washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

July 28: Some Basic Realities For Democrats on Voting Rights

Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:

There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:

“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”

Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.

Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.

Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.

At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.

Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.

 


Some Basic Realities for Democrats on Voting Rights

Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:

There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:

“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”

Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.

Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.

Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.

At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.

Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.

 


July 21: Don’t Dismiss the Power of Inflation Politics

All the talk of renewed inflation brought back some terrible memories for me, and I wrote about them at New York:

When I was a freshman college debater at Emory University in the fall of 1970, the national debate topic was not Vietnam, but the desirability of wage and price controls. Little did we know that just months ahead a Republican president would impose a wage-price freeze, long the anti-inflationary prescription of the left wing of the Democratic Party. But the surprise known in financial circles as the “Nixon shock,” nearly a half-century ago (on August 15, 1971) showed how pervasive the fear of inflation — running at just over 5 percent in 1970 — had become.

That’s ancient history now, even to those of us who remember the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s, and the particularly horrid scourge of “stagflation” (high inflation and unemployment simultaneously). Inflation seems to have been tamed by wise monetary policies. The periodic warnings from 21st-century conservatives that low interest rates and federal budget deficits would create inflation didn’t much bother me. It was like hearing an old priest chant a forgotten litany in a lost language — just one among many ritualistic arguments for the tight credit and reactionary social policies these people favored instinctively as a sort of class self-defense posture.

Like Tim Noah, I suspect there may be a generational lapse in understanding the politics of inflation:

“I don’t care to be condescended to by a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials about my ’70s-bred fear of inflation. It feels too much like the condescension we Boomers directed toward Depression babies whenever they warned us that we were playing with fire in deregulating the financial markets. Poor dears, we thought, traumatized for life by the 1929 crash and one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

“The Depression babies turned out to be right, of course.”

Noah makes it clear he’s not arguing inflation per se is bad for the economy. It is, however, bad for progressive politics, and not just because “stagflation” probably killed the Carter presidency and ushered in the Reagan era far more than the Iranian hostage crisis or other better-remembered Democratic foibles. The deflationary economic strategies of the 1980s weren’t called “austerity,” but rather a corrective for undisciplined policies that fed wage and price spirals which in turned hammered the value of savings, the living standards of those on fixed incomes, and the political case for federal domestic spending.

Most lethally for progressivism, the conservative supply-side tax-cutting when combined with inflationary fears can create enormous pressure for public disinvestment and the shredding of safety nets (which is why reactionaries happily labeled the intended result “starving the beast”). We are still living with some of the long-term consequences of anti-inflationary backlash. As Noah points out, California’s Proposition 13 ballot initiative in 1978 and similar “tax revolts” were a by-product of price spirals that boosted tax assessments on property and income alike.

But sometimes lost in an examination of the right’s exploitation of inflation fears is the abiding fact that the left has no clear prescription for dealing with it, either, other than by denying its existence or significance (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly). Ironically, that was made most evident by the supposedly illiberal Richard Nixon’s surprising use of the great liberal instrument for taming inflation.

The veteran ex-conservative economic and political analyst Bruce Bartlett has penned an exceptional explainer on the background and consequences of the “Nixon shock,” particularly its international dimensions, and the role played by Treasury Secretary John Connally, who like his boss and ally Nixon was more focused on short-term politics than on long-term economic realities. What’s clear is that Nixon was convinced a recession induced by the Eisenhower administration and its Federal Reserve Board appointees designed to kill inflationary pressures also killed his 1960 presidential candidacy. As prices spiked in 1970, he was terrified the same thing could happen in 1972.

Nixon had inherited (and temporarily extended) an income-tax surcharge from LBJ that was designed to pay for the skyrocketing costs of the Vietnam War, but its effects were limited. So with his signature televised bombshell reveal (the one he deployed a month earlier to announce his trip to China), amid great secrecy, Nixon rolled out a combo platter of initiatives to fight inflation and international economic instability. They included a suspension of fixed currency exchange rates and the convertibility of the dollar to gold (to head off a raid on gold supplies triggered by a British demand for a major conversion); an import surcharge (to prevent a worsening of the trade balance); and most significantly for most Americans, a 90-day freeze on wages and prices to be followed by an indefinite period of controls by federal panels.

As political theater, Nixon’s speech announcing a “new economic policy” was, well, Nixonian. He began with dessert: an assortment of tax breaks and job-creation incentives balanced by mostly unspecified spending cuts; only then did he mention the wage-price freeze. After promising to “break the vicious circle of spiraling prices and costs,” Nixon moved on to his international proposals, which he downplayed as “very technical,” while assuring viewers that “if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.”

Nixon’s wage and price controls were initially very popular (as polls had told the White House they would be) and did indeed hold down inflation through the reelection year of 1972, when Nixon won his famous landslide reelection over poor George McGovern, in part by goosing federal appropriations to create a mini-boom. By then the administration had moved on to a more discretionary system for regulating wage and price increases, which generated rumors of employers currying favor with generous donations to CREEP (the Committee to Reelect the President), the notoriously corrupt operation heavily complicit in the Watergate scandals that brought down the Nixon presidency. Between the suppressed and eventually unleashed inflationary pressures and the oil-price shock Nixon’s international economic policies helped create, the country paid a very high economic price for the brief respite from inflation the wage-price freeze earned him. He sowed the wind with even greater inflation, and his successors Gerald Ford (whose feckless “Whip Inflation Now” campaign was widely mocked) and Jimmy Carter reaped the whirlwind.

Before you dismiss these events from 50 years ago as irrelevant, consider how much Nixon’s short-sighted approach sounds like something President Donald Trump might have done if inflation had became a political problem during his tenure (or in, God help us, a future term). Indeed, any president mulling Nixon’s choice of recession-inducing fiscal or monetary policies might be tempted to resort to the easy-to-understand, if dangerous, strategy of wage and price controls in which the pain is mostly back-loaded, particularly in or near an election year. Old folks remember how it preceded Nixon’s landslide 1972 win, followed by a decade of economic pain and multiple decades of political misery for progressives.


Don’t Dismiss the Power of Inflation Politics

All the talk of renewed inflation brought back some terrible memories for me, and I wrote about them at New York:

When I was a freshman college debater at Emory University in the fall of 1970, the national debate topic was not Vietnam, but the desirability of wage and price controls. Little did we know that just months ahead a Republican president would impose a wage-price freeze, long the anti-inflationary prescription of the left wing of the Democratic Party. But the surprise known in financial circles as the “Nixon shock,” nearly a half-century ago (on August 15, 1971) showed how pervasive the fear of inflation — running at just over 5 percent in 1970 — had become.

That’s ancient history now, even to those of us who remember the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s, and the particularly horrid scourge of “stagflation” (high inflation and unemployment simultaneously). Inflation seems to have been tamed by wise monetary policies. The periodic warnings from 21st-century conservatives that low interest rates and federal budget deficits would create inflation didn’t much bother me. It was like hearing an old priest chant a forgotten litany in a lost language — just one among many ritualistic arguments for the tight credit and reactionary social policies these people favored instinctively as a sort of class self-defense posture.

Like Tim Noah, I suspect there may be a generational lapse in understanding the politics of inflation:

“I don’t care to be condescended to by a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials about my ’70s-bred fear of inflation. It feels too much like the condescension we Boomers directed toward Depression babies whenever they warned us that we were playing with fire in deregulating the financial markets. Poor dears, we thought, traumatized for life by the 1929 crash and one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

“The Depression babies turned out to be right, of course.”

Noah makes it clear he’s not arguing inflation per se is bad for the economy. It is, however, bad for progressive politics, and not just because “stagflation” probably killed the Carter presidency and ushered in the Reagan era far more than the Iranian hostage crisis or other better-remembered Democratic foibles. The deflationary economic strategies of the 1980s weren’t called “austerity,” but rather a corrective for undisciplined policies that fed wage and price spirals which in turned hammered the value of savings, the living standards of those on fixed incomes, and the political case for federal domestic spending.

Most lethally for progressivism, the conservative supply-side tax-cutting when combined with inflationary fears can create enormous pressure for public disinvestment and the shredding of safety nets (which is why reactionaries happily labeled the intended result “starving the beast”). We are still living with some of the long-term consequences of anti-inflationary backlash. As Noah points out, California’s Proposition 13 ballot initiative in 1978 and similar “tax revolts” were a by-product of price spirals that boosted tax assessments on property and income alike.

But sometimes lost in an examination of the right’s exploitation of inflation fears is the abiding fact that the left has no clear prescription for dealing with it, either, other than by denying its existence or significance (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly). Ironically, that was made most evident by the supposedly illiberal Richard Nixon’s surprising use of the great liberal instrument for taming inflation.

The veteran ex-conservative economic and political analyst Bruce Bartlett has penned an exceptional explainer on the background and consequences of the “Nixon shock,” particularly its international dimensions, and the role played by Treasury Secretary John Connally, who like his boss and ally Nixon was more focused on short-term politics than on long-term economic realities. What’s clear is that Nixon was convinced a recession induced by the Eisenhower administration and its Federal Reserve Board appointees designed to kill inflationary pressures also killed his 1960 presidential candidacy. As prices spiked in 1970, he was terrified the same thing could happen in 1972.

Nixon had inherited (and temporarily extended) an income-tax surcharge from LBJ that was designed to pay for the skyrocketing costs of the Vietnam War, but its effects were limited. So with his signature televised bombshell reveal (the one he deployed a month earlier to announce his trip to China), amid great secrecy, Nixon rolled out a combo platter of initiatives to fight inflation and international economic instability. They included a suspension of fixed currency exchange rates and the convertibility of the dollar to gold (to head off a raid on gold supplies triggered by a British demand for a major conversion); an import surcharge (to prevent a worsening of the trade balance); and most significantly for most Americans, a 90-day freeze on wages and prices to be followed by an indefinite period of controls by federal panels.

As political theater, Nixon’s speech announcing a “new economic policy” was, well, Nixonian. He began with dessert: an assortment of tax breaks and job-creation incentives balanced by mostly unspecified spending cuts; only then did he mention the wage-price freeze. After promising to “break the vicious circle of spiraling prices and costs,” Nixon moved on to his international proposals, which he downplayed as “very technical,” while assuring viewers that “if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.”

Nixon’s wage and price controls were initially very popular (as polls had told the White House they would be) and did indeed hold down inflation through the reelection year of 1972, when Nixon won his famous landslide reelection over poor George McGovern, in part by goosing federal appropriations to create a mini-boom. By then the administration had moved on to a more discretionary system for regulating wage and price increases, which generated rumors of employers currying favor with generous donations to CREEP (the Committee to Reelect the President), the notoriously corrupt operation heavily complicit in the Watergate scandals that brought down the Nixon presidency. Between the suppressed and eventually unleashed inflationary pressures and the oil-price shock Nixon’s international economic policies helped create, the country paid a very high economic price for the brief respite from inflation the wage-price freeze earned him. He sowed the wind with even greater inflation, and his successors Gerald Ford (whose feckless “Whip Inflation Now” campaign was widely mocked) and Jimmy Carter reaped the whirlwind.

Before you dismiss these events from 50 years ago as irrelevant, consider how much Nixon’s short-sighted approach sounds like something President Donald Trump might have done if inflation had became a political problem during his tenure (or in, God help us, a future term). Indeed, any president mulling Nixon’s choice of recession-inducing fiscal or monetary policies might be tempted to resort to the easy-to-understand, if dangerous, strategy of wage and price controls in which the pain is mostly back-loaded, particularly in or near an election year. Old folks remember how it preceded Nixon’s landslide 1972 win, followed by a decade of economic pain and multiple decades of political misery for progressives.


July 14: Trump Aides Spin Revisionist Tale of Election Night 2020

When I read the Election Night excerpt of a major new book on Trump, I nearly fell out of my chair, and wrote a challenge to it at New York:

Donald J. Trump’s victory claim in the wee hours of November 4, 2020, was a pretty big moment in American political history. It launched a challenge of the election results that hasn’t ended even eight months later, and shows signs of becoming a “bloody shirt” that could dominate Republican rhetoric for years to come.

So like many political observers, I read the Election Night account given by Trump White House insiders to Washington Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker for their book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year with interest, and then with astonishment. To hear these sources tell it, everyone in the White House other than a possibly inebriated Rudy Giuliani was tensely awaiting the full returns — understanding they would take days or weeks to come in — when Trump shocked everyone by taking Giuliani’s advice and saying he had already won, and would go all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary to stop the voting he claimed was still underway. According to this account, Trump’s speechwriters had prepared remarks cautioning patience in assessing the results, but instead the 45th president, smarting from the “betrayal” he experienced when Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden, tossed it away and began the “stop the steal” crusade that culminated in an attempted coup the following January and convinced many millions of Republican voters they had indeed been robbed.

This tale of a sudden lurch into Election Night madness is as implausible as Trump’s attempt to preemptively declare victory that same night was unsurprising — and horrifying.

Since the spring of 2020, I and many other journalists had been predicting that Trump’s near-hourly attacks on voting by mail were intended to produce exactly this sort of scenario: The in-person votes first counted would tilt red, enabling him and his supporters to claim victory and then challenge the validity of the blue-leaning mail ballots that would be counted later. There was even a name for this scenario, the “Red Mirage,” based on which votes would be tabulated and reported first. It produced widespread discussion in early September. But Trump’s apparent plans were clear much earlier.

So is it really likely that the thought of doing exactly that only occurred to Trump just before he walked out to inform the nation of his thoughts? That’s what Trump’s insiders clearly want us to believe via the Post reporters’ book:

“After a while, Rudy Giuliani started to cause a commotion. He was telling other guests that he had come up with a strategy for Trump and was trying to get into the president’s private quarters to tell him about it. Some people thought Giuliani may have been drinking too much and suggested to Stepien that he go talk to the former New York mayor. Stepien, Meadows and Jason Miller took Giuliani down to a room just off the Map Room to hear him out … Giuliani’s grand plan was to just say Trump won, state after state, based on nothing. Stepien, Miller and Meadows thought his argument was both incoherent and irresponsible.

“’We can’t do that,’ Meadows said, raising his voice. ‘We can’t.’”

Hmmm. Rudy has this brilliant idea that the chattering classes had been discussing for months and months and Trump’s staffers were shocked to hear of it, off the top of Giuliani’s possibly fogged head?

Now, it’s possible that Trump and his advisers were hesitating in implementing a victory-claim plan because there was a better chance that anyone expected he could win without skulduggery. But was the claim spontaneous?

It seems more likely that Trump’s staff is doing a little retroactive gaslighting and ass-covering to cleanse themselves of responsibility for the nightmare that later ensued. It’s absolutely true that Trump himself bears responsibility for the attempted election coup, whenever it was that the election-victory-claim scheme began to become strategy. It’s why he was ultimately impeached a second time. But it did not come as a bolt from the blue; it wasn’t just a coincidence that what we all thought Trump might do he just happened to do, on a whim. And if, as one should fear, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat becomes permanent for his supporters, everyone in on the plot should accept their share of the blame.


Trump Aides Spin Revisionist Tale of Election Night 2020

When I read the Election Night excerpt of a major new book on Trump, I nearly fell out of my chair, and wrote a challenge to it at New York:

Donald J. Trump’s victory claim in the wee hours of November 4, 2020, was a pretty big moment in American political history. It launched a challenge of the election results that hasn’t ended even eight months later, and shows signs of becoming a “bloody shirt” that could dominate Republican rhetoric for years to come.

So like many political observers, I read the Election Night account given by Trump White House insiders to Washington Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker for their book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year with interest, and then with astonishment. To hear these sources tell it, everyone in the White House other than a possibly inebriated Rudy Giuliani was tensely awaiting the full returns — understanding they would take days or weeks to come in — when Trump shocked everyone by taking Giuliani’s advice and saying he had already won, and would go all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary to stop the voting he claimed was still underway. According to this account, Trump’s speechwriters had prepared remarks cautioning patience in assessing the results, but instead the 45th president, smarting from the “betrayal” he experienced when Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden, tossed it away and began the “stop the steal” crusade that culminated in an attempted coup the following January and convinced many millions of Republican voters they had indeed been robbed.

This tale of a sudden lurch into Election Night madness is as implausible as Trump’s attempt to preemptively declare victory that same night was unsurprising — and horrifying.

Since the spring of 2020, I and many other journalists had been predicting that Trump’s near-hourly attacks on voting by mail were intended to produce exactly this sort of scenario: The in-person votes first counted would tilt red, enabling him and his supporters to claim victory and then challenge the validity of the blue-leaning mail ballots that would be counted later. There was even a name for this scenario, the “Red Mirage,” based on which votes would be tabulated and reported first. It produced widespread discussion in early September. But Trump’s apparent plans were clear much earlier.

So is it really likely that the thought of doing exactly that only occurred to Trump just before he walked out to inform the nation of his thoughts? That’s what Trump’s insiders clearly want us to believe via the Post reporters’ book:

“After a while, Rudy Giuliani started to cause a commotion. He was telling other guests that he had come up with a strategy for Trump and was trying to get into the president’s private quarters to tell him about it. Some people thought Giuliani may have been drinking too much and suggested to Stepien that he go talk to the former New York mayor. Stepien, Meadows and Jason Miller took Giuliani down to a room just off the Map Room to hear him out … Giuliani’s grand plan was to just say Trump won, state after state, based on nothing. Stepien, Miller and Meadows thought his argument was both incoherent and irresponsible.

“’We can’t do that,’ Meadows said, raising his voice. ‘We can’t.’”

Hmmm. Rudy has this brilliant idea that the chattering classes had been discussing for months and months and Trump’s staffers were shocked to hear of it, off the top of Giuliani’s possibly fogged head?

Now, it’s possible that Trump and his advisers were hesitating in implementing a victory-claim plan because there was a better chance that anyone expected he could win without skulduggery. But was the claim spontaneous?

It seems more likely that Trump’s staff is doing a little retroactive gaslighting and ass-covering to cleanse themselves of responsibility for the nightmare that later ensued. It’s absolutely true that Trump himself bears responsibility for the attempted election coup, whenever it was that the election-victory-claim scheme began to become strategy. It’s why he was ultimately impeached a second time. But it did not come as a bolt from the blue; it wasn’t just a coincidence that what we all thought Trump might do he just happened to do, on a whim. And if, as one should fear, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat becomes permanent for his supporters, everyone in on the plot should accept their share of the blame.


July 10: Democrats Should Not Sneer At Plan B For Voting Rights

When Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights at Howard University this week, there was some negative reaction among Democrats that needs rethinking, as I argued at New York:

Reading this NBC News account of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s voting rights speech today, you get the sense she was offering up largely symbolic dollars to ward off criticism of the Biden administration for its failure to enact voting rights legislation:

“Vice President Kamala Harris will announce Thursday a $25 million investment by the Democratic National Committee to support efforts to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“The announcement comes as Republican-controlled states around the country have passed a wave of restrictive voting rights laws fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the results of the 2020 election.

“President Joe Biden has been criticized by some Democrats and civil rights advocates for not taking a more aggressive approach to fighting those new laws after Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation last month.”

It’s true Democrats have failed to overcome Republican resistance to voting-rights legislation, either by securing GOP support or by convincing Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to restrict or abolish the competing right of Senate minorities to kill legislation via the filibuster. But it’s hard to blame Biden or Harris for this brick wall built over many decades, and it’s not clear to me what the critics would have them do other than threatening a nuclear strike on West Virginia. So instead of some sort of face-saving gesture, we should interpret Harris’s announcement as representing part of a fallback strategy for voting rights that is the only responsible course to take. Another prong of this strategy was announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland last month: deployment of an expanded cadre of attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to challenge state voter-suppression and election-subversion measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To put it simply, if the Justice Department or voting rights advocates fail to stop such legislation at the state level or in the courts, the prudent thing is to devote resources to educate voters on how to navigate the roadblocks Republicans are erecting, and to mobilize them to exercise their rights. That’s what Harris has in mind, as CBS News reports:

“According to the vice president the funds would help with voter registration, help educate voters on some of the state laws being brought up by Republican led state legislations as well as mobilize voters in the upcoming 2022 elections. Harris also said the DNC would assemble the ‘largest voter protection team we have ever had.’”

“Voter protection” means staff on the ground to make sure voters (particularly the younger and minority voters most likely to support Democratic candidates) are not intimidated or misled by vote-suppressing election officials or partisan “volunteers” who “watch” polls with malice. These are the kinds of things you have to do to short-circuit voter suppression and rewire a flawed system to get people to the polls despite laws and politicians that try to keep them at home. What Harris announced should be treated as a serious and important contribution to the cause of voting rights, not dismissed as an excuse for failure to do the impossible in Congress.


Democrats Should Not Sneer At Plan B For Voting Rights

When Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights at Howard University this week, there was some negative reaction among Democrats that needs rethinking, as I argued at New York:

Reading this NBC News account of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s voting rights speech today, you get the sense she was offering up largely symbolic dollars to ward off criticism of the Biden administration for its failure to enact voting rights legislation:

“Vice President Kamala Harris will announce Thursday a $25 million investment by the Democratic National Committee to support efforts to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“The announcement comes as Republican-controlled states around the country have passed a wave of restrictive voting rights laws fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the results of the 2020 election.

“President Joe Biden has been criticized by some Democrats and civil rights advocates for not taking a more aggressive approach to fighting those new laws after Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation last month.”

It’s true Democrats have failed to overcome Republican resistance to voting-rights legislation, either by securing GOP support or by convincing Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to restrict or abolish the competing right of Senate minorities to kill legislation via the filibuster. But it’s hard to blame Biden or Harris for this brick wall built over many decades, and it’s not clear to me what the critics would have them do other than threatening a nuclear strike on West Virginia. So instead of some sort of face-saving gesture, we should interpret Harris’s announcement as representing part of a fallback strategy for voting rights that is the only responsible course to take. Another prong of this strategy was announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland last month: deployment of an expanded cadre of attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to challenge state voter-suppression and election-subversion measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To put it simply, if the Justice Department or voting rights advocates fail to stop such legislation at the state level or in the courts, the prudent thing is to devote resources to educate voters on how to navigate the roadblocks Republicans are erecting, and to mobilize them to exercise their rights. That’s what Harris has in mind, as CBS News reports:

“According to the vice president the funds would help with voter registration, help educate voters on some of the state laws being brought up by Republican led state legislations as well as mobilize voters in the upcoming 2022 elections. Harris also said the DNC would assemble the ‘largest voter protection team we have ever had.’”

“Voter protection” means staff on the ground to make sure voters (particularly the younger and minority voters most likely to support Democratic candidates) are not intimidated or misled by vote-suppressing election officials or partisan “volunteers” who “watch” polls with malice. These are the kinds of things you have to do to short-circuit voter suppression and rewire a flawed system to get people to the polls despite laws and politicians that try to keep them at home. What Harris announced should be treated as a serious and important contribution to the cause of voting rights, not dismissed as an excuse for failure to do the impossible in Congress.


July 7: Conservatives Keep Adding Litmus Tests That Make Expanding the GOP Difficult

There’s an idea floating around that Trump has liberated his party from the conservative strictures that made it hard for Republicans to build a majority coalition. I pushed back on that notion at New York:

Heading toward the 2022 midterm elections, Republican-watchers are fascinated by the aggressive role Donald Trump intends to play in GOP primaries. Aside from his plans of vengeance toward those who egregiously crossed him at some point over the past half-century, he is selectively backing candidates whom he can claim as his very own. Indeed, the former president has already endorsed ten Senate candidates, two House candidates, and five candidates for state offices (one for a 2021 election). More important, his potential endorsements have Republican candidates and proto-candidates scrambling to prove their MAGA credentials so as to head off, or at least partially neutralize, the possibility that the Boss will give the magic nod to an opponent. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is in the Ohio U.S. Senate race, during which candidates had an Apprentice-style audition with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March, with one aspirant, J.D. Vance, subsequently launching his candidacy by apologizing for criticisms of the 45th president back in 2016.

“’I have never heard Herschel Walker’s position on pro-life. I haven’t,’ Collins said. ‘I’ve never heard his position on gun control. I’ve never heard his position on a lot of these issues that are conservative issues.’”

Collins himself is a MAGA stalwart, having served as Trump’s chief defender on the House Judiciary Committee during the former president’s first impeachment. But he won’t take Trump’s word for it that Walker is ideologically kosher: The current Republican front-runner for the 2022 Senate nomination needs to publicly pledge his allegiance to culture-war causes like banning abortion and outlawing any outlawing of a single gun.

Certainly, abortion and guns represent two major issues on which any sort of heterodoxy is disqualifying for nearly all Republican candidates. The once-robust pro-choice Republican caucus in Congress is now down to two veteran senators: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. A good indication of how obligatory anti-abortion views have become was provided by recent party-switcher Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. He had a strongly pro-choice voting record as a Democrat, but one of his first House votes as a Republican was on behalf of a failed effort to force a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy onto the floor. Similarly, one of the vanishingly few congressional Republicans open to any kind of gun regulation, Senator Pat Toomey, is retiring next year. On both of these cultural issues, Republican opinion seems to be hardening. The ascendant conservative view on reproductive rights is now fetal personhood as a matter of federal constitutional law, rather than simply a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and a return of abortion regulation to the states. And on guns, the big conservative trend is “constitutional carry,” a rejection of any firearms licensing provisions, which is closely associated with the even more dangerous idea that the Second Amendment was designed to give teeth to a “right to revolution” against a “tyrannical” government.

But these are hardly the only litmus tests of “true conservatism” that survived or even flourished in the Trump era. Tax increases remain verboten, as evidenced by their absence from the recent bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate. Anti-government rhetoric, an inheritance from the Goldwater-to-Reagan conservative movement that was intensified by the tea-party phenomenon of the Obama era, now has even greater power thanks to the Trumpian doctrines of a traitorous deep state and a corrupt Swamp dominating Washington. Hostility to organized labor is now universal in a party that used to more than occasionally secure union endorsements for its candidates (unless you take seriously the eccentric endorsement by Marco Rubio of an effort to organize Amazon workers or the more general revolt against “woke” corporations).

There are obviously some tenets of traditional conservatism that Trump has called into doubt as orthodoxy. Several are really restorations of Old Right thinking: the abandonment of free-trade principles for a return to the protectionist creed that animated Republicans from the Civil War to World War II, an America First repudiation of neoconservative commitments to alliances and interventionism, and a return to the nativism that has always been just under the surface in Republican politics. While Trump’s sometimes incoherent views on these topics haven’t become totally obligatory for Republicans just yet, gestures in his direction probably are required. It’s hard to imagine, for example, more than a smattering of Republicans vocally opposing a border wall, or calling for closer trade relations with China, or saying something nice about NATO, much less the United Nations. In international relations, Trump’s determination to throw money at the Pentagon and his unremitting bellicosity have made his isolationist tendencies more acceptable to the Cold War set.

There’s one very loud new habit of Republicans that Trump has elevated from a fringe extremist preoccupation into a near-universal habit in the GOP: the attacks on “political correctness,” “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and now “critical race theory” that present a violent antipathy to cultural changes deemed threatening to white patriarchal hegemony (or, stated more neutrally, to the “Great” America Trump has promised to bring back). All these phantom menaces are nicely designed to make old-school racism and sexism respectable.

All in all, it’s a complicated landscape that ambitious Republicans must navigate to safely rise within the Trumpified GOP. The safest are hard-core conservatives of the old school who downplay Reaganite views that are now out of fashion — and who add in conspicuous personal loyalty to Trump and whatever he wants at any given moment. Examples of this formula are Ted Cruz, the members of the House Freedom Caucus, and, above all, Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who is still doing penance for endorsing Cruz in 2016, in part by personally participating in Trump’s January 6 insurrectionary rally. Trump is close to the once-unlikely accomplishment of making “true conservatism” and Trumpism identical. The big question is whether his personal presence as a presidential candidate or a hurricane-force disrupter is necessary to seal the deal.


Conservatives Keep Adding Litmus Tests That Make Expanding the GOP Difficult

There’s an idea floating around that Trump has liberated his party from the conservative strictures that made it hard for Republicans to build a majority coalition. I pushed back on that notion at New York:

Heading toward the 2022 midterm elections, Republican-watchers are fascinated by the aggressive role Donald Trump intends to play in GOP primaries. Aside from his plans of vengeance toward those who egregiously crossed him at some point over the past half-century, he is selectively backing candidates whom he can claim as his very own. Indeed, the former president has already endorsed ten Senate candidates, two House candidates, and five candidates for state offices (one for a 2021 election). More important, his potential endorsements have Republican candidates and proto-candidates scrambling to prove their MAGA credentials so as to head off, or at least partially neutralize, the possibility that the Boss will give the magic nod to an opponent. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is in the Ohio U.S. Senate race, during which candidates had an Apprentice-style audition with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March, with one aspirant, J.D. Vance, subsequently launching his candidacy by apologizing for criticisms of the 45th president back in 2016.

“’I have never heard Herschel Walker’s position on pro-life. I haven’t,’ Collins said. ‘I’ve never heard his position on gun control. I’ve never heard his position on a lot of these issues that are conservative issues.’”

Collins himself is a MAGA stalwart, having served as Trump’s chief defender on the House Judiciary Committee during the former president’s first impeachment. But he won’t take Trump’s word for it that Walker is ideologically kosher: The current Republican front-runner for the 2022 Senate nomination needs to publicly pledge his allegiance to culture-war causes like banning abortion and outlawing any outlawing of a single gun.

Certainly, abortion and guns represent two major issues on which any sort of heterodoxy is disqualifying for nearly all Republican candidates. The once-robust pro-choice Republican caucus in Congress is now down to two veteran senators: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. A good indication of how obligatory anti-abortion views have become was provided by recent party-switcher Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. He had a strongly pro-choice voting record as a Democrat, but one of his first House votes as a Republican was on behalf of a failed effort to force a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy onto the floor. Similarly, one of the vanishingly few congressional Republicans open to any kind of gun regulation, Senator Pat Toomey, is retiring next year. On both of these cultural issues, Republican opinion seems to be hardening. The ascendant conservative view on reproductive rights is now fetal personhood as a matter of federal constitutional law, rather than simply a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and a return of abortion regulation to the states. And on guns, the big conservative trend is “constitutional carry,” a rejection of any firearms licensing provisions, which is closely associated with the even more dangerous idea that the Second Amendment was designed to give teeth to a “right to revolution” against a “tyrannical” government.

But these are hardly the only litmus tests of “true conservatism” that survived or even flourished in the Trump era. Tax increases remain verboten, as evidenced by their absence from the recent bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate. Anti-government rhetoric, an inheritance from the Goldwater-to-Reagan conservative movement that was intensified by the tea-party phenomenon of the Obama era, now has even greater power thanks to the Trumpian doctrines of a traitorous deep state and a corrupt Swamp dominating Washington. Hostility to organized labor is now universal in a party that used to more than occasionally secure union endorsements for its candidates (unless you take seriously the eccentric endorsement by Marco Rubio of an effort to organize Amazon workers or the more general revolt against “woke” corporations).

There are obviously some tenets of traditional conservatism that Trump has called into doubt as orthodoxy. Several are really restorations of Old Right thinking: the abandonment of free-trade principles for a return to the protectionist creed that animated Republicans from the Civil War to World War II, an America First repudiation of neoconservative commitments to alliances and interventionism, and a return to the nativism that has always been just under the surface in Republican politics. While Trump’s sometimes incoherent views on these topics haven’t become totally obligatory for Republicans just yet, gestures in his direction probably are required. It’s hard to imagine, for example, more than a smattering of Republicans vocally opposing a border wall, or calling for closer trade relations with China, or saying something nice about NATO, much less the United Nations. In international relations, Trump’s determination to throw money at the Pentagon and his unremitting bellicosity have made his isolationist tendencies more acceptable to the Cold War set.

There’s one very loud new habit of Republicans that Trump has elevated from a fringe extremist preoccupation into a near-universal habit in the GOP: the attacks on “political correctness,” “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and now “critical race theory” that present a violent antipathy to cultural changes deemed threatening to white patriarchal hegemony (or, stated more neutrally, to the “Great” America Trump has promised to bring back). All these phantom menaces are nicely designed to make old-school racism and sexism respectable.

All in all, it’s a complicated landscape that ambitious Republicans must navigate to safely rise within the Trumpified GOP. The safest are hard-core conservatives of the old school who downplay Reaganite views that are now out of fashion — and who add in conspicuous personal loyalty to Trump and whatever he wants at any given moment. Examples of this formula are Ted Cruz, the members of the House Freedom Caucus, and, above all, Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who is still doing penance for endorsing Cruz in 2016, in part by personally participating in Trump’s January 6 insurrectionary rally. Trump is close to the once-unlikely accomplishment of making “true conservatism” and Trumpism identical. The big question is whether his personal presence as a presidential candidate or a hurricane-force disrupter is necessary to seal the deal.