washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

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.


November 18: Horse-Race Polling Is Not the Problem With Our Politics

I was in a contrarian mood, and wrote this piece for New York expressing an unpopular but empirically accurate point of view:

There is a vocal group of politically minded people who absolutely hate horse-race polling (i.e., polling about who is leading in election contests). They have varying reasons. Some think polls systemically underrepresent the viability of their favorite party or politicians. Others just dislike the hype surrounding poll findings and the phony conflicts over various numbers. And particularly among progressives, there are some who object to such polling because they feel the coverage it generates blots out the sky at the expense of the policy discussions that ought to be the focus of political media.

To all these poll-o-phobes, the recent emergence of self-doubt in the public-opinion industry based on polling errors in certain elections is a tiding of great comfort and joy. A particularly big moment came on November 4, after the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, when Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray, deploring his own big “miss” in the New Jersey race, made this statement in an op-ed:

“Public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes is abysmal. Honest missteps get conflated with ‘fake news’ — a charge that has hit election polls in recent years …

“Most public pollsters are committed to making sure our profession counters rather than deepens the pervasive cynicism in our society. We try to hold up a mirror that accurately shows us who we are. If election polling only serves to feed that cynicism, then it may be time to rethink the value of issuing horse race poll numbers as the electorate prepares to vote.”

As Murray pointed out, two of the big guns in public opinion, Gallup and Pew Research Center, have already stopped polling candidate preferences, though they still poll on issues, presidential job approval, ideological views, partisan affiliation, and other horse-race-adjacent matters. And Murray’s freak-out over polling error in New Jersey reflected broader anxieties expressed within and beyond the polling industry over high-profile “misses” in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Now it’s important to note that polls were quite accurate in the 2018 midterms, and were also spot-on in the Virginia gubernatorial race that occurred the same day as New Jersey’s (in the final RealClearPolitics polling averages for Virginia, Glenn Youngkin led Terry McAuliffe by 1.7 percent. He won by 1.9 percent). And it’s easy to exaggerate the 2016 and 2020 errors. In the former election, the final RCP average projected a 3.3 percent Clinton lead over Trump. Her actual popular vote plurality was 2.1 percent. The margin of error was larger in 2020, but was a less-than-astronomical 2.7 percent (RCP averages showed Biden up 7.2 percent, and he won the popular vote by 4.5 percent).

The more crucial errors in both cases were in state polling, which (a) is generally less accurate than national polling, and (b) is less frequent. Yes, the chatter about Clinton and Biden’s big national leads based on national polling may have misled people who forgot there was this thing called the Electoral College that actually determines the presidency. But this goes to my fundamental problem with horse-race-polling abolitionism: Bad media coverage of political races won’t necessarily go away, or even improve, if you get rid of candidate-preference polls. Indeed, getting rid of the polls will likely create a vacuum which will be filled with partisan spin, leaked campaign poll results (believe me, the candidates aren’t going to deny themselves polling data), and “reporting” that harvests predictable, self-confirming “data” from tiny samples, conspiracy theories, and other misinformation.

FiveThirtyEight’s Galen Druke raised a lot of these and other concerns with Murray in a podcast interview this week. The more you listen to the back-and-forth, the more it becomes clear that Murray’s big fear is that the perception of pollster bias, fed by polling errors, is contributing to the loss of “public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes,” which he cited in his op-ed. This is a pretty clear allusion to the anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) fallout reflected in heavy Republican subscription to the Big Lie about the 2020 elections. And it helps explain why Murray is upset about New Jersey but not Virginia, and about 2020 polling but not 2018 polling. The crisis, it seems, is that misleading (or more accurately, misinterpreted) polls are among the factors turning Republicans into authoritarians who won’t believe anyone other than Donald Trump.

It’s an understandable fear, and one that may particularly grip pollsters, who suspect a disproportionate refusal to participate in polls by Republicans is at the root of the 2020 polling “miss,” and perhaps others. Maybe not doing horse-race polls at all will keep the problem from getting worse.

There are, fortunately, remedies short of abolitionism that could help ameliorate the legitimate issues Murray and others have raised, without unnecessarily obscuring elections for political office in a data-free fog. Pollsters can more cautiously establish and publicize margins of error and what they mean. They can also simply refuse to conduct likely voter calculations — which Murray rightly suggests is the source of a lot of, or maybe most, polling error — relying on predefined samples like registered voters, or even the “all adults” samples typical of the job-approval and issues polls no one seems to find objectionable. Then pollsters could make it clear that they are not estimating turnout patterns, which might significantly reduce perceptions of bias.

Because misuse of polling data is probably the biggest problem of all, media outlets should be strongly encouraged to balance polling data with other kinds of political coverage, whether it’s on-the-ground campaign reporting, issues polling, or simply a focus on events remote from the campaign trail (e.g., actual governing activity in the three branches of government, and at the federal, state, and local level). And even in reporting polls, consumers of this data (including media) should absolutely look at averages, and warn that sparse polling of particular contests (which, ironically, voluntary decisions to stop horse-race polling by individual pollsters will exacerbate) is a danger sign in making predictions. It’s no accident that the New Jersey governor’s race featured less public polling than its counterpart in Virginia; similarly, the state polls that were off in 2016 and 2020 were, in most cases, conducted less frequently than national polling. Should there be any surprise that more polling means greater overall accuracy?

But make no mistake, there’s no silver bullet. As the deep skepticism over exit polls (sort of a combination of candidate-preference and issues polling) shows, non-horse-race polling has its own problems. There is a lot of “pure” issues polling out there that’s unreliable and downright biased, thanks to tricks of wording and question order (and a lot of it is commissioned by special interests promoting a particular point of view).

Some high-minded folks might ask a more fundamental question: What would we lose if we got rid of horse-race polling and instead did a lot more issues polling? My answer to that may infuriate such people, but it’s the truth: In our system, and especially with today’s extreme partisan polarization, who wins elections has much greater influence on policy outcomes than all the policy “debates” and public-opinion surveys you can devise. Politicians in both parties — and particularly Republicans, I would argue — routinely ignore issues polling in what they decide to do; ideology and pressure from donors and activists typically matters more, which is why Republicans won’t support even the most modest gun-safety measures, and Democrats won’t give government the prescription-drug-price negotiation powers the public has demanded for years. To put it another way, you can’t take the politics out of politics.

Polling of all sorts can and should be improved, and without question, we must do a better job of reporting and interpreting survey findings. But it’s folly to think that a reduction or an abolition of one type of polling is going to keep Republicans from believing Big Lies, or give politicians in both parties overpowering incentives to focus on policies rather than politics. In the end, the answer to flawed data is more, not less, data, with the kind of transparency and accountability we can’t get from private polls done for private purposes and then leaked and spun selectively.


Horse-Race Polling Is Not the Problem With Our Politics

I was in a contrarian mood, and wrote this piece for New York expressing an unpopular but empirically accurate point of view:

There is a vocal group of politically minded people who absolutely hate horse-race polling (i.e., polling about who is leading in election contests). They have varying reasons. Some think polls systemically underrepresent the viability of their favorite party or politicians. Others just dislike the hype surrounding poll findings and the phony conflicts over various numbers. And particularly among progressives, there are some who object to such polling because they feel the coverage it generates blots out the sky at the expense of the policy discussions that ought to be the focus of political media.

To all these poll-o-phobes, the recent emergence of self-doubt in the public-opinion industry based on polling errors in certain elections is a tiding of great comfort and joy. A particularly big moment came on November 4, after the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, when Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray, deploring his own big “miss” in the New Jersey race, made this statement in an op-ed:

“Public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes is abysmal. Honest missteps get conflated with ‘fake news’ — a charge that has hit election polls in recent years …

“Most public pollsters are committed to making sure our profession counters rather than deepens the pervasive cynicism in our society. We try to hold up a mirror that accurately shows us who we are. If election polling only serves to feed that cynicism, then it may be time to rethink the value of issuing horse race poll numbers as the electorate prepares to vote.”

As Murray pointed out, two of the big guns in public opinion, Gallup and Pew Research Center, have already stopped polling candidate preferences, though they still poll on issues, presidential job approval, ideological views, partisan affiliation, and other horse-race-adjacent matters. And Murray’s freak-out over polling error in New Jersey reflected broader anxieties expressed within and beyond the polling industry over high-profile “misses” in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Now it’s important to note that polls were quite accurate in the 2018 midterms, and were also spot-on in the Virginia gubernatorial race that occurred the same day as New Jersey’s (in the final RealClearPolitics polling averages for Virginia, Glenn Youngkin led Terry McAuliffe by 1.7 percent. He won by 1.9 percent). And it’s easy to exaggerate the 2016 and 2020 errors. In the former election, the final RCP average projected a 3.3 percent Clinton lead over Trump. Her actual popular vote plurality was 2.1 percent. The margin of error was larger in 2020, but was a less-than-astronomical 2.7 percent (RCP averages showed Biden up 7.2 percent, and he won the popular vote by 4.5 percent).

The more crucial errors in both cases were in state polling, which (a) is generally less accurate than national polling, and (b) is less frequent. Yes, the chatter about Clinton and Biden’s big national leads based on national polling may have misled people who forgot there was this thing called the Electoral College that actually determines the presidency. But this goes to my fundamental problem with horse-race-polling abolitionism: Bad media coverage of political races won’t necessarily go away, or even improve, if you get rid of candidate-preference polls. Indeed, getting rid of the polls will likely create a vacuum which will be filled with partisan spin, leaked campaign poll results (believe me, the candidates aren’t going to deny themselves polling data), and “reporting” that harvests predictable, self-confirming “data” from tiny samples, conspiracy theories, and other misinformation.

FiveThirtyEight’s Galen Druke raised a lot of these and other concerns with Murray in a podcast interview this week. The more you listen to the back-and-forth, the more it becomes clear that Murray’s big fear is that the perception of pollster bias, fed by polling errors, is contributing to the loss of “public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes,” which he cited in his op-ed. This is a pretty clear allusion to the anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) fallout reflected in heavy Republican subscription to the Big Lie about the 2020 elections. And it helps explain why Murray is upset about New Jersey but not Virginia, and about 2020 polling but not 2018 polling. The crisis, it seems, is that misleading (or more accurately, misinterpreted) polls are among the factors turning Republicans into authoritarians who won’t believe anyone other than Donald Trump.

It’s an understandable fear, and one that may particularly grip pollsters, who suspect a disproportionate refusal to participate in polls by Republicans is at the root of the 2020 polling “miss,” and perhaps others. Maybe not doing horse-race polls at all will keep the problem from getting worse.

There are, fortunately, remedies short of abolitionism that could help ameliorate the legitimate issues Murray and others have raised, without unnecessarily obscuring elections for political office in a data-free fog. Pollsters can more cautiously establish and publicize margins of error and what they mean. They can also simply refuse to conduct likely voter calculations — which Murray rightly suggests is the source of a lot of, or maybe most, polling error — relying on predefined samples like registered voters, or even the “all adults” samples typical of the job-approval and issues polls no one seems to find objectionable. Then pollsters could make it clear that they are not estimating turnout patterns, which might significantly reduce perceptions of bias.

Because misuse of polling data is probably the biggest problem of all, media outlets should be strongly encouraged to balance polling data with other kinds of political coverage, whether it’s on-the-ground campaign reporting, issues polling, or simply a focus on events remote from the campaign trail (e.g., actual governing activity in the three branches of government, and at the federal, state, and local level). And even in reporting polls, consumers of this data (including media) should absolutely look at averages, and warn that sparse polling of particular contests (which, ironically, voluntary decisions to stop horse-race polling by individual pollsters will exacerbate) is a danger sign in making predictions. It’s no accident that the New Jersey governor’s race featured less public polling than its counterpart in Virginia; similarly, the state polls that were off in 2016 and 2020 were, in most cases, conducted less frequently than national polling. Should there be any surprise that more polling means greater overall accuracy?

But make no mistake, there’s no silver bullet. As the deep skepticism over exit polls (sort of a combination of candidate-preference and issues polling) shows, non-horse-race polling has its own problems. There is a lot of “pure” issues polling out there that’s unreliable and downright biased, thanks to tricks of wording and question order (and a lot of it is commissioned by special interests promoting a particular point of view).

Some high-minded folks might ask a more fundamental question: What would we lose if we got rid of horse-race polling and instead did a lot more issues polling? My answer to that may infuriate such people, but it’s the truth: In our system, and especially with today’s extreme partisan polarization, who wins elections has much greater influence on policy outcomes than all the policy “debates” and public-opinion surveys you can devise. Politicians in both parties — and particularly Republicans, I would argue — routinely ignore issues polling in what they decide to do; ideology and pressure from donors and activists typically matters more, which is why Republicans won’t support even the most modest gun-safety measures, and Democrats won’t give government the prescription-drug-price negotiation powers the public has demanded for years. To put it another way, you can’t take the politics out of politics.

Polling of all sorts can and should be improved, and without question, we must do a better job of reporting and interpreting survey findings. But it’s folly to think that a reduction or an abolition of one type of polling is going to keep Republicans from believing Big Lies, or give politicians in both parties overpowering incentives to focus on policies rather than politics. In the end, the answer to flawed data is more, not less, data, with the kind of transparency and accountability we can’t get from private polls done for private purposes and then leaked and spun selectively.