washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

October 23: In the Final Debate, Trump Remained Trump

After watching the second and final presidential debate, I registered my thoughts at New York:

Donald Trump went into the final debate of the 2020 campaign needing a clear win and even more than that, needing to defend his record as president in clear, comprehensible language. His signal mistake in the first debate, I argued at the time, was to lapse into the right-wing code language of Fox News/Breitbart conspiracy theories, which almost certainly sounded like gibberish to the low-information undecided voters whose support is his only hope of victory.

In the Nashville debate, Trump started off doing exactly what he needed to do: defending his record on handling COVID-19 in complete sentences, with a bit of counter-punching against Biden’s criticisms (though the former veep’s “He said people are learning to live with it … they’re learning to die with it” line was unanswerable, and Trump’s pandemic record is tough to defend).

In the middle section of the debate, Trump began overriding moderator Kristen Welker regularly. Then on the very dangerous topic of children being separated from their parents at the border, Trump just lost it, shouting repeatedly “Who built the cages, Joe!” I know a fair amount about immigration, and if I had no idea what the president was alluding to, how would an undecided voter who hasn’t made Stephen Miller his guru on these issues?

Towards the end of the debate, Trump found his bearings and hit Biden hard on crime policy, just as the Democrat was beginning to lose steam and some of his own coherence. But he may have spoiled the effect (if any) on Black voters with his bizarre repeated insistence that “I am the least racist person in this room.” Was he suggesting the Black moderator is racist? Or appealing to the white racists who think that it’s Black people who are the racists? Again, you could almost hear the cheers in a room full of people who are already wearing MAGA hats.

The ultimate moment of speaking in code for Trump was in his attack on Biden’s environmental proposals, which he triumphantly described – twice – as “AOC plus three!” I get the reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman who is every conservative’s favorite demon-figure these days, but “plus three?” Is that a reference to the other members of the so-called “squad?” I don’t know, and neither did most viewers who aren’t already deep in the tank for the president.

The bottom line is that Trump had an unmistakable and unavoidable mission in this debate, which went beyond “not setting himself on fire,” as one commentator put it, and wasn’t accomplished even if he did score more points against Biden than Biden scored against him (which I don’t think he did). It was Trump’s last chance to make a case that his record entitles him to a second term, at a time when it’s really too late to make this a “choice” election where sowing doubts about his opponent will suffice. By this standard, Trump started out strong, but in the end he just could not help being himself.


In the Final Debate, Trump Remained Trump

After watching the second and final presidential debate, I registered my thoughts at New York:

Donald Trump went into the final debate of the 2020 campaign needing a clear win and even more than that, needing to defend his record as president in clear, comprehensible language. His signal mistake in the first debate, I argued at the time, was to lapse into the right-wing code language of Fox News/Breitbart conspiracy theories, which almost certainly sounded like gibberish to the low-information undecided voters whose support is his only hope of victory.

In the Nashville debate, Trump started off doing exactly what he needed to do: defending his record on handling COVID-19 in complete sentences, with a bit of counter-punching against Biden’s criticisms (though the former veep’s “He said people are learning to live with it … they’re learning to die with it” line was unanswerable, and Trump’s pandemic record is tough to defend).

In the middle section of the debate, Trump began overriding moderator Kristen Welker regularly. Then on the very dangerous topic of children being separated from their parents at the border, Trump just lost it, shouting repeatedly “Who built the cages, Joe!” I know a fair amount about immigration, and if I had no idea what the president was alluding to, how would an undecided voter who hasn’t made Stephen Miller his guru on these issues?

Towards the end of the debate, Trump found his bearings and hit Biden hard on crime policy, just as the Democrat was beginning to lose steam and some of his own coherence. But he may have spoiled the effect (if any) on Black voters with his bizarre repeated insistence that “I am the least racist person in this room.” Was he suggesting the Black moderator is racist? Or appealing to the white racists who think that it’s Black people who are the racists? Again, you could almost hear the cheers in a room full of people who are already wearing MAGA hats.

The ultimate moment of speaking in code for Trump was in his attack on Biden’s environmental proposals, which he triumphantly described – twice – as “AOC plus three!” I get the reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman who is every conservative’s favorite demon-figure these days, but “plus three?” Is that a reference to the other members of the so-called “squad?” I don’t know, and neither did most viewers who aren’t already deep in the tank for the president.

The bottom line is that Trump had an unmistakable and unavoidable mission in this debate, which went beyond “not setting himself on fire,” as one commentator put it, and wasn’t accomplished even if he did score more points against Biden than Biden scored against him (which I don’t think he did). It was Trump’s last chance to make a case that his record entitles him to a second term, at a time when it’s really too late to make this a “choice” election where sowing doubts about his opponent will suffice. By this standard, Trump started out strong, but in the end he just could not help being himself.


October 21: Barrett Hearings Weren’t the Base Energizer Republicans Expected

After the Barrett confirmation hearings came to a close, I observed at New York that they hadn’t generated the excitement many Republicans anticipated:

You’d think getting a third Federalist Society–vetted Supreme Court nominee in a single presidential term would be enough good fortune for Republicans. But when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died there was immediate speculation in the GOP ranks that a good, vicious confirmation fight for a new conservative justice would be just what the doctor ordered for Republican prospects in November. Here’s one of many such prophecies, as reported by the Associated Press:

“Four years ago, the allure of conservative Supreme Court appointments helped persuade skeptical Republicans to support Donald Trump for president. Two years ago, a contentious clash over Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh for the court was credited with bolstering GOP gains in the Senate in an otherwise bad midterm election.

“GOP leaders are optimistic they can pull it off. In the turbulent Trump era, nothing has motivated the Republican Party’s disparate factions to come home quite like the prospect of a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court.”

Here’s another, from the Washington Post at about the same time:

“’Trump needs to fire up conservatives for the election. That’s the goal,’ said Mike Davis, a Republican consultant who helped lead the Senate confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018. ‘That is a big deal for conservatives and will motivate them.'”

Now before proceeding into an examination of how that’s working out for the GOP, I’ll pause to examine the dubious premise that Mitch McConnell won it all for Trump in 2016 by keeping Merrick Garland far from the Supreme Court, and that in 2018 the Brett Kavanaugh fight produced a big upset victory for Republican senators.

Yes, 2016 exit polls showed that among the 21 percent of voters who claimed Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their candidate choice, Trump won by a comfortable but hardly staggering 56-41 margin. And there’s no question that by naming a list of Supreme Court prospects and creating a process for the strict ideological vetting of judicial nominees, Trump built trust with conservatives — especially white Evangelical conservatives — who wound up supporting him overwhelmingly. But it’s really unclear the non-hearings and the non-confirmation of Garland made the shape of the Supreme Court significantly more vital to Trump supporters than a Court with Garland on it might have.

The myth of the Kavanaugh battle saving the Republican Senate in 2018, which is an article of faith for many GOP pols, is even more dubious. Exit polls that year showed voters opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation by a 47-43 margin, and more impressively, favoring continuation of Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to choose abortion — by all accounts the driving motivation of conservative SCOTUS mania — by a 66-25 margins. As I pointed out at the time, the real reason Republican held onto the Senate and even made gains was an insanely favorable landscape, with 26 Democratic as opposed to just nine Republican seats at risk:

“In the Senate, Republicans picked up two net seats by winning Democratic-held seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota [all states carried by Trump in 2016], while losing seats they held in Arizona [ditto] and Nevada …

“Democrats won 22 of the 34 Senate races decided so far [ultimately 22 of 35 after a Mississippi runoff]. And while California complicates the Senate popular-vote picture (because its top-two primary system produced a two-Democrat general election for the Senate), by any measure more people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Senate races. FiveThirtyEight calculates that 27 of 33 Democratic candidates (excluding Mississippi and two-Democrats California) over-performed the partisan lean of their states. So it’s a bit strange to treat the Senate shift as a GOP “mandate” on par with what happened in the House.”

Even if you do buy the dubious theory that a Supreme Court confirmation war is a guaranteed net base energizer for the GOP, the confirmation hearings of Barrett, which finished last week, were decidedly lacking in drama as compared to the Kavanaugh saga two years ago. The most obvious reason, of course, is that no one has come forward to accuse Barrett of sexual assault, inspiring Me Too activists and generating total fury among conservative men led by those on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The lower temperature is also attributable to the Democratic strategy for coping with her, as I explained earlier:

“Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not. Even before President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans cleverly alleged that Democrats would expose anti-Catholic (or even anti-Christian) animus in an examination of her worldview.

“Republicans claim, unfairly, that the opposing party already did this during the 2017 hearings that preceded Barrett’s confirmation to the Seventh Circuit, so in recent days Democrats have given her belief system a wide berth.”

Instead Democrats have focused on the impact of a more conservative Court on the Affordable Care Act, a regular messaging preoccupation of theirs and not something likely to provoke potential Trump voters to snake-dance to the polls in a state of hate-filled exaltation.

Yes, getting extra air time chairing the Barrett hearings and defending her on the Senate floor could help lift Lindsey Graham to an unimpressive win over the very impressive Jaime Harrison in South Carolina. But as an all-purpose base-arouser, it’s likely to be overshadowed by the president shouting at suburban women to “please like me!” because he “saved” their neighborhoods from Black and brown and poor people.

Perhaps Democrats unhappy with the handling of the Barrett hearings by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats should see a silver lining: If you snooze, they lose.


Barrett Hearings Weren’t the Base Energizer Republicans Expected

After the Barrett confirmation hearings came to a close, I observed at New York that they hadn’t generated the excitement many Republicans anticipated:

You’d think getting a third Federalist Society–vetted Supreme Court nominee in a single presidential term would be enough good fortune for Republicans. But when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died there was immediate speculation in the GOP ranks that a good, vicious confirmation fight for a new conservative justice would be just what the doctor ordered for Republican prospects in November. Here’s one of many such prophecies, as reported by the Associated Press:

“Four years ago, the allure of conservative Supreme Court appointments helped persuade skeptical Republicans to support Donald Trump for president. Two years ago, a contentious clash over Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh for the court was credited with bolstering GOP gains in the Senate in an otherwise bad midterm election.

“GOP leaders are optimistic they can pull it off. In the turbulent Trump era, nothing has motivated the Republican Party’s disparate factions to come home quite like the prospect of a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court.”

Here’s another, from the Washington Post at about the same time:

“’Trump needs to fire up conservatives for the election. That’s the goal,’ said Mike Davis, a Republican consultant who helped lead the Senate confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018. ‘That is a big deal for conservatives and will motivate them.'”

Now before proceeding into an examination of how that’s working out for the GOP, I’ll pause to examine the dubious premise that Mitch McConnell won it all for Trump in 2016 by keeping Merrick Garland far from the Supreme Court, and that in 2018 the Brett Kavanaugh fight produced a big upset victory for Republican senators.

Yes, 2016 exit polls showed that among the 21 percent of voters who claimed Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their candidate choice, Trump won by a comfortable but hardly staggering 56-41 margin. And there’s no question that by naming a list of Supreme Court prospects and creating a process for the strict ideological vetting of judicial nominees, Trump built trust with conservatives — especially white Evangelical conservatives — who wound up supporting him overwhelmingly. But it’s really unclear the non-hearings and the non-confirmation of Garland made the shape of the Supreme Court significantly more vital to Trump supporters than a Court with Garland on it might have.

The myth of the Kavanaugh battle saving the Republican Senate in 2018, which is an article of faith for many GOP pols, is even more dubious. Exit polls that year showed voters opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation by a 47-43 margin, and more impressively, favoring continuation of Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to choose abortion — by all accounts the driving motivation of conservative SCOTUS mania — by a 66-25 margins. As I pointed out at the time, the real reason Republican held onto the Senate and even made gains was an insanely favorable landscape, with 26 Democratic as opposed to just nine Republican seats at risk:

“In the Senate, Republicans picked up two net seats by winning Democratic-held seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota [all states carried by Trump in 2016], while losing seats they held in Arizona [ditto] and Nevada …

“Democrats won 22 of the 34 Senate races decided so far [ultimately 22 of 35 after a Mississippi runoff]. And while California complicates the Senate popular-vote picture (because its top-two primary system produced a two-Democrat general election for the Senate), by any measure more people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Senate races. FiveThirtyEight calculates that 27 of 33 Democratic candidates (excluding Mississippi and two-Democrats California) over-performed the partisan lean of their states. So it’s a bit strange to treat the Senate shift as a GOP “mandate” on par with what happened in the House.”

Even if you do buy the dubious theory that a Supreme Court confirmation war is a guaranteed net base energizer for the GOP, the confirmation hearings of Barrett, which finished last week, were decidedly lacking in drama as compared to the Kavanaugh saga two years ago. The most obvious reason, of course, is that no one has come forward to accuse Barrett of sexual assault, inspiring Me Too activists and generating total fury among conservative men led by those on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The lower temperature is also attributable to the Democratic strategy for coping with her, as I explained earlier:

“Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not. Even before President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans cleverly alleged that Democrats would expose anti-Catholic (or even anti-Christian) animus in an examination of her worldview.

“Republicans claim, unfairly, that the opposing party already did this during the 2017 hearings that preceded Barrett’s confirmation to the Seventh Circuit, so in recent days Democrats have given her belief system a wide berth.”

Instead Democrats have focused on the impact of a more conservative Court on the Affordable Care Act, a regular messaging preoccupation of theirs and not something likely to provoke potential Trump voters to snake-dance to the polls in a state of hate-filled exaltation.

Yes, getting extra air time chairing the Barrett hearings and defending her on the Senate floor could help lift Lindsey Graham to an unimpressive win over the very impressive Jaime Harrison in South Carolina. But as an all-purpose base-arouser, it’s likely to be overshadowed by the president shouting at suburban women to “please like me!” because he “saved” their neighborhoods from Black and brown and poor people.

Perhaps Democrats unhappy with the handling of the Barrett hearings by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats should see a silver lining: If you snooze, they lose.


October 16: Is the Democratic South Returning in 2020?

It occurred to me this week that 2020 represents the half-century anniversary of a real political breakthrough in the South, so I wrote about it at New York:

[A]s we approach a momentous election, something’s happening that some of us old southern-bred progressives weren’t sure we’d live to see: Large swaths of the South are competitive in both presidential and Senate races. This development is typified by my home state of Georgia, where there are two red-hot Senate races, two red-hot suburban House races, and better than a puncher’s chance that Joe Biden will win the state’s 16 electoral votes.

It brings back memories. Fifty years ago this autumn, a wave of new, non-racist southern Democratic governors was elected and was widely proclaimed to represent a New South. There was Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, who soundly defeated the old race-baiter Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary before dispatching Republican incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller. There was Floridian Reuben Askew, who demolished conservative Republican incumbent Claude Kirk. In South Carolina, John West defeated party-switching Republican segregationist Albert Watson. And in Georgia, former state legislator Jimmy Carter defeated Republican journalist Hal Suit and almost immediately began repudiating the vestiges of segregation.

It was an exciting moment in southern politics. Black voters, gradually emancipated politically by the Voting Rights Act, joined forces with some northern transplants and urbanizing white voters to bury the racist southern Democratic Party of the Jim Crow era. (Aside from Alabama, where George Wallace reclaimed his hold on the state Democratic Party after he lost it temporarily when his wife and designated successor, Lurleen Wallace, died.)

The emergence of non-racist white southern Democrats leading a new biracial coalition initiated a long process wherein conservative white southerners drifted toward the GOP. For a very long time, Republicans held the advantage in this exchange. But for a brief moment after 1970, things were looking up for a biracial Democratic coalition.

This moment of hope peaked in Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, when the Georgia governor defeated Wallace in most southern primaries and then gained his endorsement, subsequently putting together a mind-bending coalition of Black and conservative white voters united by regional pride (between Andrew and Lyndon Johnson, no president was elected from a state that had been part of the Confederacy). Carter won every state of the former Confederacy (producing huge swings compared with Hubert Humphrey’s performance in 1968 and George McGovern’s in 1972) except Virginia; he won the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri as well as southern-inflected areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania that helped keep those states in the Democratic column. Carter also became a sort of figure of emancipation and political awakening among his fellow white Evangelical Christians — the same group that gave Donald Trump more than 80 percent of their votes in 2016.

Until now, the two Carter elections have been the high-water mark of post-civil-rights-era Democratic performance in the South, with a faint echo in 1992 when Bill Clinton won his own state of Arkansas, plus Georgia, Louisiana, and running mate Al Gore’s Tennessee. When the Carter coalition fell in 1980, it fell hard. Southern Democrats held on at the state and local levels for a good while, even into the current century in some places, but the handwriting was on the wall. Republicans won every state of the former Confederacy in the 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections. Beginning in 1992 and 1994, Republicans began a brisk conquest of southern congressional seats, in part by packing Black voters into gerrymandered House districts that left other districts vulnerable to GOP gains among white voters. A rapidly shrinking cohort of white moderate-to-conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats held out, although voting more and more often with Republicans in Congress, even as some gave up and switched parties.

Residual racism, of course, was an abiding wellspring for this trend. Indeed, beginning in the 1990s there was much talk of the “southernization” of the Republican Party as the migration of racially motivated hard-core conservatives into the GOP introduced an ideologically rigid, even savage tone into the councils of the Party of Lincoln.

Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and well into the 21st, the arithmetic for Republican domination of the South was to roll up huge margins among white voters in suburban and rural areas that offset the growth of the Black voting population of urban areas, increasingly supplemented with northern transplants and “knowledge workers.” The omega point for this trend was the midterm election of 2014, when, for a brief moment, Republicans controlled every state legislative chamber, every governorship, and all but one Senate seat in the former Confederacy.

But underneath the surface, this demographic arithmetic has been steadily reversing itself as minority voting participation blossomed and college-educated white voters began spurning Republicans. Virginia flipped first; the sole southern state to spurn Carter has gone Democratic in three straight presidential contests and isn’t even competitive in 2020. North Carolina followed, going Democratic in 2008 for the first time since 1976, and has remained competitive, as has Florida, the ultimate national battleground state.

Carter’s own Georgia, with a steadily rising Black, Latino, and Asian voting population centered in Atlanta and its increasingly diverse suburbs, is widely expected to be the next southeastern state to “turn blue.” In 2018, Democrats picked up one House seat and nearly won another in the north Atlanta suburbs, which were a Republican stronghold until very recently. Their gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, came within an eyelash of winning back the statehouse that Democrats had last won in 1998.

Like Georgia, Texas is a state where Democrats made startling urban and suburban gains in 2018 and seem to be approaching a demographic tipping point. They flipped two House seats despite a heavily gerrymandered district map and improved their vote share almost everywhere, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke broke fundraising records and threw a serious scare into Ted Cruz. And that midterm election built on the gains of 2016, when Hillary Clinton reduced Barack Obama’s 15-point margin of defeat in 2012 to less than nine points.

Even in South Carolina, where the South’s conservative Republican revolution really began when the segregationist senator Strom Thurmond joined the GOP in 1964, the same coalition of Black and upscale white suburban voters is beginning to make serious inroads into Republican rule. This year, Democrat Jaime Harrison, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in U.S. political history, is running even in the polls with veteran Republican senator Lindsey Graham. No Democrat has won a Senate or gubernatorial race in the Palmetto State since 1998. It also appears that Biden may well win the highest percentage of the presidential vote there than any Democrat since — you guessed it — Jimmy Carter.

It’s important to understand, however, that the future Democratic coalition in the South is different from the one Republicans defeated a generation ago. From Carter’s day until very recently, the southern Democratic formula for success was to run moderate-to-conservative white candidates with residual appeal among rural white voters and count on monolithic Black support to lift them to victory over suburban-based Republican candidates. It created some understandable unhappiness among Black Democrats who were often taken for granted and were hardly ever represented in major offices. It also sustained a southern wing of the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs, that was often out of sync ideologically with the national party and was unreliable in national elections and in Congress.

In Georgia, the last gasp of the old Blue Dog approach to Democratic politics was breathed in 2014 when two scions of legendary white Democrats headed the ticket: Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sam, the former senator) for Senate, and Carter’s own grandson Jason for governor. Both ran traditional centrist campaigns, and both lost. They were outpaced in 2018 by Abrams, a Black progressive lawmaker from Atlanta, who represented a new formula for southern Democratic politics: a truly multiracial and more ideologically progressive coalition that’s good news for Democrats both regionally and nationally. Similarly, in Florida, forthright Black progressive Andrew Gillum upset still another centrist white Democratic scion, Gwen Graham, in the 2018 primary and posted the best gubernatorial performance of any Democrat since 1994. In 2020, South Carolina’s Harrison fits the same mold, as do white Democrats like Senate candidate MJ Hegar in Texas — perhaps somewhat moderate by national standards but not the southern Democrats of yore who ran away from the national party and often aped conservative talking points.

So are Democrats on the brink of becoming a new, more racially equitable and progressive version of the successful Democrats of Jimmy Carter’s New South era? There are headwinds, to be sure. As Perry Bacon Jr. astutely observed in an analysis of the South Carolina Senate race, getting to 50 percent for southern Democrats is a lot harder than getting to 45 percent:

“White voters in the South tend to be consistently Republican. That is, they don’t really swing between the two parties as they do in a state like Iowa, where Biden could do 6 to 9 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. At FiveThirtyEight, we call this phenomenon “elasticity” — basically, how many voters in a state are persuadable vs. always vote for one party or the other. And South Carolina is one of the most inelastic states.”

That’s true of southern-bred white voters across the region, or at least those whose politics are unleavened by the influence of academic centers, tech companies, or Yankee-transplant friends and neighbors. And there are pockets of the South where the math just doesn’t add up for Democrats, either because there aren’t enough minority voters to serve as a party base (Tennessee) or because of conservative economic and cultural patterns that have inhibited the growth of a progressive white voting bloc (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi).

Still, you have to guess, as Jimmy Carter turned 96 this month, that he probably feels more comfortable with his region’s politics than at any time since at least the 1990s. The impossible task he performed of uniting the South around a Democratic candidacy despite vast differences of opinion on just about everything was a onetime proposition. It was born of a regional inferiority complex and the impressive, if forgotten, political skills of a man mostly admired for his post-political, postpresidential accomplishments in diplomacy and philanthropy. But the future southern Democratic Party is now being built on the more solid ground of policies and values that unite an increasingly diverse population with their counterparts in other parts of the country — led by politicians who are no longer whistling Dixie.


Is the Democratic South Returning in 2020?

It occurred to me this week that 2020 represents the half-century anniversary of a real political breakthrough in the South, so I wrote about it at New York:

[A]s we approach a momentous election, something’s happening that some of us old southern-bred progressives weren’t sure we’d live to see: Large swaths of the South are competitive in both presidential and Senate races. This development is typified by my home state of Georgia, where there are two red-hot Senate races, two red-hot suburban House races, and better than a puncher’s chance that Joe Biden will win the state’s 16 electoral votes.

It brings back memories. Fifty years ago this autumn, a wave of new, non-racist southern Democratic governors was elected and was widely proclaimed to represent a New South. There was Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, who soundly defeated the old race-baiter Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary before dispatching Republican incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller. There was Floridian Reuben Askew, who demolished conservative Republican incumbent Claude Kirk. In South Carolina, John West defeated party-switching Republican segregationist Albert Watson. And in Georgia, former state legislator Jimmy Carter defeated Republican journalist Hal Suit and almost immediately began repudiating the vestiges of segregation.

It was an exciting moment in southern politics. Black voters, gradually emancipated politically by the Voting Rights Act, joined forces with some northern transplants and urbanizing white voters to bury the racist southern Democratic Party of the Jim Crow era. (Aside from Alabama, where George Wallace reclaimed his hold on the state Democratic Party after he lost it temporarily when his wife and designated successor, Lurleen Wallace, died.)

The emergence of non-racist white southern Democrats leading a new biracial coalition initiated a long process wherein conservative white southerners drifted toward the GOP. For a very long time, Republicans held the advantage in this exchange. But for a brief moment after 1970, things were looking up for a biracial Democratic coalition.

This moment of hope peaked in Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, when the Georgia governor defeated Wallace in most southern primaries and then gained his endorsement, subsequently putting together a mind-bending coalition of Black and conservative white voters united by regional pride (between Andrew and Lyndon Johnson, no president was elected from a state that had been part of the Confederacy). Carter won every state of the former Confederacy (producing huge swings compared with Hubert Humphrey’s performance in 1968 and George McGovern’s in 1972) except Virginia; he won the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri as well as southern-inflected areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania that helped keep those states in the Democratic column. Carter also became a sort of figure of emancipation and political awakening among his fellow white Evangelical Christians — the same group that gave Donald Trump more than 80 percent of their votes in 2016.

Until now, the two Carter elections have been the high-water mark of post-civil-rights-era Democratic performance in the South, with a faint echo in 1992 when Bill Clinton won his own state of Arkansas, plus Georgia, Louisiana, and running mate Al Gore’s Tennessee. When the Carter coalition fell in 1980, it fell hard. Southern Democrats held on at the state and local levels for a good while, even into the current century in some places, but the handwriting was on the wall. Republicans won every state of the former Confederacy in the 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections. Beginning in 1992 and 1994, Republicans began a brisk conquest of southern congressional seats, in part by packing Black voters into gerrymandered House districts that left other districts vulnerable to GOP gains among white voters. A rapidly shrinking cohort of white moderate-to-conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats held out, although voting more and more often with Republicans in Congress, even as some gave up and switched parties.

Residual racism, of course, was an abiding wellspring for this trend. Indeed, beginning in the 1990s there was much talk of the “southernization” of the Republican Party as the migration of racially motivated hard-core conservatives into the GOP introduced an ideologically rigid, even savage tone into the councils of the Party of Lincoln.

Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and well into the 21st, the arithmetic for Republican domination of the South was to roll up huge margins among white voters in suburban and rural areas that offset the growth of the Black voting population of urban areas, increasingly supplemented with northern transplants and “knowledge workers.” The omega point for this trend was the midterm election of 2014, when, for a brief moment, Republicans controlled every state legislative chamber, every governorship, and all but one Senate seat in the former Confederacy.

But underneath the surface, this demographic arithmetic has been steadily reversing itself as minority voting participation blossomed and college-educated white voters began spurning Republicans. Virginia flipped first; the sole southern state to spurn Carter has gone Democratic in three straight presidential contests and isn’t even competitive in 2020. North Carolina followed, going Democratic in 2008 for the first time since 1976, and has remained competitive, as has Florida, the ultimate national battleground state.

Carter’s own Georgia, with a steadily rising Black, Latino, and Asian voting population centered in Atlanta and its increasingly diverse suburbs, is widely expected to be the next southeastern state to “turn blue.” In 2018, Democrats picked up one House seat and nearly won another in the north Atlanta suburbs, which were a Republican stronghold until very recently. Their gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, came within an eyelash of winning back the statehouse that Democrats had last won in 1998.

Like Georgia, Texas is a state where Democrats made startling urban and suburban gains in 2018 and seem to be approaching a demographic tipping point. They flipped two House seats despite a heavily gerrymandered district map and improved their vote share almost everywhere, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke broke fundraising records and threw a serious scare into Ted Cruz. And that midterm election built on the gains of 2016, when Hillary Clinton reduced Barack Obama’s 15-point margin of defeat in 2012 to less than nine points.

Even in South Carolina, where the South’s conservative Republican revolution really began when the segregationist senator Strom Thurmond joined the GOP in 1964, the same coalition of Black and upscale white suburban voters is beginning to make serious inroads into Republican rule. This year, Democrat Jaime Harrison, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in U.S. political history, is running even in the polls with veteran Republican senator Lindsey Graham. No Democrat has won a Senate or gubernatorial race in the Palmetto State since 1998. It also appears that Biden may well win the highest percentage of the presidential vote there than any Democrat since — you guessed it — Jimmy Carter.

It’s important to understand, however, that the future Democratic coalition in the South is different from the one Republicans defeated a generation ago. From Carter’s day until very recently, the southern Democratic formula for success was to run moderate-to-conservative white candidates with residual appeal among rural white voters and count on monolithic Black support to lift them to victory over suburban-based Republican candidates. It created some understandable unhappiness among Black Democrats who were often taken for granted and were hardly ever represented in major offices. It also sustained a southern wing of the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs, that was often out of sync ideologically with the national party and was unreliable in national elections and in Congress.

In Georgia, the last gasp of the old Blue Dog approach to Democratic politics was breathed in 2014 when two scions of legendary white Democrats headed the ticket: Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sam, the former senator) for Senate, and Carter’s own grandson Jason for governor. Both ran traditional centrist campaigns, and both lost. They were outpaced in 2018 by Abrams, a Black progressive lawmaker from Atlanta, who represented a new formula for southern Democratic politics: a truly multiracial and more ideologically progressive coalition that’s good news for Democrats both regionally and nationally. Similarly, in Florida, forthright Black progressive Andrew Gillum upset still another centrist white Democratic scion, Gwen Graham, in the 2018 primary and posted the best gubernatorial performance of any Democrat since 1994. In 2020, South Carolina’s Harrison fits the same mold, as do white Democrats like Senate candidate MJ Hegar in Texas — perhaps somewhat moderate by national standards but not the southern Democrats of yore who ran away from the national party and often aped conservative talking points.

So are Democrats on the brink of becoming a new, more racially equitable and progressive version of the successful Democrats of Jimmy Carter’s New South era? There are headwinds, to be sure. As Perry Bacon Jr. astutely observed in an analysis of the South Carolina Senate race, getting to 50 percent for southern Democrats is a lot harder than getting to 45 percent:

“White voters in the South tend to be consistently Republican. That is, they don’t really swing between the two parties as they do in a state like Iowa, where Biden could do 6 to 9 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. At FiveThirtyEight, we call this phenomenon “elasticity” — basically, how many voters in a state are persuadable vs. always vote for one party or the other. And South Carolina is one of the most inelastic states.”

That’s true of southern-bred white voters across the region, or at least those whose politics are unleavened by the influence of academic centers, tech companies, or Yankee-transplant friends and neighbors. And there are pockets of the South where the math just doesn’t add up for Democrats, either because there aren’t enough minority voters to serve as a party base (Tennessee) or because of conservative economic and cultural patterns that have inhibited the growth of a progressive white voting bloc (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi).

Still, you have to guess, as Jimmy Carter turned 96 this month, that he probably feels more comfortable with his region’s politics than at any time since at least the 1990s. The impossible task he performed of uniting the South around a Democratic candidacy despite vast differences of opinion on just about everything was a onetime proposition. It was born of a regional inferiority complex and the impressive, if forgotten, political skills of a man mostly admired for his post-political, postpresidential accomplishments in diplomacy and philanthropy. But the future southern Democratic Party is now being built on the more solid ground of policies and values that unite an increasingly diverse population with their counterparts in other parts of the country — led by politicians who are no longer whistling Dixie.


October 14: Why the Barrett Confirmation Hearings Are Unexciting

After watching a tedious day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings over the Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, I wrote about it at New York:

Perhaps someday we will look back on this week as a momentous turning point, as the substantive constitutional questions Barrett is largely refusing to answer are weighty and consequential and her expected confirmation will shift the Supreme Court sharply to the right. But at the moment, the temperature is far lower than it was two years ago during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

Now, obviously, the Kavanaugh confirmation battle came to revolve around Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against the nominee, and his angry counterattacks on Democrats for unveiling and considering them. It is extremely unlikely anything equally controversial and dramatic will arise during this week’s proceedings. But that isn’t the only reason the current proceedings feel much different. The dynamics at play in the Barrett hearings are fundamentally different in ways that benefit the nominee and her backers. Here’s why the “rush to judgement” on Barrett less than a month before a presidential election doesn’t feel like a bigger scandal:

This Time the Nominee’s Character and Personal Background Are Assets, Not Handicaps

Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett’s résumés are similar in some respects. Both are observant Roman Catholics of a traditionalist bent; longtime members of the conservative Federalist Society; and beneficiaries of past appointments from Republican presidents. But Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not. Even before President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans cleverly alleged that Democrats would expose anti-Catholic (or even anti-Christian) animus in an examination of her worldview. Republicans claim, unfairly, that the opposing party already did this during the 2017 hearings that preceded Barrett’s confirmation to the Seventh Circuit, so in recent days Democrats have given her belief system a wide berth.

During a less rushed confirmation process, Barrett’s longtime membership in People of Praise, a secretive charismatic Christian group characterized by private oaths and an allegedly patriarchal leadership structure, might have sparked controversy — and it’s likely progressive investigators are looking into it all. But Senate Democrats won’t go there on their own.

In the meantime, Barrett’s unusual personal and professional career has lent itself to hagiographical treatment in a way that Brett Kavanaugh’s conventional climb to the Court couldn’t support even if he hadn’t been accused of sexual assault. As Christine Cauterucci notes at Slate, she’s become an odd sort of symbol of ersatz feminism for anti-feminists:

“In a crude way, [Barrett’s] lived example supports their argument that women’s choices, not the systemic restriction of those choices, is the only thing holding women back. It’s this belief that allows anti-choice activists to call themselves feminists and argue that abortion restrictions are not sexist — that assaults on a woman’s right to govern her own medical care, control what happens to her body, and choose when and whether to have children do not hold a woman back from achieving everything she wants in life.”

And on the first day of the hearings, Republican paeans to Barrett’s large and diverse family were ubiquitous, as Robin Givhan observed:

“Rare was the Republican on the committee who was able to deliver an opening statement without referring to the seven children in the Barrett family. This feat of parenting seemed to leave them gobsmacked with admiration and utterly mystified as to how a two-parent household with significant financial resources was capable of wrangling such a large brood without the missus showing up with oatmeal on her clothes.”

Republicans Have Just Enough Breathing Room in the Senate

Since Democrats had a very successful 2018 midterm election, it is sometimes forgotten that Republicans achieved a net gain of two Senate seats that year. Trump and others have propagated the theory that the Kavanaugh hearings “saved” the Republican Senate by energizing the party’s conservative base, and it may have made a slight difference on the margins in this or that close race. But the reality is that the 2018 Senate landscape was wildly slanted in the GOP’s direction, as I noted at the time:

“[A]’“split decision’ narrative driven by the GOP’s Senate gains was promoted by Republicans and media outlets alike. This was understandable since “Republicans retained the Senate because of the most insanely pro-GOP landscape ever” is not an interpretation that fits well into a headline or a tweet.”

In any event, the 51-49 margin by which the Republicans controlled the Senate in 2018 is 53-47 now, and that has made an enormous difference in the dynamics. The defection of Democrat Joe Manchin in Kavanaugh’s favor gave the GOP a two-vote cushion in 2018; it’s three now without any Democratic votes. So Republicans can afford to lose the electorally endangered Susan Collins (as they already have), the other pro-choice Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, and a random third senator, without consequences. Democrats know that, which is why they seem resigned to her confirmation.

The Senate margin also helps explain the Republican rush to get the confirmation done before Election Day; the Arizona Senate contest is a special election to complete the term of the late John McCain; Republican Martha McSally was appointed to the McCain seat until November 3. If, as currently seems likely, Democrat Mark Kelly defeats her, the Republican margin in the Senate instantly drops to two votes.

Democrats Have Decided to Use the Hearings to Reinforce Their 2020 Health-Care Talking Points

It’s impossible to know what line of attack Democrats might have taken in 2018 had Brett Kavanaugh not been facing sexual-assault allegations. But they might well have sought to reinforce their very effective midterm messaging on health-care policy thanks to pending Obamacare litigation.

That litigation is now on the Supreme Court’s doorstep, with oral arguments in California v. Texas scheduled to take place on November 10. The connection between the Supreme Court and a popular health-care law embodying protections for people with preexisting conditions is now very, very proximate, which also makes the acutely embarrassing Republican inability to design (or even describe) an Obamacare replacement more relevant than ever.

Since Barrett can’t say anything reassuring about her views on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (which are clear and discomforting, if not exactly on the point raised in California v. Texas), her hearings provide a risk-free opportunity for the Donkey Party to hold every elephant’s feet to the fire on a subject voters care about a great deal. They are going to take it, and that keeps the heat off Barrett herself.

It’s 2020!

The political environment surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process was scorching hot, but not like 2020’s. Barrett’s confirmation hearing is being overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic — particularly the fact that the president and several Senate Judiciary Committee members have contracted COVID-19, with some infections quite likely having been spread at a White House reception honoring Barrett.

But ultimately the strangest thing about this confirmation remains its proximity to a high-stakes election in which control of both the presidency and the Senate could very well change. That Barrett is being asked how she’d feel about deciding a presidential election that Trump has clearly already decided to contest if he loses is a reminder that another conservative justice isn’t the only present threat to the Constitution as we know it. Barrett’s confirmation, important as it is, cannot stand out starkly against a background so lurid and consequential as today’s.


Why the Barrett Confirmation Hearings Are Unexciting

After watching a tedious day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings over the Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, I wrote about it at New York:

Perhaps someday we will look back on this week as a momentous turning point, as the substantive constitutional questions Barrett is largely refusing to answer are weighty and consequential and her expected confirmation will shift the Supreme Court sharply to the right. But at the moment, the temperature is far lower than it was two years ago during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

Now, obviously, the Kavanaugh confirmation battle came to revolve around Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against the nominee, and his angry counterattacks on Democrats for unveiling and considering them. It is extremely unlikely anything equally controversial and dramatic will arise during this week’s proceedings. But that isn’t the only reason the current proceedings feel much different. The dynamics at play in the Barrett hearings are fundamentally different in ways that benefit the nominee and her backers. Here’s why the “rush to judgement” on Barrett less than a month before a presidential election doesn’t feel like a bigger scandal:

This Time the Nominee’s Character and Personal Background Are Assets, Not Handicaps

Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett’s résumés are similar in some respects. Both are observant Roman Catholics of a traditionalist bent; longtime members of the conservative Federalist Society; and beneficiaries of past appointments from Republican presidents. But Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not. Even before President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans cleverly alleged that Democrats would expose anti-Catholic (or even anti-Christian) animus in an examination of her worldview. Republicans claim, unfairly, that the opposing party already did this during the 2017 hearings that preceded Barrett’s confirmation to the Seventh Circuit, so in recent days Democrats have given her belief system a wide berth.

During a less rushed confirmation process, Barrett’s longtime membership in People of Praise, a secretive charismatic Christian group characterized by private oaths and an allegedly patriarchal leadership structure, might have sparked controversy — and it’s likely progressive investigators are looking into it all. But Senate Democrats won’t go there on their own.

In the meantime, Barrett’s unusual personal and professional career has lent itself to hagiographical treatment in a way that Brett Kavanaugh’s conventional climb to the Court couldn’t support even if he hadn’t been accused of sexual assault. As Christine Cauterucci notes at Slate, she’s become an odd sort of symbol of ersatz feminism for anti-feminists:

“In a crude way, [Barrett’s] lived example supports their argument that women’s choices, not the systemic restriction of those choices, is the only thing holding women back. It’s this belief that allows anti-choice activists to call themselves feminists and argue that abortion restrictions are not sexist — that assaults on a woman’s right to govern her own medical care, control what happens to her body, and choose when and whether to have children do not hold a woman back from achieving everything she wants in life.”

And on the first day of the hearings, Republican paeans to Barrett’s large and diverse family were ubiquitous, as Robin Givhan observed:

“Rare was the Republican on the committee who was able to deliver an opening statement without referring to the seven children in the Barrett family. This feat of parenting seemed to leave them gobsmacked with admiration and utterly mystified as to how a two-parent household with significant financial resources was capable of wrangling such a large brood without the missus showing up with oatmeal on her clothes.”

Republicans Have Just Enough Breathing Room in the Senate

Since Democrats had a very successful 2018 midterm election, it is sometimes forgotten that Republicans achieved a net gain of two Senate seats that year. Trump and others have propagated the theory that the Kavanaugh hearings “saved” the Republican Senate by energizing the party’s conservative base, and it may have made a slight difference on the margins in this or that close race. But the reality is that the 2018 Senate landscape was wildly slanted in the GOP’s direction, as I noted at the time:

“[A]’“split decision’ narrative driven by the GOP’s Senate gains was promoted by Republicans and media outlets alike. This was understandable since “Republicans retained the Senate because of the most insanely pro-GOP landscape ever” is not an interpretation that fits well into a headline or a tweet.”

In any event, the 51-49 margin by which the Republicans controlled the Senate in 2018 is 53-47 now, and that has made an enormous difference in the dynamics. The defection of Democrat Joe Manchin in Kavanaugh’s favor gave the GOP a two-vote cushion in 2018; it’s three now without any Democratic votes. So Republicans can afford to lose the electorally endangered Susan Collins (as they already have), the other pro-choice Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, and a random third senator, without consequences. Democrats know that, which is why they seem resigned to her confirmation.

The Senate margin also helps explain the Republican rush to get the confirmation done before Election Day; the Arizona Senate contest is a special election to complete the term of the late John McCain; Republican Martha McSally was appointed to the McCain seat until November 3. If, as currently seems likely, Democrat Mark Kelly defeats her, the Republican margin in the Senate instantly drops to two votes.

Democrats Have Decided to Use the Hearings to Reinforce Their 2020 Health-Care Talking Points

It’s impossible to know what line of attack Democrats might have taken in 2018 had Brett Kavanaugh not been facing sexual-assault allegations. But they might well have sought to reinforce their very effective midterm messaging on health-care policy thanks to pending Obamacare litigation.

That litigation is now on the Supreme Court’s doorstep, with oral arguments in California v. Texas scheduled to take place on November 10. The connection between the Supreme Court and a popular health-care law embodying protections for people with preexisting conditions is now very, very proximate, which also makes the acutely embarrassing Republican inability to design (or even describe) an Obamacare replacement more relevant than ever.

Since Barrett can’t say anything reassuring about her views on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (which are clear and discomforting, if not exactly on the point raised in California v. Texas), her hearings provide a risk-free opportunity for the Donkey Party to hold every elephant’s feet to the fire on a subject voters care about a great deal. They are going to take it, and that keeps the heat off Barrett herself.

It’s 2020!

The political environment surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process was scorching hot, but not like 2020’s. Barrett’s confirmation hearing is being overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic — particularly the fact that the president and several Senate Judiciary Committee members have contracted COVID-19, with some infections quite likely having been spread at a White House reception honoring Barrett.

But ultimately the strangest thing about this confirmation remains its proximity to a high-stakes election in which control of both the presidency and the Senate could very well change. That Barrett is being asked how she’d feel about deciding a presidential election that Trump has clearly already decided to contest if he loses is a reminder that another conservative justice isn’t the only present threat to the Constitution as we know it. Barrett’s confirmation, important as it is, cannot stand out starkly against a background so lurid and consequential as today’s.


October 9: Pence Won’t Admit His Anti-Abortion Crusade

The sort of ho-hum reaction to Mike Pence’s evasions during the veep debate really annoyed me when it came to one subject, so I wrote about it at New York:

In public appearances, politicians often avoid discussion of their more unpopular positions. When they are at or near the top of a party ticket, moreover, they tend to downplay policy stances that divide their own team or that are under internal discussion. That’s why Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t directly answer questions about hypothetical “court-packing” schemes that Democrats might or might not pursue if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as Trump’s third Supreme Court justice. And it’s why Donald Trump and Mike Pence evade blunt questions about the administration’s Cheshire cat of a health-care plan.

But lumping all the evasions together as functionally equivalent isn’t right. One particular Pence side step in Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate is astonishing if you know anything about the man’s long history as a crusader against legalized abortion. Asked by moderator Susan Page what he’d want his own state of Indiana to do if Roe v. Wade is reversed and states could outlaw abortion, Pence would not answer other than a vague reference to himself as “pro-life,” a term that means different things to different people. That Pence has any doubt whatsoever on exactly what he’d want Indiana to do in this suddenly very plausible hypothetical situation is preposterous, unless he’s been lying to us for his entire public career.

But during his six terms in the House, Pence established the crusading identity on this subject that led Marjorie Dannenfelser of the hard-line anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List to praise him as a “pro-life trailblazer” and the best of all possible choices as Trump’s 2016 running mate. He was best known for launching the relentless attacks on public funding for Planned Parenthood that soon became part of the anti-abortion movement’s playbook at every level of government. The “defund Planned Parenthood” campaign he began nearly led to a government shutdown in 2011 and again in 2015, and was a symbolic expression of the grip the ban-abortion cause had on the Republican Party.

And speaking of that grip, Pence’s GOP has for many, many years been united in insisting that Roe v. Wade be replaced not by some sort of live-and-let-live states’ rights position on abortion policy but with a constitutional amendment banning abortion nationwide permanently. (This Human Life Amendment has been in every Republican platform since 1980.) There have been occasional attempts (by presidential nominees in particular) to insist on exceptions for pregnancies that are the product of rape and incest, or that threaten the life of the woman being ordered to carry the pregnancy to term. But the basic principal of making abortion illegal has been sacrosanct, as Michael Kinsley explained in 2012:

“Ever since [1984], with various rhetorical flourishes, the platform has contained the same four elements: 1) the unborn child has a ‘fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed’; 2) endorsement of a ‘human life’ constitutional amendment; 3) a call for judges who ‘respect human life’; and 4) new laws to ‘make clear’ that the fetus is a ‘person’ under the 14th Amendment. Paul Ryan has co-sponsored such legislation, declaring that the fetus is a ‘person.'”

An even more visible proponent of “personhood” legislation has been — you guessed it — Mike Pence. Brian Tashman explained the significance of this position when Pence joined Trump’s ticket in 2016:

“Advocates of federal personhood bills believe that if Congress passes legislation defining ‘personhood’ as beginning at conception, they can bypass and nullify Roe v. Wade, criminalizing abortion nationwide with no exceptions. While the personhood movement has traditionally sat on the far-right fringes of the anti-abortion movement, in recent years Republican politicians like Pence have brought the extremist cause into the GOP mainstream. Unlike more established abortion rights opponents that seek to cut off access to abortion and gradually outlaw the procedure, personhood activists want the government to immediately end abortion in all cases.”

Dubious as it is as a legal theory for circumventing the Constitution, the “personhood” movement is also too radical for the taste of many abortion opponents, suggesting as it does that certain forms of contraception might be banned as interfering with the development of a fertilized ovum. Personhood ballot initiatives have lost badly in Colorado, North Dakota, and (most recently) Mississippi. That Pence is inclined to go that far is another indication, should you need one, that he has not an ounce of doubt about the righteousness of taking control of reproductive systems from sea to shining sea.

On top of his single-issue devotion to the anti-abortion cause, pursuing that cause to its logical end of outlawing all abortions is Job One for a Christian right religiopolitical movement that regards Pence as its indispensable champion in the court of our erratic president. Here’s how I described Pence’s importance to Trump’s “faithful believers” in a review of a recent book about Trump’s relationship with conservative evangelicals:

“You can sense the authors’ nagging doubts, though, perhaps nourished by the new president’s nasty Twitter language and other forms of thuggish behavior toward critics. Near the very end of the book they bring in their star witness for Trump’s inner transformation: Vice-President Mike Pence, the Christian-right warhorse who constantly attests to the president’s reliance on both prayer and the prayer warriors (like Trump’s all-Evangelical Faith Advisory Committee) for whom Pence runs interference.”

All in all, it’s as likely that Pence would stop short of a total abortion ban in a world where the Supreme Court didn’t stand in his way as it is that Bernie Sanders will become a hedge-fund manager or Donald Trump a soup-kitchen cook. It’s the one thing about him that is most certain. And it’s precisely why he and his allies are so excited about Barrett’s potential advent to the Supreme Court.

So Pence’s evasions say a lot about the dishonesty of the anti-abortion movement and its doubts that its cause is winning the hearts and minds of the American people. All the efforts to distract attention from their fundamental radicalism with hand-wringing over a tiny number of late-term abortions can’t disguise that basic fact.


Pence Won’t Admit His Anti-Abortion Crusade

The sort of ho-hum reaction to Mike Pence’s evasions during the veep debate really annoyed me when it came to one subject, so I wrote about it at New York:

In public appearances, politicians often avoid discussion of their more unpopular positions. When they are at or near the top of a party ticket, moreover, they tend to downplay policy stances that divide their own team or that are under internal discussion. That’s why Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t directly answer questions about hypothetical “court-packing” schemes that Democrats might or might not pursue if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as Trump’s third Supreme Court justice. And it’s why Donald Trump and Mike Pence evade blunt questions about the administration’s Cheshire cat of a health-care plan.

But lumping all the evasions together as functionally equivalent isn’t right. One particular Pence side step in Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate is astonishing if you know anything about the man’s long history as a crusader against legalized abortion. Asked by moderator Susan Page what he’d want his own state of Indiana to do if Roe v. Wade is reversed and states could outlaw abortion, Pence would not answer other than a vague reference to himself as “pro-life,” a term that means different things to different people. That Pence has any doubt whatsoever on exactly what he’d want Indiana to do in this suddenly very plausible hypothetical situation is preposterous, unless he’s been lying to us for his entire public career.

Before that, during his six terms in the House, Pence established the crusading identity on this subject that led Marjorie Dannenfelser of the hard-line anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List to praise him as a “pro-life trailblazer” and the best of all possible choices as Trump’s 2016 running mate. He was best known for launching the relentless attacks on public funding for Planned Parenthood that soon became part of the anti-abortion movement’s playbook at every level of government. The “defund Planned Parenthood” campaign he began nearly led to a government shutdown in 2011 and again in 2015, and was a symbolic expression of the grip the ban-abortion cause had on the Republican Party.

And speaking of that grip, Pence’s GOP has for many, many years been united in insisting that Roe v. Wade be replaced not by some sort of live-and-let-live states’ rights position on abortion policy but with a constitutional amendment banning abortion nationwide permanently. (This Human Life Amendment has been in every Republican platform since 1980.) There have been occasional attempts (by presidential nominees in particular) to insist on exceptions for pregnancies that are the product of rape and incest, or that threaten the life of the woman being ordered to carry the pregnancy to term. But the basic principal of making abortion illegal has been sacrosanct, as Michael Kinsley explained in 2012:

“Ever since [1984], with various rhetorical flourishes, the platform has contained the same four elements: 1) the unborn child has a ‘fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed’; 2) endorsement of a ‘human life’ constitutional amendment; 3) a call for judges who ‘respect human life’; and 4) new laws to ‘make clear’ that the fetus is a ‘person’ under the 14th Amendment. Paul Ryan has co-sponsored such legislation, declaring that the fetus is a ‘person.'”

An even more visible proponent of “personhood” legislation has been — you guessed it — Mike Pence. Brian Tashman explained the significance of this position when Pence joined Trump’s ticket in 2016:

“Advocates of federal personhood bills believe that if Congress passes legislation defining ‘personhood’ as beginning at conception, they can bypass and nullify Roe v. Wade, criminalizing abortion nationwide with no exceptions. While the personhood movement has traditionally sat on the far-right fringes of the anti-abortion movement, in recent years Republican politicians like Pence have brought the extremist cause into the GOP mainstream. Unlike more established abortion rights opponents that seek to cut off access to abortion and gradually outlaw the procedure, personhood activists want the government to immediately end abortion in all cases.”

Dubious as it is as a legal theory for circumventing the Constitution, the “personhood” movement is also too radical for the taste of many abortion opponents, suggesting as it does that certain forms of contraception might be banned as interfering with the development of a fertilized ovum. Personhood ballot initiatives have lost badly in Colorado, North Dakota, and (most recently) Mississippi. That Pence is inclined to go that far is another indication, should you need one, that he has not an ounce of doubt about the righteousness of taking control of reproductive systems from sea to shining sea.

On top of his single-issue devotion to the anti-abortion cause, pursuing that cause to its logical end of outlawing all abortions is Job One for a Christian right religiopolitical movement that regards Pence as its indispensable champion in the court of our erratic president. Here’s how I described Pence’s importance to Trump’s “faithful believers” in a review of a recent book about Trump’s relationship with conservative evangelicals:

“You can sense the authors’ nagging doubts, though, perhaps nourished by the new president’s nasty Twitter language and other forms of thuggish behavior toward critics. Near the very end of the book they bring in their star witness for Trump’s inner transformation: Vice-President Mike Pence, the Christian-right warhorse who constantly attests to the president’s reliance on both prayer and the prayer warriors (like Trump’s all-Evangelical Faith Advisory Committee) for whom Pence runs interference.”

All in all, it’s as likely that Pence would stop short of a total abortion ban in a world where the Supreme Court didn’t stand in his way as it is that Bernie Sanders will become a hedge-fund manager or Donald Trump a soup-kitchen cook. It’s the one thing about him that is most certain. And it’s precisely why he and his allies are so excited about Barrett’s potential advent to the Supreme Court.

So Pence’s evasions say a lot about the dishonesty of the anti-abortion movement and its doubts that its cause is winning the hearts and minds of the American people. All the efforts to distract attention from their fundamental radicalism with hand-wringing over a tiny number of late-term abortions can’t disguise that basic fact.