike Pence made back to back speeches in Pennsylvania this week touting their determination to repeal and replace Obamacare. It was all smoke and mirrors, as I discussed at New York.

[D]uring a rally with Mike Pence in Pennsylvania, he offered a real head-scratcher: “I will ask Congress to convene a special session so we can repeal and replace, and it will be such an honor for me, for you and for everybody in this country because Obamacare has to be replaced,” Trump said. “It’s a catastrophe.”

Sounds dramatic, eh? But a moment’s scrutiny should tell you the “special session” stuff makes no sense at all.

The next Congress will convene on January 3, 2017, 17 days before the next president is inaugurated. If it is inclined to repeal and replace Obamacare, it won’t need any special session for that. Indeed, the most likely scenario for that to happen, if and only if Republicans control both houses of Congress, is in a budget reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered in the Senate and benefits from streamlined procedures generally. It won’t happen overnight, but it certainly can be accommodated by the normal congressional schedule.

Perhaps Trump is talking about not waiting until next January, so urgent is the task of repealing and replacing Obamacare. But there’s no need for a special session after the election; Congress is already scheduled to reconvene in November for a continuation of the current session in order to deal with the appropriations can that has been kicked down the road, and perhaps some other items.

But even if a special session was needed, Trump would have no power to call one for the obvious reason that he would not be president until January 20, 2017. Is he talking about asking Obama to call a “special session” (which isn’t needed) to repeal the 44th president’s signature achievement and enact a yet-to-be-specified GOP replacement plan? (In case you hadn’t guessed it, Trump and Pence did not offer a specific replacement plan in their Pennsylvania speeches today.) That’s probably not going to work.

I’ve since heard some commentators suggest Trump was just trying to signify to conservative doubters that he would kill Obamacare no matter what. Once you get to a fact-free Oz, of course, anything’s possible. But facts have a way of spoiling the best imaginary plans.