washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

July 7: Conservatives Keep Adding Litmus Tests That Make Expanding the GOP Difficult

There’s an idea floating around that Trump has liberated his party from the conservative strictures that made it hard for Republicans to build a majority coalition. I pushed back on that notion at New York:

Heading toward the 2022 midterm elections, Republican-watchers are fascinated by the aggressive role Donald Trump intends to play in GOP primaries. Aside from his plans of vengeance toward those who egregiously crossed him at some point over the past half-century, he is selectively backing candidates whom he can claim as his very own. Indeed, the former president has already endorsed ten Senate candidates, two House candidates, and five candidates for state offices (one for a 2021 election). More important, his potential endorsements have Republican candidates and proto-candidates scrambling to prove their MAGA credentials so as to head off, or at least partially neutralize, the possibility that the Boss will give the magic nod to an opponent. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is in the Ohio U.S. Senate race, during which candidates had an Apprentice-style audition with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March, with one aspirant, J.D. Vance, subsequently launching his candidacy by apologizing for criticisms of the 45th president back in 2016.

“’I have never heard Herschel Walker’s position on pro-life. I haven’t,’ Collins said. ‘I’ve never heard his position on gun control. I’ve never heard his position on a lot of these issues that are conservative issues.’”

Collins himself is a MAGA stalwart, having served as Trump’s chief defender on the House Judiciary Committee during the former president’s first impeachment. But he won’t take Trump’s word for it that Walker is ideologically kosher: The current Republican front-runner for the 2022 Senate nomination needs to publicly pledge his allegiance to culture-war causes like banning abortion and outlawing any outlawing of a single gun.

Certainly, abortion and guns represent two major issues on which any sort of heterodoxy is disqualifying for nearly all Republican candidates. The once-robust pro-choice Republican caucus in Congress is now down to two veteran senators: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. A good indication of how obligatory anti-abortion views have become was provided by recent party-switcher Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. He had a strongly pro-choice voting record as a Democrat, but one of his first House votes as a Republican was on behalf of a failed effort to force a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy onto the floor. Similarly, one of the vanishingly few congressional Republicans open to any kind of gun regulation, Senator Pat Toomey, is retiring next year. On both of these cultural issues, Republican opinion seems to be hardening. The ascendant conservative view on reproductive rights is now fetal personhood as a matter of federal constitutional law, rather than simply a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and a return of abortion regulation to the states. And on guns, the big conservative trend is “constitutional carry,” a rejection of any firearms licensing provisions, which is closely associated with the even more dangerous idea that the Second Amendment was designed to give teeth to a “right to revolution” against a “tyrannical” government.

But these are hardly the only litmus tests of “true conservatism” that survived or even flourished in the Trump era. Tax increases remain verboten, as evidenced by their absence from the recent bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate. Anti-government rhetoric, an inheritance from the Goldwater-to-Reagan conservative movement that was intensified by the tea-party phenomenon of the Obama era, now has even greater power thanks to the Trumpian doctrines of a traitorous deep state and a corrupt Swamp dominating Washington. Hostility to organized labor is now universal in a party that used to more than occasionally secure union endorsements for its candidates (unless you take seriously the eccentric endorsement by Marco Rubio of an effort to organize Amazon workers or the more general revolt against “woke” corporations).

There are obviously some tenets of traditional conservatism that Trump has called into doubt as orthodoxy. Several are really restorations of Old Right thinking: the abandonment of free-trade principles for a return to the protectionist creed that animated Republicans from the Civil War to World War II, an America First repudiation of neoconservative commitments to alliances and interventionism, and a return to the nativism that has always been just under the surface in Republican politics. While Trump’s sometimes incoherent views on these topics haven’t become totally obligatory for Republicans just yet, gestures in his direction probably are required. It’s hard to imagine, for example, more than a smattering of Republicans vocally opposing a border wall, or calling for closer trade relations with China, or saying something nice about NATO, much less the United Nations. In international relations, Trump’s determination to throw money at the Pentagon and his unremitting bellicosity have made his isolationist tendencies more acceptable to the Cold War set.

There’s one very loud new habit of Republicans that Trump has elevated from a fringe extremist preoccupation into a near-universal habit in the GOP: the attacks on “political correctness,” “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and now “critical race theory” that present a violent antipathy to cultural changes deemed threatening to white patriarchal hegemony (or, stated more neutrally, to the “Great” America Trump has promised to bring back). All these phantom menaces are nicely designed to make old-school racism and sexism respectable.

All in all, it’s a complicated landscape that ambitious Republicans must navigate to safely rise within the Trumpified GOP. The safest are hard-core conservatives of the old school who downplay Reaganite views that are now out of fashion — and who add in conspicuous personal loyalty to Trump and whatever he wants at any given moment. Examples of this formula are Ted Cruz, the members of the House Freedom Caucus, and, above all, Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who is still doing penance for endorsing Cruz in 2016, in part by personally participating in Trump’s January 6 insurrectionary rally. Trump is close to the once-unlikely accomplishment of making “true conservatism” and Trumpism identical. The big question is whether his personal presence as a presidential candidate or a hurricane-force disrupter is necessary to seal the deal.


Conservatives Keep Adding Litmus Tests That Make Expanding the GOP Difficult

There’s an idea floating around that Trump has liberated his party from the conservative strictures that made it hard for Republicans to build a majority coalition. I pushed back on that notion at New York:

Heading toward the 2022 midterm elections, Republican-watchers are fascinated by the aggressive role Donald Trump intends to play in GOP primaries. Aside from his plans of vengeance toward those who egregiously crossed him at some point over the past half-century, he is selectively backing candidates whom he can claim as his very own. Indeed, the former president has already endorsed ten Senate candidates, two House candidates, and five candidates for state offices (one for a 2021 election). More important, his potential endorsements have Republican candidates and proto-candidates scrambling to prove their MAGA credentials so as to head off, or at least partially neutralize, the possibility that the Boss will give the magic nod to an opponent. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is in the Ohio U.S. Senate race, during which candidates had an Apprentice-style audition with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March, with one aspirant, J.D. Vance, subsequently launching his candidacy by apologizing for criticisms of the 45th president back in 2016.

“’I have never heard Herschel Walker’s position on pro-life. I haven’t,’ Collins said. ‘I’ve never heard his position on gun control. I’ve never heard his position on a lot of these issues that are conservative issues.’”

Collins himself is a MAGA stalwart, having served as Trump’s chief defender on the House Judiciary Committee during the former president’s first impeachment. But he won’t take Trump’s word for it that Walker is ideologically kosher: The current Republican front-runner for the 2022 Senate nomination needs to publicly pledge his allegiance to culture-war causes like banning abortion and outlawing any outlawing of a single gun.

Certainly, abortion and guns represent two major issues on which any sort of heterodoxy is disqualifying for nearly all Republican candidates. The once-robust pro-choice Republican caucus in Congress is now down to two veteran senators: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. A good indication of how obligatory anti-abortion views have become was provided by recent party-switcher Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. He had a strongly pro-choice voting record as a Democrat, but one of his first House votes as a Republican was on behalf of a failed effort to force a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy onto the floor. Similarly, one of the vanishingly few congressional Republicans open to any kind of gun regulation, Senator Pat Toomey, is retiring next year. On both of these cultural issues, Republican opinion seems to be hardening. The ascendant conservative view on reproductive rights is now fetal personhood as a matter of federal constitutional law, rather than simply a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and a return of abortion regulation to the states. And on guns, the big conservative trend is “constitutional carry,” a rejection of any firearms licensing provisions, which is closely associated with the even more dangerous idea that the Second Amendment was designed to give teeth to a “right to revolution” against a “tyrannical” government.

But these are hardly the only litmus tests of “true conservatism” that survived or even flourished in the Trump era. Tax increases remain verboten, as evidenced by their absence from the recent bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate. Anti-government rhetoric, an inheritance from the Goldwater-to-Reagan conservative movement that was intensified by the tea-party phenomenon of the Obama era, now has even greater power thanks to the Trumpian doctrines of a traitorous deep state and a corrupt Swamp dominating Washington. Hostility to organized labor is now universal in a party that used to more than occasionally secure union endorsements for its candidates (unless you take seriously the eccentric endorsement by Marco Rubio of an effort to organize Amazon workers or the more general revolt against “woke” corporations).

There are obviously some tenets of traditional conservatism that Trump has called into doubt as orthodoxy. Several are really restorations of Old Right thinking: the abandonment of free-trade principles for a return to the protectionist creed that animated Republicans from the Civil War to World War II, an America First repudiation of neoconservative commitments to alliances and interventionism, and a return to the nativism that has always been just under the surface in Republican politics. While Trump’s sometimes incoherent views on these topics haven’t become totally obligatory for Republicans just yet, gestures in his direction probably are required. It’s hard to imagine, for example, more than a smattering of Republicans vocally opposing a border wall, or calling for closer trade relations with China, or saying something nice about NATO, much less the United Nations. In international relations, Trump’s determination to throw money at the Pentagon and his unremitting bellicosity have made his isolationist tendencies more acceptable to the Cold War set.

There’s one very loud new habit of Republicans that Trump has elevated from a fringe extremist preoccupation into a near-universal habit in the GOP: the attacks on “political correctness,” “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and now “critical race theory” that present a violent antipathy to cultural changes deemed threatening to white patriarchal hegemony (or, stated more neutrally, to the “Great” America Trump has promised to bring back). All these phantom menaces are nicely designed to make old-school racism and sexism respectable.

All in all, it’s a complicated landscape that ambitious Republicans must navigate to safely rise within the Trumpified GOP. The safest are hard-core conservatives of the old school who downplay Reaganite views that are now out of fashion — and who add in conspicuous personal loyalty to Trump and whatever he wants at any given moment. Examples of this formula are Ted Cruz, the members of the House Freedom Caucus, and, above all, Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who is still doing penance for endorsing Cruz in 2016, in part by personally participating in Trump’s January 6 insurrectionary rally. Trump is close to the once-unlikely accomplishment of making “true conservatism” and Trumpism identical. The big question is whether his personal presence as a presidential candidate or a hurricane-force disrupter is necessary to seal the deal.


July 1: Refocusing on 2020

So many words have been spilled about the 2020 presidential election that it’s easy to put it in the rear-view mirror. But only now are we getting the kind of reliable data that makes understanding it easier, as I noted at New York:

One of the many weird things about the 2020 presidential election is that there was never a moment of big-picture clarity immediately after the count came in. Trump and his Team of Disrupters jumped into wild conspiracy theories based on insanely detailed (if largely made-up) claims involving the closest states. Meanwhile, the usual source for a quick understanding of national elections, the network-sponsored exit polls, were generally ignored. In part that was because of greater awareness of their documented shortcomings in the recent past, and in part because the very high level of voting by mail subverted the basic function of exit polls as a scientific after-the-fact tabulation of how people had already voted (“exit poll” data for by-mail voters was actually derived from a standard phone poll, in a relatively bad year for pollsters).

Since politics abhors a vacuum, particularly in close elections, the absence of authoritative data slicing and dicing the electorate along the usual demographic categories led to the development — via various studies of county-level data and some sheer hunches — of various takes on what happened, and even a bit of a conventional wisdom. As information is released from voter files and census reports, we are now getting a better picture of the actual 2020 election results, and an important new analysis of them has just been released by Pew. It’s of voters validated by voter files, and it provides a fresh and more accurate look at the 2020 fault lines.

Things we knew (but now know more precisely)

One of the big narratives of the election was that Biden won by making gains among suburban voters, and in the overlapping category of white voters with college degrees. The Pew numbers show that even more strongly, with Biden winning suburbanites 54-43 (the exits showed a narrower 50-48 margin), as compared to a Trump advantage of 47-45 in 2016; and white college-educated voters 57-42 (again, the exits show a narrower 51-48 Biden win). Notably, Pew had Biden improving on his party’s 2018 midterm congressional performance in the suburbs, which was the dominant story of that election.

It was widely reported that Trump repeated his boffo 2016 performance among white non-college voters in 2020. But Pew confirms Biden reduced the Republican margin in that demographic from 36 to 32 points.

Perhaps the biggest storyline from 2020 among Republican spinmeisters was that Trump cut into expected Democratic margins among Latinos, despite his long and recently intensified nativist rhetoric and occasional anti-Latino racism. The exits showed him winning a third of Latinos. But Pew showed Biden winning them 59-38, a margin of only 21 points, as compared with Clinton’s 38-point margin in 2016, and the Democratic congressional margin of 47 points in 2018.

Things we didn’t know but now know

The initial analysis of the results suggested the kind of gender gap we have seen in so many recent elections. The exits showed a 23-point gap (Trump winning men 53-45 and Biden winning women 57-42) close to the 26 point gap in 2016. But Pew’s numbers show the gender gap being cut in half since 2016, with Trump winning men 50-48 and Biden winning women 55-44.

There was at least one under-discussed surprise on the age front as well, though the exits did capture this one: Biden’s margin among under-30 voters (59-35) was six points lower than Clinton’s in 2016 (58-28), and a shocking 25 points lower than the margins won by congressional Democrats in 2018 (72-23). Similarly, both Pew and the exits showed a modest Trump win among seniors (down from his nine-point margin among them in 2016), but it was impressive when you consider Biden’s regular leads among over-65 voters in nearly all the polls for months.

There were two small surprises in terms of religious affiliation. Joe Biden cut Trump’s margin among white Catholics (57-42) by more than half from 2016 (64-31), and nearly tied Trump among Catholics generally. Yes, Joe Biden is a white Catholic, but in today’s polarized ideological and partisan climate, that might not have made much difference. Meanwhile, there was a lot of speculation during the campaign that Trump was losing altitude with white Evangelicals, his strongest large constituency. In the end he won them 84-15, an improvement over his 77-16 margin in 2016.

Things we thought we knew but didn’t

One apparent “surprise” that was hyped to high heaven by Team Trump was his alleged “breakthrough” among Black voters. The exits showed him doubling his support in this demographic, albeit from an anemic 6 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020. That was still an impressive improvement for the candidate of neo-Confederates everywhere, running on the thinly veiled racism of attacks on “rioters” and other threats to suburban neighborhoods. The 19 percent the exits gave to Trump among Black men was even more eyebrow-raising.

Pew’s validated numbers show Trump getting 8 percent of the Black vote, a much smaller boost, with Biden actually increasing Clinton’s share of that vote. Biden’s 60-point margin among Black men in the exits grew to 75 points in the Pew data. Not quite a Republican breakthrough.

Just as you can’t take the politics out of politics, you can’t take the spin out of post-election analysis, particularly if informative breakdowns of the results are slow to arrive. But we now know enough to have an educated guess at the trends we are likely to see in 2022 and 2024, particularly if Biden and Trump are the candidates.


Refocusing on 2020

So many words have been spilled about the 2020 presidential election that it’s easy to put it in the rear-view mirror. But only now are we getting the kind of reliable data that makes understanding it easier, as I noted at New York:

One of the many weird things about the 2020 presidential election is that there was never a moment of big-picture clarity immediately after the count came in. Trump and his Team of Disrupters jumped into wild conspiracy theories based on insanely detailed (if largely made-up) claims involving the closest states. Meanwhile, the usual source for a quick understanding of national elections, the network-sponsored exit polls, were generally ignored. In part that was because of greater awareness of their documented shortcomings in the recent past, and in part because the very high level of voting by mail subverted the basic function of exit polls as a scientific after-the-fact tabulation of how people had already voted (“exit poll” data for by-mail voters was actually derived from a standard phone poll, in a relatively bad year for pollsters).

Since politics abhors a vacuum, particularly in close elections, the absence of authoritative data slicing and dicing the electorate along the usual demographic categories led to the development — via various studies of county-level data and some sheer hunches — of various takes on what happened, and even a bit of a conventional wisdom. As information is released from voter files and census reports, we are now getting a better picture of the actual 2020 election results, and an important new analysis of them has just been released by Pew. It’s of voters validated by voter files, and it provides a fresh and more accurate look at the 2020 fault lines.

Things we knew (but now know more precisely)

One of the big narratives of the election was that Biden won by making gains among suburban voters, and in the overlapping category of white voters with college degrees. The Pew numbers show that even more strongly, with Biden winning suburbanites 54-43 (the exits showed a narrower 50-48 margin), as compared to a Trump advantage of 47-45 in 2016; and white college-educated voters 57-42 (again, the exits show a narrower 51-48 Biden win). Notably, Pew had Biden improving on his party’s 2018 midterm congressional performance in the suburbs, which was the dominant story of that election.

It was widely reported that Trump repeated his boffo 2016 performance among white non-college voters in 2020. But Pew confirms Biden reduced the Republican margin in that demographic from 36 to 32 points.

Perhaps the biggest storyline from 2020 among Republican spinmeisters was that Trump cut into expected Democratic margins among Latinos, despite his long and recently intensified nativist rhetoric and occasional anti-Latino racism. The exits showed him winning a third of Latinos. But Pew showed Biden winning them 59-38, a margin of only 21 points, as compared with Clinton’s 38-point margin in 2016, and the Democratic congressional margin of 47 points in 2018.

Things we didn’t know but now know

The initial analysis of the results suggested the kind of gender gap we have seen in so many recent elections. The exits showed a 23-point gap (Trump winning men 53-45 and Biden winning women 57-42) close to the 26 point gap in 2016. But Pew’s numbers show the gender gap being cut in half since 2016, with Trump winning men 50-48 and Biden winning women 55-44.

There was at least one under-discussed surprise on the age front as well, though the exits did capture this one: Biden’s margin among under-30 voters (59-35) was six points lower than Clinton’s in 2016 (58-28), and a shocking 25 points lower than the margins won by congressional Democrats in 2018 (72-23). Similarly, both Pew and the exits showed a modest Trump win among seniors (down from his nine-point margin among them in 2016), but it was impressive when you consider Biden’s regular leads among over-65 voters in nearly all the polls for months.

There were two small surprises in terms of religious affiliation. Joe Biden cut Trump’s margin among white Catholics (57-42) by more than half from 2016 (64-31), and nearly tied Trump among Catholics generally. Yes, Joe Biden is a white Catholic, but in today’s polarized ideological and partisan climate, that might not have made much difference. Meanwhile, there was a lot of speculation during the campaign that Trump was losing altitude with white Evangelicals, his strongest large constituency. In the end he won them 84-15, an improvement over his 77-16 margin in 2016.

Things we thought we knew but didn’t

One apparent “surprise” that was hyped to high heaven by Team Trump was his alleged “breakthrough” among Black voters. The exits showed him doubling his support in this demographic, albeit from an anemic 6 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020. That was still an impressive improvement for the candidate of neo-Confederates everywhere, running on the thinly veiled racism of attacks on “rioters” and other threats to suburban neighborhoods. The 19 percent the exits gave to Trump among Black men was even more eyebrow-raising.

Pew’s validated numbers show Trump getting 8 percent of the Black vote, a much smaller boost, with Biden actually increasing Clinton’s share of that vote. Biden’s 60-point margin among Black men in the exits grew to 75 points in the Pew data. Not quite a Republican breakthrough.

Just as you can’t take the politics out of politics, you can’t take the spin out of post-election analysis, particularly if informative breakdowns of the results are slow to arrive. But we now know enough to have an educated guess at the trends we are likely to see in 2022 and 2024, particularly if Biden and Trump are the candidates.


June 25: No Time to “Move On” From Voting Rights

As the For the People Act crashed on the rocks of Republican obstruction, I sought to look at the bigger picture at New York:

As expected, Republicans filibustered a motion to proceed to Senate consideration of the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting-rights and election-reform bill that cleared the House in March. Tuesday’s motion produced a pure partisan split, with its famous Democratic opponent, Joe Manchin, voting with his party to open debate on the bill — presumably in hopes of getting a vote on his recently unveiled compromise proposal, though key GOP senators quickly denounced it.

In theory the Manchin proposal could get a fresh look, and a narrow component of it — a revival of the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provisions — is still alive in the separate John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But all in all, prospects look grim for any voting-rights legislation in the Senate, with Republicans attacking any Democratic proposals as “power grabs” designed to block restrictive state-level Republican legislation, and this GOP hostility failing to shake Manchin and several other Senate Democrats in their opposition to filibuster reform.

“[I]t’s clear that the White House is operating at a more tempered level of concern than other Democrats about the threats to small-d democracy emerging in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election. Based on my conversations with them, officials there seem to take a more nuanced and restrained view of what’s happening. They do not believe that more assertive public denunciation from Biden would dissuade any of the Republican governors or legislators who have moved to restrict voting rights. And although White House officials consider the laws offensive from a civil-rights perspective, they do not think most of those laws will advantage Republicans in the 2022 and 2024 elections as much as many liberal activists fear.”

This sort of limited commitment to voting-rights legislation is, of course, music to the ears of those Democrats who believe anything that smacks of special attention for Black and other minority Americans is a midterm-election killer among white voters who might otherwise warm to Biden’s jobs, infrastructure, and family support initiatives. And the fact that voting-rights proponents cannot presently identify any viable path to legislative success only increases the impatience of those in the party ranks who want to stop looking “woke” and resume tossing money around.

This attitude is both short-sighted and unprincipled. Every bit of time spent on voting rights agitation and legislative activity is a sound investment that will pay off richly for Democrats. Here’s why:

This debate on national voting standards is urgent and long overdue

Until Democrats took control of the Senate this year, Congress had been under either divided or Republican control since 2011, short-circuiting any real debate or legislative progress on maintaining minimal national standards for voting and elections. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court gutted protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as even as Republican-controlled states launched successive waves of increasingly partisan attacks on access to the ballot.

The Trump campaign’s efforts to convince state-level Republicans to overturn adverse election results in 2020 was neither the beginning nor the end of this sinister trend, which is advancing under the false flag of election integrity. Even if one believes Democrats can counter such developments with voter education and base mobilization efforts, the message that Republicans are traducing basic democratic norms that should prevail in all 50 states is essential to the task. Promoting federal legislation and — if it fails — aggressive Justice Department enforcement efforts and litigation is the simplest way to draw this line in the sand.

State-level Democrats are playing defense, and need high-profile allies

Whether or not new federal voting-rights legislation can be enacted before the 2022 midterms, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration — from the president and vice-president on down — owe their counterparts in Republican-controlled states loud and active support when voting rights are compromised or election administration is subverted. The idea that such matters are entirely up the states contradicts every bit of voting rights legislation and litigation pursued since the high tide of the civil-rights movement.

Aside from state legislative fights and litigation ongoing right now, voting rights and related issues such as partisan gerrymandering and neutral election administration are going to be red-hot midterm issues in many parts of the country, with fateful consequences. A coordinated Democratic message from the president down to state legislative candidates is the most effective way to wage this very national fight.

Voting rights is the best issue on which to fight the recent assault on democratic norms

Without much question, the abandonment of democratic norms by Donald Trump’s Republican followers is best illustrated by their attacks on voting rights and fair administration of elections in 2020. And if Democrats are serious about institutional reforms that prevent authoritarian and ant-majoritarian abuses of power by the GOP, whether it’s filibuster reform, admission of new states, or even judicial reform, the need to restore representative democracy remains the strongest context for remedial action.

Yes, the inability to get 50 Senate Democrats to support filibuster reform is precisely why the For the People Act and probably even the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are doomed in this Congress. But if filibuster reform is ever to succeed, he best foot forward is likely an effort to vindicate voting rights for all U.S. citizens, appealing to what was very recently a bipartisan tradition.

Democrats have a moral obligation to defend the rights of their most loyal and vulnerable constituents

While voting rights is a universal cause transcending race, gender, class, or national origin, there is no question the current GOP-led assault on the franchise is squarely aimed at predominantly Democratic constituencies, including those Black, Latino, Asian American, and under-30 voters who have traditionally been the object of discrimination in this area. If Democratic elected officials in Washington are indifferent to their plight or treat voting rights as an unsexy “process issue,” why should young and minority voters feel any reciprocal loyalty?

Yes, Democrats need to be smart in choosing their priorities in this precious moment of party power in Washington. But voting rights are too fundamental to all rights, and too central to Democratic electoral prospects, to be subordinated to other issues the minute it becomes expedient.

And for that matter, the party can keep the focus on voting and election fairness in 2021 without sacrificing other legislation. The current infrastructure negotiations will either succeed or fail by July. Then President Biden’s remaining budget-germane initiatives — whatever is left of his infrastructure proposals, plus his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan — will be rolled into a budget reconciliation bill that is expected to take shape by mid-summer and reach fruition this fall. There’s even a possibility that Democrats could include in this legislation election administration or voter education spending, making defense of democracy filibuster-proof.

Perhaps at some point it will become politically, legislatively, and morally imperative to “move on” from voting rights as a Democratic priority. But that moment has not yet arrived, and may never.


No Time to “Move On” From Voting Rights

As the For the People Act crashed on the rocks of Republican obstruction, I sought to look at the bigger picture at New York:

As expected, Republicans filibustered a motion to proceed to Senate consideration of the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting-rights and election-reform bill that cleared the House in March. Tuesday’s motion produced a pure partisan split, with its famous Democratic opponent, Joe Manchin, voting with his party to open debate on the bill — presumably in hopes of getting a vote on his recently unveiled compromise proposal, though key GOP senators quickly denounced it.

In theory the Manchin proposal could get a fresh look, and a narrow component of it — a revival of the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provisions — is still alive in the separate John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But all in all, prospects look grim for any voting-rights legislation in the Senate, with Republicans attacking any Democratic proposals as “power grabs” designed to block restrictive state-level Republican legislation, and this GOP hostility failing to shake Manchin and several other Senate Democrats in their opposition to filibuster reform.

“[I]t’s clear that the White House is operating at a more tempered level of concern than other Democrats about the threats to small-d democracy emerging in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election. Based on my conversations with them, officials there seem to take a more nuanced and restrained view of what’s happening. They do not believe that more assertive public denunciation from Biden would dissuade any of the Republican governors or legislators who have moved to restrict voting rights. And although White House officials consider the laws offensive from a civil-rights perspective, they do not think most of those laws will advantage Republicans in the 2022 and 2024 elections as much as many liberal activists fear.”

This sort of limited commitment to voting-rights legislation is, of course, music to the ears of those Democrats who believe anything that smacks of special attention for Black and other minority Americans is a midterm-election killer among white voters who might otherwise warm to Biden’s jobs, infrastructure, and family support initiatives. And the fact that voting-rights proponents cannot presently identify any viable path to legislative success only increases the impatience of those in the party ranks who want to stop looking “woke” and resume tossing money around.

This attitude is both short-sighted and unprincipled. Every bit of time spent on voting rights agitation and legislative activity is a sound investment that will pay off richly for Democrats. Here’s why:

This debate on national voting standards is urgent and long overdue

Until Democrats took control of the Senate this year, Congress had been under either divided or Republican control since 2011, short-circuiting any real debate or legislative progress on maintaining minimal national standards for voting and elections. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court gutted protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as even as Republican-controlled states launched successive waves of increasingly partisan attacks on access to the ballot.

The Trump campaign’s efforts to convince state-level Republicans to overturn adverse election results in 2020 was neither the beginning nor the end of this sinister trend, which is advancing under the false flag of election integrity. Even if one believes Democrats can counter such developments with voter education and base mobilization efforts, the message that Republicans are traducing basic democratic norms that should prevail in all 50 states is essential to the task. Promoting federal legislation and — if it fails — aggressive Justice Department enforcement efforts and litigation is the simplest way to draw this line in the sand.

State-level Democrats are playing defense, and need high-profile allies

Whether or not new federal voting-rights legislation can be enacted before the 2022 midterms, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration — from the president and vice-president on down — owe their counterparts in Republican-controlled states loud and active support when voting rights are compromised or election administration is subverted. The idea that such matters are entirely up the states contradicts every bit of voting rights legislation and litigation pursued since the high tide of the civil-rights movement.

Aside from state legislative fights and litigation ongoing right now, voting rights and related issues such as partisan gerrymandering and neutral election administration are going to be red-hot midterm issues in many parts of the country, with fateful consequences. A coordinated Democratic message from the president down to state legislative candidates is the most effective way to wage this very national fight.

Voting rights is the best issue on which to fight the recent assault on democratic norms

Without much question, the abandonment of democratic norms by Donald Trump’s Republican followers is best illustrated by their attacks on voting rights and fair administration of elections in 2020. And if Democrats are serious about institutional reforms that prevent authoritarian and ant-majoritarian abuses of power by the GOP, whether it’s filibuster reform, admission of new states, or even judicial reform, the need to restore representative democracy remains the strongest context for remedial action.

Yes, the inability to get 50 Senate Democrats to support filibuster reform is precisely why the For the People Act and probably even the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are doomed in this Congress. But if filibuster reform is ever to succeed, he best foot forward is likely an effort to vindicate voting rights for all U.S. citizens, appealing to what was very recently a bipartisan tradition.

Democrats have a moral obligation to defend the rights of their most loyal and vulnerable constituents

While voting rights is a universal cause transcending race, gender, class, or national origin, there is no question the current GOP-led assault on the franchise is squarely aimed at predominantly Democratic constituencies, including those Black, Latino, Asian American, and under-30 voters who have traditionally been the object of discrimination in this area. If Democratic elected officials in Washington are indifferent to their plight or treat voting rights as an unsexy “process issue,” why should young and minority voters feel any reciprocal loyalty?

Yes, Democrats need to be smart in choosing their priorities in this precious moment of party power in Washington. But voting rights are too fundamental to all rights, and too central to Democratic electoral prospects, to be subordinated to other issues the minute it becomes expedient.

And for that matter, the party can keep the focus on voting and election fairness in 2021 without sacrificing other legislation. The current infrastructure negotiations will either succeed or fail by July. Then President Biden’s remaining budget-germane initiatives — whatever is left of his infrastructure proposals, plus his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan — will be rolled into a budget reconciliation bill that is expected to take shape by mid-summer and reach fruition this fall. There’s even a possibility that Democrats could include in this legislation election administration or voter education spending, making defense of democracy filibuster-proof.

Perhaps at some point it will become politically, legislatively, and morally imperative to “move on” from voting rights as a Democratic priority. But that moment has not yet arrived, and may never.


June 24: Is the Democratic Plague of Midterm Fall-Off Ending?

A very old topic (to me) has arisen in connection with 2022 previews, and I wrote about it at New York:

As political observers know, the party not in control of the White House usually does well in midterm U.S. House and state elections. (The Senate is a bit iffier because the landscape can vary enormously based on which “class” of one-third of the chamber is up for reelection in any one year.) There have, however, been two aberrations in the recent past, in 1998 and 2002, wherein the White House party gained House seats. As I discussed in a recent post, Democrats hope 2022 could be an aberration as well, thanks to positive feelings about the subsiding pandemic and a strong economy, and perhaps the continued presence in the public eye of Donald J. Trump — the man nearly all Democratic and many swing voters love to hate.

But there’s another midterm variable that should be considered: a traditional “midterm fall-off” in voting by demographic groups that have recently become Democratic bastions. This was exhibited most forcefully in the very bad (for Democrats) midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.

Even after Trump’s election in 2016 gave Democratic-leaning demographic groups plenty of reasons to turn out disproportionately, there were fears the falloff would reduce or even wipe out Democratic gains in 2018. That didn’t happen, of course, as Ron Brownstein recalls:

“In 2018, more than 118 million Americans voted, exactly half of the eligible population, according to [Michael] McDonald’s calculations. That was the highest midterm turnout, as a share of eligible voters, since 1914, before women won the right to vote.

“And while the 2018 electorate was still somewhat older than in 2016, the gray shift wasn’t nearly as powerful as in the past, because young adults turned out at twice the level they did in the last midterm, of 2014. Turnout among Blacks and Hispanics also declined much less than in previous midterms, with the result that the White share of the vote actually fell from 2016 to 2018, according to McDonald’s calculations, an unprecedented pattern in recent years … The turnout wave continued into 2020, with nearly 160 million people voting and turnout among young people and people of color again rising dramatically.”

One key question for 2022 is whether the fall-off will resemble what we saw in 2010 or 2014 or instead the smaller version that appeared in 2018. The experts Brownstein consulted expect something in between, which, if combined with the kind of gains Democrats made in 2018 and 2020 among college-educated white suburbanites and older voters, could make a midterm upset possible under the right circumstances.

Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to get new or marginal voters to turn out again in 2022: Trump managed to turn out a surprising number of them in 2020 himself. Keeping them energized is job one for the GOP in 2022, and Republicans may have the advantage of the kind of enraged opposition to a “socialist” president that was so visible in the tea-party movement of 2010 — though thus far, Biden is not inspiring the same levels of hostility.

That leads to the 2022 variable that no one can entirely foresee: How visible will Donald Trump be in the midterm campaign? The threat of a Trump comeback is the easiest way for Democrats to mobilize their new 2018 and 2020 voters and for Republicans to mobilize their own. Trump could help Democrats turn the midterm from a referendum on the incumbent president (a referendum incumbent presidents typically lose) to at least partially a referendum on the once and possibly future President Trump.

All of this seems far in the future to those who are focused on Democratic efforts to deliver popular legislation in a closely divided Congress. But if we know anything about the current political environment, it’s that partisan polarization will make big swings in public opinion difficult or even impossible barring equally big changes in the quality of real life. So it may well be the small underlying currents in electoral politics, including the demographics of midterm turnout, that will determine whether Biden has at least four years or just two to implement his agenda.

With or without some help from Trump, though, Democrats really need to find ways to keep young and minority voters engaged.


Is the Democratic Plague of Midterm Fall-Off Ending?

A very old topic (to me) has arisen in connection with 2022 previews, and I wrote about it at New York:

As political observers know, the party not in control of the White House usually does well in midterm U.S. House and state elections. (The Senate is a bit iffier because the landscape can vary enormously based on which “class” of one-third of the chamber is up for reelection in any one year.) There have, however, been two aberrations in the recent past, in 1998 and 2002, wherein the White House party gained House seats. As I discussed in a recent post, Democrats hope 2022 could be an aberration as well, thanks to positive feelings about the subsiding pandemic and a strong economy, and perhaps the continued presence in the public eye of Donald J. Trump — the man nearly all Democratic and many swing voters love to hate.

But there’s another midterm variable that should be considered: a traditional “midterm fall-off” in voting by demographic groups that have recently become Democratic bastions. This was exhibited most forcefully in the very bad (for Democrats) midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.

Even after Trump’s election in 2016 gave Democratic-leaning demographic groups plenty of reasons to turn out disproportionately, there were fears the falloff would reduce or even wipe out Democratic gains in 2018. That didn’t happen, of course, as Ron Brownstein recalls:

“In 2018, more than 118 million Americans voted, exactly half of the eligible population, according to [Michael] McDonald’s calculations. That was the highest midterm turnout, as a share of eligible voters, since 1914, before women won the right to vote.

“And while the 2018 electorate was still somewhat older than in 2016, the gray shift wasn’t nearly as powerful as in the past, because young adults turned out at twice the level they did in the last midterm, of 2014. Turnout among Blacks and Hispanics also declined much less than in previous midterms, with the result that the White share of the vote actually fell from 2016 to 2018, according to McDonald’s calculations, an unprecedented pattern in recent years … The turnout wave continued into 2020, with nearly 160 million people voting and turnout among young people and people of color again rising dramatically.”

One key question for 2022 is whether the fall-off will resemble what we saw in 2010 or 2014 or instead the smaller version that appeared in 2018. The experts Brownstein consulted expect something in between, which, if combined with the kind of gains Democrats made in 2018 and 2020 among college-educated white suburbanites and older voters, could make a midterm upset possible under the right circumstances.

Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to get new or marginal voters to turn out again in 2022: Trump managed to turn out a surprising number of them in 2020 himself. Keeping them energized is job one for the GOP in 2022, and Republicans may have the advantage of the kind of enraged opposition to a “socialist” president that was so visible in the tea-party movement of 2010 — though thus far, Biden is not inspiring the same levels of hostility.

That leads to the 2022 variable that no one can entirely foresee: How visible will Donald Trump be in the midterm campaign? The threat of a Trump comeback is the easiest way for Democrats to mobilize their new 2018 and 2020 voters and for Republicans to mobilize their own. Trump could help Democrats turn the midterm from a referendum on the incumbent president (a referendum incumbent presidents typically lose) to at least partially a referendum on the once and possibly future President Trump.

All of this seems far in the future to those who are focused on Democratic efforts to deliver popular legislation in a closely divided Congress. But if we know anything about the current political environment, it’s that partisan polarization will make big swings in public opinion difficult or even impossible barring equally big changes in the quality of real life. So it may well be the small underlying currents in electoral politics, including the demographics of midterm turnout, that will determine whether Biden has at least four years or just two to implement his agenda.

With or without some help from Trump, though, Democrats really need to find ways to keep young and minority voters engaged.


June 17: The False Equivalence of Omar and Greene

After a week of efforts to equate the controversial remarks of two particular members of Congress, I pushed back a bit at New York:

It looks like House Republicans are going to deal with outrage over their perennial problem child Marjorie Taylor Greene by finding a Democrat to punish. That would be Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, according to Politico’s Huddle:

“’I think that Ilan should receive the same type of punishment as Marjorie because if it’s good for one, it is good for another,’ Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.), who voted to remove Greene from her committees, told me. ‘Anti-semitism is the same thing as anti-semitism. It’s just that Nancy is afraid …'”

There are others who want to push for Omar’s removal as well as those looking to censure her over her war crimes remarks — and a few Dems may join them.

The idea of equating Omar’s complaints about unequal treatment of countries in investigating military misconduct with Greene’s comparisons of mask and vaccine requirements to the Holocaust is deeply satisfying to a lot of people. Republicans can continue their now-ancient habit of waving away extremism in their ranks by claiming it’s more prevalent on the other side of the aisle. Nervous centrist Democrats can document their nervous centrism by firing thunderbolts left and right. And most of all, accusing both parties of harboring those prone to “false equivalence” appeals to the false equivalence many Beltway media folks want to draw between Democrats and Republicans, who are engaged in the mutually assured destruction of partisan polarization.

There’s only one problem: Treating what MTG and Omar have said as equal expressions of false equivalence actually is false, as any honest evaluation of their words quickly shows. Greene bluntly compared COVID-19 precautions to the Holocaust, analogized vaccine documentation mandates to the Nazi practice of making Jews wear yellow stars, and, for good measure, said Democrats are like Nazis because they are “socialists.” Omar said this in the midst of a virtual exchange with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over investigations of the brief but intense war between Israel and Hamas:

“’We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,’ she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.’”

Her point wasn’t to say the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban were equally culpable in their commission of atrocities, but that all should be equally subject to international investigation. I suppose there are superpatriots who would dispute the idea that America has ever committed “unthinkable atrocities,” though the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks, and of countless genocidal assaults on Native Americans, among many examples, suggest otherwise. But in any event, when challenged by Republicans and Democrats alike to make it clear she was not imputing equivalent culpability to these various nations and coalitions of fighters, Omar complied instantly:

“U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said Thursday that she was ‘in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems … ‘

“’To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding [International Criminal Court] cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel.’”

MTG, meanwhile, kept doubling down on her comparisons of public-health measures with the slaughter of many millions by Nazi Germany, and finally, after more than three weeks and a tour of the Holocaust Museum, she issued an apology that betrayed little understanding of the full scope of the Holocaust, and then refused to apologize for the Democrat-Nazi analogy.

Looking more broadly at the two women and their records of controversial utterances, Ilhan made an unfortunate and erroneous reference to “the Benjamins,” in a gratuitous comment about support for Israel in the United States, for which she “unequivocally” apologized:

“Anti-semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be able to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”

Greene lost her committee assignments earlier this year after media focus on an almost incredible blizzard of incendiary statements she made on social media before coming to Congress (barely anyone even noticed her practice of brandishing an AR-15 when discussing her enemies in campaign ads). In February, she apologized for claiming that school shootings were fake and for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories. She never apologized for happily contemplating violence against congressional Democrats (including, very specifically, Ilhan Omar) and the Speaker of the House, or for her unusually aggressive support of Trump’s electoral big lie and the effort in January to overturn the presidential election results, or for her own subscription to very weird anti-Semitic claims.

If you cannot discern a qualitative difference between Omar’s “outrages” and Greene’s, and between the speed and coherence of their clarifications and apologies, it may be time for some remedial work in logic and rhetoric. These two members of Congress aren’t alike at all, and as much as I sometimes disagree with Ilhan Omar, treating her as a left-wing MTG is lazy and just plain wrong.


The False Equivalence of Omar and Greene

After a week of efforts to equate the controversial remarks of two particular members of Congress, I pushed back a bit at New York:

It looks like House Republicans are going to deal with outrage over their perennial problem child Marjorie Taylor Greene by finding a Democrat to punish. That would be Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, according to Politico’s Huddle:

“’I think that Ilan should receive the same type of punishment as Marjorie because if it’s good for one, it is good for another,’ Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.), who voted to remove Greene from her committees, told me. ‘Anti-semitism is the same thing as anti-semitism. It’s just that Nancy is afraid …'”

There are others who want to push for Omar’s removal as well as those looking to censure her over her war crimes remarks — and a few Dems may join them.

The idea of equating Omar’s complaints about unequal treatment of countries in investigating military misconduct with Greene’s comparisons of mask and vaccine requirements to the Holocaust is deeply satisfying to a lot of people. Republicans can continue their now-ancient habit of waving away extremism in their ranks by claiming it’s more prevalent on the other side of the aisle. Nervous centrist Democrats can document their nervous centrism by firing thunderbolts left and right. And most of all, accusing both parties of harboring those prone to “false equivalence” appeals to the false equivalence many Beltway media folks want to draw between Democrats and Republicans, who are engaged in the mutually assured destruction of partisan polarization.

There’s only one problem: Treating what MTG and Omar have said as equal expressions of false equivalence actually is false, as any honest evaluation of their words quickly shows. Greene bluntly compared COVID-19 precautions to the Holocaust, analogized vaccine documentation mandates to the Nazi practice of making Jews wear yellow stars, and, for good measure, said Democrats are like Nazis because they are “socialists.” Omar said this in the midst of a virtual exchange with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over investigations of the brief but intense war between Israel and Hamas:

“’We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,’ she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.’”

Her point wasn’t to say the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban were equally culpable in their commission of atrocities, but that all should be equally subject to international investigation. I suppose there are superpatriots who would dispute the idea that America has ever committed “unthinkable atrocities,” though the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks, and of countless genocidal assaults on Native Americans, among many examples, suggest otherwise. But in any event, when challenged by Republicans and Democrats alike to make it clear she was not imputing equivalent culpability to these various nations and coalitions of fighters, Omar complied instantly:

“U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said Thursday that she was ‘in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems … ‘

“’To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding [International Criminal Court] cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel.’”

MTG, meanwhile, kept doubling down on her comparisons of public-health measures with the slaughter of many millions by Nazi Germany, and finally, after more than three weeks and a tour of the Holocaust Museum, she issued an apology that betrayed little understanding of the full scope of the Holocaust, and then refused to apologize for the Democrat-Nazi analogy.

Looking more broadly at the two women and their records of controversial utterances, Ilhan made an unfortunate and erroneous reference to “the Benjamins,” in a gratuitous comment about support for Israel in the United States, for which she “unequivocally” apologized:

“Anti-semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be able to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”

Greene lost her committee assignments earlier this year after media focus on an almost incredible blizzard of incendiary statements she made on social media before coming to Congress (barely anyone even noticed her practice of brandishing an AR-15 when discussing her enemies in campaign ads). In February, she apologized for claiming that school shootings were fake and for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories. She never apologized for happily contemplating violence against congressional Democrats (including, very specifically, Ilhan Omar) and the Speaker of the House, or for her unusually aggressive support of Trump’s electoral big lie and the effort in January to overturn the presidential election results, or for her own subscription to very weird anti-Semitic claims.

If you cannot discern a qualitative difference between Omar’s “outrages” and Greene’s, and between the speed and coherence of their clarifications and apologies, it may be time for some remedial work in logic and rhetoric. These two members of Congress aren’t alike at all, and as much as I sometimes disagree with Ilhan Omar, treating her as a left-wing MTG is lazy and just plain wrong.