washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

December 14: Seniors Are Trending Democratic, Too

After some more messing around with exit poll data (no, it’s not perfect, but it’s got value for sure), something that few observers have noted struck me, and I wrote it up at New York:

Democrats made big gains among college-educated suburbanites in the 2018 midterms. Higher Latino turnout helped in certain parts of the country. Young people voted in numbers better than some expected, and remained solidly Democratic. And even in that famously pro-MAGA demographic, white working-class voters, there were signs of Donkey progress.

But let’s don’t ignore the fact that another recently conservative demographic group became bluer than in the last two elections: seniors. According to exit polls, over-65 voters went Republican by a spare two points (50/48). Republicans carried them 58/42 in 201056/44 in 201257/41 in 2014 and 52/45 in 2016. Even in 2008, the year of the Obama landslide, Republicans won seniors 53/45. This improvement by Democrats was particularly significant in that seniors are a steadily increasing percentage of the electorate; growing from 20 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2014 and 26 percent this year. It also suggests that some polarization scenarios that pit old conservatives against young progressives are a bit over-sold.

Even in what we think of as the heartland of Trumpism, among old white people, Democrats made similar progress. They won 36 percent of white seniors in 2014, 39 percent in 2016 and then 43 percent in 2018. A rising percentage of a rising portion of the electorate is a very good sign.

There are, of course, possible avenues for a renewed Republican trend among seniors, particularly if they stay away from proposing major benefit reductions for Medicare and Social Security (as they largely have since Trump became their leader). All other things being equal, senior, and particularly white seniors, are relatively conservative on cultural issues, including immigration. And even on “their” entitlement programs, it’s possible that Democrats will offer too much of a good thing, as Frederick Lynch recently warned:

“Older Americans probably suspect (as was the case with the Affordable Care Act) that Medicare for All might produce ‘socialized medicine’ that could shift Medicare resources from seniors to younger populations. In addition, these fears and resentments would be compounded if the resources were stretched to include millions of unauthorized immigrants who would become eligible for universal health care through citizenship.

“Mr. Trump has already articulated such fears and previewed a likely Republican strategy to attack Medicare for All as a ‘socialist’ scheme that will bankrupt Medicare: At a September rally in Montana, he said that Democrats want to turn the country into (socialist) Venezuela, destroying Social Security, and that they say ‘Medicare for All’ until they run out of money, which will be the third day, and it will be Medicare for nobody.”

Rebutting such myths will be essential for Democrats advocating a universal single-payer program. But most of all, Democrats need to avoid the temptation of mentally writing off old folks–especially old white folks–as they pursue what some have called a “coalition of the ascendant.” In the end, a vote’s a vote, and there are too many seniors voting to make them anything other than a constant target, even if Democrats don’t “win” them.


Seniors Are Trending Democratic, Too

After some more messing around with exit poll data (no, it’s not perfect, but it’s got value for sure), something that few observers have noted struck me, and I wrote it up at New York:

Democrats made big gains among college-educated suburbanites in the 2018 midterms. Higher Latino turnout helped in certain parts of the country. Young people voted in numbers better than some expected, and remained solidly Democratic. And even in that famously pro-MAGA demographic, white working-class voters, there were signs of Donkey progress.

But let’s don’t ignore the fact that another recently conservative demographic group became bluer than in the last two elections: seniors. According to exit polls, over-65 voters went Republican by a spare two points (50/48). Republicans carried them 58/42 in 201056/44 in 201257/41 in 2014 and 52/45 in 2016. Even in 2008, the year of the Obama landslide, Republicans won seniors 53/45. This improvement by Democrats was particularly significant in that seniors are a steadily increasing percentage of the electorate; growing from 20 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2014 and 26 percent this year. It also suggests that some polarization scenarios that pit old conservatives against young progressives are a bit over-sold.

Even in what we think of as the heartland of Trumpism, among old white people, Democrats made similar progress. They won 36 percent of white seniors in 2014, 39 percent in 2016 and then 43 percent in 2018. A rising percentage of a rising portion of the electorate is a very good sign.

There are, of course, possible avenues for a renewed Republican trend among seniors, particularly if they stay away from proposing major benefit reductions for Medicare and Social Security (as they largely have since Trump became their leader). All other things being equal, senior, and particularly white seniors, are relatively conservative on cultural issues, including immigration. And even on “their” entitlement programs, it’s possible that Democrats will offer too much of a good thing, as Frederick Lynch recently warned:

“Older Americans probably suspect (as was the case with the Affordable Care Act) that Medicare for All might produce ‘socialized medicine’ that could shift Medicare resources from seniors to younger populations. In addition, these fears and resentments would be compounded if the resources were stretched to include millions of unauthorized immigrants who would become eligible for universal health care through citizenship.

“Mr. Trump has already articulated such fears and previewed a likely Republican strategy to attack Medicare for All as a ‘socialist’ scheme that will bankrupt Medicare: At a September rally in Montana, he said that Democrats want to turn the country into (socialist) Venezuela, destroying Social Security, and that they say ‘Medicare for All’ until they run out of money, which will be the third day, and it will be Medicare for nobody.”

Rebutting such myths will be essential for Democrats advocating a universal single-payer program. But most of all, Democrats need to avoid the temptation of mentally writing off old folks–especially old white folks–as they pursue what some have called a “coalition of the ascendant.” In the end, a vote’s a vote, and there are too many seniors voting to make them anything other than a constant target, even if Democrats don’t “win” them.


December 13: Trump’s 2020 Strategy–If He Has One

Now that the 2020 presidential election cycle has begun, there’s a big question hanging over the contest that I decided to explore at New York:

Assuming he is running for a second term, as he has consistently said he is, and assuming he hasn’t been removed from office or forced into a premature retirement by prosecutors and Congress, Donald Trump will need a reelection strategy. He has already announced a slogan (“Keep America Great”) that echoes his aspirational/nostalgic MAGA motto of 2016. And he has a nascent reelection campaign apparatus that looks a lot like his wild-and-woolly 2016 operation, as Gabriel Sherman reported in September:

“His re-election effort is typically Trumpian: sprawling, disjointed, and bursting with confidence. In February, Trump announced that Brad Parscale, the digital guru with the Billy Gibbons beard who led his 2016 online strategy, would be his 2020 campaign manager. Meanwhile, Trump has been crisscrossing the country holding fund-raisers, building up a war chest of $88 million in his first 18 months. Many cast members from the original campaign are expected to reprise their starring roles, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as well as Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie, and Kellyanne Conway. Even [Stephen] Bannon is starting to find his way back into Trump’s orbit after a bitter falling-out.”

Sherman suggests that Trump 2020 will be roiled by rivalries involving its different GOP Establishment, Trump family, and right-wing “populist” spheres of influence. But whoever is in charge, and even if no one is in charge, the reelection effort needs a strategy. The weird thing is that it’s not clear there is one.

So it’s pretty obvious Trump needs to either expand his base of support, or somehow get his existing base to the polls in greater numbers without mobilizing voters who really dislike him. As the team at FiveThirtyEight observed today, nothing Trump has ever done seems designed to expand his base. And this week’s bizarre Oval Office confrontation with Democratic congressional leaders, in which he promised to shut down the federal government if he doesn’t get his border wall money shows the midterms didn’t change Trump at all, at least so far:

“[T]his is a complete play to the base, which Trump arguably already has locked up. If he’s looking to improve his fortunes, pursuing a government shutdown for something that the majority of Americans oppose doesn’t seem wise.”

If Trump is incapable of executing a “pivot to the center,” or just doesn’t want to, then what are his other options? He sometimes seems to believe that conditions in the country (and the world) will, under his stewardship, become so wonderful that voters will keep him around almost against their own will. But after two years in which steadily improving economic indicators and the absence of any fresh international crises haven’t done him much good in the court of public opinion, it seems unlikely that good times will suddenly lift him into popularity. And it’s far more likely that he’ll be dealing with an economic downturn by 2020, while his approach to world affairs isn’t exactly designed to keep things calm, either.

The other distinctively Trumpian strategy might be simply to gamble that he can solidify and rev up his base to previously unimagined levels. He did, after all, win non-college-educated white voters by a record margin in 2016, as Ruy Teixeira noted:

“In 2012, Obama lost whites without a college degree nationally by 25 points. Four years later, Clinton did 6 points worse, losing these voters by 31 points, with shifts against her in Rust Belt states generally double or more the national average.

“Had Clinton hit the thresholds of support within this group that Obama did, she would have carried, with robust margins, the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, as well as (with narrower margins) Florida and Ohio. In fact, if Clinton could simply have reduced the shift toward Donald Trump among these voters by one-quarter, she would have won.”

Can Trump go higher with this base demographic? Nobody knows for sure, but the GOP margin among non-college-educated white voters dropped to a Romney-like 24 points in 2018. And the other, overlapping group of intense GOP supporters, white Evangelicals, probably can’t get much Trumpier than they already are.

Trump’s own midterm strategy focused on base turnout, with some limited success. But in the end, the percentage of the 2018 electorate that stronglyapproved of Trump was outgunned by the percentage that strongly disapproved of him by a not-so-close 31/46 margin. It’s not going to be easy for the president to get his fans fired up and marching to the polls in a hate frenzy without helping Democrats do the same.

The silver lining for the Trump reelection campaign is that he faced most of these problems in 2016 and won anyway. And that example may indicate the real 2020 strategy for the president: fire up the base just enough to get within striking distance and hope for luck and a Democratic opponent with popularity problems as large as his own.

The luck part may be difficult to reduplicate. Is there some equivalent to the Comey letter that could benefit Trump at the last minute once again? Will Democrats again misjudge and underinvest in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which in effect let Trump draw an inside straight for an Electoral College win? And will Democrats be so overconfident that many of them won’t bother to vote while many others waste their votes on third and fourth parties?

The more you think it through, the likely Trump strategy will be to do everything imaginable to drive down the positive sentiments associated with their Democratic opponent, perhaps enlisting those hated godless liberal news media assets who are driven by “fairness” to reinforce negative narratives about the candidate they are presumed to favor. The virtual certainty of a Trump campaign that exceeds in sheer savagery anything this country has ever seen before should serve as a warning to Democrats about how they think about their own nominating process. I argued earlier this year that Democrats should look for an unbreakable nominee — one with no obvious vulnerabilities in age, background, ideology or character that an absolutely unprincipled Trump campaign might exploit to drag her or him down to his level of unpopularity. Breaking his opponent by any means necessary looks to be Trump’s only avenue for extending his unlikely and heinous hold on the presidency.


Trump’s 2020 Strategy–If He Has One

Now that the 2020 presidential election cycle has begun, there’s a big question hanging over the contest that I decided to explore at New York:

Assuming he is running for a second term, as he has consistently said he is, and assuming he hasn’t been removed from office or forced into a premature retirement by prosecutors and Congress, Donald Trump will need a reelection strategy. He has already announced a slogan (“Keep America Great”) that echoes his aspirational/nostalgic MAGA motto of 2016. And he has a nascent reelection campaign apparatus that looks a lot like his wild-and-woolly 2016 operation, as Gabriel Sherman reported in September:

“His re-election effort is typically Trumpian: sprawling, disjointed, and bursting with confidence. In February, Trump announced that Brad Parscale, the digital guru with the Billy Gibbons beard who led his 2016 online strategy, would be his 2020 campaign manager. Meanwhile, Trump has been crisscrossing the country holding fund-raisers, building up a war chest of $88 million in his first 18 months. Many cast members from the original campaign are expected to reprise their starring roles, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as well as Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie, and Kellyanne Conway. Even [Stephen] Bannon is starting to find his way back into Trump’s orbit after a bitter falling-out.”

Sherman suggests that Trump 2020 will be roiled by rivalries involving its different GOP Establishment, Trump family, and right-wing “populist” spheres of influence. But whoever is in charge, and even if no one is in charge, the reelection effort needs a strategy. The weird thing is that it’s not clear there is one.

So it’s pretty obvious Trump needs to either expand his base of support, or somehow get his existing base to the polls in greater numbers without mobilizing voters who really dislike him. As the team at FiveThirtyEight observed today, nothing Trump has ever done seems designed to expand his base. And this week’s bizarre Oval Office confrontation with Democratic congressional leaders, in which he promised to shut down the federal government if he doesn’t get his border wall money shows the midterms didn’t change Trump at all, at least so far:

“[T]his is a complete play to the base, which Trump arguably already has locked up. If he’s looking to improve his fortunes, pursuing a government shutdown for something that the majority of Americans oppose doesn’t seem wise.”

If Trump is incapable of executing a “pivot to the center,” or just doesn’t want to, then what are his other options? He sometimes seems to believe that conditions in the country (and the world) will, under his stewardship, become so wonderful that voters will keep him around almost against their own will. But after two years in which steadily improving economic indicators and the absence of any fresh international crises haven’t done him much good in the court of public opinion, it seems unlikely that good times will suddenly lift him into popularity. And it’s far more likely that he’ll be dealing with an economic downturn by 2020, while his approach to world affairs isn’t exactly designed to keep things calm, either.

The other distinctively Trumpian strategy might be simply to gamble that he can solidify and rev up his base to previously unimagined levels. He did, after all, win non-college-educated white voters by a record margin in 2016, as Ruy Teixeira noted:

“In 2012, Obama lost whites without a college degree nationally by 25 points. Four years later, Clinton did 6 points worse, losing these voters by 31 points, with shifts against her in Rust Belt states generally double or more the national average.

“Had Clinton hit the thresholds of support within this group that Obama did, she would have carried, with robust margins, the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, as well as (with narrower margins) Florida and Ohio. In fact, if Clinton could simply have reduced the shift toward Donald Trump among these voters by one-quarter, she would have won.”

Can Trump go higher with this base demographic? Nobody knows for sure, but the GOP margin among non-college-educated white voters dropped to a Romney-like 24 points in 2018. And the other, overlapping group of intense GOP supporters, white Evangelicals, probably can’t get much Trumpier than they already are.

Trump’s own midterm strategy focused on base turnout, with some limited success. But in the end, the percentage of the 2018 electorate that stronglyapproved of Trump was outgunned by the percentage that strongly disapproved of him by a not-so-close 31/46 margin. It’s not going to be easy for the president to get his fans fired up and marching to the polls in a hate frenzy without helping Democrats do the same.

The silver lining for the Trump reelection campaign is that he faced most of these problems in 2016 and won anyway. And that example may indicate the real 2020 strategy for the president: fire up the base just enough to get within striking distance and hope for luck and a Democratic opponent with popularity problems as large as his own.

The luck part may be difficult to reduplicate. Is there some equivalent to the Comey letter that could benefit Trump at the last minute once again? Will Democrats again misjudge and underinvest in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which in effect let Trump draw an inside straight for an Electoral College win? And will Democrats be so overconfident that many of them won’t bother to vote while many others waste their votes on third and fourth parties?

The more you think it through, the likely Trump strategy will be to do everything imaginable to drive down the positive sentiments associated with their Democratic opponent, perhaps enlisting those hated godless liberal news media assets who are driven by “fairness” to reinforce negative narratives about the candidate they are presumed to favor. The virtual certainty of a Trump campaign that exceeds in sheer savagery anything this country has ever seen before should serve as a warning to Democrats about how they think about their own nominating process. I argued earlier this year that Democrats should look for an unbreakable nominee — one with no obvious vulnerabilities in age, background, ideology or character that an absolutely unprincipled Trump campaign might exploit to drag her or him down to his level of unpopularity. Breaking his opponent by any means necessary looks to be Trump’s only avenue for extending his unlikely and heinous hold on the presidency.


December 10: What Can House Democrats Actually Get Done?

Now that House Democrats are focusing on what they will try to achieve when they take control in January, I offered some serious if unsolicited advice at New York:

After a good election result, the conventions of American politics dictates that the winners boast of a popular mandate to do whatever it is they want to do. And if said election delivers less than total power, it’s customary to pledge a robust effort to reach across the aisle to the other party and get things done in the national interest.

You can see both of these conventions reflected in a letter that 46 of the 66 newly elected House Democrats sent to their leadership this week. They claim “a responsibility and mandate for change in the U.S. Congress,” and profess “the importance of addressing concerns that cross party lines.” In reality, of course, bipartisan legislation has become an endangered species, and the remaining Republican minority in the House is more obdurately conservative and partisan than ever. And there isn’t going to be a lot of “change” legislated in partnership with Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Senate.

Still, these politicians fresh from the campaign trail are on fire to keep talking about “the cost of health care and prescription drugs, our crumbling infrastructure, immigration, gun safety, the environment, and criminal justice reform,” as the letter says. But given partisan realities, the question remains: to what purpose, exactly?

Roll Call’s veteran observer Walter Shapiro raises this question bluntly in terms of the agenda of House Democrats this next year:

“In truth, the only legislative power the House Democrats will have in 2019 is the ability to say ‘no.’

“With a comfortable House majority, the Democrats can veto the further dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, the construction of Donald Trump’s cherished border wall and the new trade treaty to replace NAFTA. But unless Mitch McConnell has a conversion experience rivaling St. Augustine’s, no House-initiated legislation will ever make it to the Senate floor.

“Yet it is easy to envision the House Democrats, goaded by their newer members, spending months arguing over the nuances of a single-payer health plan and wrestling with legislation to overhaul immigration enforcement. Against the backdrop of dire warnings about the acceleration of global warming, far-reaching environmental legislation is likely to be approved by the new House.”

So any progressive legislating the House does will be essentially a matter of “messaging,” or to put it less charitably, agitating the air while awaiting the power to do anything about it. Shapiro acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily a waste of time; policy debates Democrats have now in the wilderness may bear fruit if their party recaptures the White House (and particularly if it gains a trifecta) in 2020. But it’s still a bit of a shadow show. And ultimately, what will likely define the Democratic Party more than anything that happens in Congress will be the policy positions, agenda, and message of the person Democrats nominate for president in 2020. If there’s some “struggle for the soul of the party” on tap, it will take place in Iowa or South Carolina or California, not in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Complicating the picture is that the House will have the power to investigate Donald Trump and his satraps. Yet a lot of Democrats ran campaigns that underplayed or even ignored the Trump circus, and many of the younger members won’t be on the committees where investigations of the president and his administration play out.

So how should the House Democratic leadership deal with the pent-up Democratic desire to do something now that at least one venue is within their control?

Maybe they should take a long look at how Republicans managed their time in purgatory, from the reconquest of the House in 2010 until their achievement of the trifecta in 2016. Unlike today’s Democrats, they did have some opportunities for bipartisanship; President Obama negotiated with the opposition on items big and small far more often than President Trump has done. They did pass a lot of “messaging” legislation they knew the Senate (before 2014) or Obama would kill, but they certainly had no inhibitions about investigating every real and imaginary sparrow that fell to the ground as a result of Obama’s policies.

Most notably, beginning in 2011 Republicans in both Houses signed onto a series of budget proposals — collectively known as the Ryan Budget, in honor of their principal designer, the House Budget Committee chairman and then Speaker — that purported to represent the domestic policy agenda the party would pursue when it gained real power. And in late 2015, holding power in both chambers, they even passed what they advertised as a “trial run” for a huge budget-reconciliation bill that would repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, block-grant Medicaid, and begin reshaping the federal government along lines conservative ideologues had promoted for decades. This was the ultimate use of legislation for “messaging:” Here’s exactly what we’ll do as soon as we have the power.

There’s no particular evidence that this sort of exercise helped Republicans win elections from 2012 through 2016, though it probably pleased a lot of conservative advocacy groups and donors. And whatever his ultimate intentions, when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, given the GOP the long-awaited trifecta, it was not the result of a campaign waged on behalf of the Ryan Budget.

Given Trump’s indifference to conservative ideology, it’s a small miracle that something like the Ryan Budget emerged in 2017 as the united GOP’s first legislative priority. But as we now know, not everyone who voted for the trial run in 2015 voted for the big package of legislation known as Obamacare repeal when push came to shove, and Trump caused constant problems as well with his varying whims on the bill. Now Republicans have lost their trifecta, with Obamacare, Medicaid, and Planned Parenthood funding (among other GOP targets) still intact. And to the extent that they have an agenda going forward, it is lashed to the wavering mast of Trumpism, and whatever follows it. All that show-and-tell about their agenda was mostly a waste of time.

House Democrats should probably learn from their opponents’ experience, and spend less time rehearsing the tasks they will inherit with power, and more time making sure they arrive there in 2020 with the right kind of presidential leadership.


What Can House Democrats Actually Get Done?

Now that House Democrats are focusing on what they will try to achieve when they take control in January, I offered some serious if unsolicited advice at New York:

After a good election result, the conventions of American politics dictates that the winners boast of a popular mandate to do whatever it is they want to do. And if said election delivers less than total power, it’s customary to pledge a robust effort to reach across the aisle to the other party and get things done in the national interest.

You can see both of these conventions reflected in a letter that 46 of the 66 newly elected House Democrats sent to their leadership this week. They claim “a responsibility and mandate for change in the U.S. Congress,” and profess “the importance of addressing concerns that cross party lines.” In reality, of course, bipartisan legislation has become an endangered species, and the remaining Republican minority in the House is more obdurately conservative and partisan than ever. And there isn’t going to be a lot of “change” legislated in partnership with Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Senate.

Still, these politicians fresh from the campaign trail are on fire to keep talking about “the cost of health care and prescription drugs, our crumbling infrastructure, immigration, gun safety, the environment, and criminal justice reform,” as the letter says. But given partisan realities, the question remains: to what purpose, exactly?

Roll Call’s veteran observer Walter Shapiro raises this question bluntly in terms of the agenda of House Democrats this next year:

“In truth, the only legislative power the House Democrats will have in 2019 is the ability to say ‘no.’

“With a comfortable House majority, the Democrats can veto the further dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, the construction of Donald Trump’s cherished border wall and the new trade treaty to replace NAFTA. But unless Mitch McConnell has a conversion experience rivaling St. Augustine’s, no House-initiated legislation will ever make it to the Senate floor.

“Yet it is easy to envision the House Democrats, goaded by their newer members, spending months arguing over the nuances of a single-payer health plan and wrestling with legislation to overhaul immigration enforcement. Against the backdrop of dire warnings about the acceleration of global warming, far-reaching environmental legislation is likely to be approved by the new House.”

So any progressive legislating the House does will be essentially a matter of “messaging,” or to put it less charitably, agitating the air while awaiting the power to do anything about it. Shapiro acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily a waste of time; policy debates Democrats have now in the wilderness may bear fruit if their party recaptures the White House (and particularly if it gains a trifecta) in 2020. But it’s still a bit of a shadow show. And ultimately, what will likely define the Democratic Party more than anything that happens in Congress will be the policy positions, agenda, and message of the person Democrats nominate for president in 2020. If there’s some “struggle for the soul of the party” on tap, it will take place in Iowa or South Carolina or California, not in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Complicating the picture is that the House will have the power to investigate Donald Trump and his satraps. Yet a lot of Democrats ran campaigns that underplayed or even ignored the Trump circus, and many of the younger members won’t be on the committees where investigations of the president and his administration play out.

So how should the House Democratic leadership deal with the pent-up Democratic desire to do something now that at least one venue is within their control?

Maybe they should take a long look at how Republicans managed their time in purgatory, from the reconquest of the House in 2010 until their achievement of the trifecta in 2016. Unlike today’s Democrats, they did have some opportunities for bipartisanship; President Obama negotiated with the opposition on items big and small far more often than President Trump has done. They did pass a lot of “messaging” legislation they knew the Senate (before 2014) or Obama would kill, but they certainly had no inhibitions about investigating every real and imaginary sparrow that fell to the ground as a result of Obama’s policies.

Most notably, beginning in 2011 Republicans in both Houses signed onto a series of budget proposals — collectively known as the Ryan Budget, in honor of their principal designer, the House Budget Committee chairman and then Speaker — that purported to represent the domestic policy agenda the party would pursue when it gained real power. And in late 2015, holding power in both chambers, they even passed what they advertised as a “trial run” for a huge budget-reconciliation bill that would repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, block-grant Medicaid, and begin reshaping the federal government along lines conservative ideologues had promoted for decades. This was the ultimate use of legislation for “messaging:” Here’s exactly what we’ll do as soon as we have the power.

There’s no particular evidence that this sort of exercise helped Republicans win elections from 2012 through 2016, though it probably pleased a lot of conservative advocacy groups and donors. And whatever his ultimate intentions, when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, given the GOP the long-awaited trifecta, it was not the result of a campaign waged on behalf of the Ryan Budget.

Given Trump’s indifference to conservative ideology, it’s a small miracle that something like the Ryan Budget emerged in 2017 as the united GOP’s first legislative priority. But as we now know, not everyone who voted for the trial run in 2015 voted for the big package of legislation known as Obamacare repeal when push came to shove, and Trump caused constant problems as well with his varying whims on the bill. Now Republicans have lost their trifecta, with Obamacare, Medicaid, and Planned Parenthood funding (among other GOP targets) still intact. And to the extent that they have an agenda going forward, it is lashed to the wavering mast of Trumpism, and whatever follows it. All that show-and-tell about their agenda was mostly a waste of time.

House Democrats should probably learn from their opponents’ experience, and spend less time rehearsing the tasks they will inherit with power, and more time making sure they arrive there in 2020 with the right kind of presidential leadership.

 


December 6: Ten Tickets Out of Iowa?

Perhaps I am overreacting to the reports of so very many Democrats contemplating 2020 presidential runs, but I meditated at New York on how that may be Trump’s fault.

In 2016, a presidential candidate who broke just about every rule about who is qualified to run for president and how a successful campaign should be run improbably won the GOP nomination, and then the presidency. More than two years after the fact, it’s still hard to understand how it all happened.

And now, as Democrats look for a challenger to Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020, an enormous field of potential candidates is forming — one that could overwhelm a nominating process designed to choose among relatively few rivals and produce a contested convention whose prize is fought over by a divided party. I can’t imagine that the two phenomena are not closely related.

It’s true that Trump blew up an awful lot of conventional wisdom. He’s the fifth president to have never won a previous elected office. But three of the others (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower) were military heroes, and Herbert Hoover was a universally renowned humanitarian as the organizer of food aid to Europe during and after World War I, and then a two-term cabinet member and favorite of party insiders. Trump’s background, featuring multiple business failures and broken marriages and admitted serial adultery was unusual, too. And the way Trump campaigned was even more unprecedented, featuring nasty personal attacks on members of his own party (beginning with his mockery of the war service of his party’s most notable military hero, John McCain) and his frequent profane and belligerent utterances, alongside lies too frequent to count. And Trump also defied the ideological orthodoxies of his very ideological Republican Party by opposing the Iraq War and free trade. Yet he won.

And so there’s an inchoate sense that Trump broke the mold so thoroughly that anybody can run a viable race for president, perhaps successfully. That’s how you get multiple billionaires with no record of public service (e.g., Tom Steyer, Howard Schultz, and Mark Cuban) seriously considering candidacies; seven sitting Members of the U.S. House, which hasn’t produced a president since 1880, exploring presidential runs; mayors from municipalities as small as South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg) getting encouragement to run; septuagenarians galore (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, John Kerry) looking for a fountain of youth; and politicians best known for respectable losses in statewide races (Beto O’Rourke and possibly Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum) making 2020 lists as well.

No, all these people won’t run, but few if any authoritative voices are telling them it’s a waste of time. One rich celebrity who did take himself out of the running, actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, summed it up well:

“‘I think in a lot of people’s minds, what Trump has proved is that anybody can run for president,’ Johnson says. ‘And in a lot of people’s minds, what he’s also proved is that not everybody should run for president.'”

That second part needs to be heard a bit more often. For one thing, Trump in 2016 had an asset that few potential candidates (even The Rock) possess, which is decades of heavy national publicity as a popular entertainment figure and as a very public businessman. He also had the corner on an high-value ideological position that virtually none of his intra-party rivals shared in his virulent opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, amplified by his dangerously blunt appeals to white Christian nationalist sentiments. It is unclear there is a “lane” in the 2020 Democratic presidential landscape that is equally open and undervalued by other pols.

And let’s face it: Trump got lucky. The 16 candidates he initially faced in the GOP contest gave him an excellent opportunity to remain viable as his support slowly grew. Had either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz gotten a one-on-one shot at Trump a bit earlier in the contest, the mogul would have probably lost. As for the general election, no matter of Russian interference or Clinton email obsession would have gotten Trump into the White House if Hillary Clinton’s campaign had invested appropriately in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Yes, the conventional wisdom so neatly and confidently presented in The Party Decides has been shredded. More likely, though, Trump ‘16 was the exception that proves rules do exist, and a new, if modified, conventional wisdom that does make sense will emerge.

But politicians have always been willing to gamble on luck, and the phenomenon of a huge field of gamblers paradoxically makes the odds of something strange happening that much stronger. Democrats who don’t want to roll the dice in 2020 might want to consider ways to winnow their field before voters vote and we find out that there are not “three tickets out of Iowa,” as legend has it, but maybe ten.


Ten Tickets Out of Iowa?

Perhaps I am overreacting to the reports of so very many Democrats contemplating 2020 presidential runs, but I meditated at New York on how that may be Trump’s fault.

In 2016, a presidential candidate who broke just about every rule about who is qualified to run for president and how a successful campaign should be run improbably won the GOP nomination, and then the presidency. More than two years after the fact, it’s still hard to understand how it all happened.

And now, as Democrats look for a challenger to Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020, an enormous field of potential candidates is forming — one that could overwhelm a nominating process designed to choose among relatively few rivals and produce a contested convention whose prize is fought over by a divided party. I can’t imagine that the two phenomena are not closely related.

It’s true that Trump blew up an awful lot of conventional wisdom. He’s the fifth president to have never won a previous elected office. But three of the others (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower) were military heroes, and Herbert Hoover was a universally renowned humanitarian as the organizer of food aid to Europe during and after World War I, and then a two-term cabinet member and favorite of party insiders. Trump’s background, featuring multiple business failures and broken marriages and admitted serial adultery was unusual, too. And the way Trump campaigned was even more unprecedented, featuring nasty personal attacks on members of his own party (beginning with his mockery of the war service of his party’s most notable military hero, John McCain) and his frequent profane and belligerent utterances, alongside lies too frequent to count. And Trump also defied the ideological orthodoxies of his very ideological Republican Party by opposing the Iraq War and free trade. Yet he won.

And so there’s an inchoate sense that Trump broke the mold so thoroughly that anybody can run a viable race for president, perhaps successfully. That’s how you get multiple billionaires with no record of public service (e.g., Tom Steyer, Howard Schultz, and Mark Cuban) seriously considering candidacies; seven sitting Members of the U.S. House, which hasn’t produced a president since 1880, exploring presidential runs; mayors from municipalities as small as South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg) getting encouragement to run; septuagenarians galore (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, John Kerry) looking for a fountain of youth; and politicians best known for respectable losses in statewide races (Beto O’Rourke and possibly Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum) making 2020 lists as well.

No, all these people won’t run, but few if any authoritative voices are telling them it’s a waste of time. One rich celebrity who did take himself out of the running, actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, summed it up well:

“‘I think in a lot of people’s minds, what Trump has proved is that anybody can run for president,’ Johnson says. ‘And in a lot of people’s minds, what he’s also proved is that not everybody should run for president.'”

That second part needs to be heard a bit more often. For one thing, Trump in 2016 had an asset that few potential candidates (even The Rock) possess, which is decades of heavy national publicity as a popular entertainment figure and as a very public businessman. He also had the corner on an high-value ideological position that virtually none of his intra-party rivals shared in his virulent opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, amplified by his dangerously blunt appeals to white Christian nationalist sentiments. It is unclear there is a “lane” in the 2020 Democratic presidential landscape that is equally open and undervalued by other pols.

And let’s face it: Trump got lucky. The 16 candidates he initially faced in the GOP contest gave him an excellent opportunity to remain viable as his support slowly grew. Had either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz gotten a one-on-one shot at Trump a bit earlier in the contest, the mogul would have probably lost. As for the general election, no matter of Russian interference or Clinton email obsession would have gotten Trump into the White House if Hillary Clinton’s campaign had invested appropriately in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Yes, the conventional wisdom so neatly and confidently presented in The Party Decides has been shredded. More likely, though, Trump ‘16 was the exception that proves rules do exist, and a new, if modified, conventional wisdom that does make sense will emerge.

But politicians have always been willing to gamble on luck, and the phenomenon of a huge field of gamblers paradoxically makes the odds of something strange happening that much stronger. Democrats who don’t want to roll the dice in 2020 might want to consider ways to winnow their field before voters vote and we find out that there are not “three tickets out of Iowa,” as legend has it, but maybe ten.


November 30: The GOP’s New Voter Fraud Conspiracy Theory

As a transplant living in California, I’m pretty familiar with the electoral system here. And the things I’ve been hearing Republicans say on the subject are outrageous, as I explained at New York.

Some Republicans were so busy on the evening of November 6 spinning a poor midterm showing into a vindication of their party and president that they apparently missed the fact that the election wasn’t quite over. And later on, they professed mystification at the final results. I say “professed” because it’s hard to believe Speaker Paul Ryan is as stupid as he sounds here:

“The California election system ‘just defies logic to me,’ Ryan said during a Washington Post event.

“‘We were only down 26 seats the night of the election and three weeks later, we lost basically every California race….’

“’In Wisconsin, we knew the next day. Scott Walker, my friend, I was sad to see him lose, but we accepted the results on Wednesday,’ Ryan said. In California, ‘their system is bizarre; I still don’t completely understand it. There are a lot of races there we should have won.’”

The slow count from California should not have come as a surprise: It happened in the June 5 primary as well, and in the 2016 primary and general election. And it was in part the product of a 2015 change in state election laws allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days to count. Since the share of Californians voting by mail has been going up regularly in recent elections, we’re talking about a lot of votes. Since mail ballots have to go through signature verification (just like in-person ballots go through at polling places), it takes a while to count them. There’s nothing new or nefarious about either of these practices. Voting by mail (or as the practice’s proponents prefer to call it, “voting from home”) is now quasi-universal in three states: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. And much longer than California, Washington has for years allowed ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, leading to slow counts in that state as well. A Washington election official had an interesting reaction when asked back in 2012 about the consequences of a slow count:

“‘News reporters are the only people who complain about the vote-counting delay,’ said [Katie] Blinn, adding that Washington’s system is relatively inexpensive, accurate and encourages turnout.”

Apparently Speakers of the House also complain now.

While a spokesman for Ryan hastened to say he didn’t intend to claim a election fraud, his complaints echoed those of a California member of the Republican National Committee, Shawn Steel, who suggested just that in an op-ed for the Washington Times.

Citing Republican congressional candidate Young Kim’s 14-point lead at one point on the evening of November 6, Steel asks:

“How does a 14-point Republican lead disappear? Merciless and unsparing, California Democrats have systematically undermined California’s already-weak voter protection laws to guarantee permanent one-party rule.”

To those unfamiliar with GOP rhetoric, I should explain that “voter protection laws” means laws making it as hard as possible to vote. Consider Steel’s interpretation of the rule allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day:

“In California, voting doesn’t stop on Election Day. Absentee ballots need only be postmarked by Election Day, with ballots counted that arrive up to three days late. If ballots are sent to the wrong county, the ballot is valid for an additional four days….That means you literally have seven days after an election where a county could still be receiving legitimate ballots.”

Again, that’s been the practice in Washington for years, without complaint (other than from reporters). And when you think about it, why should we respect ballots cast on Election Day more than those filled out on or before Election Day that are duly placed in the mail, at their own expense? Should such voters have to guess how long it will take the postal service to deliver their ballots? This complaint only makes sense to someone who wants to make voting inconvenient, and hence rarer. Steel goes on to suggest that voting by mail is itself nefarious:

“In just four years, the number of absentee ballots distributed in California has increased by 44 percent. ‘Nearly 13 million voters have received a ballot in the mail, compared to just 9 million in the last gubernatorial election in 2014,’ notes Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.”

First of all, these aren’t “absentee ballots.” As is the case in a growing number of states, voting by mail is considered normal, not something you have to construct an excuse to do. And of course the number is rising: In California you can register as a “voter by mail” and you will receive mail ballots automatically so long as you keep voting. Steel points to an experiment that allowed a handful of counties this year to mail ballots to all registered voters as though that somehow encourages fraud. Again, that is the universal practice in voting-by-mail states; what’s the beef? You can vote by mail, vote in person, or not vote at all. Nothing has changed.

Here’s another bogus complaint from Steel, about what he calls, without a shred of evidence, “motor voter fraud:”

“Every person in California that interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles is automatically registered to vote. This has predictably led to tens of thousands cases of voter registration problems. The state’s Motor Voter program has come under fire for double registering as many as 77,000 people and registering as many as 1,500 ineligible voters. The state’s bipartisan oversight agency expressed concerns about ‘serious problems with ensuring that the New Motor Voter Program works as intended and promised.'”

This is called “automatic voter registration” and 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) have similar systems. California’s just went into effect this last April, and those 1,500 ineligible voters (who were duly purged from the rolls) were out of the 1.4 million enrolled by September, when the errors were discovered and cured.

One more bogus complaint that you can hear other Republicans make involves something Steel confusedly calls “conditional voting”:

“California has effectively adopted same-day voter registration with the introduction of ‘conditional voting.’ This election cycle, voters who missed the 15-day voter registration deadline could request to cast a conditional ballot.”

Same-day voter registration is in effect in 17 states (plus D.C.). And “provisional ballots” have been in effect nationwide since the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. It’s actually a means for ensuring against voter fraud, since provisional votes are not counted until their validity can be established. Yes, provisional ballots slow down vote counts, but the alternative — giving voters the benefit of the doubt and counting them all — isn’t likely going to be endorsed by Republicans….

This brouhaha might not matter if it did not feed the same myths of voter fraud that led Donald Trump to claim without a hint of evidence after the 2016 elections that “millions” of illegal votes had been cast for Hillary Clinton in California, robbing him of a popular-vote plurality nationally. Going into 2020, this sort of loose talk needs to be debunked wherever possible, unless we want to risk the possibility of a GOP election defeat that is not simply questioned but denied.


The GOP’s New Voter Fraud Conspiracy Theory

As a transplant living in California, I’m pretty familiar with the electoral system here. And the things I’ve been hearing Republicans say on the subject are outrageous, as I explained at New York.

Some Republicans were so busy on the evening of November 6 spinning a poor midterm showing into a vindication of their party and president that they apparently missed the fact that the election wasn’t quite over. And later on, they professed mystification at the final results. I say “professed” because it’s hard to believe Speaker Paul Ryan is as stupid as he sounds here:

“The California election system ‘just defies logic to me,’ Ryan said during a Washington Post event.

“‘We were only down 26 seats the night of the election and three weeks later, we lost basically every California race….’

“’In Wisconsin, we knew the next day. Scott Walker, my friend, I was sad to see him lose, but we accepted the results on Wednesday,’ Ryan said. In California, ‘their system is bizarre; I still don’t completely understand it. There are a lot of races there we should have won.’”

The slow count from California should not have come as a surprise: It happened in the June 5 primary as well, and in the 2016 primary and general election. And it was in part the product of a 2015 change in state election laws allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days to count. Since the share of Californians voting by mail has been going up regularly in recent elections, we’re talking about a lot of votes. Since mail ballots have to go through signature verification (just like in-person ballots go through at polling places), it takes a while to count them. There’s nothing new or nefarious about either of these practices. Voting by mail (or as the practice’s proponents prefer to call it, “voting from home”) is now quasi-universal in three states: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. And much longer than California, Washington has for years allowed ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, leading to slow counts in that state as well. A Washington election official had an interesting reaction when asked back in 2012 about the consequences of a slow count:

“‘News reporters are the only people who complain about the vote-counting delay,’ said [Katie] Blinn, adding that Washington’s system is relatively inexpensive, accurate and encourages turnout.”

Apparently Speakers of the House also complain now.

While a spokesman for Ryan hastened to say he didn’t intend to claim a election fraud, his complaints echoed those of a California member of the Republican National Committee, Shawn Steel, who suggested just that in an op-ed for the Washington Times.

Citing Republican congressional candidate Young Kim’s 14-point lead at one point on the evening of November 6, Steel asks:

“How does a 14-point Republican lead disappear? Merciless and unsparing, California Democrats have systematically undermined California’s already-weak voter protection laws to guarantee permanent one-party rule.”

To those unfamiliar with GOP rhetoric, I should explain that “voter protection laws” means laws making it as hard as possible to vote. Consider Steel’s interpretation of the rule allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day:

“In California, voting doesn’t stop on Election Day. Absentee ballots need only be postmarked by Election Day, with ballots counted that arrive up to three days late. If ballots are sent to the wrong county, the ballot is valid for an additional four days….That means you literally have seven days after an election where a county could still be receiving legitimate ballots.”

Again, that’s been the practice in Washington for years, without complaint (other than from reporters). And when you think about it, why should we respect ballots cast on Election Day more than those filled out on or before Election Day that are duly placed in the mail, at their own expense? Should such voters have to guess how long it will take the postal service to deliver their ballots? This complaint only makes sense to someone who wants to make voting inconvenient, and hence rarer. Steel goes on to suggest that voting by mail is itself nefarious:

“In just four years, the number of absentee ballots distributed in California has increased by 44 percent. ‘Nearly 13 million voters have received a ballot in the mail, compared to just 9 million in the last gubernatorial election in 2014,’ notes Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.”

First of all, these aren’t “absentee ballots.” As is the case in a growing number of states, voting by mail is considered normal, not something you have to construct an excuse to do. And of course the number is rising: In California you can register as a “voter by mail” and you will receive mail ballots automatically so long as you keep voting. Steel points to an experiment that allowed a handful of counties this year to mail ballots to all registered voters as though that somehow encourages fraud. Again, that is the universal practice in voting-by-mail states; what’s the beef? You can vote by mail, vote in person, or not vote at all. Nothing has changed.

Here’s another bogus complaint from Steel, about what he calls, without a shred of evidence, “motor voter fraud:”

“Every person in California that interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles is automatically registered to vote. This has predictably led to tens of thousands cases of voter registration problems. The state’s Motor Voter program has come under fire for double registering as many as 77,000 people and registering as many as 1,500 ineligible voters. The state’s bipartisan oversight agency expressed concerns about ‘serious problems with ensuring that the New Motor Voter Program works as intended and promised.'”

This is called “automatic voter registration” and 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) have similar systems. California’s just went into effect this last April, and those 1,500 ineligible voters (who were duly purged from the rolls) were out of the 1.4 million enrolled by September, when the errors were discovered and cured.

One more bogus complaint that you can hear other Republicans make involves something Steel confusedly calls “conditional voting”:

“California has effectively adopted same-day voter registration with the introduction of ‘conditional voting.’ This election cycle, voters who missed the 15-day voter registration deadline could request to cast a conditional ballot.”

Same-day voter registration is in effect in 17 states (plus D.C.). And “provisional ballots” have been in effect nationwide since the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. It’s actually a means for ensuring against voter fraud, since provisional votes are not counted until their validity can be established. Yes, provisional ballots slow down vote counts, but the alternative — giving voters the benefit of the doubt and counting them all — isn’t likely going to be endorsed by Republicans….

This brouhaha might not matter if it did not feed the same myths of voter fraud that led Donald Trump to claim without a hint of evidence after the 2016 elections that “millions” of illegal votes had been cast for Hillary Clinton in California, robbing him of a popular-vote plurality nationally. Going into 2020, this sort of loose talk needs to be debunked wherever possible, unless we want to risk the possibility of a GOP election defeat that is not simply questioned but denied.