washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

August 25: Trifectas Don’t Grow on Trees

As part of a continuing effort to urge Democrats to be bold in use of the power they have right now, I examined past and future prospects for governing trifectas at New York:

In the last 50 years, there have been 13 in which one party or the other held a trifecta in Washington — governing the White House, Senate, and House — and 37 when they didn’t. The odds are very high, as I previously noted, against today’s Democrats holding onto the House in 2022. More broadly, though, it’s helpful to understand how rare and precious trifectas have become generally, at a time when they have become essential for big legislative accomplishments.

Until the 1990s, the ideological diversity of both parties meant trifectas or the absence of one could be misleading. Jimmy Carter had a trifecta the entire time, but struggled to get major legislation through “his” Congress. Subsequently, Ronald Reagan never had a trifecta, but was able to attract enough moderate-to-conservative Democratic support to create a working majority in Congress for six of his eight years in office. Indeed, the power of a “conservative coalition” of southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress made it possible for Republican presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon to have decent legislative records.

Since the ’90s, trifectas became much more essential to getting one’s way in Washington thanks to two changes: increasing partisan polarization and then the use of the Senate filibuster to create a de facto supermajority requirement for virtually all major legislation. Meanwhile, close partisan divisions in the country and the tendency of presidential parties to do poorly in midterms has made trifectas more fragile. Bill Clinton lost his two years into his presidency, in 1994. George W. Bush lost his almost immediately due to a Senate party switch, won it back in 2002, and then lost it again in 2006. In 2009, Barack Obama had a Senate supermajority for a hot minute, but lost that in a 2010 special election, and then lost the House later that year, never to win it back. Donald Trump’s trifecta also lasted two years. Lately Democrats have really struggled to assemble or keep one. According to David Shor, they’ve averaged about one trifecta every 14 years since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Let’s say for the sake of argument, I’m wrong about the House in 2022, or I’m right and Democrats are fighting to win back a trifecta they lost that year. How does it look for 2024? It’s no slam dunk for Democrats to hang onto the Senate in 2022, of course: They have a slight advantage in that Republicans are defending more seats (20 to 13 for Democrats), including three (possible four depending on what Ron Johnson does) open seats in competitive states. But if Republicans get the usual national midterm wind in their favor, it could protect their seats in states like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and endanger Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire.

If they do keep control of the Senate in 2022, things get tougher in 2024. That year Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, three in states carried by Trump in 2020 and six in states carried by Trump either in 2016 or 2020. Republicans will be defending just 10 Senate seats, all of them in states Trump carried twice. In 2024, of course, Democrats will either retain or lose the presidency. If they win then, 2026 is likely to be another bad year for them in House races. But if they lose, the trifecta is gone for sure until 2028.

So without question, Democrats need to maximize use of the current trifecta if they don’t want to risk a long wilderness stretch of divided government or Republican trifectas, when the kind of legislation they are contemplating in the upcoming $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill will be unimaginable. There has been a lot of debate about whether Biden will come out of this year and next with a record of progressive social policy accomplishment rivaling that of LBJ. Democrats should also debate whether the 54-year gap between the end of the Great Society era and the window of Democratic opportunity today is one they are willing to risk repeating.


Trifectas Don’t Grow on Trees

As part of a continuing effort to urge Democrats to be bold in use of the power they have right now, I examined past and future prospects for governing trifectas at New York:

In the last 50 years, there have been 13 in which one party or the other held a trifecta in Washington — governing the White House, Senate, and House — and 37 when they didn’t. The odds are very high, as I previously noted, against today’s Democrats holding onto the House in 2022. More broadly, though, it’s helpful to understand how rare and precious trifectas have become generally, at a time when they have become essential for big legislative accomplishments.

Until the 1990s, the ideological diversity of both parties meant trifectas or the absence of one could be misleading. Jimmy Carter had a trifecta the entire time, but struggled to get major legislation through “his” Congress. Subsequently, Ronald Reagan never had a trifecta, but was able to attract enough moderate-to-conservative Democratic support to create a working majority in Congress for six of his eight years in office. Indeed, the power of a “conservative coalition” of southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress made it possible for Republican presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon to have decent legislative records.

Since the ’90s, trifectas became much more essential to getting one’s way in Washington thanks to two changes: increasing partisan polarization and then the use of the Senate filibuster to create a de facto supermajority requirement for virtually all major legislation. Meanwhile, close partisan divisions in the country and the tendency of presidential parties to do poorly in midterms has made trifectas more fragile. Bill Clinton lost his two years into his presidency, in 1994. George W. Bush lost his almost immediately due to a Senate party switch, won it back in 2002, and then lost it again in 2006. In 2009, Barack Obama had a Senate supermajority for a hot minute, but lost that in a 2010 special election, and then lost the House later that year, never to win it back. Donald Trump’s trifecta also lasted two years. Lately Democrats have really struggled to assemble or keep one. According to David Shor, they’ve averaged about one trifecta every 14 years since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Let’s say for the sake of argument, I’m wrong about the House in 2022, or I’m right and Democrats are fighting to win back a trifecta they lost that year. How does it look for 2024? It’s no slam dunk for Democrats to hang onto the Senate in 2022, of course: They have a slight advantage in that Republicans are defending more seats (20 to 13 for Democrats), including three (possible four depending on what Ron Johnson does) open seats in competitive states. But if Republicans get the usual national midterm wind in their favor, it could protect their seats in states like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and endanger Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire.

If they do keep control of the Senate in 2022, things get tougher in 2024. That year Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, three in states carried by Trump in 2020 and six in states carried by Trump either in 2016 or 2020. Republicans will be defending just 10 Senate seats, all of them in states Trump carried twice. In 2024, of course, Democrats will either retain or lose the presidency. If they win then, 2026 is likely to be another bad year for them in House races. But if they lose, the trifecta is gone for sure until 2028.

So without question, Democrats need to maximize use of the current trifecta if they don’t want to risk a long wilderness stretch of divided government or Republican trifectas, when the kind of legislation they are contemplating in the upcoming $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill will be unimaginable. There has been a lot of debate about whether Biden will come out of this year and next with a record of progressive social policy accomplishment rivaling that of LBJ. Democrats should also debate whether the 54-year gap between the end of the Great Society era and the window of Democratic opportunity today is one they are willing to risk repeating.


August 20: For Democrats the Future Is Now

I decided it was time for some blunt advice to Democrats mulling 2021 and 2022, and offered it at New York:

Every political party that achieves power in Washington has to make a central strategic decision: Does it want to focus on substantive accomplishments or on perpetuating its power? Democrats who hold a fragile trifecta right now need to make that choice very soon.

It’s not always a binary choice: Sometimes governing well is a political asset. Indeed, to hear ideologues of both the left and right tell it, pursuing their agendas (which have, as they tell it, never been given a fair test thanks to the cowardice and venality of centrists) will definitely produce massive landslides as far as the eye can see. But true or not, in the legislative branch at least, the most vulnerable representatives facing voters universally reject the belief that loud-and-proud extremism is the ticket to reelection.

So you have the situation facing Democrats today, in which congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are trying to enact Joe Biden’s presidential agenda tout court in just two interrelated bills (the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the FY 2022 budget reconciliation package). They have no margin for error, even as progressives demand shooting the moon while centrists want to shrink, tone down, and maybe even defeat the larger and much more important of the two bills (the reconciliation package) in hopes of surviving their next election.

On the reconciliation bill, bipartisanship is not an option. So deals must be cut, sooner rather than later, to get all Democratic senators and nearly all Democratic House members on board. The reckoning in the House could come very quickly in the form of a key procedural vote next week, with Pelosi looking to hold the infrastructure bill hostage until the reconciliation bill passes, and a group of centrists pressuring her to do exactly the opposite.

Underlying this struggle is the dirty little secret of the Democratic Party: Barring something beyond anyone’s control, it is extremely unlikely that Democrats will hold onto the House, and thus their trifecta, in 2022. I won’t go through the entire explanation that I have written elsewhere, but the simple reality is that no president with job-approval ratings south of 60 percent has ever had a first midterm in which his party failed to lose House seats (indeed, a couple with job-approval ratings over 60 percent still lost House seats). In 2022, the burden of history will be augmented by Republican gains via redistricting. In part due to partisan polarization, the odds of Biden, whose own approval ratings have now slumped down into the 40s, reaching the 60s any time soon are vanishingly small.

Three of the last four presidents had terrible first midterms (the one who didn’t, George W. Bush, benefitted immeasurably from one of those events beyond anyone’s control, September 11). But here’s the silver lining: Three of the last four presidents were nonetheless reelected, with the other, Donald Trump, coming pretty close despite his heroic efforts to offend as many Americans as possible. Minimizing 2022 losses while joining the ranks of the reelected is a reasonable (and perhaps the only reasonable) strategy for Joe Biden.

What this means in terms of the current legislative choices being made by Democrats is they shouldn’t sacrifice too much to accommodate highly vulnerable House members who are probably going to lose anyway. Yes, Democrats need their votes right now, so accommodations will be necessary. But perhaps in some cases a future ambassadorship or an assistant secretary cabinet post or just a big political chit would be more appropriate than knocking a half-trillion dollars off a reconciliation bill that may wind up being the summit of the Biden presidency or the chief accomplishment of a president running for reelection in 2024. I don’t know if it will work, but the same logic should apply to Senate Democrats standing in the way of filibuster reforms necessary to enacting voting rights legislation: If there is anything within the president’s power that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema want — that does not involve obstructing or gutting crucial legislation — I am sure Democrats everywhere, most especially progressives, would love to see them fully gratified.

What Democrats do not owe to vulnerable members of Congress, however, is the opportunity to go home and campaign on the boast that they thwarted their own party’s agenda. And make no mistake, politicians fighting for survival are as principled as any other cornered animal; some would sell vials with the tears of small children denied “socialist” benefits if it produced a positive op-ed from some inflation-obsessed windbag back home in the district. They need to know that if they sabotage Joe Biden’s presidency, there will be consequences far worse than losing one election.

Even if Democratic leaders follow this advice, they will not, and should not, make their calculations public. They should still fight for every congressional seat in 2022 for multiple reasons: Minimizing losses makes recovering easier, for one thing; for another, I’m sure that if she has to hand her gavel to Kevin McCarthy in 2023, Pelosi would prefer he have to suffer from the kind of unstable and insecure majority she has endured this year. Democrats do, moreover, have a realistic shot at hanging onto the Senate next year, which could be critically important in terms of judicial confirmations if nothing else.

But as Democrats make the fateful choice between getting things done or making substantive concessions to add a decimal point to bad midterm odds, they should understand this: The future is now.


For Democrats the Future Is Now

I decided it was time for some blunt advice to Democrats mulling 2021 and 2022, and offered it at New York:

Every political party that achieves power in Washington has to make a central strategic decision: Does it want to focus on substantive accomplishments or on perpetuating its power? Democrats who hold a fragile trifecta right now need to make that choice very soon.

It’s not always a binary choice: Sometimes governing well is a political asset. Indeed, to hear ideologues of both the left and right tell it, pursuing their agendas (which have, as they tell it, never been given a fair test thanks to the cowardice and venality of centrists) will definitely produce massive landslides as far as the eye can see. But true or not, in the legislative branch at least, the most vulnerable representatives facing voters universally reject the belief that loud-and-proud extremism is the ticket to reelection.

So you have the situation facing Democrats today, in which congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are trying to enact Joe Biden’s presidential agenda tout court in just two interrelated bills (the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the FY 2022 budget reconciliation package). They have no margin for error, even as progressives demand shooting the moon while centrists want to shrink, tone down, and maybe even defeat the larger and much more important of the two bills (the reconciliation package) in hopes of surviving their next election.

On the reconciliation bill, bipartisanship is not an option. So deals must be cut, sooner rather than later, to get all Democratic senators and nearly all Democratic House members on board. The reckoning in the House could come very quickly in the form of a key procedural vote next week, with Pelosi looking to hold the infrastructure bill hostage until the reconciliation bill passes, and a group of centrists pressuring her to do exactly the opposite.

Underlying this struggle is the dirty little secret of the Democratic Party: Barring something beyond anyone’s control, it is extremely unlikely that Democrats will hold onto the House, and thus their trifecta, in 2022. I won’t go through the entire explanation that I have written elsewhere, but the simple reality is that no president with job-approval ratings south of 60 percent has ever had a first midterm in which his party failed to lose House seats (indeed, a couple with job-approval ratings over 60 percent still lost House seats). In 2022, the burden of history will be augmented by Republican gains via redistricting. In part due to partisan polarization, the odds of Biden, whose own approval ratings have now slumped down into the 40s, reaching the 60s any time soon are vanishingly small.

Three of the last four presidents had terrible first midterms (the one who didn’t, George W. Bush, benefitted immeasurably from one of those events beyond anyone’s control, September 11). But here’s the silver lining: Three of the last four presidents were nonetheless reelected, with the other, Donald Trump, coming pretty close despite his heroic efforts to offend as many Americans as possible. Minimizing 2022 losses while joining the ranks of the reelected is a reasonable (and perhaps the only reasonable) strategy for Joe Biden.

What this means in terms of the current legislative choices being made by Democrats is they shouldn’t sacrifice too much to accommodate highly vulnerable House members who are probably going to lose anyway. Yes, Democrats need their votes right now, so accommodations will be necessary. But perhaps in some cases a future ambassadorship or an assistant secretary cabinet post or just a big political chit would be more appropriate than knocking a half-trillion dollars off a reconciliation bill that may wind up being the summit of the Biden presidency or the chief accomplishment of a president running for reelection in 2024. I don’t know if it will work, but the same logic should apply to Senate Democrats standing in the way of filibuster reforms necessary to enacting voting rights legislation: If there is anything within the president’s power that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema want — that does not involve obstructing or gutting crucial legislation — I am sure Democrats everywhere, most especially progressives, would love to see them fully gratified.

What Democrats do not owe to vulnerable members of Congress, however, is the opportunity to go home and campaign on the boast that they thwarted their own party’s agenda. And make no mistake, politicians fighting for survival are as principled as any other cornered animal; some would sell vials with the tears of small children denied “socialist” benefits if it produced a positive op-ed from some inflation-obsessed windbag back home in the district. They need to know that if they sabotage Joe Biden’s presidency, there will be consequences far worse than losing one election.

Even if Democratic leaders follow this advice, they will not, and should not, make their calculations public. They should still fight for every congressional seat in 2022 for multiple reasons: Minimizing losses makes recovering easier, for one thing; for another, I’m sure that if she has to hand her gavel to Kevin McCarthy in 2023, Pelosi would prefer he have to suffer from the kind of unstable and insecure majority she has endured this year. Democrats do, moreover, have a realistic shot at hanging onto the Senate next year, which could be critically important in terms of judicial confirmations if nothing else.

But as Democrats make the fateful choice between getting things done or making substantive concessions to add a decimal point to bad midterm odds, they should understand this: The future is now.


August 19: California’s Strange Recall Ballot

After getting my mail ballot for the September 14 gubernatorial recall election in California, I offered some reactions at New York:

Over the weekend I received (like 22 million other registered voters in my state) an unsolicited mail ballot to vote in the California gubernatorial recall election. I’ve been reading and writing about this election for months. But I couldn’t help but find the actual ballot weird, and remain a bit conflicted about how to fill out and return it.

Typically, California primary or general election ballots have a lot of questions, in part thanks to the state’s permissive rules on ballot initiatives. The recall ballot has exactly two:

Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the Office of Governor?

Candidates to succeed GAVIN NEWSOM if he is recalled:

Following this second question (and the instruction to “Vote for One”) is a list of 46 names, with each candidate’s party preference (if any), and brief self-descriptions. These are highly restricted in practice: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, for example, is identified simply as as a “Businessman/Educator,” while the iconic erotic billboard figure and singer Angelyne is described simply as an “Entertainer.”

Now the number and variety of candidates is not that strange in California these days; thanks to the top-two primary system the state has utilized since 2011, a large jumble of candidates from every and no party appears on primary ballots regularly. But the contrast between one stark binary ballot question and one with luxurious options is jarring, and potentially confusing. Yes, if you read the county voting instructions that accompany the mail ballot (and don’t throw them out on purpose or by accident), you will see that “Each question will be counted independently,” whatever that means, and that “You may vote for a successor candidate regardless of whether or how you vote on the recall question.” The alert voter will realize that she may vote to keep Newsom in office and still express an opinion on a successor, but it’s unclear how many such voters will exercise that choice since Team Newsom is discouraging it as a matter of message discipline.

The big question, however, is how many and which voters will bother to participate in this confusing election. Politically active California Republicans may be super-psyched to send back their mail ballots (despite the disdain their hero the 45th president held for this method of voting), since it is a rare opportunity to register a statewide victory in a place where they are outnumbered two-to-one in party registration, hold no statewide offices, and are on the losing side of a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature. Pure partisanship aside, Gavin Newsom is sort of a parody of everything today’s Republicans are prone to hate: a wealthy and culturally hip man from Sodom itself (San Francisco), who looks like he stepped out of an upscale fashion ad and oozes superiority, along with a conventionally liberal viewpoint on nearly everything.

Unfortunately for Newsom, there is another category of highly motivated recall voter that includes independents and Democrats as well as Republicans: people who are enduringly angry about restrictive COVID-19 measures. This includes small business owners forced to shut down or radically restrict operations; parents compelled to keep and educate kids at home; and church members shunted into parking lots or virtual services. The late-2020 incident wherein the governor disobeyed his own pandemic rules by attending an indoor birthday party for a rich lobbyist friend at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants pulled together all the threads of Newsom-phobia and made him a cartoon villain to his detractors and an exasperating figure to his allies.

Until recently it looked like vaccinations (which, after a rough start, went relatively well in California) and a revenue boom that enabled both free spending and a balanced budget might dull resentment of the incumbent. But now the resurgence of both COVID cases and California malaise (fed by another megadrought, wildfires, spiraling living costs, and homelessness) is energizing recall supporters without necessarily arousing opponents.

Newsom has consistently campaigned against the recall as an effort by Republican Trump supporters to overturn the will of the voters who elected the governor in 2018, and even as sort of a ballot-box version of the Capitol riot in Washington. As part of this deliberate polarization effort, he successfully kept any prominent Democrat from running as a replacement candidate. This was in keeping with the common belief that earlier recall victim Gray Davis’s ejection from office in 2003 was attributable to his Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante’s decision to file as a replacement candidate, splitting (or at least confusing) Democrats fatally. More recently, Newsom has instructed Democratic voters to ignore those 46 names that take up the bulk of the ballot, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Voters who choose to keep Newsom as governor by voting ‘no’ on the first question can still select a replacement candidate on the second question if the recall prevails. Even so, the governor has urged Democrats to skip the replacement contest — and did so again Saturday.

“’One question. One answer. No on the recall. Move on. Send in the ballot,’ Newsom said during the event in El Sereno. ‘We’ve got to turn out the vote and remind people of the consequences.’”

But California Democrats may be unable to entirely ignore that second ballot question, which could determine whether their future governor is the old guy (John Cox) who is campaigning with a rented grizzly bear; the transgender activist, former Olympian, and reality-TV star (Caitlyn Jenner); or even the rare Democrat (YouTube financial adviser Kevin Paffrath), who disobeyed the party line and is running in the replacement race. Despite his stern instructions to ignore the second ballot question, Newsom himself has been bashing the candidate who leads most polls, veteran conservative talk-show host Larry Elder, who, like most veteran conservative talks-show hosts, has said a lot of stupid and profoundly unpopular things over the years.  And down the stretch, Team Newsom could decide an ace in the hole is the argument that, even if he is recalled, his support will dwarf the small number of Californians voting for the plurality winner of the replacement contest. Even though it’s how California’s system is set up, it ain’t right.

As the official election date of September 14 approaches, the recall campaign will heat up and that, Democrats hope, will save Newsom by waking up their voters to the disastrous local and national consequences of messing up the party’s current control of America’s preeminent blue state — the state that contributed 5 million to Joe Biden’s 7 million-vote national popular vote advantage last year. The polls are beginning to show a close race that could go either way. But staring at my mail ballot, I can’t say we really know how voters will navigate this strange  set of choices.


California’s Strange Recall Ballot

After getting my mail ballot for the September 14 gubernatorial recall election in California, I offered some reactions at New York:

Over the weekend I received (like 22 million other registered voters in my state) an unsolicited mail ballot to vote in the California gubernatorial recall election. I’ve been reading and writing about this election for months. But I couldn’t help but find the actual ballot weird, and remain a bit conflicted about how to fill out and return it.

Typically, California primary or general election ballots have a lot of questions, in part thanks to the state’s permissive rules on ballot initiatives. The recall ballot has exactly two:

Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the Office of Governor?

Candidates to succeed GAVIN NEWSOM if he is recalled:

Following this second question (and the instruction to “Vote for One”) is a list of 46 names, with each candidate’s party preference (if any), and brief self-descriptions. These are highly restricted in practice: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, for example, is identified simply as as a “Businessman/Educator,” while the iconic erotic billboard figure and singer Angelyne is described simply as an “Entertainer.”

Now the number and variety of candidates is not that strange in California these days; thanks to the top-two primary system the state has utilized since 2011, a large jumble of candidates from every and no party appears on primary ballots regularly. But the contrast between one stark binary ballot question and one with luxurious options is jarring, and potentially confusing. Yes, if you read the county voting instructions that accompany the mail ballot (and don’t throw them out on purpose or by accident), you will see that “Each question will be counted independently,” whatever that means, and that “You may vote for a successor candidate regardless of whether or how you vote on the recall question.” The alert voter will realize that she may vote to keep Newsom in office and still express an opinion on a successor, but it’s unclear how many such voters will exercise that choice since Team Newsom is discouraging it as a matter of message discipline.

The big question, however, is how many and which voters will bother to participate in this confusing election. Politically active California Republicans may be super-psyched to send back their mail ballots (despite the disdain their hero the 45th president held for this method of voting), since it is a rare opportunity to register a statewide victory in a place where they are outnumbered two-to-one in party registration, hold no statewide offices, and are on the losing side of a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature. Pure partisanship aside, Gavin Newsom is sort of a parody of everything today’s Republicans are prone to hate: a wealthy and culturally hip man from Sodom itself (San Francisco), who looks like he stepped out of an upscale fashion ad and oozes superiority, along with a conventionally liberal viewpoint on nearly everything.

Unfortunately for Newsom, there is another category of highly motivated recall voter that includes independents and Democrats as well as Republicans: people who are enduringly angry about restrictive COVID-19 measures. This includes small business owners forced to shut down or radically restrict operations; parents compelled to keep and educate kids at home; and church members shunted into parking lots or virtual services. The late-2020 incident wherein the governor disobeyed his own pandemic rules by attending an indoor birthday party for a rich lobbyist friend at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants pulled together all the threads of Newsom-phobia and made him a cartoon villain to his detractors and an exasperating figure to his allies.

Until recently it looked like vaccinations (which, after a rough start, went relatively well in California) and a revenue boom that enabled both free spending and a balanced budget might dull resentment of the incumbent. But now the resurgence of both COVID cases and California malaise (fed by another megadrought, wildfires, spiraling living costs, and homelessness) is energizing recall supporters without necessarily arousing opponents.

Newsom has consistently campaigned against the recall as an effort by Republican Trump supporters to overturn the will of the voters who elected the governor in 2018, and even as sort of a ballot-box version of the Capitol riot in Washington. As part of this deliberate polarization effort, he successfully kept any prominent Democrat from running as a replacement candidate. This was in keeping with the common belief that earlier recall victim Gray Davis’s ejection from office in 2003 was attributable to his Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante’s decision to file as a replacement candidate, splitting (or at least confusing) Democrats fatally. More recently, Newsom has instructed Democratic voters to ignore those 46 names that take up the bulk of the ballot, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Voters who choose to keep Newsom as governor by voting ‘no’ on the first question can still select a replacement candidate on the second question if the recall prevails. Even so, the governor has urged Democrats to skip the replacement contest — and did so again Saturday.

“’One question. One answer. No on the recall. Move on. Send in the ballot,’ Newsom said during the event in El Sereno. ‘We’ve got to turn out the vote and remind people of the consequences.’”

But California Democrats may be unable to entirely ignore that second ballot question, which could determine whether their future governor is the old guy (John Cox) who is campaigning with a rented grizzly bear; the transgender activist, former Olympian, and reality-TV star (Caitlyn Jenner); or even the rare Democrat (YouTube financial adviser Kevin Paffrath), who disobeyed the party line and is running in the replacement race. Despite his stern instructions to ignore the second ballot question, Newsom himself has been bashing the candidate who leads most polls, veteran conservative talk-show host Larry Elder, who, like most veteran conservative talks-show hosts, has said a lot of stupid and profoundly unpopular things over the years.  And down the stretch, Team Newsom could decide an ace in the hole is the argument that, even if he is recalled, his support will dwarf the small number of Californians voting for the plurality winner of the replacement contest. Even though it’s how California’s system is set up, it ain’t right.

As the official election date of September 14 approaches, the recall campaign will heat up and that, Democrats hope, will save Newsom by waking up their voters to the disastrous local and national consequences of messing up the party’s current control of America’s preeminent blue state — the state that contributed 5 million to Joe Biden’s 7 million-vote national popular vote advantage last year. The polls are beginning to show a close race that could go either way. But staring at my mail ballot, I can’t say we really know how voters will navigate this strange  set of choices.


August 13: Cuomo’s Resignation Speech and Its Antecedents

After watching Andrew Cuomo’s resignation speech and listening to some of the excited and outraged chatter about it, I decided to offer some historical context at New York:

As a midday TV drama, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s speech culminating with his resignation from office was first-rate, despite all the self-serving, weasel-like content. That it came after his lawyer’s attack on an attorney general’s report that had destroyed Cuomo’s base of support among New York Democrats added a lot of momentary suspense. Would the famously obstinate veteran governor force the Legislature to move toward removing him from office? Would he resign only at the 11th hour to prevent any action that would deny him a comeback opportunity in 2022 or beyond? It wasn’t clear until the very end, after his weird, bathetic effort to pose as a feminist through identification with his three daughters, who must have been cringing if they watched at all.

Drama aside, as a resignation message rooted in a non-apologetic apology and an alleged desire not to let his accusers disrupt governance, the immediate analogy that came to the mind of us baby boomers was Richard M. Nixon’s speech to the nation almost exactly 47 years ago, on August 8, 1974.

There really wasn’t much doubt about what Nixon was going to do. Republican leaders had made clear to him that impeachment and removal from office were a certainty if he didn’t quit in the wake of the appearance of a “smoking gun” tape exposing the president’s personal involvement in a cover-up of the Watergate scandal.

One key overlap between the Nixon and Cuomo speeches involves an insincere-sounding apology that evaded the allegations that made the resignation necessary. Here’s Nixon’s:

“I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.”

And here’s Cuomo’s:

“I have been too familiar with people. My sense of humor can be insensitive and off-putting. I do hug and kiss people casually, women and men. I have done it all my life. It’s who I’ve been since I can remember. In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have. No excuses.”

Both men also explained their resignations as the product of politics, rather than justice. Nixon said he was resigning because:

“I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future. But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.”

Cuomo was even more blunt:

“This situation and moment are not about the facts. It’s not about the truth. It’s not about thoughtful analysis. It’s not about how do we make the system better. This is about politics. And our political system today is too often driven by the extremes.”

Finally, both Nixon and Cuomo seemed most concerned with insisting they weren’t “quitters” but were selflessly putting aside personal feelings out of concern for the office they were resigning from. Here’s Nixon:

“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.”

And Cuomo:

“I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy, which I truly believe is politically motivated. I believe it is unfair and it is untruthful, and I believe that it demonizes behavior that is unsustainable for society. If I could communicate the facts through the frenzy, New Yorkers would understand … but I became a fighter for you, and it is your best interests that I must serve. This situation by its current trajectory will generate months of political and legal controversy … It will consume government. It will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It will brutalize people …

“I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing. And therefore, that’s what I’ll do because I work for you, and doing the right thing is doing the right thing for you.”

The biggest difference, of course, is that, as far as we know, Nixon wasn’t plotting a political comeback but to stay out of the hoosegow — a possibility soon removed by the pardon his successor, Gerald Ford, gave him.

Speaking of Ford, another famous resignation speech preceded Nixon’s by ten months: that of former vice-president Spiro T. Agnew. He had to explain to the American people the plea deal he had signed a few days earlier that included his stepping down as veep (to be replaced eventually by Ford).

Like Nixon and Cuomo, Agnew blustered his way through a denial of any real culpability, blaming his forced resignation on politics (in his case, the politics of Maryland’s tradition of bribes and shakedowns, in which he had been caught by shocked federal prosecutors who stumbled upon evidence that the former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor had been and was still accepting cash kickbacks from road contractors). But there wasn’t much question that Agnew resigned to avoid prison (he instead got parole by pleading guilty of tax evasion on the money he had pocketed), and the only drama was the resignation itself, which occurred six days before his speech.

A gubernatorial resignation speech that did come out of the blue and that I thought of when watching Cuomo’s careful, serpentine exposition was that of Sarah Palin on July 2, 2009.

Palin offered up a characteristic word salad that never really explained why she was stepping down with nearly a year and a half remaining in her only term. She vaguely alluded to political enemies who were investigating her involvement in “Troopergate,” a state-employee firing scandal, but it was all quite confusing. As I noted at the time, “To the extent that there are any coherent rationales expressed in her announcement, they involve the distractions of her battles with her lower-48 enemies (and perhaps their Alaskan stooges) and her realization that she wouldn’t be doing much work as a lame duck, so why wait to resign?”

At least Cuomo didn’t leave us guessing about his motivations, much as we may wonder if he is already dreaming of a 2022 comeback — which would be delusional, albeit not much of a surprise from one of the most famously rampant egos in American politics. Regardless, the disgraced governor’s resignation speech will likely be of interest to political scientists, and psychologists, for a long time to come.


Cuomo’s Resignation Speech and Its Antecedents

After watching Andrew Cuomo’s resignation speech and listening to some of the excited and outraged chatter about it, I decided to offer some historical context at New York:

As a midday TV drama, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s speech culminating with his resignation from office was first-rate, despite all the self-serving, weasel-like content. That it came after his lawyer’s attack on an attorney general’s report that had destroyed Cuomo’s base of support among New York Democrats added a lot of momentary suspense. Would the famously obstinate veteran governor force the Legislature to move toward removing him from office? Would he resign only at the 11th hour to prevent any action that would deny him a comeback opportunity in 2022 or beyond? It wasn’t clear until the very end, after his weird, bathetic effort to pose as a feminist through identification with his three daughters, who must have been cringing if they watched at all.

Drama aside, as a resignation message rooted in a non-apologetic apology and an alleged desire not to let his accusers disrupt governance, the immediate analogy that came to the mind of us baby boomers was Richard M. Nixon’s speech to the nation almost exactly 47 years ago, on August 8, 1974.

There really wasn’t much doubt about what Nixon was going to do. Republican leaders had made clear to him that impeachment and removal from office were a certainty if he didn’t quit in the wake of the appearance of a “smoking gun” tape exposing the president’s personal involvement in a cover-up of the Watergate scandal.

One key overlap between the Nixon and Cuomo speeches involves an insincere-sounding apology that evaded the allegations that made the resignation necessary. Here’s Nixon’s:

“I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.”

And here’s Cuomo’s:

“I have been too familiar with people. My sense of humor can be insensitive and off-putting. I do hug and kiss people casually, women and men. I have done it all my life. It’s who I’ve been since I can remember. In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have. No excuses.”

Both men also explained their resignations as the product of politics, rather than justice. Nixon said he was resigning because:

“I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future. But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.”

Cuomo was even more blunt:

“This situation and moment are not about the facts. It’s not about the truth. It’s not about thoughtful analysis. It’s not about how do we make the system better. This is about politics. And our political system today is too often driven by the extremes.”

Finally, both Nixon and Cuomo seemed most concerned with insisting they weren’t “quitters” but were selflessly putting aside personal feelings out of concern for the office they were resigning from. Here’s Nixon:

“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.”

And Cuomo:

“I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy, which I truly believe is politically motivated. I believe it is unfair and it is untruthful, and I believe that it demonizes behavior that is unsustainable for society. If I could communicate the facts through the frenzy, New Yorkers would understand … but I became a fighter for you, and it is your best interests that I must serve. This situation by its current trajectory will generate months of political and legal controversy … It will consume government. It will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It will brutalize people …

“I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing. And therefore, that’s what I’ll do because I work for you, and doing the right thing is doing the right thing for you.”

The biggest difference, of course, is that, as far as we know, Nixon wasn’t plotting a political comeback but to stay out of the hoosegow — a possibility soon removed by the pardon his successor, Gerald Ford, gave him.

Speaking of Ford, another famous resignation speech preceded Nixon’s by ten months: that of former vice-president Spiro T. Agnew. He had to explain to the American people the plea deal he had signed a few days earlier that included his stepping down as veep (to be replaced eventually by Ford).

Like Nixon and Cuomo, Agnew blustered his way through a denial of any real culpability, blaming his forced resignation on politics (in his case, the politics of Maryland’s tradition of bribes and shakedowns, in which he had been caught by shocked federal prosecutors who stumbled upon evidence that the former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor had been and was still accepting cash kickbacks from road contractors). But there wasn’t much question that Agnew resigned to avoid prison (he instead got parole by pleading guilty of tax evasion on the money he had pocketed), and the only drama was the resignation itself, which occurred six days before his speech.

A gubernatorial resignation speech that did come out of the blue and that I thought of when watching Cuomo’s careful, serpentine exposition was that of Sarah Palin on July 2, 2009.

Palin offered up a characteristic word salad that never really explained why she was stepping down with nearly a year and a half remaining in her only term. She vaguely alluded to political enemies who were investigating her involvement in “Troopergate,” a state-employee firing scandal, but it was all quite confusing. As I noted at the time, “To the extent that there are any coherent rationales expressed in her announcement, they involve the distractions of her battles with her lower-48 enemies (and perhaps their Alaskan stooges) and her realization that she wouldn’t be doing much work as a lame duck, so why wait to resign?”

At least Cuomo didn’t leave us guessing about his motivations, much as we may wonder if he is already dreaming of a 2022 comeback — which would be delusional, albeit not much of a surprise from one of the most famously rampant egos in American politics. Regardless, the disgraced governor’s resignation speech will likely be of interest to political scientists, and psychologists, for a long time to come.


August 12: One Cheer For the BIF

After all the brouhaha about the bipartisan infrastructure bill (or BIF), I offered a small demurral at New York:

Watching Joe Biden’s happy gloating about Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, I had a fairly cynical reaction. Biden seems to be assuming he will get credit for his involvement in this achievement, which in turn will retroactively validate his 2020 campaign pledge to work across party lines to get stuff done. Per ABC News:

“Biden praised the bipartisan negotiators, touching on themes from his candidacy — the idea that this 36-year veteran of the Senate could reinvigorate the bipartisan cooperation of an era gone by.

“’I want to thank the group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, for doing what they told me they would do. The death of this legislation was mildly premature as reported. They said they were willing to work in a bipartisan manner. And I want to thank them for keeping their word. That’s just what they did,’ Biden said.”

I’m glad the president feels all warm and fuzzy inside, but if he thinks the bipartisan glow will last until the 2024 election, he’s wrong. Indeed, the one thing we can be certain of is that congressional Republicans, having checked the bipartisanship “box,” will return to their characteristic obstructionism henceforth, citing the infrastructure deal as the last train out of deficit-land, and contrasting future partisan Democratic legislation with the bill that even Mitch McConnell could bless. Indeed, Politico is already reporting that it “remains unclear what other agenda items Republicans will be willing to collaborate on,” and “even advocates for bipartisanship are skeptical about future deals.”

The questionable nature of the achievement this bill represented flows in part from the fact that everything in it could have been enacted, and maybe even improved, had its content simply been nestled into the upcoming budget reconciliation bill that Democrats expect to pass on a strict party-line vote. In effect, Democrats chose to share the credit with Republicans for legislation they could have made exclusively their own.

The only logical rationale for doing that (other than the pleasure some take in bipartisanship for its own sake) is that passing the all-important reconciliation bill requires the votes of Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and they insisted on making the infrastructure bill a bipartisan project. Indeed, the fear that Manchin and Sinema might nonetheless oppose or gut the reconciliation bill caused Nancy Pelosi (backed by House progressives) to refuse to bring the infrastructure bill to the House floor until the Senate has cleared the reconciliation bill. But in any event, if making the infrastructure bill bipartisan was necessary to get the larger and more important reconciliation bill over the finish line, it was worth it (depending on future developments).

But an honest look at the tradeoffs involved requires considering possible lost opportunities. If Democrats and Republicans both needed to pass one big bipartisan bill this year, for separate but mutually beneficial reasons, might it have been better had it involved matters that could not be passed via reconciliation — matters that required bipartisanship?

You don’t have to search very hard to find them: Just look at some of the big progressive policy goals already discarded from reconciliation bills because they would fall prey to the Senate’s Byrd Rule governing germaneness to budget legislation. There’s the $15 minimum wage; a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants; and most of all voting rights.

Yes, it’s very unlikely that the ten Senate Republicans needed to pass legislation outside reconciliation would go for such Democratic priorities. But on the other hand, a higher minimum wage polls extremely well, even among Republicans, and the current labor shortage makes it less controversial. Not that long ago, comprehensive immigration reform was a completely bipartisan project despite hard-core conservative (and then Trumpian) opposition. And the same is true of the more modest forms of voting-rights legislation, like restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the form that it had when it was unanimously extended for 25 years by the Senate in 2006 (with George W. Bush signing the extension).

All three of these policy areas are intensely important to Democratic constituencies, and they expose differences both within the GOP and between Republican elected officials and their voters. Given what’s happening around the country right now, voting rights are arguably a priority of existential importance to Democrats, certainly as compared to infrastructure investments that do not require bipartisan legislation. Did Biden and congressional Democratic leaders give serious consideration to putting Republican feet to the fire in these other areas before making infrastructure the subject of the one big bipartisan gambit of 2021? I certainly don’t know, but suspect they took the path of least resistance.

Since it’s Manchin and Sinema and their silent partners among Democratic senators who are insisting on maintaining the power of the minority to block legislation via the filibuster, I’d say their power over their party and the country is already far too excessive. They should have been asked to use their leverage with the GOP to exact support for something really special.


One Cheer for the BIF

After all the brouhaha about the bipartisan infrastructure bill (or BIF), I offered a small demurral at New York:

Watching Joe Biden’s happy gloating about Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, I had a fairly cynical reaction. Biden seems to be assuming he will get credit for his involvement in this achievement, which in turn will retroactively validate his 2020 campaign pledge to work across party lines to get stuff done. Per ABC News:

“Biden praised the bipartisan negotiators, touching on themes from his candidacy — the idea that this 36-year veteran of the Senate could reinvigorate the bipartisan cooperation of an era gone by.

“’I want to thank the group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, for doing what they told me they would do. The death of this legislation was mildly premature as reported. They said they were willing to work in a bipartisan manner. And I want to thank them for keeping their word. That’s just what they did,’ Biden said.”

I’m glad the president feels all warm and fuzzy inside, but if he thinks the bipartisan glow will last until the 2024 election, he’s wrong. Indeed, the one thing we can be certain of is that congressional Republicans, having checked the bipartisanship “box,” will return to their characteristic obstructionism henceforth, citing the infrastructure deal as the last train out of deficit-land, and contrasting future partisan Democratic legislation with the bill that even Mitch McConnell could bless. Indeed, Politico is already reporting that it “remains unclear what other agenda items Republicans will be willing to collaborate on,” and “even advocates for bipartisanship are skeptical about future deals.”

The questionable nature of the achievement this bill represented flows in part from the fact that everything in it could have been enacted, and maybe even improved, had its content simply been nestled into the upcoming budget reconciliation bill that Democrats expect to pass on a strict party-line vote. In effect, Democrats chose to share the credit with Republicans for legislation they could have made exclusively their own.

The only logical rationale for doing that (other than the pleasure some take in bipartisanship for its own sake) is that passing the all-important reconciliation bill requires the votes of Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and they insisted on making the infrastructure bill a bipartisan project. Indeed, the fear that Manchin and Sinema might nonetheless oppose or gut the reconciliation bill caused Nancy Pelosi (backed by House progressives) to refuse to bring the infrastructure bill to the House floor until the Senate has cleared the reconciliation bill. But in any event, if making the infrastructure bill bipartisan was necessary to get the larger and more important reconciliation bill over the finish line, it was worth it (depending on future developments).

But an honest look at the tradeoffs involved requires considering possible lost opportunities. If Democrats and Republicans both needed to pass one big bipartisan bill this year, for separate but mutually beneficial reasons, might it have been better had it involved matters that could not be passed via reconciliation — matters that required bipartisanship?

You don’t have to search very hard to find them: Just look at some of the big progressive policy goals already discarded from reconciliation bills because they would fall prey to the Senate’s Byrd Rule governing germaneness to budget legislation. There’s the $15 minimum wage; a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants; and most of all voting rights.

Yes, it’s very unlikely that the ten Senate Republicans needed to pass legislation outside reconciliation would go for such Democratic priorities. But on the other hand, a higher minimum wage polls extremely well, even among Republicans, and the current labor shortage makes it less controversial. Not that long ago, comprehensive immigration reform was a completely bipartisan project despite hard-core conservative (and then Trumpian) opposition. And the same is true of the more modest forms of voting-rights legislation, like restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the form that it had when it was unanimously extended for 25 years by the Senate in 2006 (with George W. Bush signing the extension).

All three of these policy areas are intensely important to Democratic constituencies, and they expose differences both within the GOP and between Republican elected officials and their voters. Given what’s happening around the country right now, voting rights are arguably a priority of existential importance to Democrats, certainly as compared to infrastructure investments that do not require bipartisan legislation. Did Biden and congressional Democratic leaders give serious consideration to putting Republican feet to the fire in these other areas before making infrastructure the subject of the one big bipartisan gambit of 2021? I certainly don’t know, but suspect they took the path of least resistance.

Since it’s Manchin and Sinema and their silent partners among Democratic senators who are insisting on maintaining the power of the minority to block legislation via the filibuster, I’d say their power over their party and the country is already far too excessive. They should have been asked to use their leverage with the GOP to exact support for something really special.