washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

March 24: Six Excuses For Inaction on Gun Violence

After two horrendous gun massacres in less than a week — one in and around Atlanta, the other in Boulder, Colorado — I wrote at New York about the tedious and unproductive debate that is likely to ensue.

The reason nothing ever happens on gun violence ultimately boils down to two interrelated things: The Republican Party has become wedded to Second Amendment absolutism, and that produces a veto of any federal gun-safety measures thanks to the Senate filibuster and the de facto 60-vote supermajority required to pass any and all legislation.

But aside from the mechanics of raw power that doom the reactions to gun massacres to tears of impotent sorrow and rage, some well-rehearsed rationalizations for doing nothing are reflexively, continually trotted out to defuse the spontaneous public impulse to just stop the madness. Their narcotic effect on debate is a testament to their real, if wafer-thin, plausibility.

1. “New laws wouldn’t have prevented this.”

This rationalization comes in two forms — first in the impossible-to-rebut argument that when there’s a will to mass murder, there will be a way to commit it, which means that any particular gun regulation will produce a Whac-A-Mole displacement whereby the putative killer can always find an alternative weapon or a means of acquiring one.

A bit more compelling are the precise arguments that this gun regulation would not have prevented that atrocity. Right after the Boulder killings, Ted Cruz offered it up. “Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” he said.

What makes such arguments disingenuous is that Congress remains stuck on narrow legislative ideas, like closing the gun-show “loophole” to background checks, because the gun lobby opposes doing anything more comprehensive. By definition, these kinds of incremental steps to reduce the incidence of and the toll from gun violence will have a similarly incremental effect. But those who oppose broader measures have no standing to complain about the inadequacy of minimal improvements to the law.

2. “Guns don’t kill, people kill.”

The oldest and hoariest of arguments is that what causes gun massacres isn’t the weapon but the criminal who wields it — as though all blame must be assigned to one or the other. The whole purpose of gun regulation, of course, is the effort, which will never be perfectly executed, of separating evil humans from death-dealing machines.

No, gun-safety measures will not abolish original sin or prevent bad people from having very bad intentions toward their fellow citizens. But keeping lethal weapons out of the hands of lethal individuals as much as possible will reduce the number of times the wages of sin are someone else’s death. Presumably, all the other countries with vastly fewer incidents of gun violence still have evildoers; they just don’t kill as often.

3. “The real problem isn’t guns. The real problem is ______.”

A variation on the “Guns don’t kill” howler was illustrated by then-President Donald Trump after a 2019 multiple-gun-massacre week in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger,” Trump said, “not the gun.” Put aside for a moment the fact that the mentally ill are far, far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of any and all acts of violence. Mental illness — and, for that matter, “hatred” — is a deep, vast problem that cannot be “solved” overnight or ever. Postponing gun regulation until the human frailties that make weapon use illegitimately deadly essentially means postponing it forever, which is clearly the idea.

Anyone who cites other genuine problems (whether mental illness, ethnic/racial hostility, poverty, or family turmoil) as reasons to ignore the problem posed by poorly regulated weapons is, strictly speaking, trying to change the subject.

4. “It takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun.”

For many years, the National Rifle Association has argued that gun control gives criminals and other bad actors an effective monopoly on weapons (“If you criminalize guns, only criminals will have guns”). Now, the truth is nobody with any power in this country is arguing for general bans on private gun ownership, so the underlying argument is really that private citizens should wage and win an arms race with evildoers. The logical end of this way of thinking is mandatory gun ownership by law-abiding citizens to make the United States an armed camp where the kinds of people who commit gun massacres are literally outgunned. It’s particularly sad when police officers like Eric Talley in Boulder die in the crossfire.

The possibility that the cure may be worse than the disease accompanies all such schemes. The U.S. is the global leader in gun ownership and towards the top of countries in gun homicides. It is improbable that there is no connection between the two.

5. “This is a slippery slope to gun confiscation.”

Like all “slippery slope” arguments, the claim that limited gun regulation will inevitably lead to the extinction of private gun ownership is both illogical and ahistorical. The fact is we have less gun regulation than we had in 2004 when the military assault weapons so prevalent now were at least partially banned. That ban hardly led to other weapons bans; the pendulum in fact swung in the opposite direction.

There is nothing irreversible about gun-safety measures, which should be judged on their own terms and not on the belief that their proponents secretly want to do something else. Even if the United States were on the brink of enacting that great gun-lobby bugaboo of national gun registration (or gun-owner licensing), it would not lead to gun confiscation without a vast expansion of government power and an extremely unlikely passivity among federal judges.

6. “Guns protect our freedom.”

This last rationalization, which essentially holds that the Second Amendment should be absolute and interpreted as unlimited, requires some thinking through. The idea (as I put it some time ago) is that “no restrictions on firearms possession are ever constitutional. And that particularly applies to military weaponry because the whole idea of the Second Amendment is the right to undertake a violent revolution against the United States government when ‘patriots’ deem it necessary or convenient.”

Gun absolutists are usually coy about what that means and allude vaguely to an armed citizenry as a deterrent to tyranny or just cite the American revolutionary precedent. Some have gone so far as to suggest that when politics fails to achieve some right-wing goal, “Second Amendment solutions” may prove essential. But make no mistake: The argument is to deliberately break the monopoly on deadly force that the military and law-enforcement agencies typically have in civilized societies, in case “patriots” need to start shooting soldiers and cops to defend their supposed liberties. It is precisely the mindset of the insurrectionary mobs of January 6, who believed they were exercising — to quote congressman and would-be senator Mo Brooks — their “1776 moment.”

The scariest thing about Second Amendment absolutists is that they often believe the sign for stockpiling the shooting irons in preparation for a possible armed rebellion is any threat to gun rights as they understand them. And so you have the circular reasoning that absolute gun rights are necessary to protect absolute gun rights. As with other rationalizations for refusing to deal with gun violence, there’s really no effort to reason with the other side of the argument at all.


Six Excuses For Inaction on Gun Violence

After two horrendous gun massacres in less than a week — one in and around Atlanta, the other in Boulder, Colorado — I wrote at New York about the tedious and unproductive debate that is likely to ensue.

The reason nothing ever happens on gun violence ultimately boils down to two interrelated things: The Republican Party has become wedded to Second Amendment absolutism, and that produces a veto of any federal gun-safety measures thanks to the Senate filibuster and the de facto 60-vote supermajority required to pass any and all legislation.

But aside from the mechanics of raw power that doom the reactions to gun massacres to tears of impotent sorrow and rage, some well-rehearsed rationalizations for doing nothing are reflexively, continually trotted out to defuse the spontaneous public impulse to just stop the madness. Their narcotic effect on debate is a testament to their real, if wafer-thin, plausibility.

1. “New laws wouldn’t have prevented this.”

This rationalization comes in two forms — first in the impossible-to-rebut argument that when there’s a will to mass murder, there will be a way to commit it, which means that any particular gun regulation will produce a Whac-A-Mole displacement whereby the putative killer can always find an alternative weapon or a means of acquiring one.

A bit more compelling are the precise arguments that this gun regulation would not have prevented that atrocity. Right after the Boulder killings, Ted Cruz offered it up. “Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” he said.

What makes such arguments disingenuous is that Congress remains stuck on narrow legislative ideas, like closing the gun-show “loophole” to background checks, because the gun lobby opposes doing anything more comprehensive. By definition, these kinds of incremental steps to reduce the incidence of and the toll from gun violence will have a similarly incremental effect. But those who oppose broader measures have no standing to complain about the inadequacy of minimal improvements to the law.

2. “Guns don’t kill, people kill.”

The oldest and hoariest of arguments is that what causes gun massacres isn’t the weapon but the criminal who wields it — as though all blame must be assigned to one or the other. The whole purpose of gun regulation, of course, is the effort, which will never be perfectly executed, of separating evil humans from death-dealing machines.

No, gun-safety measures will not abolish original sin or prevent bad people from having very bad intentions toward their fellow citizens. But keeping lethal weapons out of the hands of lethal individuals as much as possible will reduce the number of times the wages of sin are someone else’s death. Presumably, all the other countries with vastly fewer incidents of gun violence still have evildoers; they just don’t kill as often.

3. “The real problem isn’t guns. The real problem is ______.”

A variation on the “Guns don’t kill” howler was illustrated by then-President Donald Trump after a 2019 multiple-gun-massacre week in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger,” Trump said, “not the gun.” Put aside for a moment the fact that the mentally ill are far, far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of any and all acts of violence. Mental illness — and, for that matter, “hatred” — is a deep, vast problem that cannot be “solved” overnight or ever. Postponing gun regulation until the human frailties that make weapon use illegitimately deadly essentially means postponing it forever, which is clearly the idea.

Anyone who cites other genuine problems (whether mental illness, ethnic/racial hostility, poverty, or family turmoil) as reasons to ignore the problem posed by poorly regulated weapons is, strictly speaking, trying to change the subject.

4. “It takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun.”

For many years, the National Rifle Association has argued that gun control gives criminals and other bad actors an effective monopoly on weapons (“If you criminalize guns, only criminals will have guns”). Now, the truth is nobody with any power in this country is arguing for general bans on private gun ownership, so the underlying argument is really that private citizens should wage and win an arms race with evildoers. The logical end of this way of thinking is mandatory gun ownership by law-abiding citizens to make the United States an armed camp where the kinds of people who commit gun massacres are literally outgunned. It’s particularly sad when police officers like Eric Talley in Boulder die in the crossfire.

The possibility that the cure may be worse than the disease accompanies all such schemes. The U.S. is the global leader in gun ownership and towards the top of countries in gun homicides. It is improbable that there is no connection between the two.

5. “This is a slippery slope to gun confiscation.”

Like all “slippery slope” arguments, the claim that limited gun regulation will inevitably lead to the extinction of private gun ownership is both illogical and ahistorical. The fact is we have less gun regulation than we had in 2004 when the military assault weapons so prevalent now were at least partially banned. That ban hardly led to other weapons bans; the pendulum in fact swung in the opposite direction.

There is nothing irreversible about gun-safety measures, which should be judged on their own terms and not on the belief that their proponents secretly want to do something else. Even if the United States were on the brink of enacting that great gun-lobby bugaboo of national gun registration (or gun-owner licensing), it would not lead to gun confiscation without a vast expansion of government power and an extremely unlikely passivity among federal judges.

6. “Guns protect our freedom.”

This last rationalization, which essentially holds that the Second Amendment should be absolute and interpreted as unlimited, requires some thinking through. The idea (as I put it some time ago) is that “no restrictions on firearms possession are ever constitutional. And that particularly applies to military weaponry because the whole idea of the Second Amendment is the right to undertake a violent revolution against the United States government when ‘patriots’ deem it necessary or convenient.”

Gun absolutists are usually coy about what that means and allude vaguely to an armed citizenry as a deterrent to tyranny or just cite the American revolutionary precedent. Some have gone so far as to suggest that when politics fails to achieve some right-wing goal, “Second Amendment solutions” may prove essential. But make no mistake: The argument is to deliberately break the monopoly on deadly force that the military and law-enforcement agencies typically have in civilized societies, in case “patriots” need to start shooting soldiers and cops to defend their supposed liberties. It is precisely the mindset of the insurrectionary mobs of January 6, who believed they were exercising — to quote congressman and would-be senator Mo Brooks — their “1776 moment.”

The scariest thing about Second Amendment absolutists is that they often believe the sign for stockpiling the shooting irons in preparation for a possible armed rebellion is any threat to gun rights as they understand them. And so you have the circular reasoning that absolute gun rights are necessary to protect absolute gun rights. As with other rationalizations for refusing to deal with gun violence, there’s really no effort to reason with the other side of the argument at all.


March 19: The New Republican Ideology: Anti-Wokeness

There’s an alarming trend — not new, but suddenly very intense — among our Republican friends that I wrote about at New York:

When former White House press secretary and longtime political operative Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her much-expected bid for the Arkansas governorship her father held for 11 years, what do you suppose she talked about doing in her fine corner of the heartland? Maybe improving the schools? Promoting economic development? Modernizing state agencies? Building some roads? These are all kinds of messaging Republicans have traditionally found acceptable in state government, as opposed to Democratic agenda items like expanding health-care coverage and fighting poverty and protecting the environment and so forth.

But no.

Here’s her “elevator pitch” to Arkansans:

“With the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense. As governor, I will defend your right to be free of socialism and tyranny. Your Second Amendment right to keep your family safe and your freedom of speech and religious liberty. Our state needs a leader with the courage to do what’s right, not what’s politically correct or convenient.”

She also modestly claimed that in the White House she “took on he radical left, the media, and their cancel culture … and won!” As governor, she promised to “be your voice, and never let them silence you!”

This is Arkansas we are talking about, where it’s hard to imagine socialism is in the works, or lying liberal media dominating news and views, or woke cancel-culture commissars stalking the earth searching for good decent Christians to “silence.” But without question, Sanders is a savvy pol. So the strange gospel she is preaching could well be the coming thing in Republican politics everywhere.

And indeed, it’s hard to miss the incessant chattering of late in GOP circles about “cancel culture,” the apparent evil spawn of yesterday’s “political correctness.” Some observers think it’s a fad, or perhaps a temporary distraction for a political party that just lost a national election and then a congressional battle over public-health and economic policy, and has no particular policy legacy beyond culture-laden topics like border control after four years of narcissistic rule by Donald Trump. But there’s another possibility raised by FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. in a perceptive essay:

“[There is no] exact definition of what constitutes being ‘canceled’ or a victim of ‘cancel culture.’ However, despite their vagueness, you now see conservative activists and Republican politicians constantly using these terms. That’s because that vagueness is a feature, not a bug. Casting a really wide range of ideas and policies as too woke and anyone who is critical of them as being canceled by out-of-control liberals is becoming an important strategy and tool on the right — in fact, this cancel culture/woke discourse could become the organizing idea of the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party.”

Bacon believes anti-wokeness is mostly a repackaged and usefully non-specific version of the GOP’s longstanding efforts to co-opt and promote backlash politics: white backlash to Black political advancement, and conservative backlash to cultural changes sweeping away the patriarchal society many remember and others fantasize to bring back in the guise of “American greatness.” It has the great advantage, he believes, of avoiding the crudeness of Trump’s appeals to racism and nativism, while exploiting Democratic divisions over speech-code excesses and other “woke” practices that aren’t compatible with traditional liberalism.

All that’s true, but I would add another factor that makes “anti-wokeness” political catnip for today’s Republicans: It allows them and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as aggressive culture warriors seeking to defend their privileges and reverse social change. It expands their marginalized opponents into phantasmagoric monsters with the power to terrorize the people that God (the God of the Church of the Day Before Yesterday, when life was purer and simpler) put in charge of earthly affairs. And it politicizes every perceived offense to traditional culture and religion in an unconscious parody of the very over-sensitivity it attributes to the “woke.”

There is great power in the ability to convince conservative Evangelicals that having to co-exist with LGBTQ folk and with assorted unbelievers is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution and interferes with their ability to practice their faith; that very perspective gets them halfway to the polling places on Election Day, and ready to perceive conspiratorial fraud whenever their champions lose. It is, as Bacon indicates, a natural follow-on to the politics of the 45th president, whether or not he’s still in the middle of the fray himself.

We’ve come a long way since the not-so-distant time when conservatism was understood as a three-legged stool resting on the views of economic free-marketeers, national security-focused anti-communists, and cultural traditionalists. Republicans by and large still favor economic policies favorable to corporations and hostile to their workers and a gigantic national security state bristling with weaponry. But it’s clear now the cultural leg of the stool is the most durable for the simple reason that culture-war appeals are deeper than the wallet and more viscerally immediate than overseas enemies and distant threats.

Worst of all, an anti-woke identity for Republicans projects extremism onto the opposition in a way that abets their own extremism, as Bacon notes:

“[T]his anti-woke posture gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future. Republicans are trying to recast the removal of Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to incite violence and encourage overturning the election results. If Republicans suppress Democratic votes or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government.”

No wonder many notable old-school conservatives are so furious with what’s happened to the conservative party. It looks like the GOP’s devil’s bargain with Donald Trump wasn’t just a one-off bid to maintain power via a populist message aimed at the descendants of yesterday’s “Reagan Democrats.” It hasn’t just disguised or displaced their old principles; it may have damaged them beyond recognition. If “cancel culture” is really what conservatives in places like Arkansas care about most, America may have entered the dangerous landscape of civil war in which both sides view the world in fundamentally incompatible ways, and politics swallows everything.


The New Republican Ideology: Anti-Wokeness

There’s an alarming trend — not new, but suddenly very intense — among our Republican friends that I wrote about at New York:

When former White House press secretary and longtime political operative Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her much-expected bid for the Arkansas governorship her father held for 11 years, what do you suppose she talked about doing in her fine corner of the heartland? Maybe improving the schools? Promoting economic development? Modernizing state agencies? Building some roads? These are all kinds of messaging Republicans have traditionally found acceptable in state government, as opposed to Democratic agenda items like expanding health-care coverage and fighting poverty and protecting the environment and so forth.

But no.

Here’s her “elevator pitch” to Arkansans:

“With the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense. As governor, I will defend your right to be free of socialism and tyranny. Your Second Amendment right to keep your family safe and your freedom of speech and religious liberty. Our state needs a leader with the courage to do what’s right, not what’s politically correct or convenient.”

She also modestly claimed that in the White House she “took on he radical left, the media, and their cancel culture … and won!” As governor, she promised to “be your voice, and never let them silence you!”

This is Arkansas we are talking about, where it’s hard to imagine socialism is in the works, or lying liberal media dominating news and views, or woke cancel-culture commissars stalking the earth searching for good decent Christians to “silence.” But without question, Sanders is a savvy pol. So the strange gospel she is preaching could well be the coming thing in Republican politics everywhere.

And indeed, it’s hard to miss the incessant chattering of late in GOP circles about “cancel culture,” the apparent evil spawn of yesterday’s “political correctness.” Some observers think it’s a fad, or perhaps a temporary distraction for a political party that just lost a national election and then a congressional battle over public-health and economic policy, and has no particular policy legacy beyond culture-laden topics like border control after four years of narcissistic rule by Donald Trump. But there’s another possibility raised by FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. in a perceptive essay:

“[There is no] exact definition of what constitutes being ‘canceled’ or a victim of ‘cancel culture.’ However, despite their vagueness, you now see conservative activists and Republican politicians constantly using these terms. That’s because that vagueness is a feature, not a bug. Casting a really wide range of ideas and policies as too woke and anyone who is critical of them as being canceled by out-of-control liberals is becoming an important strategy and tool on the right — in fact, this cancel culture/woke discourse could become the organizing idea of the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party.”

Bacon believes anti-wokeness is mostly a repackaged and usefully non-specific version of the GOP’s longstanding efforts to co-opt and promote backlash politics: white backlash to Black political advancement, and conservative backlash to cultural changes sweeping away the patriarchal society many remember and others fantasize to bring back in the guise of “American greatness.” It has the great advantage, he believes, of avoiding the crudeness of Trump’s appeals to racism and nativism, while exploiting Democratic divisions over speech-code excesses and other “woke” practices that aren’t compatible with traditional liberalism.

All that’s true, but I would add another factor that makes “anti-wokeness” political catnip for today’s Republicans: It allows them and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as aggressive culture warriors seeking to defend their privileges and reverse social change. It expands their marginalized opponents into phantasmagoric monsters with the power to terrorize the people that God (the God of the Church of the Day Before Yesterday, when life was purer and simpler) put in charge of earthly affairs. And it politicizes every perceived offense to traditional culture and religion in an unconscious parody of the very over-sensitivity it attributes to the “woke.”

There is great power in the ability to convince conservative Evangelicals that having to co-exist with LGBTQ folk and with assorted unbelievers is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution and interferes with their ability to practice their faith; that very perspective gets them halfway to the polling places on Election Day, and ready to perceive conspiratorial fraud whenever their champions lose. It is, as Bacon indicates, a natural follow-on to the politics of the 45th president, whether or not he’s still in the middle of the fray himself.

We’ve come a long way since the not-so-distant time when conservatism was understood as a three-legged stool resting on the views of economic free-marketeers, national security-focused anti-communists, and cultural traditionalists. Republicans by and large still favor economic policies favorable to corporations and hostile to their workers and a gigantic national security state bristling with weaponry. But it’s clear now the cultural leg of the stool is the most durable for the simple reason that culture-war appeals are deeper than the wallet and more viscerally immediate than overseas enemies and distant threats.

Worst of all, an anti-woke identity for Republicans projects extremism onto the opposition in a way that abets their own extremism, as Bacon notes:

“[T]his anti-woke posture gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future. Republicans are trying to recast the removal of Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to incite violence and encourage overturning the election results. If Republicans suppress Democratic votes or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government.”

No wonder many notable old-school conservatives are so furious with what’s happened to the conservative party. It looks like the GOP’s devil’s bargain with Donald Trump wasn’t just a one-off bid to maintain power via a populist message aimed at the descendants of yesterday’s “Reagan Democrats.” It hasn’t just disguised or displaced their old principles; it may have damaged them beyond recognition. If “cancel culture” is really what conservatives in places like Arkansas care about most, America may have entered the dangerous landscape of civil war in which both sides view the world in fundamentally incompatible ways, and politics swallows everything.


March 18: Could Biden Form Partnerships With Metropolitan Local Governments, Bypassing Red States?

As some of you may know, I have a substantial professional background in federal-state and also state-local relations. So my heart leapt up at a new analysis of how Joe Biden might upset the intergovernmental apple cart, and I wrote about it at New York:

In the wake of the enactment of Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation — which distributed $1.9 trillion to a wide range of individuals, businesses, and state and local governments — it has not gone unnoticed that some beneficiaries are more grateful than others. In particular, some Republican state leaders are resisting the Biden administration and all its works in the bitter aftermath of the 2020 elections and the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.

As Ron Brownstein observes, the situation may tempt the Biden administration to bypass recalcitrant state governments and work directly with urban and suburban local governments that are Democratic-run or at least more amenable to the active role the federal government will clearly take on economic, social, and environmental challenges if the new administration has anything to say about it:

“Cities and their inner suburbs need an immediate lifeline from Washington to stabilize their finances after the devastation of the pandemic. But once those communities regain their balance, they could become crucial allies for Biden. By working with big metros, the president would be aligning federal policy with powerful economic, social, and electoral trends — and empowering local officials overwhelmingly sympathetic to his core objectives. If Biden can forge such partnerships, he could both ignite a new wave of local innovation and solidify the Democratic Party’s advantage in the fast-growing, diverse, and well-educated metro areas that have become the bedrock of its electoral coalition.”

Metropolitan local governments need Washington as much as Washington needs them, as Brownstein indicates. And if Biden does try to forge direct fiscal and programmatic links to cities and counties, he will be reviving a strategy deployed most prominently by Lyndon Johnson during his Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives, which worked directly with local governments — and in some cases with community organizations it had created for that purpose — in lieu of often-reactionary state governors, particularly in the white racist South.

Although LBJ was the pioneer in establishing a direct federal-local relationship, the practice reached its apex under his successor, Richard Nixon, who embraced what he called a New Federalism to distribute money and power from Washington to state and local governments. The centerpiece of Nixon’s initiative was General Revenue Sharing, which distributed what was then a very high level of no-strings-attached aid, with about two-thirds going to cities and counties and one-third to states. This period led to the establishment of the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is today the largest surviving federal program with a component channeling dollars directly to local governments.

By the time Ronald Reagan took office, conservative thinking about Federalism focused on devolving government responsibilities to the states, rather than sharing revenues with states and localities. GRS was a frequent target of Reagan-era budget cuts. Even before Reagan took office, Congress had knocked out the state share of the program; it was finally killed altogether in 1986. A bit later, another vestige of the era of direct federal-local assistance, the Urban Development Action Grants, bit the dust.

Perhaps these setbacks for a federal-local relationship weren’t as definitive as they looked at the time. As Brownstein observes, Biden’s first elected office was on the New Castle County Council in Delaware, and he often worked with mayors on Obama-administration economic initiatives. More important, in key areas like climate-change policy, urban and suburban governments eager to take action to promote energy efficiency and reduce reliance on automobiles may provide the only partners available to his administration. The growing political alignment of large cities and their inner suburbs makes regional policy solutions more feasible than ever with some help from Washington:

“’What I see is a coalition of business, civic, and philanthropic leaders around the country committing to a set of national goals through local action,’ [Brookings Institution’s Amy] Liu told me. ‘I could imagine CEO circles with mayors in different parts of the country committing to drive those goals in those regions, and the federal government could easily align their resources to help regions meet their goals.'”

If Biden does move in this direction, it will cut against a lot of political traditions and even constitutional arrangements. States clearly have a central role in the Founders’ conception of Federalism, and, technically speaking, cities and counties are creatures of state constitutions and laws. They also play a large role in the domestic governance of a country in which the central government provides few direct services outside of national defense (e.g., in the huge federal-state Medicaid program, wherein the Supreme Court famously decided states could not be forced to carry out the expansion contemplated in the Affordable Care Act).

But the political logic Brownstein writes about for reviving a direct federal-local relationship is compelling, particularly when large states like Florida and Texas are governed by Republicans who would rather resign than do anything to help make the Biden presidency a success.


Could Biden Form Partnerships With Metropolitan Local Governments, Bypassing Red States?

As some of you may know, I have a substantial professional background in federal-state and also state-local relations. So my heart leapt up at a new analysis of how Joe Biden might upset the intergovernmental apple cart, and I wrote about it at New York:

In the wake of the enactment of Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation — which distributed $1.9 trillion to a wide range of individuals, businesses, and state and local governments — it has not gone unnoticed that some beneficiaries are more grateful than others. In particular, some Republican state leaders are resisting the Biden administration and all its works in the bitter aftermath of the 2020 elections and the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.

As Ron Brownstein observes, the situation may tempt the Biden administration to bypass recalcitrant state governments and work directly with urban and suburban local governments that are Democratic-run or at least more amenable to the active role the federal government will clearly take on economic, social, and environmental challenges if the new administration has anything to say about it:

“Cities and their inner suburbs need an immediate lifeline from Washington to stabilize their finances after the devastation of the pandemic. But once those communities regain their balance, they could become crucial allies for Biden. By working with big metros, the president would be aligning federal policy with powerful economic, social, and electoral trends — and empowering local officials overwhelmingly sympathetic to his core objectives. If Biden can forge such partnerships, he could both ignite a new wave of local innovation and solidify the Democratic Party’s advantage in the fast-growing, diverse, and well-educated metro areas that have become the bedrock of its electoral coalition.”

Metropolitan local governments need Washington as much as Washington needs them, as Brownstein indicates. And if Biden does try to forge direct fiscal and programmatic links to cities and counties, he will be reviving a strategy deployed most prominently by Lyndon Johnson during his Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives, which worked directly with local governments — and in some cases with community organizations it had created for that purpose — in lieu of often-reactionary state governors, particularly in the white racist South.

Although LBJ was the pioneer in establishing a direct federal-local relationship, the practice reached its apex under his successor, Richard Nixon, who embraced what he called a New Federalism to distribute money and power from Washington to state and local governments. The centerpiece of Nixon’s initiative was General Revenue Sharing, which distributed what was then a very high level of no-strings-attached aid, with about two-thirds going to cities and counties and one-third to states. This period led to the establishment of the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is today the largest surviving federal program with a component channeling dollars directly to local governments.

By the time Ronald Reagan took office, conservative thinking about Federalism focused on devolving government responsibilities to the states, rather than sharing revenues with states and localities. GRS was a frequent target of Reagan-era budget cuts. Even before Reagan took office, Congress had knocked out the state share of the program; it was finally killed altogether in 1986. A bit later, another vestige of the era of direct federal-local assistance, the Urban Development Action Grants, bit the dust.

Perhaps these setbacks for a federal-local relationship weren’t as definitive as they looked at the time. As Brownstein observes, Biden’s first elected office was on the New Castle County Council in Delaware, and he often worked with mayors on Obama-administration economic initiatives. More important, in key areas like climate-change policy, urban and suburban governments eager to take action to promote energy efficiency and reduce reliance on automobiles may provide the only partners available to his administration. The growing political alignment of large cities and their inner suburbs makes regional policy solutions more feasible than ever with some help from Washington:

“’What I see is a coalition of business, civic, and philanthropic leaders around the country committing to a set of national goals through local action,’ [Brookings Institution’s Amy] Liu told me. ‘I could imagine CEO circles with mayors in different parts of the country committing to drive those goals in those regions, and the federal government could easily align their resources to help regions meet their goals.'”

If Biden does move in this direction, it will cut against a lot of political traditions and even constitutional arrangements. States clearly have a central role in the Founders’ conception of Federalism, and, technically speaking, cities and counties are creatures of state constitutions and laws. They also play a large role in the domestic governance of a country in which the central government provides few direct services outside of national defense (e.g., in the huge federal-state Medicaid program, wherein the Supreme Court famously decided states could not be forced to carry out the expansion contemplated in the Affordable Care Act).

But the political logic Brownstein writes about for reviving a direct federal-local relationship is compelling, particularly when large states like Florida and Texas are governed by Republicans who would rather resign than do anything to help make the Biden presidency a success.


March 11: A Pointless Newsom Recall Election Looking Likely

There’s always something unusual cooking in California politics, and I reported on the latest zaniness from the Golden State at New York:

Like other governors, California’s Gavin Newsom is surely pleased at the favorable trajectory of COVID-19 cases and prospects for a return to something like normalcy. But happier times may not arrive quite quickly enough for Newsom: He is on the very brink of the ultimate nightmare for California officeholders, a recall election. With 11 days left before the deadline, organizers of the drive to recall Newsom now claim they’ve collected nearly 2 million signatures on their petition. At the current rate of signature verification, that could be just enough to reach the goal of 1.5 million, trigging an election this summer or fall (though Republicans are hedging their bets via unsupported claims that Democrats will find a way to void recall petitions illegitimately).

Newsom is not (at this point) even close to being as unpopular as the last California governor to be recalled: Gray Davis, who was replaced in a 2003 recall election by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But while there is almost always low-level recall activity by some opposing party for any given governor of California, this time it’s been fed by various types of discontent with the state’s handling of the pandemic (particularly school closings and restrictions on churches and certain businesses). And for Newsom, specifically, the coup de grâce may have been his much-publicized attendance at an indoor dinner for a lobbyist friend last November at the ultraexclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley — which violated Newsom’s own pandemic guidelines. Since then, the slow start to California’s vaccine rollout has only added more fuel to the fire.

“County elections officials must determine how many signatures are valid and report their signature counts by April 29, after which the Secretary of State’s office will have ten calendar days to determine if the effort met the nearly 1.5 million signature threshold. Then, people who signed the petition would have 30 business days to remove their signatures. Counties have 10 business days after that to report any signature removals to the Secretary of State. At that point, the California Department of Finance would have 30 business days to develop a cost estimate for the recall election, which the Legislature would have 30 days to review.”

And then Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis would have to schedule the recall election within 60 to 80 days. She, like every other statewide official and most of the county elected officials involved in the recall process, is a Democrat. So, too, are the legislative leaders who could amend the recall process to delay the election even further (Democrats have supermajorities in both state legislative chambers.) Assuming California rebounds from the pandemic doldrums, every delay could allow a boost for Newsom’s popularity. But more importantly the state’s heavily Democratic character makes Newsom a better bet to survive a recall than Davis was at a time when California Republicans were significantly stronger.

The way recall elections work complicates the dynamics. Voters will have two questions to resolve. First, they must decide whether to recall Newsom, (which is an up-or-down vote). Second, if they do decide to eject him from office, they must decide who will replace him. The incumbent in a recall cannot run to succeed himself. So the big strategic decision for Democrats is whether they successfully discourage any Democratic “replacement” candidates and just gamble on Newsom defeating the recall. If he fails, of course, California will have a Republican or possibly an independent governor. That’s assuming anyone can control the replacement field; thanks to very low qualifying requirements, you could have a vast number of contestants (there were 135 candidates on the ballot in 2003).

Let’s say for the sake of argument that no major Democrats run. There are currently three major Republicans mulling a replacement candidacy: 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox; former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer; and former Trump administration acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell. Perhaps the GOP can cull their own field, but in theory, a Republican could become governor with a plurality that represents far fewer votes than Newsom would win against the recall. That possibility reinforces an anomaly in the recall process: Since California adopted a “top two” primary system in 2011, every victorious general election candidate has won a majority. That may not be the case this year if Newsom is recalled.

At present, the best bet is that a recall election will happen, and will amount to an off-year amusement at best and an enormous waste of time and campaign dollars at worst. In three polls taken in early February, Newsom’s job-approval rating ranged from a high of 52 percent to a low of 46 percent. If the pandemic does abate, Democrats don’t split, and Newsom doesn’t badly stumble going forward, he should win the recall vote, and then nobody will much care which Republican finishes first in a replacement vote that no longer means anything. Indeed, California Republicans may wind up deciding they would have been wiser to lay off Newsom for the moment and save their powder (and money) for 2022 elections when they could stand to benefit from a midterm wave.


A Pointless Newsom Recall Election Looking Likely

There’s always something unusual cooking in California politics, and I reported on the latest zaniness from the Golden State at New York:

Like other governors, California’s Gavin Newsom is surely pleased at the favorable trajectory of COVID-19 cases and prospects for a return to something like normalcy. But happier times may not arrive quite quickly enough for Newsom: He is on the very brink of the ultimate nightmare for California officeholders, a recall election. With 11 days left before the deadline, organizers of the drive to recall Newsom now claim they’ve collected nearly 2 million signatures on their petition. At the current rate of signature verification, that could be just enough to reach the goal of 1.5 million, trigging an election this summer or fall (though Republicans are hedging their bets via unsupported claims that Democrats will find a way to void recall petitions illegitimately).

Newsom is not (at this point) even close to being as unpopular as the last California governor to be recalled: Gray Davis, who was replaced in a 2003 recall election by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But while there is almost always low-level recall activity by some opposing party for any given governor of California, this time it’s been fed by various types of discontent with the state’s handling of the pandemic (particularly school closings and restrictions on churches and certain businesses). And for Newsom, specifically, the coup de grâce may have been his much-publicized attendance at an indoor dinner for a lobbyist friend last November at the ultraexclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley — which violated Newsom’s own pandemic guidelines. Since then, the slow start to California’s vaccine rollout has only added more fuel to the fire.

“County elections officials must determine how many signatures are valid and report their signature counts by April 29, after which the Secretary of State’s office will have ten calendar days to determine if the effort met the nearly 1.5 million signature threshold. Then, people who signed the petition would have 30 business days to remove their signatures. Counties have 10 business days after that to report any signature removals to the Secretary of State. At that point, the California Department of Finance would have 30 business days to develop a cost estimate for the recall election, which the Legislature would have 30 days to review.”

And then Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis would have to schedule the recall election within 60 to 80 days. She, like every other statewide official and most of the county elected officials involved in the recall process, is a Democrat. So, too, are the legislative leaders who could amend the recall process to delay the election even further (Democrats have supermajorities in both state legislative chambers.) Assuming California rebounds from the pandemic doldrums, every delay could allow a boost for Newsom’s popularity. But more importantly the state’s heavily Democratic character makes Newsom a better bet to survive a recall than Davis was at a time when California Republicans were significantly stronger.

The way recall elections work complicates the dynamics. Voters will have two questions to resolve. First, they must decide whether to recall Newsom, (which is an up-or-down vote). Second, if they do decide to eject him from office, they must decide who will replace him. The incumbent in a recall cannot run to succeed himself. So the big strategic decision for Democrats is whether they successfully discourage any Democratic “replacement” candidates and just gamble on Newsom defeating the recall. If he fails, of course, California will have a Republican or possibly an independent governor. That’s assuming anyone can control the replacement field; thanks to very low qualifying requirements, you could have a vast number of contestants (there were 135 candidates on the ballot in 2003).

Let’s say for the sake of argument that no major Democrats run. There are currently three major Republicans mulling a replacement candidacy: 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox; former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer; and former Trump administration acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell. Perhaps the GOP can cull their own field, but in theory, a Republican could become governor with a plurality that represents far fewer votes than Newsom would win against the recall. That possibility reinforces an anomaly in the recall process: Since California adopted a “top two” primary system in 2011, every victorious general election candidate has won a majority. That may not be the case this year if Newsom is recalled.

At present, the best bet is that a recall election will happen, and will amount to an off-year amusement at best and an enormous waste of time and campaign dollars at worst. In three polls taken in early February, Newsom’s job-approval rating ranged from a high of 52 percent to a low of 46 percent. If the pandemic does abate, Democrats don’t split, and Newsom doesn’t badly stumble going forward, he should win the recall vote, and then nobody will much care which Republican finishes first in a replacement vote that no longer means anything. Indeed, California Republicans may wind up deciding they would have been wiser to lay off Newsom for the moment and save their powder (and money) for 2022 elections when they could stand to benefit from a midterm wave.


March 10: Voting By Mail Isn’t the Only Issue in the Voting Rights Battle

Trying to follow the action in various Republican efforts to restrict the franchise, I offered an observation at New York that differs a bit from the conventional wisdom:

The Republican-controlled Georgia state senate voted on March 8 to kill the no-excuse voting by mail that a previous Republican-controlled legislature put on the books way back in 2005. But something interesting happened along the way: This change has been opposed by several top Republicans in the state, and Governor Brian Kemp is not onboard either. Maybe these hard-boiled Georgia Republicans understand that the bipartisan belief that liberalized voting by mail cost Trump their state and ultimately the White House is far from clearly supported by the evidence.

Recently that Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz conducted a regression analysis that convinced him Joe Biden would have won without significantly higher levels of voting by mail. Last week, a new Stanford University study reached the same conclusion:

“The results of our paper do not offer a clear recommendation for the policy debate around vote-by-mail, but they do suggest that both sides of the debate are relying on flawed logic. Vote-by-mail is an important policy that voters seem to like using, and it may be a particularly important tool during the pandemic. Despite all that, and despite the extraordinary circumstances of the 2020 election, vote-by-mail’s effect on turnout and on partisan outcomes is very muted, just as research prior to the pandemic would have suggested.”

The participants in the Stanford study agreed that expanded voting by mail might boost turnout by one or 2 percent in midterm elections, but probably little or not at all in presidential elections, when a higher percentage of marginal voters are likely to vote in any event. Increased voter interest and engagement drove the turnout spikes of 2018 and 2020, not changes in voting procedures, they argue. As pre-2020 elections clearly showed, Republican voters are as likely as Democratic voters to take advantage of “convenience voting” (so long as their lord and master at Mar-a-Lago doesn’t tell them they shouldn’t).

So what’s the point of a GOP crackdown on liberalized mail ballots? And for that matter, should defending liberalized voting by mail be the main focus of Democrats at a time when Republicans are assaulting voting rights generally?

It’s a pertinent question in GOP-controlled places like Georgia, where, in addition to an end to no-excuse absentee voting, cutbacks in weekend in-person early voting, new voter-ID requirements, elimination of automatic voter registration, and mandatory voter purges are all in play, with less Republican opposition. In Iowa, Republican governor Kim Reynolds just signed partisan legislation that reduces early in-person voting days and even cuts Election Day voting hours.

Yes, the principle that all kinds of voting should be encouraged as a matter of basic democratic rights — as reflected in H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which recently passed the U.S. House — is worth defending. But when push comes to shove, perhaps the overemphasis on voting by mail on both sides of the voting wars doesn’t make a lot of sense. Being denied any path to the ballot box is surely the most urgently objectionable development to stop. People can adjust to changing incentives and disincentives to one form of voting or another, as so many did at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But being excluded from the franchise altogether is not something that can be overcome easily.


Voting By Mail Isn’t the Only Issue in the Voting Rights Battle

Trying to follow the action in various Republican efforts to restrict the franchise, I offered an observation at New York that differs a bit from the conventional wisdom:

The Republican-controlled Georgia state senate voted on March 8 to kill the no-excuse voting by mail that a previous Republican-controlled legislature put on the books way back in 2005. But something interesting happened along the way: This change has been opposed by several top Republicans in the state, and Governor Brian Kemp is not onboard either. Maybe these hard-boiled Georgia Republicans understand that the bipartisan belief that liberalized voting by mail cost Trump their state and ultimately the White House is far from clearly supported by the evidence.

Recently that Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz conducted a regression analysis that convinced him Joe Biden would have won without significantly higher levels of voting by mail. Last week, a new Stanford University study reached the same conclusion:

“The results of our paper do not offer a clear recommendation for the policy debate around vote-by-mail, but they do suggest that both sides of the debate are relying on flawed logic. Vote-by-mail is an important policy that voters seem to like using, and it may be a particularly important tool during the pandemic. Despite all that, and despite the extraordinary circumstances of the 2020 election, vote-by-mail’s effect on turnout and on partisan outcomes is very muted, just as research prior to the pandemic would have suggested.”

The participants in the Stanford study agreed that expanded voting by mail might boost turnout by one or 2 percent in midterm elections, but probably little or not at all in presidential elections, when a higher percentage of marginal voters are likely to vote in any event. Increased voter interest and engagement drove the turnout spikes of 2018 and 2020, not changes in voting procedures, they argue. As pre-2020 elections clearly showed, Republican voters are as likely as Democratic voters to take advantage of “convenience voting” (so long as their lord and master at Mar-a-Lago doesn’t tell them they shouldn’t).

So what’s the point of a GOP crackdown on liberalized mail ballots? And for that matter, should defending liberalized voting by mail be the main focus of Democrats at a time when Republicans are assaulting voting rights generally?

It’s a pertinent question in GOP-controlled places like Georgia, where, in addition to an end to no-excuse absentee voting, cutbacks in weekend in-person early voting, new voter-ID requirements, elimination of automatic voter registration, and mandatory voter purges are all in play, with less Republican opposition. In Iowa, Republican governor Kim Reynolds just signed partisan legislation that reduces early in-person voting days and even cuts Election Day voting hours.

Yes, the principle that all kinds of voting should be encouraged as a matter of basic democratic rights — as reflected in H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which recently passed the U.S. House — is worth defending. But when push comes to shove, perhaps the overemphasis on voting by mail on both sides of the voting wars doesn’t make a lot of sense. Being denied any path to the ballot box is surely the most urgently objectionable development to stop. People can adjust to changing incentives and disincentives to one form of voting or another, as so many did at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But being excluded from the franchise altogether is not something that can be overcome easily.