washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

January 20: Biden’s Approval Rating Is High Enough to Beat His Most Likely 2024 Opponent

There’s been a lot of buzzing lately about the president’s job approval ratings, so I gave them a close look at New York:

Midterm elections almost always serve as referenda on the perceived job performance of the president. It’s no accident that just prior to the two recent midterms (1998 and 2002) in which the party controlling the White House gained House seats, which is rare, the president’s job approval ratings were in the 60s. On three other occasions (1962, 1986, and 1990), presidents with job-approval ratings of at least 58 percent kept midterm losses for their party in the single digits.

With Democrats currently holding a five-seat margin in the House, President Joe Biden would probably need one of those very-high-job-approval moments to save his party’s control of the House in the 2022 midterms. Unfortunately, in this era of partisan polarization, a Biden boom in popularity is improbable. According to the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, the president’s approval rating peaked at 55.1 percent on March 22. It’s currently at 42.1 percent, and it is “underwater” (below his disapproval rating) by 9.8 percent. If Biden can turn the fairly steady downward drift in his approval ratings around, he can certainly help Democrats mitigate midterm House losses. On two occasions, presidents with pre-midterm approval ratings in the 40s lost only a handful of seats: Carter’s party lost 11 seats in 1978, with a Gallup rating of 49 percent, and Obama’s party lost 13 seats in 2014, with a Gallup rating of 44 percent. On the other hand, Democrats lost 53 House seats when Obama was at 45 percent in 2010 and 63 House seats when Clinton was at 46 percent in 1994. So Democrats can almost certainly kiss their trifecta goodbye, barring something unforeseeable.

The Senate is invariably another matter, since the particular “class” of senators up for reelection in any midterm has a huge impact on partisan performance. In 2018, to cite the most recent example, Republicans managed to gain two net Senate seats despite losing 40 net House seats, mostly because Democrats had an incredible 26-9 disadvantage in seats they had to defend. It was a terrible Senate landscape for Democrats, who, by contrast, face a marginally favorable Senate landscape in 2022. Still, a pretty reliable Senate model devised by Sean Trende projects that Democrats are likely to lose control of the upper chamber in 2022 if Biden’s job-approval ratings haven’t rebounded to the high 40s by Election Day.

In the longer term, there is a definite silver lining to Biden’s current popularity woes, reflected in this ostensibly very negative headline at FiveThirtyEight: “One Year in, Biden Has the Second-Lowest Approval Rating of Any President.” Guess who had the very lowest at this point in his presidency? That’s right: Donald J. Trump, whose approval rating was at 39 percent a year after his inauguration. If, as is currently more likely than not, the 2024 presidential election is a Biden-Trump rematch, you have to like Biden’s odds for a second term if he can improve his public standing even slightly between now and then. Yes, ex-presidents usually become more popular after they leave office. But they generally don’t insist on making the low point of their presidencies a signature moment, and defense of it a litmus test for their party, as Trump is doing with the Capitol riot and his broader campaign to steal the presidency. It’s as if George W. Bush had tried a 2012 comeback (and hadn’t been term-limited) based on the eternal righteousness of the Iraq War.

With better skill than he has showed lately and a bit of luck, Biden can make the midterms a nick rather than a grievous wound to his party. Then, like his friend and former boss Barack Obama, he could win reelection two years after being underestimated.


Biden’s Approval Rating Is High Enough to Beat His Most Likely 2024 Opponent

There’s been a lot of buzzing lately about the president’s job approval ratings, so I gave them a close look at New York:

Midterm elections almost always serve as referenda on the perceived job performance of the president. It’s no accident that just prior to the two recent midterms (1998 and 2002) in which the party controlling the White House gained House seats, which is rare, the president’s job approval ratings were in the 60s. On three other occasions (1962, 1986, and 1990), presidents with job-approval ratings of at least 58 percent kept midterm losses for their party in the single digits.

With Democrats currently holding a five-seat margin in the House, President Joe Biden would probably need one of those very-high-job-approval moments to save his party’s control of the House in the 2022 midterms. Unfortunately, in this era of partisan polarization, a Biden boom in popularity is improbable. According to the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, the president’s approval rating peaked at 55.1 percent on March 22. It’s currently at 42.1 percent, and it is “underwater” (below his disapproval rating) by 9.8 percent. If Biden can turn the fairly steady downward drift in his approval ratings around, he can certainly help Democrats mitigate midterm House losses. On two occasions, presidents with pre-midterm approval ratings in the 40s lost only a handful of seats: Carter’s party lost 11 seats in 1978, with a Gallup rating of 49 percent, and Obama’s party lost 13 seats in 2014, with a Gallup rating of 44 percent. On the other hand, Democrats lost 53 House seats when Obama was at 45 percent in 2010 and 63 House seats when Clinton was at 46 percent in 1994. So Democrats can almost certainly kiss their trifecta goodbye, barring something unforeseeable.

The Senate is invariably another matter, since the particular “class” of senators up for reelection in any midterm has a huge impact on partisan performance. In 2018, to cite the most recent example, Republicans managed to gain two net Senate seats despite losing 40 net House seats, mostly because Democrats had an incredible 26-9 disadvantage in seats they had to defend. It was a terrible Senate landscape for Democrats, who, by contrast, face a marginally favorable Senate landscape in 2022. Still, a pretty reliable Senate model devised by Sean Trende projects that Democrats are likely to lose control of the upper chamber in 2022 if Biden’s job-approval ratings haven’t rebounded to the high 40s by Election Day.

In the longer term, there is a definite silver lining to Biden’s current popularity woes, reflected in this ostensibly very negative headline at FiveThirtyEight: “One Year in, Biden Has the Second-Lowest Approval Rating of Any President.” Guess who had the very lowest at this point in his presidency? That’s right: Donald J. Trump, whose approval rating was at 39 percent a year after his inauguration. If, as is currently more likely than not, the 2024 presidential election is a Biden-Trump rematch, you have to like Biden’s odds for a second term if he can improve his public standing even slightly between now and then. Yes, ex-presidents usually become more popular after they leave office. But they generally don’t insist on making the low point of their presidencies a signature moment, and defense of it a litmus test for their party, as Trump is doing with the Capitol riot and his broader campaign to steal the presidency. It’s as if George W. Bush had tried a 2012 comeback (and hadn’t been term-limited) based on the eternal righteousness of the Iraq War.

With better skill than he has showed lately and a bit of luck, Biden can make the midterms a nick rather than a grievous wound to his party. Then, like his friend and former boss Barack Obama, he could win reelection two years after being underestimated.


January 14: A Biden-Cheney Ticket for 2024 Is a Really Bad Idea

I read a Thomas Friedman column this week that really required a smackdown. So I supplied one at New York:

How much political capital should Democrats invest in a probably doomed effort to save the political career of Liz Cheney? Earlier this week, Never Trump Republican Linda Chavez penned a column urging Wyoming Democrats to take a dive this November in order to give the incumbent a chance to survive as an independent, assuming (as it safe) that Cheney will be purged in her own party’s primary. And now, in an apparent coincidence, in comes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggesting a far more radical step by Democrats to align themselves with the small slice of Republicans who follow Cheney’s example in repudiating Donald Trump. He wrote:

“Is that what America needs in 2024 — a ticket of Joe Biden and Liz Cheney? Or Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or Stacey Abrams and Liz Cheney, or Amy Klobuchar and Liz Cheney? Or any other such combination.”

Friedman phrases this as a question, but clearly he thinks it’s a good idea given the “existential moment” America would face if Trump is allowed to regain the presidency in 2024. It’s a bit of a loaded question, too, since it postulates that nothing short of a previously unimaginable “sacrifice” by Democrats and Never Trump Republicans alike can stop Trump — and that it would, in fact, succeed in stopping Trump.

I certainly agree that Democrats dumping Kamala Harris to give their vice-presidential nomination to a conservative Republican who opposes legalized abortion and is a militarist by conviction and heredity would be a “sacrifice,” to put it very mildly. It would also be very, very weird. Friedman cites the recent establishment of a mind-bending coalition government in Israel to thwart Bibi Netanyahu as a development comparable to what he is suggesting. But as he acknowledges, Israel has a parliamentary system in which multiparty coalitions are the rule rather than the exception. A presidential system in which parties invariably run separate tickets for the top job is another thing altogether.

The U.S. has had exactly one example of multiparty fusionism in a presidential election. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Republicans nominated Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee — then serving as U.S. military governor of Tennessee — to run with Lincoln on a “Union” ticket. The experiment did not turn out well, beginning with Johnson’s drunken inaugural address in 1865 and continuing with the racist solidarity he exhibited toward ex-Confederates after Lincoln’s assassination, culminating in his impeachment and near removal from office. There are important reasons politicians sort themselves out into major parties, which should be apparent in an era of polarization over issues other than the scofflaw behavior of Donald Trump.

Is the threat of Trump’s return to the White House the equivalent of the U.S. Civil War? Not in itself, I would contend, though that horrific development could lead eventually to grave conditions comparable if not equal to a civil war. The premise that a Biden-Cheney fusion ticket would uniquely doom Trump to failure is even more dubious. There has never been much evidence of a mass following for Never Trump Republicans, and such as it is, it is mostly composed of people who would (and did in 2020) gladly vote for Biden and Harris. The baleful effect that replacing Harris with Cheney on the ticket would have on Democratic turnout could easily offset or exceed the alleged benefits of bipartisan and trans-ideological fusion.

So Democrats should say thanks, but no thanks, to Friedman for the idea of submitting their party to some sort of unwieldy and unnatural coalition of national salvation, so long as there is the slightest possibility of beating Trump the old-fashioned way. Liz Cheney deserves great respect for the courage she has shown in defying Trump at the expense of her own career, and if Biden is reelected with her support, perhaps she deserves an ambassadorship, a minor Cabinet post, or a major sub-Cabinet position. But she has no business being at the top of the line of succession to a Democratic president.


A Biden-Cheney Ticket For 2024 Is a Really Bad Idea

I read a Thomas Friedman column this week that really required a smackdown. So I supplied one at New York:

How much political capital should Democrats invest in a probably doomed effort to save the political career of Liz Cheney? Earlier this week, Never Trump Republican Linda Chavez penned a column urging Wyoming Democrats to take a dive this November in order to give the incumbent a chance to survive as an independent, assuming (as it safe) that Cheney will be purged in her own party’s primary. And now, in an apparent coincidence, in comes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggesting a far more radical step by Democrats to align themselves with the small slice of Republicans who follow Cheney’s example in repudiating Donald Trump. He wrote:

“Is that what America needs in 2024 — a ticket of Joe Biden and Liz Cheney? Or Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or Stacey Abrams and Liz Cheney, or Amy Klobuchar and Liz Cheney? Or any other such combination.”

Friedman phrases this as a question, but clearly he thinks it’s a good idea given the “existential moment” America would face if Trump is allowed to regain the presidency in 2024. It’s a bit of a loaded question, too, since it postulates that nothing short of a previously unimaginable “sacrifice” by Democrats and Never Trump Republicans alike can stop Trump — and that it would, in fact, succeed in stopping Trump.

I certainly agree that Democrats dumping Kamala Harris to give their vice-presidential nomination to a conservative Republican who opposes legalized abortion and is a militarist by conviction and heredity would be a “sacrifice,” to put it very mildly. It would also be very, very weird. Friedman cites the recent establishment of a mind-bending coalition government in Israel to thwart Bibi Netanyahu as a development comparable to what he is suggesting. But as he acknowledges, Israel has a parliamentary system in which multiparty coalitions are the rule rather than the exception. A presidential system in which parties invariably run separate tickets for the top job is another thing altogether.

The U.S. has had exactly one example of multiparty fusionism in a presidential election. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Republicans nominated Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee — then serving as U.S. military governor of Tennessee — to run with Lincoln on a “Union” ticket. The experiment did not turn out well, beginning with Johnson’s drunken inaugural address in 1865 and continuing with the racist solidarity he exhibited toward ex-Confederates after Lincoln’s assassination, culminating in his impeachment and near removal from office. There are important reasons politicians sort themselves out into major parties, which should be apparent in an era of polarization over issues other than the scofflaw behavior of Donald Trump.

Is the threat of Trump’s return to the White House the equivalent of the U.S. Civil War? Not in itself, I would contend, though that horrific development could lead eventually to grave conditions comparable if not equal to a civil war. The premise that a Biden-Cheney fusion ticket would uniquely doom Trump to failure is even more dubious. There has never been much evidence of a mass following for Never Trump Republicans, and such as it is, it is mostly composed of people who would (and did in 2020) gladly vote for Biden and Harris. The baleful effect that replacing Harris with Cheney on the ticket would have on Democratic turnout could easily offset or exceed the alleged benefits of bipartisan and trans-ideological fusion.

So Democrats should say thanks, but no thanks, to Friedman for the idea of submitting their party to some sort of unwieldy and unnatural coalition of national salvation, so long as there is the slightest possibility of beating Trump the old-fashioned way. Liz Cheney deserves great respect for the courage she has shown in defying Trump at the expense of her own career, and if Biden is reelected with her support, perhaps she deserves an ambassadorship, a minor Cabinet post, or a major sub-Cabinet position. But she has no business being at the top of the line of succession to a Democratic president.


January 12: Stopping a 2024 Election Coup Is Essential, But May Not Be Easy

I have been very involved in warning Democrats about the strong possibility of another attempted Trump election coup In 2024, and wrote up my latest advice on the subject at New York:

As someone who spent months before the 2020 election warning that Trump was planning an election coup, then had to watch and write about his efforts that were finally foiled on January 6, 2021, I felt the anniversary of that day brought back in sharp relief bad memories that had never really faded. I realized that the fire we avoided last time might in future require more than a beefed-up Capitol police corps or resolute judges or a smattering of responsible Republicans. Like my colleague Errol Louis, I accepted that we might each need more of a personal commitment to democracy than just a willingness to vote and hope for the best.

But the most galvanizing January 6 meditation yet came in a New York Times op-ed by election-law expert Rick Hasen. This sober analyst of developments threatening the right to vote and subverting impartial election administration is clearly convinced that one of our two major political parties has sufficiently abandoned the causes he holds dear that they have gained a veto power over any remedial action in Washington and many crucial states. This leaves Democrats and the remaining responsible Republicans with few options going forward, particularly since the power they do hold in Washington and in the states may soon be significantly diminished.

Paradoxically, that means Democrats cannot afford to spurn any Republican efforts to help them prevent a 2024 coup. Hasen writes:

“A coalition with the minority of Republicans willing to stand up for the rule of law is the best way to try to erect barriers to a stolen election in 2024, even if those Republicans do not stand with Democrats on voting rights or other issues. Remember it took Republican election officials, elected officials, and judges to stand up against an attempted coup in 2020.”

It’s understandable that Democrats distrust the feelers some Republicans are putting out for cooperation on legislation to fix the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the hazy and confusing law that Team Trump tried to exploit to overturn Biden’s victory with the help of a mob. If the offer comes with the precondition of Democratic abandonment of voting-rights legislation, it may rightly be rejected. But at some point, accepting just enough Senate Republican help to close off one avenue to a stolen 2024 presidential election may be vital for Democrats, unfair is it may seem from a partisan point of view.

A more vexing problem, however, is what happens if the stolen election attempt occurs not in Washington but in the states. That’s where Trump is busily working to install loyalists in key election offices and where he may expect better and quicker complicity from Republican state legislators who could be in a position to control the certification of presidential electors. Hasen offers a specific scenario:

“What happens if a Democratic presidential candidate wins in, say, Wisconsin in 2024, according to a fair count of the vote, but the Wisconsin legislature stands ready to send in an alternative slate of electors for Mr. Trump or another Republican based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud or other irregularities?”

In that contingency, he argues, “widespread public protests made up of people of good faith from across the political spectrum” may be the only effective recourse. Indeed, says Hasen: “If the officially announced vote totals do not reflect the results of a fair election process, that should lead to nationwide peaceful protests and even general strikes.”

That last resort of labor protests, the general strike (a work stoppage not confined to any one industry or segment of the population), is not something that has ever been successfully deployed as a political weapon in the United States. The potential need to attempt one — even if it’s confined to a single locale like a state capital where a legislature is engaged in subverting a democratic election result — shows the gravity of the situation we may face in 2024 based not on paranoid fears but on what we witnessed this time last year and what we can see happening in MAGA-land right now.


Stopping a 2024 Electoral Coup Is Essential, But May Not Be Easy

I have been very involved in warning Democrats about the strong possibility of another attempted Trump election coup In 2024, and wrote up my latest advice on the subject at New York:

As someone who spent months before the 2020 election warning that Trump was planning an election coup, then had to watch and write about his efforts that were finally foiled on January 6, 2021, I felt the anniversary of that day brought back in sharp relief bad memories that had never really faded. I realized that the fire we avoided last time might in future require more than a beefed-up Capitol police corps or resolute judges or a smattering of responsible Republicans. Like my colleague Errol Louis, I accepted that we might each need more of a personal commitment to democracy than just a willingness to vote and hope for the best.

But the most galvanizing January 6 meditation yet came in a New York Times op-ed by election-law expert Rick Hasen. This sober analyst of developments threatening the right to vote and subverting impartial election administration is clearly convinced that one of our two major political parties has sufficiently abandoned the causes he holds dear that they have gained a veto power over any remedial action in Washington and many crucial states. This leaves Democrats and the remaining responsible Republicans with few options going forward, particularly since the power they do hold in Washington and in the states may soon be significantly diminished.

Paradoxically, that means Democrats cannot afford to spurn any Republican efforts to help them prevent a 2024 coup. Hasen writes:

“A coalition with the minority of Republicans willing to stand up for the rule of law is the best way to try to erect barriers to a stolen election in 2024, even if those Republicans do not stand with Democrats on voting rights or other issues. Remember it took Republican election officials, elected officials, and judges to stand up against an attempted coup in 2020.”

It’s understandable that Democrats distrust the feelers some Republicans are putting out for cooperation on legislation to fix the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the hazy and confusing law that Team Trump tried to exploit to overturn Biden’s victory with the help of a mob. If the offer comes with the precondition of Democratic abandonment of voting-rights legislation, it may rightly be rejected. But at some point, accepting just enough Senate Republican help to close off one avenue to a stolen 2024 presidential election may be vital for Democrats, unfair is it may seem from a partisan point of view.

A more vexing problem, however, is what happens if the stolen election attempt occurs not in Washington but in the states. That’s where Trump is busily working to install loyalists in key election offices and where he may expect better and quicker complicity from Republican state legislators who could be in a position to control the certification of presidential electors. Hasen offers a specific scenario:

“What happens if a Democratic presidential candidate wins in, say, Wisconsin in 2024, according to a fair count of the vote, but the Wisconsin legislature stands ready to send in an alternative slate of electors for Mr. Trump or another Republican based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud or other irregularities?”

In that contingency, he argues, “widespread public protests made up of people of good faith from across the political spectrum” may be the only effective recourse. Indeed, says Hasen: “If the officially announced vote totals do not reflect the results of a fair election process, that should lead to nationwide peaceful protests and even general strikes.”

That last resort of labor protests, the general strike (a work stoppage not confined to any one industry or segment of the population), is not something that has ever been successfully deployed as a political weapon in the United States. The potential need to attempt one — even if it’s confined to a single locale like a state capital where a legislature is engaged in subverting a democratic election result — shows the gravity of the situation we may face in 2024 based not on paranoid fears but on what we witnessed this time last year and what we can see happening in MAGA-land right now.

 


January 7: Pelosi’s Successor Will Have New and Different Challenges

One of the expected developments of 2022 caught my eye, and I wrote about it at New York:

Assuming Nancy Pelosi keeps her earlier pledge to step down as Democratic House leader after the 2022 midterms, there will be a jockeying for party-leadership positions that already has aficionados of the “Democrats in Disarray” meme excited. The Washington Post is positively salivating:

“House Democrats are bracing for a turnover in leadership next year that would amount to a seismic event for the party — one that could empower a new, diverse generation of members while also exacerbating tensions over the direction of the caucus and the policies it should pursue.”

To be fair, it isn’t just the usual progressives-versus-moderates battle fueling this “seismic event”; there’s also generational change. Word is that Pelosi may be heading to the exits with company from her other octogenarian leadership colleagues, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn, and even if they don’t retire from the leadership or from Congress, they could be bypassed by a Democratic Caucus wanting some fresh blood. The front-runner to succeed Pelosi is the fourth-leading member of the leadership, Brooklyn’s Hakeem Jeffries, a mere lad, at the age of 51, who would represent both continuity and change.

As the change of command grows nigh, we will hear a lot from the chattering classes about Jeffries’s ties to House Democratic moderates and how he can mend fences with progressives, including his Gotham frenemy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the bigger issue for House Democrats in and out of leadership is the context in which they will serve after the midterms, when many of today’s much-discussed factional conflicts could change or even fade. Let’s look at a few likely upcoming scenarios:

Life in the minority

The enormous pressure Pelosi dealt with every day last year as she discharged the responsibility of shepherding Joe Biden’s agenda through the House may not be a problem for her 2023 successor. Odds are very high (per both history and such leading indicators as Biden’s job-approval ratings) that the party controlling the White House will lose House seats in the midterms. This will likely flip control of the House given Democrats’ very narrow margin of control along with other discouraging factors like retirements and redistricting. If so, then Jeffries (assuming he is the Pelosi successor) won’t have to worry about how to wield the Speaker’s gavel, and Democratic divisions will probably fade in significance (just as the House Freedom Caucus lost its leverage among Republicans when they lost the chamber in 2018, becoming simply a noisy auxiliary to the MAGA movement).

Given the gulf between the two parties and the lack of interest Republicans have in bipartisanship these days, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep moderates and progressives in harness in opposing Republican-sponsored legislation. They will lose the headaches associated with the need to coordinate and reconcile legislation with Senate Democrats. It really won’t matter much if Republicans enjoy a veto via control of the House (and the GOP could, of course, control the upper chamber as well if 2022 trends go south).

Life without a trifecta

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Democrats lose the House in 2022 but regain it in 2024 along with a Biden reelection victory, an entirely plausible scenario. Trouble is, the 2024 Senate landscape is bad for the Donkey Party, so even if Democrats reflip the House and maintain the presidency, they could easily fall short of what they’d need to reconstruct a trifecta. If so, House Democrats will be in the position of having to regularly advance the president’s legislative initiatives with little or no hope that they will actually become law.

This sort of legislating without consequences has its own challenges but shouldn’t strain party unity all that much and is certainly easier than preconferencing every bill with the other chamber.

Life without an iron hand

Pelosi is regarded as one of recent history’s most effective Speakers and congressional party leaders in part because of her exceptional legislative and vote-counting skills. But her effectiveness is also owed a lot to the respect and — yes — fear she was able to rely on in dealing with fractious members of her caucus. This is a form of political capital it takes time to build, and no Pelosi successor will have it from the get-go. Indeed, if Jeffries or any rival for the House leadership tries to play badass prematurely, it could backfire. There won’t be an iron hand at the controls for a good while.

Life with a broad party coalition

One thing that won’t soon change for House Democratic leaders is the simple fact that their party remains a broad coalition as compared to the more ideologically rigid GOP (reflecting a more ideologically rigid activist base in the electorate). In historic terms, of course, the House Democratic Caucus is far more united than it has been, well, maybe ever (certainly more than it was when a significant number of self-described conservatives were around). But there are still factions and individual members willing to take advantage of whatever leverage they can muster without much fear of primary challenges or grassroots fury.

Congressional Democrats in both chambers also typically experience more tensions over the influence of moneyed interests than do Republicans. At some point, Democrats may need to unilaterally implement long-stalled initiatives aimed at reducing the power of lobbyists and the shadowy forces they represent, who have all along constituted a faction as powerful as moderates or progressives.

But in any event, the distinctive problems and opportunities that House Democrats are experiencing in the final two years of the Pelosi era will simply not be extended beyond 2022. However new or old, and left or center, the party’s future leadership turns out to be, the outlook for House Democrats will change significantly from cycle to cycle. It would be nice if House-watchers also adjust accordingly.


Pelosi’s Successor Will Have New and Different Challenges

One of the more important expected developments of 2022 caught my eye, and I wrote about it at New York:

Assuming Nancy Pelosi keeps her earlier pledge to step down as Democratic House leader after the 2022 midterms, there will be a jockeying for party-leadership positions that already has aficionados of the “Democrats in Disarray” meme excited. The Washington Post is positively salivating:

“House Democrats are bracing for a turnover in leadership next year that would amount to a seismic event for the party — one that could empower a new, diverse generation of members while also exacerbating tensions over the direction of the caucus and the policies it should pursue.”

To be fair, it isn’t just the usual progressives-versus-moderates battle fueling this “seismic event”; there’s also generational change. Word is that Pelosi may be heading to the exits with company from her other octogenarian leadership colleagues, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn, and even if they don’t retire from the leadership or from Congress, they could be bypassed by a Democratic Caucus wanting some fresh blood. The front-runner to succeed Pelosi is the fourth-leading member of the leadership, Brooklyn’s Hakeem Jeffries, a mere lad, at the age of 51, who would represent both continuity and change.

As the change of command grows nigh, we will hear a lot from the chattering classes about Jeffries’s ties to House Democratic moderates and how he can mend fences with progressives, including his Gotham frenemy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the bigger issue for House Democrats in and out of leadership is the context in which they will serve after the midterms, when many of today’s much-discussed factional conflicts could change or even fade. Let’s look at a few likely upcoming scenarios:

Life in the minority

The enormous pressure Pelosi dealt with every day last year as she discharged the responsibility of shepherding Joe Biden’s agenda through the House may not be a problem for her 2023 successor. Odds are very high (per both history and such leading indicators as Biden’s job-approval ratings) that the party controlling the White House will lose House seats in the midterms. This will likely flip control of the House given Democrats’ very narrow margin of control along with other discouraging factors like retirements and redistricting. If so, then Jeffries (assuming he is the Pelosi successor) won’t have to worry about how to wield the Speaker’s gavel, and Democratic divisions will probably fade in significance (just as the House Freedom Caucus lost its leverage among Republicans when they lost the chamber in 2018, becoming simply a noisy auxiliary to the MAGA movement).

Given the gulf between the two parties and the lack of interest Republicans have in bipartisanship these days, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep moderates and progressives in harness in opposing Republican-sponsored legislation. They will lose the headaches associated with the need to coordinate and reconcile legislation with Senate Democrats. It really won’t matter much if Republicans enjoy a veto via control of the House (and the GOP could, of course, control the upper chamber as well if 2022 trends go south).

Life without a trifecta

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Democrats lose the House in 2022 but regain it in 2024 along with a Biden reelection victory, an entirely plausible scenario. Trouble is, the 2024 Senate landscape is bad for the Donkey Party, so even if Democrats reflip the House and maintain the presidency, they could easily fall short of what they’d need to reconstruct a trifecta. If so, House Democrats will be in the position of having to regularly advance the president’s legislative initiatives with little or no hope that they will actually become law.

This sort of legislating without consequences has its own challenges but shouldn’t strain party unity all that much and is certainly easier than preconferencing every bill with the other chamber.

Life without an iron hand

Pelosi is regarded as one of recent history’s most effective Speakers and congressional party leaders in part because of her exceptional legislative and vote-counting skills. But her effectiveness is also owed a lot to the respect and — yes — fear she was able to rely on in dealing with fractious members of her caucus. This is a form of political capital it takes time to build, and no Pelosi successor will have it from the get-go. Indeed, if Jeffries or any rival for the House leadership tries to play badass prematurely, it could backfire. There won’t be an iron hand at the controls for a good while.

Life with a broad party coalition

One thing that won’t soon change for House Democratic leaders is the simple fact that their party remains a broad coalition as compared to the more ideologically rigid GOP (reflecting a more ideologically rigid activist base in the electorate). In historic terms, of course, the House Democratic Caucus is far more united than it has been, well, maybe ever (certainly more than it was when a significant number of self-described conservatives were around). But there are still factions and individual members willing to take advantage of whatever leverage they can muster without much fear of primary challenges or grassroots fury.

Congressional Democrats in both chambers also typically experience more tensions over the influence of moneyed interests than do Republicans. At some point, Democrats may need to unilaterally implement long-stalled initiatives aimed at reducing the power of lobbyists and the shadowy forces they represent, who have all along constituted a faction as powerful as moderates or progressives.

But in any event, the distinctive problems and opportunities that House Democrats are experiencing in the final two years of the Pelosi era will simply not be extended beyond 2022. However new or old, and left or center, the party’s future leadership turns out to be, the outlook for House Democrats will change significantly from cycle to cycle. It would be nice if House-watchers also adjust accordingly.


January 5: 2021: For Democrats, Echoes of 2009

When looking back over the last year, I noticed some familiar data points, and wrote about them at New York:

There was a year not very long ago when Democrats spent January not only feeling their oats but believing they had turned a corner in the direction of a sustainable and perhaps even transformative majority. But that year ended in doldrums, with the party’s situation rapidly growing worse. It was 2009, though the description certainly applies to 2021 as well. During Barack Obama’s first year in office, his party experienced a fall from grace that felt a lot like the year that just ended (minus the pandemic and the persistent presence of former president Donald Trump, of course).

What happens in the coming year will soon determine whether we’re really moving in a predictable political cycle, but for now, let’s consider some of the similarities between 2009 and 2021 and what they might portend:

The 2008 elections produced a huge Democratic win

The sense of deliverance that accompanied the 2020 election results for most Democrats was an echo of how they felt 12 years earlier. I was in Washington on Election Night and will never forget walking out of the restaurant where I had heard the Obama victory announced into what looked like a citywide street party. Part of that euphoria, of course, stemmed from the unlikely election of the first Black president. But it was a partisan Democratic event as well: 2008 produced the first governing trifecta (control of the White House and both congressional chambers) since the Republican landslide of 1994, with a particularly impressive Senate majority of 59, soon to become 60 (a supermajority that could in theory override any filibuster) when Republican Arlen Specter flipped.

The Obama-Biden win was by a comfortably large margin (of more than 7 percent in the popular vote and 192 in the electoral one) after photo finishes in 2000 and 2004. Obama, for all his later demonization by Republicans, won 20 percent of all self-identified conservatives and 60 percent of moderates. It felt, at the time, like an era of gridlock might have come to an end — not quite as dramatic as the ejection of Donald Trump from the White House in 2020 and the Democrats’ picking up two Senate seats in Georgia, but a big deal nonetheless. Or so it seemed initially.

Democrats entered 2009 with an ambitious agenda and hopes of bipartisan traction

While there was no pandemic-induced economic collapse in 2009, there was an even stronger sense of economic malaise in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 and the intensification of what had already become known as the Great Recession (which, according to economic indicators, ended in June 2009). The new Obama administration came into office with an ambitious agenda that included both short-term economic relief and stimulus, and its much-discussed campaign platform planks including health-care reform and an attack on climate change. Obama had talked a lot about bipartisanship during his short career in the Senate and then his run for the presidency, so he made an effort to secure Republican input and buy-in for all of his legislative agenda but had very little success (thanks to a GOP strategy of total obstruction designed by Mitch McConnell, who is running the same plays today).

Like Biden’s Democrats in 2021, Obama’s in 2009 compiled a record of partial success combined with frustration and failure. A stimulus package wound up smaller and less effective than originally planned thanks to concessions needed to bring a few Republicans onboard. Senate Democratic moderates vetoed key provisions of the president’s signature health-care initiative, including a “public option” for insurance in areas when private insurance was unavailable or unaffordable and a Medicare “buy-in” program for near-seniors. The entire Affordable Care Act legislation nearly crashed and burned when Republicans won an upset special Senate election in Massachusetts at the beginning of 2010; Democrats resorted to the budget-reconciliation process to avoid a fatal filibuster. Greenhouse-gas-emissions legislation got through the House but never gained traction in the Senate.

Hostility to Obama rapidly mounted as the anti-government tea-party movement spread, launched by furious conservatives who claimed that Democrats were socialistically redistributing wealth to undeserving minorities — claims similar to the those lobbed at Biden’s Build Back Better agenda these days. There was no precise equivalent to “Let’s Go, Brandon,” in part because Obama haters saw little need for euphemism.

Democrats were facing a 2010 midterm fiasco

The first midterm elections after the Democratic triumph of 2008 were a disaster for the Donkey Party. Republicans made net gains of 63 House seats (winning control of the chamber), six Senate seats, six governorships, and 19 state legislative chambers. The enormousness of the state victories for Republicans was magnified by the timing, with decennial congressional and state legislative redistricting immediately on tap in 2011. While midterm House losses for the party controlling the White House are normal, the top-to-bottom wipeout of 2010 was not. A major factor in the results was a big drop-off in Democratic turnout, some of it probably reflecting the higher-than-normal youth-and-minority turnout when Obama was on the ballot in 2008.

Republicans are currently expected to make solid gains in 2022, including a reconquest of the House. However, the landscape is not really ripe for a 2010-style landslide. For one thing, polarization has limited wins and losses alike for both parties. For another, the disappointing 2020 performance by House Democrats has made them less exposed to losses in marginal districts. And for still another thing, the Senate landscape for Democrats in 2022 is significantly better than it was in 2010.

Big state legislative losses for Democrats in 2022 are also far less likely; their party controlled 27 state legislatures going into 2010 and shared power in eight others. Now Republicans control 30 legislatures and share power in another. Even if Democratic losses do occur, they will be less consequential, since redistricting will have been completed by the fall of 2022.

Obama’s future looked iffy (but he bounced back)

In a period when today’s partisan polarization was still under construction, Obama posted a 67 percent job approval rating (per Gallup) at the beginning of his presidency; his job approval had dropped into the 40s by the end of 2009, and remained there throughout 2010. After Democrats were trounced in the 2010 midterms, the odds of a second term for Obama looked pretty slim

But just like Bill Clinton after the previous Democratic midterm disaster of 1994, Obama executed a slow but steady comeback. His job-approval rating was even lower in 2011 than in the previous year, but it gradually rose, reaching 50 percent just before the 2012 elections. And even though Republican Mitt Romney improved on McCain’s performance, he ultimately lost the popular vote by 3.9 percent — a bit less than Donald Trump’s 4.4 percent popular-vote loss in 2020.

We are obviously a long way from the 2024 elections and have no way of knowing if Biden — whose approval rating has taken a dive — can reprise Obama’s comeback. One variable, of course, is whether Trump will again be his opponent. Only three major-party presidential losers have won their party’s nomination in the next election, and only one, Grover Cleveland, went on to retake the White House. But Cleveland’s party had won one of the biggest midterm landslides ever two years before his final presidential victory. So Republicans may have an uphill climb to recover the White House even if they do well in next year’s midterms, particularly if they insist on renominating the most divisive president ever.

 


2021: For Democrats, Echoes of 2009

When looking back over the last year, I noticed some familiar data points, and wrote about them at New York:

There was a year not very long ago when Democrats spent January not only feeling their oats but believing they had turned a corner in the direction of a sustainable and perhaps even transformative majority. But that year ended in doldrums, with the party’s situation rapidly growing worse. It was 2009, though the description certainly applies to 2021 as well. During Barack Obama’s first year in office, his party experienced a fall from grace that felt a lot like the year that just ended (minus the pandemic and the persistent presence of former president Donald Trump, of course).

What happens in the coming year will soon determine whether we’re really moving in a predictable political cycle, but for now, let’s consider some of the similarities between 2009 and 2021 and what they might portend:

The 2008 elections produced a huge Democratic win

The sense of deliverance that accompanied the 2020 election results for most Democrats was an echo of how they felt 12 years earlier. I was in Washington on Election Night and will never forget walking out of the restaurant where I had heard the Obama victory announced into what looked like a citywide street party. Part of that euphoria, of course, stemmed from the unlikely election of the first Black president. But it was a partisan Democratic event as well: 2008 produced the first governing trifecta (control of the White House and both congressional chambers) since the Republican landslide of 1994, with a particularly impressive Senate majority of 59, soon to become 60 (a supermajority that could in theory override any filibuster) when Republican Arlen Specter flipped.

The Obama-Biden win was by a comfortably large margin (of more than 7 percent in the popular vote and 192 in the electoral one) after photo finishes in 2000 and 2004. Obama, for all his later demonization by Republicans, won 20 percent of all self-identified conservatives and 60 percent of moderates. It felt, at the time, like an era of gridlock might have come to an end — not quite as dramatic as the ejection of Donald Trump from the White House in 2020 and the Democrats’ picking up two Senate seats in Georgia, but a big deal nonetheless. Or so it seemed initially.

Democrats entered 2009 with an ambitious agenda and hopes of bipartisan traction

While there was no pandemic-induced economic collapse in 2009, there was an even stronger sense of economic malaise in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 and the intensification of what had already become known as the Great Recession (which, according to economic indicators, ended in June 2009). The new Obama administration came into office with an ambitious agenda that included both short-term economic relief and stimulus, and its much-discussed campaign platform planks including health-care reform and an attack on climate change. Obama had talked a lot about bipartisanship during his short career in the Senate and then his run for the presidency, so he made an effort to secure Republican input and buy-in for all of his legislative agenda but had very little success (thanks to a GOP strategy of total obstruction designed by Mitch McConnell, who is running the same plays today).

Like Biden’s Democrats in 2021, Obama’s in 2009 compiled a record of partial success combined with frustration and failure. A stimulus package wound up smaller and less effective than originally planned thanks to concessions needed to bring a few Republicans onboard. Senate Democratic moderates vetoed key provisions of the president’s signature health-care initiative, including a “public option” for insurance in areas when private insurance was unavailable or unaffordable and a Medicare “buy-in” program for near-seniors. The entire Affordable Care Act legislation nearly crashed and burned when Republicans won an upset special Senate election in Massachusetts at the beginning of 2010; Democrats resorted to the budget-reconciliation process to avoid a fatal filibuster. Greenhouse-gas-emissions legislation got through the House but never gained traction in the Senate.

Hostility to Obama rapidly mounted as the anti-government tea-party movement spread, launched by furious conservatives who claimed that Democrats were socialistically redistributing wealth to undeserving minorities — claims similar to the those lobbed at Biden’s Build Back Better agenda these days. There was no precise equivalent to “Let’s Go, Brandon,” in part because Obama haters saw little need for euphemism.

Democrats were facing a 2010 midterm fiasco

The first midterm elections after the Democratic triumph of 2008 were a disaster for the Donkey Party. Republicans made net gains of 63 House seats (winning control of the chamber), six Senate seats, six governorships, and 19 state legislative chambers. The enormousness of the state victories for Republicans was magnified by the timing, with decennial congressional and state legislative redistricting immediately on tap in 2011. While midterm House losses for the party controlling the White House are normal, the top-to-bottom wipeout of 2010 was not. A major factor in the results was a big drop-off in Democratic turnout, some of it probably reflecting the higher-than-normal youth-and-minority turnout when Obama was on the ballot in 2008.

Republicans are currently expected to make solid gains in 2022, including a reconquest of the House. However, the landscape is not really ripe for a 2010-style landslide. For one thing, polarization has limited wins and losses alike for both parties. For another, the disappointing 2020 performance by House Democrats has made them less exposed to losses in marginal districts. And for still another thing, the Senate landscape for Democrats in 2022 is significantly better than it was in 2010.

Big state legislative losses for Democrats in 2022 are also far less likely; their party controlled 27 state legislatures going into 2010 and shared power in eight others. Now Republicans control 30 legislatures and share power in another. Even if Democratic losses do occur, they will be less consequential, since redistricting will have been completed by the fall of 2022.

Obama’s future looked iffy (but he bounced back)

In a period when today’s partisan polarization was still under construction, Obama posted a 67 percent job approval rating (per Gallup) at the beginning of his presidency; his job approval had dropped into the 40s by the end of 2009, and remained there throughout 2010. After Democrats were trounced in the 2010 midterms, the odds of a second term for Obama looked pretty slim

But just like Bill Clinton after the previous Democratic midterm disaster of 1994, Obama executed a slow but steady comeback. His job-approval rating was even lower in 2011 than in the previous year, but it gradually rose, reaching 50 percent just before the 2012 elections. And even though Republican Mitt Romney improved on McCain’s performance, he ultimately lost the popular vote by 3.9 percent — a bit less than Donald Trump’s 4.4 percent popular-vote loss in 2020.

We are obviously a long way from the 2024 elections and have no way of knowing if Biden — whose approval rating has taken a dive — can reprise Obama’s comeback. One variable, of course, is whether Trump will again be his opponent. Only three major-party presidential losers have won their party’s nomination in the next election, and only one, Grover Cleveland, went on to retake the White House. But Cleveland’s party had won one of the biggest midterm landslides ever two years before his final presidential victory. So Republicans may have an uphill climb to recover the White House even if they do well in next year’s midterms, particularly if they insist on renominating the most divisive president ever.