Over the weekend, Markos of DailyKos, pondering his California absentee ballot, posed a very pertinent question: why shouldn’t he vote for Proposition 77, Arnold Schwarzenneger’s redistricting reform initiative? Yes, he suggests, it might have a short-term negative impact on Democratic margins in the congressional delegation and the state legislature, but if it contributes to a national redistricting reform movement, it’s likely to help Democrats nationally, particularly if Democratic-backed reform initiatives in Ohio (this year) and Florida (next year) succeed as well.I can’t answer Markos’ question definitively, but do want to draw attention to peculiarities of the California initiative that make it different from those in the other states. I’ve written about this subject extensively here and here (note that the first piece was written before the Ohio initiative got underway, while the second was written before the California initiative overcame a judicial challenge), so I’ll just hit the high points.Prop 77 relies heavily on the assumption that nonpartisan redistricting is (a) feasible, and (b) will produce a more balanced map. Both these assumptions are very questionable. But that’s why the initiative focuses so heavily on who draws the maps, rather than what criteria they use. The Ohio initiative (and for that matter, the Florida initiative that’s now in a legal limbo) requires use of partisan voter registration and performance data to create an overall redistricting plan that maximizes both competitive districts and statewide partisan fairness, while the California initiative prohibits use of such data and does not make competitiveness or partisan fairness criteria at all. The one state that has successfully applied this take-the-politics-out approach to redistricting is Iowa, but Iowa, with its relatively homogenous population, stable partisan balance, and strong “good government” tradition, is not California, by a long shot. So in the end, Prop 77 is pretty much a leap into the unknown. Thus, for Democrats in particular, the decision on Prop 77 is pretty much a matter of how you feel about the current map and the system that created it. But there’s one major piece of misinformation circulating (it’s very visible in the comment thread after Markos’ post) that needs to be refuted: the idea that the current map is a standard-brand partisan gerrymander that maximized Democratic seats. Not so. For both the congressional delegation and the state legislature, the Democratic leadership pursued an incumbent-protection strategy that all but eliminated competitive districts. Yes, it created a floor under Democratic majorities, but also created a ceiling. In effect, the map traded potential opportunities to win new Democratic seats for the assurance that incumbents wouldn’t have to worry about general elections. (Another motive, according to everybody I’ve talked to, was to enable primary challenges to centrist Democrats in the state legislature, many of which succeeded). California’s situation is in sharp contrast to that of Ohio and Florida, where the reigning Republicans did indeed focus on partisan advantage to the exclusion of virtually every other factor.In other words, the Democratic advantage in California’s congressional delegation and state legislature is the product of an unavoidable Democratic advantage among voters, not of Democratic control of redistricting. And there’s no particular reason to believe the system established by Prop 77 would change that reality. The bottom line for me is that I don’t like the system set out in Prop 77, but I also don’t think partisanship is a good reason for opposing it, particularly since the current map is so egregiously aimed at eliminating competition altogether. I hope this analysis helps Markos and other California Dems make their decision. All redistricting reforms are not created equal; nor is the status quo in Democratic and Republican-controlled states the same. It’s entirely possible to oppose Prop 77 while supporting the initiatives in Ohio and Florida on substantive grounds, but not because California’s current system is particularly good for Democrats, or for democracy.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.