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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

December 23: The Iowa-New Hampshire Duopoly May Survive After All

I am an inveterate student of the Iowa Caucuses, so news this week about the 2024 presidential nominating processes fascinated me, as I explained at New York:

On February 4, 2020, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses suffered a meltdown when results could not be tabulated and reported on Caucus Night. This perfect storm of dysfunction fed a lot of preexisting discontent about the privileged position of the not-terribly-diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Democratic presidential-nominating process. It looked like a change in the process, or at least a toppling of Iowa, was inevitable.

As late as this past autumn, that was still the prevailing mood in the Democratic Party, as the Washington Post reported:

“President Biden is not a big fan. Former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez is openly opposed. And elsewhere in the Democratic inner sanctum, disdain for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus has been rising for years.

“Now the day of reckoning for Iowa Democrats is fast approaching, as the national party starts to create a new calendar for the 2024 presidential nomination that could remove Iowa from its privileged position for the first time since 1972, when candidates started flocking to the state for an early jump on the race to the White House.”

But now, as a disappointing year for Democrats comes to an end, Politico explains that the impetus for changing the nominating process has ground to a near halt:

“Democrats, including in the White House, suddenly have more pressing problems. And as party leaders gathered in recent days for year-end meetings here, interest in what was once a red-hot effort to overhaul the order of the early nominating states had all but vanished.

“Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic National Committee members, state party chairs and strategists laid bare widespread desire to avoid a divisive, intraparty dispute in 2022 — and skepticism that any change enacted after the midterm elections could be done in time for the next presidential campaign.”

Even if DNC members were strongly in favor of changing the nominating process, there are a lot of obstacles to wholesale reforms. For one thing, the national parties do not control what individual states decide to do; there isn’t a “system” in place but rather an interlocking set of decisions by state parties and legislatures. The most common form of nominating contest is a state-funded primary, which typically requires bipartisan cooperation in state legislatures and usually involves a common date for both parties (anything else would be deemed an inefficient waste of tax dollars).

If Democratic Iowa critics had their way, the state would replace the caucuses with a primary that would be held later in the year. But the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature is perfectly happy with the status quo, and, in fact, there is no evident interest among Republicans anywhere (including the party’s 2024 front-runner, Donald Trump) in a “reformed” nominating process. This is evidenced by the fact that Iowa’s GOP chair has been designated to lead the national-party committee that sets the calendar. And if Iowa did try to stay first but shift to a primary, New Hampshire has a state law that empowers and requires the secretary of state to move the Granite State’s election date back perpetually to head off any rivals for the first primary. Nevada has already bid for first place (it is currently third) in the process by junking its caucuses for a primary and scheduling it ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. But New Hampshire will fight for its primacy, and it’s unclear if the national party really wants to adjudicate fights between the states.

It’s possible that residual anger at Iowa among Democrats over its non-diversity or its 2020 meltdown could lead to a simple national-party veto on Iowa going first. Short of creating a state-funded primary, Iowa Republican legislators would have no leverage over that sort of decision. The national party could also try to force Iowa Democrats to abandon caucuses, though in the absence of legislative action, the only option would be a party-funded so-called firehouse primary, so named because financial considerations usually mean that polling places would be limited to inexpensive public facilities like firehouses.

Iowa Democrats could also take some of the heat off themselves by simplifying the caucus process to make a recurrence of the 2020 fiasco far less likely. Iowa Republicans, after all, just show up, hear a few announcements, eat some cookies, and vote for their favorite presidential candidate before going home. Moving to that sort of process instead of the complex system of candidate thresholds and affinity groups and “votes” measured in multiple ways might boost participation while making the results much easier to tabulate and report.

In the end, the decision to stand pat or try to change the system may come down to how interested Joe Biden is in changing the calendar or the procedures by which particular states elect national-convention delegates. Biden is famously not invested in the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly; he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire in 2020 and then began his comeback with second place in Nevada and a big landslide win in South Carolina. Some of his closest party allies are those who think more diverse states should weigh in first.

Biden, however, obviously has other fish to fry and doesn’t need any additional intraparty drama at present. If he runs again in 2024, he will almost certainly win the nomination no matter which state goes first, second, third, or 35th.


The Iowa-New Hampshire Duopoly May Survive After All

I am an inveterate student of the Iowa Caucuses, so news this week about the 2024 presidential nominating processes fascinated me, as I explained at New York:

On February 4, 2020, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses suffered a meltdown when results could not be tabulated and reported on Caucus Night. This perfect storm of dysfunction fed a lot of preexisting discontent about the privileged position of the not-terribly-diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Democratic presidential-nominating process. It looked like a change in the process, or at least a toppling of Iowa, was inevitable.

As late as this past autumn, that was still the prevailing mood in the Democratic Party, as the Washington Post reported:

“President Biden is not a big fan. Former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez is openly opposed. And elsewhere in the Democratic inner sanctum, disdain for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus has been rising for years.

“Now the day of reckoning for Iowa Democrats is fast approaching, as the national party starts to create a new calendar for the 2024 presidential nomination that could remove Iowa from its privileged position for the first time since 1972, when candidates started flocking to the state for an early jump on the race to the White House.”

But now, as a disappointing year for Democrats comes to an end, Politico explains that the impetus for changing the nominating process has ground to a near halt:

“Democrats, including in the White House, suddenly have more pressing problems. And as party leaders gathered in recent days for year-end meetings here, interest in what was once a red-hot effort to overhaul the order of the early nominating states had all but vanished.

“Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic National Committee members, state party chairs and strategists laid bare widespread desire to avoid a divisive, intraparty dispute in 2022 — and skepticism that any change enacted after the midterm elections could be done in time for the next presidential campaign.”

Even if DNC members were strongly in favor of changing the nominating process, there are a lot of obstacles to wholesale reforms. For one thing, the national parties do not control what individual states decide to do; there isn’t a “system” in place but rather an interlocking set of decisions by state parties and legislatures. The most common form of nominating contest is a state-funded primary, which typically requires bipartisan cooperation in state legislatures and usually involves a common date for both parties (anything else would be deemed an inefficient waste of tax dollars).

If Democratic Iowa critics had their way, the state would replace the caucuses with a primary that would be held later in the year. But the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature is perfectly happy with the status quo, and, in fact, there is no evident interest among Republicans anywhere (including the party’s 2024 front-runner, Donald Trump) in a “reformed” nominating process. This is evidenced by the fact that Iowa’s GOP chair has been designated to lead the national-party committee that sets the calendar. And if Iowa did try to stay first but shift to a primary, New Hampshire has a state law that empowers and requires the secretary of state to move the Granite State’s election date back perpetually to head off any rivals for the first primary. Nevada has already bid for first place (it is currently third) in the process by junking its caucuses for a primary and scheduling it ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. But New Hampshire will fight for its primacy, and it’s unclear if the national party really wants to adjudicate fights between the states.

It’s possible that residual anger at Iowa among Democrats over its non-diversity or its 2020 meltdown could lead to a simple national-party veto on Iowa going first. Short of creating a state-funded primary, Iowa Republican legislators would have no leverage over that sort of decision. The national party could also try to force Iowa Democrats to abandon caucuses, though in the absence of legislative action, the only option would be a party-funded so-called firehouse primary, so named because financial considerations usually mean that polling places would be limited to inexpensive public facilities like firehouses.

Iowa Democrats could also take some of the heat off themselves by simplifying the caucus process to make a recurrence of the 2020 fiasco far less likely. Iowa Republicans, after all, just show up, hear a few announcements, eat some cookies, and vote for their favorite presidential candidate before going home. Moving to that sort of process instead of the complex system of candidate thresholds and affinity groups and “votes” measured in multiple ways might boost participation while making the results much easier to tabulate and report.

In the end, the decision to stand pat or try to change the system may come down to how interested Joe Biden is in changing the calendar or the procedures by which particular states elect national-convention delegates. Biden is famously not invested in the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly; he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire in 2020 and then began his comeback with second place in Nevada and a big landslide win in South Carolina. Some of his closest party allies are those who think more diverse states should weigh in first.

Biden, however, obviously has other fish to fry and doesn’t need any additional intraparty drama at present. If he runs again in 2024, he will almost certainly win the nomination no matter which state goes first, second, third, or 35th.


December 19: Freedom Caucus Invades the States

An alarming bit of news you might have missed is the subject of a piece I wrote this last week at New York:

Been wondering what former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has been up to when he wasn’t dodging subpoenas and questions from the House Select Committee to Investigate January 6? Turns out he’s spending some time helping his old friends in the House Freedom Caucus to spread their noxious activities from Washington to state capitals around the country, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

“Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is making headlines in Washington today, but he’s also looking to make a mark on state legislatures, including Georgia’s, with the launch of the State Freedom Caucus Network.

“The network will be an extension of the House Freedom Caucus, the group of conservative House members that Meadows once chaired, which has successfully moved the House GOP agenda to the right since it was founded in 2015.

“The network will be supported by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a Washington-based non-profit founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, where Meadows has been a senior partner since leaving the White House earlier this year.

“Also on the CPI staff with Meadows is Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican attorney who helped Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.”

The State Freedom Caucus Network will start initially with affiliates in 22 states from Connecticut to Alaska, with representatives attending a gala kickoff dinner in Atlanta. Its stated purpose is to organize “principled, America-First conservatives” to focus on “election integrity, critical race theory, school choice, vaccine mandates, and police reform,” issues where “our nation’s most important battles are taking place in state legislatures.” An unstated purpose is to encourage such pain-in-the-ass tactics as legislative hostage-taking, disruption of routine governing practices, and shakedowns of the “Republican establishment,” while serving as outposts for Trump’s efforts to get back to the White House by book or by crook.

This new organization, which will likely spread to other states soon, will help ensure that Republican state elected officials can’t get away with simply tugging the forelock to Trump and then getting along with their regular business back home. MAGA agitation is a permanent revolution with foot soldiers wherever cultural resentment and political opportunism meet.


Freedom Caucus Invades the States

An alarming bit of news you might have missed is the subject of a piece I wrote this last week at New York:

Been wondering what former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has been up to when he wasn’t dodging subpoenas and questions from the House Select Committee to Investigate January 6? Turns out he’s spending some time helping his old friends in the House Freedom Caucus to spread their noxious activities from Washington to state capitals around the country, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

“Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is making headlines in Washington today, but he’s also looking to make a mark on state legislatures, including Georgia’s, with the launch of the State Freedom Caucus Network.

“The network will be an extension of the House Freedom Caucus, the group of conservative House members that Meadows once chaired, which has successfully moved the House GOP agenda to the right since it was founded in 2015.

“The network will be supported by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a Washington-based non-profit founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, where Meadows has been a senior partner since leaving the White House earlier this year.

“Also on the CPI staff with Meadows is Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican attorney who helped Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.”

The State Freedom Caucus Network will start initially with affiliates in 22 states from Connecticut to Alaska, with representatives attending a gala kickoff dinner in Atlanta. Its stated purpose is to organize “principled, America-First conservatives” to focus on “election integrity, critical race theory, school choice, vaccine mandates, and police reform,” issues where “our nation’s most important battles are taking place in state legislatures.” An unstated purpose is to encourage such pain-in-the-ass tactics as legislative hostage-taking, disruption of routine governing practices, and shakedowns of the “Republican establishment,” while serving as outposts for Trump’s efforts to get back to the White House by book or by crook.

This new organization, which will likely spread to other states soon, will help ensure that Republican state elected officials can’t get away with simply tugging the forelock to Trump and then getting along with their regular business back home. MAGA agitation is a permanent revolution with foot soldiers wherever cultural resentment and political opportunism meet.


December 2: No, Biden Doesn’t Need a “Sister Souljah Moment”

As a old guy and a history buff, this topic attracted me like catnip, and I addressed it at New York:

Seth Masket did something important and admirable at Politico this week: He examined the historical premise for some advice being offered to President Biden by many voices and found it to be ill-founded:

“Joe Biden needs a ‘Sister Souljah Moment.’ At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.”

The allusion is to a speech famously made by Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992 (when he had already nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination) to a conference of the Jesse Jackson–chaired Rainbow Coalition criticizing the organization for holding a panel the previous day that included Sister Souljah. The rapper had recently made remarks related to the L.A. riots that some interpreted as promoting the killing of white people (a claim she denied).

Jackson (who had expressed pride in Souljah’s appearance at his conference) was sitting on the stage near Clinton as he spoke and understandably felt blindsided and exploited by what Clinton said. So it has gone down in legend as a “moment” when a Democratic politician pandered to swing voters (and perhaps to white racists) by conspicuously separating himself from Black political activists. And that, as Masket notes, is what some commentators want Biden to do to stem the political bleeding over controversies surrounding racial justice, including Black Lives Matter protests, the “defund the police” movement, and the alleged influence of critical race theory in public-school classrooms.

The principal trouble with the claim Biden can do wonders via a little measured race-baiting, Masket explains, is that it didn’t do Clinton much good in 1992. A lot of factors lifted him to victory that fall, but clearly it was the economy (stupid!) and the temporary withdrawal of Ross Perot from the race that were most important. There is little-to-no evidence that the Sister Souljah “moment” had any particular effect on the contest. Yet the legend persists:

“Is it possible that Clinton got some help on Election Day from his bashing of Souljah five months earlier? It’s possible, but unlikely. Campaign effects just generally don’t last that long. It was a very old story by then, and it’s hard to even discern much of an effect when the story was fresh. Polling that year shows that voters were more likely to trust Clinton on issues related to racial politics, but that was true prior to the Souljah moment, as well.

“So why is it important to interrogate this piece of political lore three decades later? Because clearly many opinion leaders take it as an article of faith that a Democratic president can make himself more popular by bashing advocates for racial justice. The evidence doesn’t really support this, but they make the argument anyway.”

I would go a step further than Masket in debunking the “Sister Souljah Moment” theory. I say this not because I have any insider information on what was going on in the Clinton campaign (or in the candidate’s mind) before he made that Rainbow Coalition speech. But I was an early Clinton supporter and later worked for the decidedly Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council, and I sure didn’t think the incident was mostly about race. Obviously, racists in the electorate probably perceived it that way, though few of them at that point in history were likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. The broader perception at the time was captured by Tom Edsall’s on-site report on the speech for the Washington Post:

“Clinton’s frank remarks seemed designed to demonstrate his willingness to challenge core Democratic constituent groups and to begin to break his image in the public as a “political” person who would bend to pressure from major forces within his party …

“The power of the Perot campaign, and growing public animosity to both the Republican and the Democratic parties, has been interpreted in the Clinton campaign as a powerful message requiring the Arkansas governor to attempt to regain the status of an ‘outsider’ candidacy — a status first lost to former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas, then to former California governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. and most recently to Perot.”

Indeed, the idea that Clinton was triangulating against Black folks generally on race was not borne out by the reaction from, well, Black folks, other than those very close to the justifiably insulted Jackson, as Steve Kornacki later observed:

“Clinton did not suffer any discernible fallout among black voters; in fact, many black political leaders — some nursing their own grudges against Jackson — used the occasion to throw their support behind Clinton.”

That could be in part because even if you think Clinton was pushing off the left, he wasn’t exactly moving right. In the same speech in which he chastised Sister Souljah for allegedly smiling upon the hypothetical killing of white people for the sins of their race, Clinton sounded some familiar populist themes that were entirely congenial to his audience:

“The speech included repeated attacks on the Bush administration, with a well received line about Vice President Quayle — ‘I’m tired of people on trust funds telling people on food stamps how to live’ — and praise for ‘the real story of Los Angeles — that most people who live in that city did not burn, loot or riot.’”

So what would a more nuanced understanding of the “Sister Souljah Moment” tell Joe Biden?

First of all, Biden is in a vastly different position than was Clinton in 1992. There is no Ross Perot on the horizon, appealing to a huge block of swing voters temporarily estranged from both parties. When Clinton rejected Jesse Jackson’s advice to run a base-mobilization campaign, there were plenty of reasons to fear that identification of Clinton with Democratic orthodoxy would be disastrous: At the time of the Sister Souljah speech, Clinton was running third in many polls behind Perot and George H.W. Bush. And when Perot did (temporarily) withdraw from the race right after the Democratic convention (I was involved in speech preparations for that convention and remember when the word came down: No more criticisms of Perot!), he basically confirmed that Clinton had succeeded in redeeming his pledge to become “a different kind of Democrat,” as the Los Angeles Times explained:

“’When we started … there was a climate there where we could win outright,’ Perot asserted. But now, he said, ‘the Democratic Party has revitalized itself. They’ve done a brilliant job, in my opinion, in coming back.’

:Perot did not elaborate on that point. But Morton H. Meyerson, a longtime Perot confidant and campaign adviser, later cited the Democratic Party’s platform as something that ‘Ross feels good about.’

“Meyerson added: ‘The Democrats seem to be listening to the people.'”

Biden, by contrast is operating in a highly polarized climate with few swing voters and no Perot-like centrist to challenge him. He has zero reason to gamble on separating himself rhetorically from his party.

Second of all, while Clinton was dealing with decades of perceived Democratic subservience to the party’s interest and constituency groups, Biden is dealing with a conservative media environment in which nothing he says will effectively contradict assertions that he wants to defund the police, open the prison doors, impose “woke” speech codes and racial quotas on colleges and workplaces, and usher in a socialist revolution. It’s all preposterous, but Biden has already tried and failed to challenge the smears with rhetorical signals. Some hypothetical equivalent to the supposed message Clinton sent in the “Sister Souljah Moment” would mostly be heard by those who feared, not hoped, he was separating himself from his party under pressure.

And third, even if Joe Biden thought he needed to “push off” the left (as though defeating Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primaries wasn’t enough “pushing off”), he should stay far away from racially inflammatory subjects. Biden would have never won the presidential nomination without the kind of staunch Black support that destroyed the potentially strong nomination campaigns of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, even though Biden’s history on racial issues was far more problematic than Clinton’s in 1992. Besides, now and in 1992, the idea that “the left” and “Black voters” are somehow synonymous is simply wrong.

If Biden feels the need to make it clear he’s still the moderately progressive Democrat who hates racism but is by no means a socialist or especially “woke,” he should just say so, as often as possible. No “pushing off” is necessary.


No, Biden Doesn’t Need a “Sister Souljah Moment”

As a old guy and a history buff, this topic attracted me like catnip, and I addressed it at New York:

Seth Masket did something important and admirable at Politico this week: He examined the historical premise for some advice being offered to President Biden by many voices and found it to be ill-founded:

“Joe Biden needs a ‘Sister Souljah Moment.’ At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.”

The allusion is to a speech famously made by Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992 (when he had already nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination) to a conference of the Jesse Jackson–chaired Rainbow Coalition criticizing the organization for holding a panel the previous day that included Sister Souljah. The rapper had recently made remarks related to the L.A. riots that some interpreted as promoting the killing of white people (a claim she denied).

Jackson (who had expressed pride in Souljah’s appearance at his conference) was sitting on the stage near Clinton as he spoke and understandably felt blindsided and exploited by what Clinton said. So it has gone down in legend as a “moment” when a Democratic politician pandered to swing voters (and perhaps to white racists) by conspicuously separating himself from Black political activists. And that, as Masket notes, is what some commentators want Biden to do to stem the political bleeding over controversies surrounding racial justice, including Black Lives Matter protests, the “defund the police” movement, and the alleged influence of critical race theory in public-school classrooms.

The principal trouble with the claim Biden can do wonders via a little measured race-baiting, Masket explains, is that it didn’t do Clinton much good in 1992. A lot of factors lifted him to victory that fall, but clearly it was the economy (stupid!) and the temporary withdrawal of Ross Perot from the race that were most important. There is little-to-no evidence that the Sister Souljah “moment” had any particular effect on the contest. Yet the legend persists:

“Is it possible that Clinton got some help on Election Day from his bashing of Souljah five months earlier? It’s possible, but unlikely. Campaign effects just generally don’t last that long. It was a very old story by then, and it’s hard to even discern much of an effect when the story was fresh. Polling that year shows that voters were more likely to trust Clinton on issues related to racial politics, but that was true prior to the Souljah moment, as well.

“So why is it important to interrogate this piece of political lore three decades later? Because clearly many opinion leaders take it as an article of faith that a Democratic president can make himself more popular by bashing advocates for racial justice. The evidence doesn’t really support this, but they make the argument anyway.”

I would go a step further than Masket in debunking the “Sister Souljah Moment” theory. I say this not because I have any insider information on what was going on in the Clinton campaign (or in the candidate’s mind) before he made that Rainbow Coalition speech. But I was an early Clinton supporter and later worked for the decidedly Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council, and I sure didn’t think the incident was mostly about race. Obviously, racists in the electorate probably perceived it that way, though few of them at that point in history were likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. The broader perception at the time was captured by Tom Edsall’s on-site report on the speech for the Washington Post:

“Clinton’s frank remarks seemed designed to demonstrate his willingness to challenge core Democratic constituent groups and to begin to break his image in the public as a “political” person who would bend to pressure from major forces within his party …

“The power of the Perot campaign, and growing public animosity to both the Republican and the Democratic parties, has been interpreted in the Clinton campaign as a powerful message requiring the Arkansas governor to attempt to regain the status of an ‘outsider’ candidacy — a status first lost to former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas, then to former California governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. and most recently to Perot.”

Indeed, the idea that Clinton was triangulating against Black folks generally on race was not borne out by the reaction from, well, Black folks, other than those very close to the justifiably insulted Jackson, as Steve Kornacki later observed:

“Clinton did not suffer any discernible fallout among black voters; in fact, many black political leaders — some nursing their own grudges against Jackson — used the occasion to throw their support behind Clinton.”

That could be in part because even if you think Clinton was pushing off the left, he wasn’t exactly moving right. In the same speech in which he chastised Sister Souljah for allegedly smiling upon the hypothetical killing of white people for the sins of their race, Clinton sounded some familiar populist themes that were entirely congenial to his audience:

“The speech included repeated attacks on the Bush administration, with a well received line about Vice President Quayle — ‘I’m tired of people on trust funds telling people on food stamps how to live’ — and praise for ‘the real story of Los Angeles — that most people who live in that city did not burn, loot or riot.’”

So what would a more nuanced understanding of the “Sister Souljah Moment” tell Joe Biden?

First of all, Biden is in a vastly different position than was Clinton in 1992. There is no Ross Perot on the horizon, appealing to a huge block of swing voters temporarily estranged from both parties. When Clinton rejected Jesse Jackson’s advice to run a base-mobilization campaign, there were plenty of reasons to fear that identification of Clinton with Democratic orthodoxy would be disastrous: At the time of the Sister Souljah speech, Clinton was running third in many polls behind Perot and George H.W. Bush. And when Perot did (temporarily) withdraw from the race right after the Democratic convention (I was involved in speech preparations for that convention and remember when the word came down: No more criticisms of Perot!), he basically confirmed that Clinton had succeeded in redeeming his pledge to become “a different kind of Democrat,” as the Los Angeles Times explained:

“’When we started … there was a climate there where we could win outright,’ Perot asserted. But now, he said, ‘the Democratic Party has revitalized itself. They’ve done a brilliant job, in my opinion, in coming back.’

:Perot did not elaborate on that point. But Morton H. Meyerson, a longtime Perot confidant and campaign adviser, later cited the Democratic Party’s platform as something that ‘Ross feels good about.’

“Meyerson added: ‘The Democrats seem to be listening to the people.'”

Biden, by contrast is operating in a highly polarized climate with few swing voters and no Perot-like centrist to challenge him. He has zero reason to gamble on separating himself rhetorically from his party.

Second of all, while Clinton was dealing with decades of perceived Democratic subservience to the party’s interest and constituency groups, Biden is dealing with a conservative media environment in which nothing he says will effectively contradict assertions that he wants to defund the police, open the prison doors, impose “woke” speech codes and racial quotas on colleges and workplaces, and usher in a socialist revolution. It’s all preposterous, but Biden has already tried and failed to challenge the smears with rhetorical signals. Some hypothetical equivalent to the supposed message Clinton sent in the “Sister Souljah Moment” would mostly be heard by those who feared, not hoped, he was separating himself from his party under pressure.

And third, even if Joe Biden thought he needed to “push off” the left (as though defeating Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primaries wasn’t enough “pushing off”), he should stay far away from racially inflammatory subjects. Biden would have never won the presidential nomination without the kind of staunch Black support that destroyed the potentially strong nomination campaigns of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, even though Biden’s history on racial issues was far more problematic than Clinton’s in 1992. Besides, now and in 1992, the idea that “the left” and “Black voters” are somehow synonymous is simply wrong.

If Biden feels the need to make it clear he’s still the moderately progressive Democrat who hates racism but is by no means a socialist or especially “woke,” he should just say so, as often as possible. No “pushing off” is necessary.


November 24: The Presidential Buzz About Buttigieg Isn’t Helping Anyone

I got a bit annoyed at one of the recent topics of Beltway scuttlebutt, and wrote about it at New York.

I like Pete Buttigieg. I met and interviewed him at a mayors’ conference in 2017 and found him to be smart, engaging, and open-minded. I didn’t even mind that he failed to respond to my hint that I’d sure like help getting tickets to the upcoming Georgia–Notre Dame football game in his fair city (maybe he didn’t have any; he did, after all, go to Harvard, not Notre Dame). It did not occur to me that he might run for president in the very next cycle, but he was clearly a young pol to watch.

Once he did take the plunge, Mayor Pete’s ability to transcend his slim résumé to become a top-tier candidate was impressive indeed. As an observant liberal mainline Protestant, I couldn’t help but cheer the challenge he posed to the religious right, which could not grasp the idea of a gay, married, churchgoing military veteran who knew scriptures and theology better than its own champions. But Buttigieg also showed some conventional political chops, particularly in Iowa, where his largely amateur grassroots organization basically fought Bernie Sanders to a tie. Even when he faded, he managed not to burn too many bridges with occasionally sharp-elbowed debate performances, and got out of the race at the right time while endorsing the ultimate nominee. His reward, the visible but distinctly second-tier Cabinet post of secretary of Transportation, seemed appropriate to his contributions to Biden’s victory and his status in the party. He had, after all, just turned 39 the day before the new administration took office.

But now he faces the most daunting challenge yet of his brief career on the national political stage: presidential buzz. It emanates regularly from Beltway journalists and their sources like a sort of sonic nerve gas. Today’s entry from Politico reads:

“While Buttigieg says he’s not contemplating the race to be Biden’s successor, inside the West Wing, others are imagining it for him. His name is sometimes discussed by aides as a natural Democratic presidential nominee in 2028 — or 2024 if the president opts not to run.

“’Nobody in the West Wing shuts that down,’ said one person with direct knowledge of the conversations. ‘It’s very open.'”

This sort of thing is deadly for Buttigieg’s potentially very long future in Democratic politics. It is bound to annoy his boss, President Biden, who is tamping down any speculation that he might take a pass on a reelection fight in 2024 and obviously wants to keep talk of a successor on a low boil at best. More pointedly, any Buttigieg buzz will undoubtedly be perceived as hostile and even disrespectful to the interests of heir-apparent Kamala Harris. The biggest political liability Mayor Pete took out of his presidential campaign was a reputation for being the ultimate wine-track candidate, with a particular difficulty (fed by events in South Bend) in attracting any sort of support from Black voters. He may have made some subtle progress in this respect by proposing a well-received “Douglass Plan” for Black empowerment, though it wasn’t enough to help him electorally. But clearly the last thing he needs if he ever does want to serve as president is to become a cat’s paw for those who want to sideline the first Black woman to have a clear shot at the presidency.

Beyond that, presidential buzz puts Buttigieg in a no-win position vis-à-vis doing the job assigned to him in the Biden administration. Politico notes that the kind of barnstorming any secretary of Transportation should be doing to promote the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that is Biden’s biggest accomplishment to date sure looks a lot like proto-campaign activity:

“While there is no election directly in sight, Buttigieg’s initial on-the-ground efforts to promote the infrastructure deal had some familiar elements of his past campaigns. There were lots of news interviews, meet-and-greets with local electeds, die-hard fans in ‘Pete’ shirts carrying copies of his book, a protester with a homophobic sign (‘Booty Gay Go Away’), and people having trouble pronouncing his name (‘Butt-Edge-Edge’ instead of ‘Boot-Edge-Edge,’ as the emcee of one event kept pronouncing it).

“There were also attempts at that folksy Midwestern humor that were part of his candidacy roughly two years ago. On the benefits of the infrastructure package, he told POLITICO ‘this is literally as concrete as it gets.’ He noted how cold it was at the bill signing but said that the bipartisan package ‘warmed my heart.’”

If everything he does in public or private becomes interpreted as little more than a calculated step toward the presidency, that goal may grow further and further away.

Buttigieg hasn’t even turned 40 yet. If Biden has set a new standard for the lifespan of presidential ambitions, Buttigieg can keep hope alive for close to four more decades. What he doesn’t need is to burn out and become yesterday’s news long before he makes another big move in 2036 or 2040 or 2050. If it turns out he is quietly promoting the buzz as we speak, he deserves the danger he would be courting. Otherwise, for Pete’s sake, cut it out and let him do his job.


The Presidential Buzz About Buttigieg Isn’t Helping Anyone

I got a bit annoyed at one of the recent topics of Beltway scuttlebutt, and wrote about it at New York.

I like Pete Buttigieg. I met and interviewed him at a mayors’ conference in 2017 and found him to be smart, engaging, and open-minded. I didn’t even mind that he failed to respond to my hint that I’d sure like help getting tickets to the upcoming Georgia–Notre Dame football game in his fair city (maybe he didn’t have any; he did, after all, go to Harvard, not Notre Dame). It did not occur to me that he might run for president in the very next cycle, but he was clearly a young pol to watch.

Once he did take the plunge, Mayor Pete’s ability to transcend his slim résumé to become a top-tier candidate was impressive indeed. As an observant liberal mainline Protestant, I couldn’t help but cheer the challenge he posed to the religious right, which could not grasp the idea of a gay, married, churchgoing military veteran who knew scriptures and theology better than its own champions. But Buttigieg also showed some conventional political chops, particularly in Iowa, where his largely amateur grassroots organization basically fought Bernie Sanders to a tie. Even when he faded, he managed not to burn too many bridges with occasionally sharp-elbowed debate performances, and got out of the race at the right time while endorsing the ultimate nominee. His reward, the visible but distinctly second-tier Cabinet post of secretary of Transportation, seemed appropriate to his contributions to Biden’s victory and his status in the party. He had, after all, just turned 39 the day before the new administration took office.

But now he faces the most daunting challenge yet of his brief career on the national political stage: presidential buzz. It emanates regularly from Beltway journalists and their sources like a sort of sonic nerve gas. Today’s entry from Politico reads:

“While Buttigieg says he’s not contemplating the race to be Biden’s successor, inside the West Wing, others are imagining it for him. His name is sometimes discussed by aides as a natural Democratic presidential nominee in 2028 — or 2024 if the president opts not to run.

“’Nobody in the West Wing shuts that down,’ said one person with direct knowledge of the conversations. ‘It’s very open.'”

This sort of thing is deadly for Buttigieg’s potentially very long future in Democratic politics. It is bound to annoy his boss, President Biden, who is tamping down any speculation that he might take a pass on a reelection fight in 2024 and obviously wants to keep talk of a successor on a low boil at best. More pointedly, any Buttigieg buzz will undoubtedly be perceived as hostile and even disrespectful to the interests of heir-apparent Kamala Harris. The biggest political liability Mayor Pete took out of his presidential campaign was a reputation for being the ultimate wine-track candidate, with a particular difficulty (fed by events in South Bend) in attracting any sort of support from Black voters. He may have made some subtle progress in this respect by proposing a well-received “Douglass Plan” for Black empowerment, though it wasn’t enough to help him electorally. But clearly the last thing he needs if he ever does want to serve as president is to become a cat’s paw for those who want to sideline the first Black woman to have a clear shot at the presidency.

Beyond that, presidential buzz puts Buttigieg in a no-win position vis-à-vis doing the job assigned to him in the Biden administration. Politico notes that the kind of barnstorming any secretary of Transportation should be doing to promote the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that is Biden’s biggest accomplishment to date sure looks a lot like proto-campaign activity:

“While there is no election directly in sight, Buttigieg’s initial on-the-ground efforts to promote the infrastructure deal had some familiar elements of his past campaigns. There were lots of news interviews, meet-and-greets with local electeds, die-hard fans in ‘Pete’ shirts carrying copies of his book, a protester with a homophobic sign (‘Booty Gay Go Away’), and people having trouble pronouncing his name (‘Butt-Edge-Edge’ instead of ‘Boot-Edge-Edge,’ as the emcee of one event kept pronouncing it).

“There were also attempts at that folksy Midwestern humor that were part of his candidacy roughly two years ago. On the benefits of the infrastructure package, he told POLITICO ‘this is literally as concrete as it gets.’ He noted how cold it was at the bill signing but said that the bipartisan package ‘warmed my heart.’”

If everything he does in public or private becomes interpreted as little more than a calculated step toward the presidency, that goal may grow further and further away.

Buttigieg hasn’t even turned 40 yet. If Biden has set a new standard for the lifespan of presidential ambitions, Buttigieg can keep hope alive for close to four more decades. What he doesn’t need is to burn out and become yesterday’s news long before he makes another big move in 2036 or 2040 or 2050. If it turns out he is quietly promoting the buzz as we speak, he deserves the danger he would be courting. Otherwise, for Pete’s sake, cut it out and let him do his job.


November 19: Why Kevin McCarthy Does What He Does

Some political observers seem baffled by the behavior of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. I’m not, and wrote about it at New York, just before McCarthy’s demagogic eight-hour speech opposing Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation.

In every respect, the House GOP fight against the censure of Paul Gosar for posting a tweet with an anime video depicting him murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was embarrassing. Republicans were defending a clearly dangerous and contemptible act while identifying themselves with a chronically dangerous and contemptible extremist politician. Beyond that, though, rallying around Gosar interrupted their efforts to make this week’s Beltway coverage revolve around the follies of the opposition Democrats. As Politico Playbook observed: “This was supposed to be a ‘Dems in Disarray’ week, but thanks to Rep. PAUL GOSAR (R-Ariz.), it turned into a ‘McCarthy Defends …’ week.

So why didn’t House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy toss Gosar onto the dustbin of political history where he belongs, or at least keep his troops from treating him like a martyr? I can’t see into McCarthy’s mind or soul, of course, but it’s reasonably clear he has adopted a policy of pas d’ennemis a droit (“no enemies to the right,” an inversion of the old Popular Front slogan “no enemies to the left,” deployed to prevent criticism of communists). And he did so because he does not want to go the way of his distinguished former colleagues in the House Republican leadership, Eric Cantor and John Boehner.

Cantor, you may recall, was the brilliant young Virginia congressman who was in top leadership spots (first as House Minority Whip then as House Majority Leader) from 2009 until 2014. That last year, he came crashing to earth in a primary loss to an obscure economics professor named Dave Brat, who demonized Cantor’s friendly attitude toward a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. More generally, Cantor painted a big bull’s-eye on his back by identifying himself with the famous “Growth and Opportunity Project” — better known as the “2012 GOP autopsy report” — that argued the Republican Party was doomed if it did not expand its base by attracting minority voters, with comprehensive immigration reform being a sine qua non. Brat’s nativist-tinged campaign found its most avid cheerleader in Ann Coulter, and got an assist from a former Michele Bachmann staffer named Stephen Miller. It was, arguably, the first MAGA campaign ever. And it sent shock waves through Washington that have yet to subside completely.

Who succeeded Cantor as House Majority Leader? Kevin McCarthy, of course. You think he remembers Cantor’s demise pretty well? I do. But there’s more.

Soon thereafter, the only House Republican who outranked the prelapsarian Cantor, Speaker John Boehner, crashed and burned as well, not in a primary, but by losing an internal party struggle with the House Freedom Caucus, which viewed the convivial wine-and-cigarettes Ohioan as insufficiently combative toward the hated Democrats and their especially hated president Barack Obama. When Kevin McCarthy sought to succeed Boehner, he was blocked by the HFC, which did not consider him ideologically reliable and preferred (and secured) Paul Ryan for the gig. In 2019, McCarthy finally did gain the top leadership spot and has been very solicitous toward the right wing of his conference ever since.

With the Speaker’s gavel in sight — he probably goes to sleep at night envisioning the moment he takes it away from his least-favorite colleague, fellow-Californian Nancy Pelosi — McCarthy isn’t going to blow it now by upsetting Gosar and his Freedom Caucus friends Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Andrew Clyde, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and … the list keeps growing. Periodic bad publicity about his tolerance of scary people saying and doing scary things is a small price to pay for ensuring there is no GOP leadership coup in 2023 if history repeats itself and the president’s party loses quite a few House seats. After all, if McCarthy isn’t careful, he could be brushed aside by a fresh new face aspiring to the Speakership: Donald J. Trump.


Why Kevin McCarthy Does What He Does

Some political observers seem baffled by the behavior of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. I’m not, and wrote about it at New York, just before McCarthy’s demagogic eight-hour speech opposing Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation.

In every respect, the House GOP fight against the censure of Paul Gosar for posting a tweet with an anime video depicting him murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was embarrassing. Republicans were defending a clearly dangerous and contemptible act while identifying themselves with a chronically dangerous and contemptible extremist politician. Beyond that, though, rallying around Gosar interrupted their efforts to make this week’s Beltway coverage revolve around the follies of the opposition Democrats. As Politico Playbook observed: “This was supposed to be a ‘Dems in Disarray’ week, but thanks to Rep. PAUL GOSAR (R-Ariz.), it turned into a ‘McCarthy Defends …’ week.

So why didn’t House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy toss Gosar onto the dustbin of political history where he belongs, or at least keep his troops from treating him like a martyr? I can’t see into McCarthy’s mind or soul, of course, but it’s reasonably clear he has adopted a policy of pas d’ennemis a droit (“no enemies to the right,” an inversion of the old Popular Front slogan “no enemies to the left,” deployed to prevent criticism of communists). And he did so because he does not want to go the way of his distinguished former colleagues in the House Republican leadership, Eric Cantor and John Boehner.

Cantor, you may recall, was the brilliant young Virginia congressman who was in top leadership spots (first as House Minority Whip then as House Majority Leader) from 2009 until 2014. That last year, he came crashing to earth in a primary loss to an obscure economics professor named Dave Brat, who demonized Cantor’s friendly attitude toward a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. More generally, Cantor painted a big bull’s-eye on his back by identifying himself with the famous “Growth and Opportunity Project” — better known as the “2012 GOP autopsy report” — that argued the Republican Party was doomed if it did not expand its base by attracting minority voters, with comprehensive immigration reform being a sine qua non. Brat’s nativist-tinged campaign found its most avid cheerleader in Ann Coulter, and got an assist from a former Michele Bachmann staffer named Stephen Miller. It was, arguably, the first MAGA campaign ever. And it sent shock waves through Washington that have yet to subside completely.

Who succeeded Cantor as House Majority Leader? Kevin McCarthy, of course. You think he remembers Cantor’s demise pretty well? I do. But there’s more.

Soon thereafter, the only House Republican who outranked the prelapsarian Cantor, Speaker John Boehner, crashed and burned as well, not in a primary, but by losing an internal party struggle with the House Freedom Caucus, which viewed the convivial wine-and-cigarettes Ohioan as insufficiently combative toward the hated Democrats and their especially hated president Barack Obama. When Kevin McCarthy sought to succeed Boehner, he was blocked by the HFC, which did not consider him ideologically reliable and preferred (and secured) Paul Ryan for the gig. In 2019, McCarthy finally did gain the top leadership spot and has been very solicitous toward the right wing of his conference ever since.

With the Speaker’s gavel in sight — he probably goes to sleep at night envisioning the moment he takes it away from his least-favorite colleague, fellow-Californian Nancy Pelosi — McCarthy isn’t going to blow it now by upsetting Gosar and his Freedom Caucus friends Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Andrew Clyde, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and … the list keeps growing. Periodic bad publicity about his tolerance of scary people saying and doing scary things is a small price to pay for ensuring there is no GOP leadership coup in 2023 if history repeats itself and the president’s party loses quite a few House seats. After all, if McCarthy isn’t careful, he could be brushed aside by a fresh new face aspiring to the Speakership: Donald J. Trump.