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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

October 27: Trump Proving Campaigns Do Matter

As a victory for Hillary Clinton becomes more likely, and a big victory more probable, observers are beginning to wonder if Donald Trump is refuting the common political science principle that at the presidential level “fundamentals” matter more than candidates or campaigns. I discussed this possibility at New York:

Donald Trump’s campaign is throwing political scientists (along with journalists, Republican politicians, and many voters) for something of a loop.

This problem began back during the primaries with Trump’s success in the teeth of near-universal opposition from Republican elected officials and many other ideological and constituency-group elites with influence over the GOP. That was not really supposed to happen, according to the reigning political science wisdom, as expressed in the highly influential 2008 book, The Party Decides, which suggested early elected-official endorsements were a much better guide to a reliable prediction of who would win the nomination contest than early polls.

After Donald Trump won the nomination despite badly losing the endorsement contest, Andrew Prokop of Vox offered a good retroactive qualifier for the academic consensus:

“When The Party Decides was written, it offered valuable pushback against the conventional wisdom that parties had lost all their influence on the nomination process. And its focus on endorsements is a helpful alternative to early polls that have frequently been wrong. But in the time since, ‘the party decides’ has become the new conventional wisdom among some wonky pundits — despite the small number of modern contests and the many messy exceptions, especially in recent years.”

And so, future editions of The Party Decides will have to contextualize what happened this year, which will probably reduce the authors’ self-confidence about predicting future contests.

But Trump is also in the process of disrupting certain political-science theories about general elections: not by winning, as he did during the primaries, but by losing more soundly than anyone expected. Hillary Clinton currently leads Donald Trump by six points in RealClearPolitics’ polling averages, and a lot of observers think her lead could balloon because of the dynamics of the final debate and her significant advantages in paid advertising, voter targeting, and get-out-the-vote investments.

If Clinton does win by six or more points, it will cast some doubt on political scientists’ prediction models, many of which depend on data points recorded much earlier in the cycle (i.e., they won’t change). Here’s how Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball summarized the academic-prediction literature in mid-September:

“Averaging all the forecasts together shows a two-party vote of Clinton 50.5% and Trump 49.5%. Obviously, that’s very close, and taken together these models produced a very similar prediction in 2012 (Obama 50.2%, Romney 49.8%). That undersold Obama, who won with 52.0% of the two-party vote.”

The forecasts could very easily “undersell” Clinton by quite a bit more.

As Nate Silver suggests, that will have some troubling implications for political scientists who tend to believe “fundamentals” — especially economic indicators — matter a lot more than the noisy stuff that happens in the political world:

“If Clinton wins by a clear margin, it will help to resolve a longstanding debate among political scientists and historians, since it will suggest that campaigns and candidates do matter and that elections aren’t always determined by economic conditions, which would predict a much closer outcome than the one we’re likely to see. Furthermore, Clinton’s win will have come by rather conventional means. Her big surges in the polls came following the conventions and the debates. She got the largest convention bounce of any candidate since at least 2000, and she won the debates by a clearer margin than any previous candidate in the six elections in which there were three debates that CNN polled.”

It is possible, however, that Trump will ultimately be regarded as an exception that proves various rules rather than a newly normal phenomenon. Here’s how political scientist Alan Abramowitz, whose own model predicted a Trump victory, contextualized this election:

“As Abramowitz explains it, the assumptions upon which the model is built are unsound: ‘First, that both major parties will nominate mainstream candidates capable of unifying their parties and, second, that the candidates will conduct equally effective campaigns so that the overall outcome will closely reflect the ‘fundamentals’ incorporated in the model.'”

Trump is nothing if not outside the mainstream. He clearly has not unified his party. And his campaign has ignored many of the minimum expectations for competent national political campaigns.

In other words, it’s possible we may never see the likes of Trump again — or so hope many political scientists.


October 26: After the Election, Paul Ryan’s Career Will Take a Turn for the Worse

There is a lot of uncertainty still surrounding election day and its aftermath. But one politician whose future looks bad no matter what happens is House Speaker Paul Ryan. I discussed his downward trajectory at New York earlier this week:

There is a small but quite real chance that a Trump-led Republican meltdown will award Democrats control of the House, leaving Ryan with one of America’s worst jobs, House Minority Leader.

But at least that disaster would leave Ryan with a lot of spare time on his hands. The more likely but equally hellish outcome would be a significantly reduced GOP majority in the House, leaving Ryan at the mercy of surly backbenchers and vengeful Trumpites. Norm Ornstein explains what that might mean for Ryan’s immediate future:

“Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Meadows (who led the charge to oust John Boehner) said recently, ‘A lot of people who believe so desperately that we need to put Donald Trump in the White House – they question the loyalty of the Speaker.’ Meadows and his allies are trying to delay the Caucus vote, scheduled for the week after the election, to mobilize opposition to Ryan. They might confront Ryan after the election and before the Republican Conference votes to choose its candidate for Speaker, demanding concessions that would include cutting discretionary spending even more sharply, returning to the use of the debt ceiling as a hostage to force the new President Clinton to capitulate to their demands, and refusing to cooperate with her on any area of public policy—a set of demands Ryan could not accept without destroying his capacity to lead, along with deepening governmental dysfunction beyond its current sorry state.”

In other words, a weakened Ryan might be right back in the same impossible position John Boehner occupied in much of Barack Obama’s second term, with the added problem of a GOP divided not just over legislative strategy and tactics, but over the recently concluded presidential election and the path forward for the entire party.

If, as appears increasingly likely, Republicans lose control of the Senate while losing the White House for the third consecutive time, Ryan would become the subject and object of all of the angst in the GOP over its not-very-effective leadership. Perhaps that would enhance his already-massive Beltway prestige, but probably at a terrible cost in the party and the country at large. He is already significantly less popular with rank-and-file Republicans than Trump. Becoming a one-man choke point obstructing everything Hillary Clinton tries to do will definitely damage his general popularity. But he won’t be in any better position than Boehner in trying to impose the GOP’s will on the White House. To the extent that the entire Trump phenomenon was partly caused by Republican “base” frustration with GOP fecklessness in the fight to destroy Obama, it will not go away during another phase of divided government, even if Trump himself goes away, which is extremely unlikely. Like Boehner, Ryan will probably have to rely on Democratic votes now and then to keep the country (or at least the federal government) functioning. Like Boehner, he will earn burning hatred from many of his fellow Republicans each time he does so.

Ornstein thinks Ryan might look at the terrible situation he is in and decide to make a strategic retreat to preserve his political future, and perhaps his sanity:

“He could say, ‘I stepped into the breach reluctantly to save the party and the country and become Speaker. Now I want to step back and take the role where I can do the most good: chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.’ Or, to preserve his future role in politics, he could decide it is a good time to leave the House to spend more time with his young family.”

It doesn’t say much for the health of the Republican Party that the leader most likely to be left standing on November 9 — a pol, moreover, who has already been on a national ticket and has been lionized in the national media to the point of embarrassment — might well pack up the U-Haul and head back to Wisconsin. But that may be the most rational course of action for Paul Ryan, who would benefit from an environment where his endlessly discussed potential does not perpetually and conspicuously stop short of actual accomplishment. Becoming mayor of Janesville might be a good call.

How the mighty may soon be fallen!


October 21: Clinton-Haters On Top in GOP

You have probably heard a lot lately about the growing tensions between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans–especially Speaker Paul Ryan–and the likely post-election battle for control of the GOP. I tried to make some pertinent points at New York about how this does and does not matter:

As noted conservative-watcher Robert Costa of the Washington Post reported today, all sorts of bad blood is in the water between Trump loyalists and Establishment Republicans led by Speaker Paul Ryan:

“The axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose …

“The first post-election target for the grievance movement is likely to be House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has drawn Trump’s wrath for not supporting him more fully. Trump’s backers, both inside the House Republican caucus and out, are already talking about a takedown.”

Specifically, says Costa, Sean Hannity, probably in a panic over the horror so many Republicans were privately if not publicly expressing about Trump’s debate performance, was talking after the debate about finding a challenger to Ryan as Speaker. The calculation is probably that Republicans will maintain control of the House with a sharply reduced majority, making Ryan very vulnerable to a combination of Democrats and conservative back-benchers who want to deny him the gavel. Meanwhile, Trump is steaming toward Election Day more and more dependent on the views of people like his Ryan-hating campaign chairman, Stephen Bannon.

Now you can go back and forth about which faction of the GOP holds the whip hand. In Costa’s account a staffer for independent conservative president candidate Evan McMullin contemptuously remarked: “Ryan is going to have to crack the whip and instill some discipline to remind these guys that they don’t run the party.” Trouble is, polls keep showing that Ryan’s less popular with rank-and-file Republicans than Trump.

Until the “struggle for the soul of the GOP” sorts itself out, though, there is one thing it guarantees: No one will dare take the chance of getting outflanked with the party “base” by even vaguely hinting at a willingness to cooperate with a President Hillary Clinton. Going “bipartisan” in conjunction with the hated (and presumably election-stealing) Clinton is the one thing that would guarantee a successful revolt against Ryan (or Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, if he still has a majority). Indeed, the only way congressional Republican leaders could possibly have the intra-party leeway to play pretty with Clinton is if they lose their majorities altogether — in which case Democrats probably won’t want or need their help even if it against all expectation happens.

So to play this all out a bit, would Democrats have a betting favorite in a battle between Trump and anti-Trump factions after November 8? They’d probably prefer a Trump ascendancy, if only because a deeply divided and half-crazed GOP might offer the governing party the rare opportunity of winning a midterm election. Other than that, they may just get out the popcorn and watch as Republicans rip each other apart.

To put it more colloquially: you could put a pro-Trump and an anti-Trump Republicans in a barrel and roll it down the hill, and there would almost certainly be a Hillary-hater on top all the way down.


October 19: Obama & Holder Aim at 2020

If you’ve been wondering about Barack Obama’s post-White House plans lately, here’s some good news for you. At New York earlier this week, I discussed the importance and difficultly of the project to which he has made a commitment.

[Obama is] signaling that he will make a new Democratic redistricting project headed up by former Attorney General Eric Holder “the main focus of his political activity once he leaves office.”

Holder’s group, dubbed the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, aims at reversing or at least mitigating the Republican state-level advantage the GOP won in 2010. Republicans used that edge to protect incumbents and open up new opportunities via the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process.

At the moment, Republicans hold “trifectas” — the unified control of the governorship and both legislative branches that gives them total control over redistricting for the U.S. House and state legislatures — in 23 states. There are only seven Democratic “trifectas,” with partisan control being divided in the other 20 states. Democrats can make some inroads among legislatures this November if the national ticket is doing well. Unfortunately for them, they already hold eight of the 12 governorship up this year. Two more are up in 2017. Then come the all-important 2018 elections, with most legislators and 36 governorships (including 24 controlled by Republicans) at stake. And then the parties will have one more bite at the apple in 2020 before the deal goes down for another decade.

Without question, Democrats are playing catch-up on redistricting. The new NDRC is designed to take a big leap:

“The NDRC plans to hold regular meetings of Democratic groups and allies, building collaborative strategies on recruitment, ad spending, get out the vote and other efforts to maximize resources and impact. House campaigns would then work with state senate and assembly campaigns, unions, progressive organizations and others in high opportunity areas, hoping to push up their numbers as much as possible ahead of the 2020 census.”

Democrats are fortunate the final big round of state elections before redistricting are in a presidential year, when turnout patterns are relatively favorable. Last time around, in 2010, a big Republican midterm-turnout advantage emerged, which recurred in 2014; it is mostly caused by the close current alignment of the two parties with groups that do (older white people) and do not (young and minority voters) tend to participate proportionately in non-presidential elections.

Trouble is, 2018 is probably the single most crucial election in determining the balance of power in the states going into redistricting. And aside from the pro-Republican midterm-turnout pattern, the odds are that we will be halfway through a third consecutive Democratic presidential term. This is typically a bad year for the White House party. And assuming the GOP comes out of a post-Trump “struggle for the soul of the party” intact, 2018 could be the “revenge” year for Republican base voters furious about one of its maximum demon figures succeeding the other as president.

Holder and Obama are exactly right: If Democrats want to go into redistricting at something other than a serious disadvantage, they’d better get cooking right now.


October 14: Could Trump Still Win?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 6: Ryan’s Revolutionary Plans

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

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

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

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

“’This is our plan for 2017,’ Ryan said, waving a copy of his ‘Better Way’ policy agenda. “Much of this you can do through budget reconciliation.” He explained that key pieces are “fiscal in nature,” meaning they can be moved quickly through a budget maneuver that requires a simple majority in the Senate and House. “This is our game plan for 2017,” Ryan said again to the seemingly unconvinced press.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 5: Is Pence the Future of Trumpism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 30: National Service a Clinton Family Tradition

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

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

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

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

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


September 29: Clinton’s Millennial Challenge

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

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

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

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

It seems she made some headway on the first challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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