washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

October 1: Yeah, It’s Tough Right Now For Democrats in Washington, But It Could Be a Lot Worse

Watching all the arguing and fighting among Democrats over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, it occurred to me we should count some blessing, so I did so at New York:

September was a tough slog for the Democrats whose trifecta control of Congress and the White House has made it essential, but hardly easy, to reach internal agreement on the Biden priorities of an infrastructure and budget reconciliation bill. As of Thursday night, it is entirely possible the Build Back Better reconciliation bill will get a severe haircut thanks to the demands of centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and that the package will be significantly less progressive than originally envisioned. Totally aside from this set of problems, Democrats are presently stymied by the Senate filibuster on other key priorities ranging from voting rights to abortion rights to a path to citizenship for immigrants.

But these frustrated and sometimes battling donkeys should stop kicking and braying long enough to count their blessings. They came very close to not having a trifecta at all. And the narrow margins Democrats have to work with now could have been less than zero.

Most obviously, Donald Trump’s efforts to illegally reverse the presidential election outcome based on the Big Lie that he won should not make us forget that a shift of just over 77,000 votes in four states (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin) would have given him a Electoral College majority, despite Biden’s large win (which would have nearly reached seven million votes even with the above-stipulated shift) in the national popular vote. You have to reach a little deeper to come up with a hypothetical Republican conquest of the House, since the GOP won eight of the closest ten House races and still fell five seats short.

It’s pretty easy, by contrast, to see how Democrats might have fallen short in the Senate long after November 3: Had the two Republican incumbents won those January 5 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, as most observers initially thought they would do, then Mitch McConnell would still be Majority Leader rather than the ranking obstructionist. Indeed, the most common explanation of those pivotal Democratic victories over David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler is that Trump made the runoffs all about his grievances while continuing to undermine Republican voter confidence in the electoral system.

Democrats were fortunate as well that new senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were solid progressive Democrats, not the sort of Blue Doggy centrists wary of the national party that Georgia and other southern states once routinely sent to Washington.

In any event, life in America would obviously be very different if Trump were still in the White House. And had Republicans hung on to control of the Senate, there would be no Democratic-designed FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill for Manchin and Sinema to undermine. In all likelihood, Congress might have still enacted a significantly pared-down version of the American Rescue Plan, but would have probably called it a day. It’s doubtful McConnell would have felt any real pressure to let a significant number of Senate Republicans back a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Donald Trump loudly opposed. And all the developments that have depressed Joe Biden’s job approval ratings in recent months would still have likely happened anyway, with no countervailing public appreciation for what he may yet accomplish with his congressional allies.

The Democratic trifecta of the 116th Congress will leave a massive or modest legacy depending on what happens between now and November of 2022 — and obviously on what happens in the 2022 midterms. But the situation could be so much less promising and so much more depressing, and Democrats, especially disappointed progressives hoping for a new New Deal, should keep that in mind.

 


Yeah, It’s Tough Right Now For Democrats in Washington. But It Could Be Far Worse

Watching all the arguing and fighting among Democrats over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, it occurred to me we should count some blessing, so I did so at New York:

September was a tough slog for the Democrats whose trifecta control of Congress and the White House has made it essential, but hardly easy, to reach internal agreement on the Biden priorities of an infrastructure and budget reconciliation bill. As of Thursday night, it is entirely possible the Build Back Better reconciliation bill will get a severe haircut thanks to the demands of centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and that the package will be significantly less progressive than originally envisioned. Totally aside from this set of problems, Democrats are presently stymied by the Senate filibuster on other key priorities ranging from voting rights to abortion rights to a path to citizenship for immigrants.

But these frustrated and sometimes battling donkeys should stop kicking and braying long enough to count their blessings. They came very close to not having a trifecta at all. And the narrow margins Democrats have to work with now could have been less than zero.

Most obviously, Donald Trump’s efforts to illegally reverse the presidential election outcome based on the Big Lie that he won should not make us forget that a shift of just over 77,000 votes in four states (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin) would have given him a Electoral College majority, despite Biden’s large win (which would have nearly reached seven million votes even with the above-stipulated shift) in the national popular vote. You have to reach a little deeper to come up with a hypothetical Republican conquest of the House, since the GOP won eight of the closest ten House races and still fell five seats short.

It’s pretty easy, by contrast, to see how Democrats might have fallen short in the Senate long after November 3: Had the two Republican incumbents won those January 5 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, as most observers initially thought they would do, then Mitch McConnell would still be Majority Leader rather than the ranking obstructionist. Indeed, the most common explanation of those pivotal Democratic victories over David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler is that Trump made the runoffs all about his grievances while continuing to undermine Republican voter confidence in the electoral system.

Democrats were fortunate as well that new senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were solid progressive Democrats, not the sort of Blue Doggy centrists wary of the national party that Georgia and other southern states once routinely sent to Washington.

In any event, life in America would obviously be very different if Trump were still in the White House. And had Republicans hung on to control of the Senate, there would be no Democratic-designed FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill for Manchin and Sinema to undermine. In all likelihood, Congress might have still enacted a significantly pared-down version of the American Rescue Plan, but would have probably called it a day. It’s doubtful McConnell would have felt any real pressure to let a significant number of Senate Republicans back a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Donald Trump loudly opposed. And all the developments that have depressed Joe Biden’s job approval ratings in recent months would still have likely happened anyway, with no countervailing public appreciation for what he may yet accomplish with his congressional allies.

The Democratic trifecta of the 116th Congress will leave a massive or modest legacy depending on what happens between now and November of 2022 — and obviously on what happens in the 2022 midterms. But the situation could be so much less promising and so much more depressing, and Democrats, especially disappointed progressives hoping for a new New Deal, should keep that in mind.

 


September 30: Biden May Bounce Back Like Clinton and Obama Did

Surveying the gloom over Joe Biden’s current popularity, I offered some historical perspective at New York:

What do pessimists think about the trajectory of Joe Biden’s presidency? It’s not good, according to the Atlantic’s David Frum:

“Democracy is genuinely on the ballot in 2022 and 2024, as it was in 2016, 2018, and 2020. But this time, so too are prices, borders, and crime. If the Biden administration cannot deliver better on those issues than it has so far done, Trump and his enablers will be just as happy to scoop power by default as to grab it by stealth or force.”

That’s right: NeverTrumper Frum thinks conditions in the country could be so terrible by 2024 that Trump won’t even have to cheat or stage a coup to regain power. But while we cannot really know what course events may take between now and 2024, we do know the historical record, which suggests that presidents in Biden’s situation tend to get reelected, even if they look eminently beatable at some point during their first terms.

Since World War II, nine elected presidents have sought a second full term. Six of them (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) were reelected, the first three by landslides and the fourth by a near-landslide. Of the three losers, one, George H.W. Bush, had a “party fatigue” problem; his party had held the White House for 12 years when he ran for reelection. That leaves two presidents who pretty much earned defeat on their own: Carter and Trump. That’s probably unfair to Jimmy Carter, since he inherited a horrific domestic economic situation that had been largely cooked up by Nixon with a big assist from OPEC. He also took office in the midst of a giant ideological realignment that cut his southern regional base right out from under him. And even Trump, who worked very hard at alienating voters, had the back luck to be in office when COVID-19 struck, not that he helped matters much.

The point is that the power of incumbency should never be minimized. Five of the six reelection winners (all but George W. Bush in the highly anomalous 2002 midterms) lost ground in their first midterm election. Two lost calamitously: Democrats lost 52 House seats in Clinton’s first midterm in 1994 and 63 House seats in Obama’s first midterm in 2010. For that matter, Donald Trump lost 40 House seats in 2018, yet very nearly won reelection.

Yes, Biden’s job approval rating has been steadily sagging during the last three months and is now (per Gallup) at 43 percent. Using Gallup as well, Obama’s job approval rating hit 40 percent in August of 2011, and bumped along in the low 40s until it began to climb over 50 percent just prior to his reelection. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s rating fell all the way to 37 percent in mid-1993; was at 39 percent in August of 1994; and was only at 42 percent in early 1996. By the time he faced voters in November of that year his job approval was well over 50 percent. And yes, Trump secured some of the highest job approval ratings of his presidency during the run up to the 2020 elections, when he outperformed expectations.

Frum suggests Trump might cakewalk to a 2024 restoration if Biden doesn’t turn a lot of things around. But in reality, there is nothing that might give Uncle Joe more abiding hope of his own comeback than a comeback by his divisive predecessor, a totally known quantity with a demonstrated low ceiling on his support. Three times major parties have renominated a losing presidential candidate in the next cycle; on all three occasions these were rematches: Grover Cleveland (versus Benjamin Harrison) in 1892; William Jennings Bryan (versus William McKinley) in 1900; and Adlai Stevenson (versus Eisenhower) in 1956. Cleveland famously won. Bryan and Stevenson lost ground.

Does Trump resemble the stolid Cleveland in any significant way? Not really. He managed to come close to reelection by polarizing the country to the breaking point. Since then he has done absolutely nothing to appeal to any voters who failed to support him in 2020, and he’s the least likely person in America to change his ways.

Joe Biden will need both skill and luck to dispel the malaise currently afflicting his presidency. But based on what other presidents have done, and given his likely 2024 opponent, his reelection remains a solid — if hardly sure — bet.


Biden May Bounce Back Like Clinton and Obama Did

Surveying the gloom over Joe Biden’s current popularity, I offered some historical perspective at New York:

What do pessimists think about the trajectory of Joe Biden’s presidency? It’s not good, according to the Atlantic’s David Frum:

“Democracy is genuinely on the ballot in 2022 and 2024, as it was in 2016, 2018, and 2020. But this time, so too are prices, borders, and crime. If the Biden administration cannot deliver better on those issues than it has so far done, Trump and his enablers will be just as happy to scoop power by default as to grab it by stealth or force.”

That’s right: NeverTrumper Frum thinks conditions in the country could be so terrible by 2024 that Trump won’t even have to cheat or stage a coup to regain power. But while we cannot really know what course events may take between now and 2024, we do know the historical record, which suggests that presidents in Biden’s situation tend to get reelected, even if they look eminently beatable at some point during their first terms.

Since World War II, nine elected presidents have sought a second full term. Six of them (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) were reelected, the first three by landslides and the fourth by a near-landslide. Of the three losers, one, George H.W. Bush, had a “party fatigue” problem; his party had held the White House for 12 years when he ran for reelection. That leaves two presidents who pretty much earned defeat on their own: Carter and Trump. That’s probably unfair to Jimmy Carter, since he inherited a horrific domestic economic situation that had been largely cooked up by Nixon with a big assist from OPEC. He also took office in the midst of a giant ideological realignment that cut his southern regional base right out from under him. And even Trump, who worked very hard at alienating voters, had the back luck to be in office when COVID-19 struck, not that he helped matters much.

The point is that the power of incumbency should never be minimized. Five of the six reelection winners (all but George W. Bush in the highly anomalous 2002 midterms) lost ground in their first midterm election. Two lost calamitously: Democrats lost 52 House seats in Clinton’s first midterm in 1994 and 63 House seats in Obama’s first midterm in 2010. For that matter, Donald Trump lost 40 House seats in 2018, yet very nearly won reelection.

Yes, Biden’s job approval rating has been steadily sagging during the last three months and is now (per Gallup) at 43 percent. Using Gallup as well, Obama’s job approval rating hit 40 percent in August of 2011, and bumped along in the low 40s until it began to climb over 50 percent just prior to his reelection. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s rating fell all the way to 37 percent in mid-1993; was at 39 percent in August of 1994; and was only at 42 percent in early 1996. By the time he faced voters in November of that year his job approval was well over 50 percent. And yes, Trump secured some of the highest job approval ratings of his presidency during the run up to the 2020 elections, when he outperformed expectations.

Frum suggests Trump might cakewalk to a 2024 restoration if Biden doesn’t turn a lot of things around. But in reality, there is nothing that might give Uncle Joe more abiding hope of his own comeback than a comeback by his divisive predecessor, a totally known quantity with a demonstrated low ceiling on his support. Three times major parties have renominated a losing presidential candidate in the next cycle; on all three occasions these were rematches: Grover Cleveland (versus Benjamin Harrison) in 1892; William Jennings Bryan (versus William McKinley) in 1900; and Adlai Stevenson (versus Eisenhower) in 1956. Cleveland famously won. Bryan and Stevenson lost ground.

Does Trump resemble the stolid Cleveland in any significant way? Not really. He managed to come close to reelection by polarizing the country to the breaking point. Since then he has done absolutely nothing to appeal to any voters who failed to support him in 2020, and he’s the least likely person in America to change his ways.

Joe Biden will need both skill and luck to dispel the malaise currently afflicting his presidency. But based on what other presidents have done, and given his likely 2024 opponent, his reelection remains a solid — if hardly sure — bet.


September 23: What the President Needs to Get Democratic Factions to Understand

With the clock running down and real problems emerging on the legislative front, the president is beginning to meet with key congressional Democrats representing different factions. At New York I took a shot at suggesting what he needs to get them to understand:

We have breathlessly been told by all the Beltway insider outlets that Joe Biden has summoned various congressional Democrats to the White House in hopes of saving his 2021 legislative agenda, which is on the brink of disaster thanks to the irreconcilable demands of competing factions. For once, the eternal “Democrats in disarray” narrative is accurate. On September 27, the House is scheduled to vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, a vote rebellious House “centrists” extorted from Speaker Nancy Pelosi in order to get the votes for a must-pass budget resolution. They are quietly backed by rebellious Senate centrists. Multiple House progressives, who have their own cheering gallery in the Senate, are promising to kill the infrastructure bill if it comes up before the fiscal year 2022 budget reconciliation bill is enacted, which won’t happen for weeks. The one sure thing is that if this transpires, House Republicans will make certain there are not enough votes for the bill in their ranks to save it.

This is a BFD!

Biden should find some way to recycle his famous words to Obama about Obamacare.

The success or failure of the governing coalition Democrats managed to secure in 2020 (and in those two crucial Senate runoffs in 2021) is about to be determined by what happens in the next few days and weeks. If they fail, there will be no tomorrow, no Plan B. Next year will be a lot like 2010, when Democrats lost the ability to pass legislation against Republican obstruction and then got clobbered at the polls. It took them eight years to recover from that debacle. Another one could be staring them in the face.

Biden remembers that, and so do many Hill veterans. He needs to impress on them that this is no time to listen to hammerheaded pollsters or greedy donors or Twitter activists. Like it or not, Biden has defined the paired infrastructure and reconciliation bills as central to his presidential legacy and to his party’s case for maintaining power. He needs to make every Democrat tempted to sabotage either bill feel that his failure would be theirs as well, whether or not they lose their own seats in 2022, which some undoubtedly will if the Biden agenda implodes.

The posturing needs to stop

Obviously, the president must acknowledge and show respect for the fact that legitimate differences of opinion exist in his big-tent party. But lawmakers posturing and grandstanding in order to get a shout-out at Politico as big-time wheeler-dealers are not legitimate or worthy of respect. Biden needs to challenge congressional Democrats very directly on this: Let’s go a week without any name other than mine and Nancy’s and Chuck’s appearing in the national political media. If they are questioned about intra-Democratic negotiations, they should refuse comment, go vague, or say “watch and learn.”

Why is this important? Because the centrist-progressive (and on some issues House-Senate) dynamics are reciprocal and virtually guarantee escalation. A ceasefire in factional hostilities requires some peace and quiet.

Public demands, threats, and hostage taking must end instantly

Whether it’s centrists placing some arbitrary “cap” on the size of a reconciliation bill they can accept or progressives making their votes for reconciliation contingent on inclusion of this or that priority, the proliferation of absolute and totally irreconcilable demands is what has really brought congressional Democrats to the brink of disaster.

Biden needs to show Democrats he understands how and why this is happening: It’s mostly the result of the extremely small margin of control in both Houses — which in fact, objectively speaking, gives every senator and every group of a few House members the power to destroy their party’s agenda. In the past, if that had happened, leaders might have been able to offset intraparty hostage taking by securing votes from the opposition. That’s just not practicable in the current environment. Even on the so-called bipartisan infrastructure bill, Republicans are now making it clear they would love to see it go down to defeat and will work to produce that outcome.

But while expressing empathy for the temptations facing individual members, Biden has to insist that the public demands and threats stop right now and promise with whatever cold anger he can muster that there will be real consequences for those who go rogue at this sensitive moment. Successfully negotiating the size and shape of the reconciliation bill, for example, is going to be excruciatingly hard if the landscape is constantly shifting because Problem-Solver X or Progressive Caucus Y has laid down some personal marker through a press release or a staff leak.

There’s one plan, and we’re all sticking to it

With the clock running down on the endgame for the 2021 legislative saga, Biden and his closest congressional allies really need to adopt a strategy and demand universal support for it right now, even if that means some backtracking by congressional factions. If the infrastructure bill is going to be salvaged, Biden has to bluntly tell progressives the days of “linkage” between reconciliation and infrastructure are now over: The infrastructure bill will be on the House floor next week and it has to pass. But at the same time, Biden needs to tell centrists that while he and Pelosi and Schumer will listen to everyone’s point of view on reconciliation, he needs commitments of support now for the final product, and to threaten permanent ostracism by the entire federal government (within the limits of the law) for anyone who refuses to comply.

In asking Democratic factions and individual members to give up their leverage over one another, Biden will supply his own leverage to keep the party united. It’s probably the only thing, at this point, that will work. And what does the president have to lose in making some exceptional promises and threats of his own? He’s a 78-year-old man who has spent nearly a half-century putting himself in the position to enact the kind of legislative package that is at stake right now. If he loses it, his presidency will at best be hollow and short, and his party will go into the wilderness. Only he can stop that from happening.


What the President Needs to Get Democratic Factions to Understand

With the clock running down and real problems emerging on the legislative front, the president is beginning to meet with key congressional Democrats representing different factions. At New York I took a shot at suggesting what he needs to get them to understand:

We have breathlessly been told by all the Beltway insider outlets that Joe Biden has summoned various congressional Democrats to the White House in hopes of saving his 2021 legislative agenda, which is on the brink of disaster thanks to the irreconcilable demands of competing factions. For once, the eternal “Democrats in disarray” narrative is accurate. On September 27, the House is scheduled to vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, a vote rebellious House “centrists” extorted from Speaker Nancy Pelosi in order to get the votes for a must-pass budget resolution. They are quietly backed by rebellious Senate centrists. Multiple House progressives, who have their own cheering gallery in the Senate, are promising to kill the infrastructure bill if it comes up before the fiscal year 2022 budget reconciliation bill is enacted, which won’t happen for weeks. The one sure thing is that if this transpires, House Republicans will make certain there are not enough votes for the bill in their ranks to save it.

This is a BFD!

Biden should find some way to recycle his famous words to Obama about Obamacare.

The success or failure of the governing coalition Democrats managed to secure in 2020 (and in those two crucial Senate runoffs in 2021) is about to be determined by what happens in the next few days and weeks. If they fail, there will be no tomorrow, no Plan B. Next year will be a lot like 2010, when Democrats lost the ability to pass legislation against Republican obstruction and then got clobbered at the polls. It took them eight years to recover from that debacle. Another one could be staring them in the face.

Biden remembers that, and so do many Hill veterans. He needs to impress on them that this is no time to listen to hammerheaded pollsters or greedy donors or Twitter activists. Like it or not, Biden has defined the paired infrastructure and reconciliation bills as central to his presidential legacy and to his party’s case for maintaining power. He needs to make every Democrat tempted to sabotage either bill feel that his failure would be theirs as well, whether or not they lose their own seats in 2022, which some undoubtedly will if the Biden agenda implodes.

The posturing needs to stop

Obviously, the president must acknowledge and show respect for the fact that legitimate differences of opinion exist in his big-tent party. But lawmakers posturing and grandstanding in order to get a shout-out at Politico as big-time wheeler-dealers are not legitimate or worthy of respect. Biden needs to challenge congressional Democrats very directly on this: Let’s go a week without any name other than mine and Nancy’s and Chuck’s appearing in the national political media. If they are questioned about intra-Democratic negotiations, they should refuse comment, go vague, or say “watch and learn.”

Why is this important? Because the centrist-progressive (and on some issues House-Senate) dynamics are reciprocal and virtually guarantee escalation. A ceasefire in factional hostilities requires some peace and quiet.

Public demands, threats, and hostage taking must end instantly

Whether it’s centrists placing some arbitrary “cap” on the size of a reconciliation bill they can accept or progressives making their votes for reconciliation contingent on inclusion of this or that priority, the proliferation of absolute and totally irreconcilable demands is what has really brought congressional Democrats to the brink of disaster.

Biden needs to show Democrats he understands how and why this is happening: It’s mostly the result of the extremely small margin of control in both Houses — which in fact, objectively speaking, gives every senator and every group of a few House members the power to destroy their party’s agenda. In the past, if that had happened, leaders might have been able to offset intraparty hostage taking by securing votes from the opposition. That’s just not practicable in the current environment. Even on the so-called bipartisan infrastructure bill, Republicans are now making it clear they would love to see it go down to defeat and will work to produce that outcome.

But while expressing empathy for the temptations facing individual members, Biden has to insist that the public demands and threats stop right now and promise with whatever cold anger he can muster that there will be real consequences for those who go rogue at this sensitive moment. Successfully negotiating the size and shape of the reconciliation bill, for example, is going to be excruciatingly hard if the landscape is constantly shifting because Problem-Solver X or Progressive Caucus Y has laid down some personal marker through a press release or a staff leak.

There’s one plan, and we’re all sticking to it

With the clock running down on the endgame for the 2021 legislative saga, Biden and his closest congressional allies really need to adopt a strategy and demand universal support for it right now, even if that means some backtracking by congressional factions. If the infrastructure bill is going to be salvaged, Biden has to bluntly tell progressives the days of “linkage” between reconciliation and infrastructure are now over: The infrastructure bill will be on the House floor next week and it has to pass. But at the same time, Biden needs to tell centrists that while he and Pelosi and Schumer will listen to everyone’s point of view on reconciliation, he needs commitments of support now for the final product, and to threaten permanent ostracism by the entire federal government (within the limits of the law) for anyone who refuses to comply.

In asking Democratic factions and individual members to give up their leverage over one another, Biden will supply his own leverage to keep the party united. It’s probably the only thing, at this point, that will work. And what does the president have to lose in making some exceptional promises and threats of his own? He’s a 78-year-old man who has spent nearly a half-century putting himself in the position to enact the kind of legislative package that is at stake right now. If he loses it, his presidency will at best be hollow and short, and his party will go into the wilderness. Only he can stop that from happening.


September 17: Midterm Implications of Big Recall Win Are Mixed

Pouring over the details of the gubernatorial recall election in California, some significant patterns emerged, as I noted at New York:

The overwhelming defeat of the effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom was a big victory for a Democratic Party that has had its troubles lately. With the margin of victory for the “no on recall” campaign roughly doubling the already-robust advantage shown in pre-election polls, the earlier scare that the recall threw into the ranks of the Golden State’s dominant party dissipated entirely. With about three-fourths of the expected vote now counted, “no” leads “yes” by a 63.8 to 36.2 margin (which could get even larger if the usual pattern of last-cast mail ballots leaning Democratic manifests itself once again).

The “no” vote was remarkably close to Joe Biden’s performance in California in 2020 (he won 63.5 percent). Given the extreme partisan polarization that underlay the recall vote (exit polls showed 89 percent of self-identified Republicans voting “yes” and 94 percent of self-identified Democrats voting “no”), that means the partisan patterns of the presidential race were reduplicated to a remarkable extent in a non-presidential special election, where Democrats often experience a “falloff,” particularly when they control the White House (and in this case, the governorship). That’s great news for California Democrats, and not a bad sign for Democrats nationally, who are bracing for the midterm losses the “White House Party” typically suffers.

Precisely because of the reduplication of the 2020 patterns, there’s really nothing about the recall returns that suggests Democrats are sure to claw back some House seats in California. Two of the four seats Republicans flipped in 2020 (with Asian-American women Young Kim and Michelle Steele as candidates) were centered in Orange County. While “no” won in Orange, the recall race there was closer than the Biden-Trump contest of 2020. A third battleground seat was the one Republican David Valadao won in a very competitive section of the San Joaquin Valley. The recall improved on Trump’s 2020 performance in every county in his district (e.g., Trump won 55 percent in Kings County, but “yes” on recalling Newsom won 63 percent). These results could reflect an intensifying alienation of this heavily agricultural area from Sacramento’s environmental and water-supply policies. Or it could reflect a drop-off in Latino turnout that could spell disaster for Democrats in close 2022 races. Either way the recall numbers should give pause to Democratic optimism about midterm House races.

One study of 2020 returns in California showed Latino turnout trailing non-Latino turnout by about 10 percent. One mail-ballot tracker for the recall showed the turnout gap between Latinos and non-Latino white voters swelling to 20 percent. Youth turnout for the recall was also terrible, exit polls suggest. Yes, these are constituencies that are difficult to mobilize in special elections. But that’s also true of midterm elections, which is a problem Democrats in California and elsewhere need to solve.

The bottom line is that Newsom won the Democratic and Democratic-leaning elements of the California electorate by strongly encouraging partisan polarization via his lavishly funded campaign. This was the obvious smart strategy in this heavily Democratic state. It’s less clear the same strategy will work wonders downballot for Democrats in 2022, which they probably will not have a big financial advantage and shifts in public opinion away from the presidential winner may have settled in, as they did for the last three presidents. Even if Democrats hang onto their monopoly of statewide offices and their super-majorities in the state legislature, any failure to make progress in House races could contribute to the much-dreaded moment when Californian Nancy Pelosi hands over her gavel to Californian Kevin McCarthy, and the Democratic trifecta that gives Biden a chance to implement his agenda comes to an end.


Midterm Implications of Big Recall Win Are Mixed

Pouring over the details of the gubernatorial recall election in California, some significant patterns emerged, as I noted at New York:

The overwhelming defeat of the effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom was a big victory for a Democratic Party that has had its troubles lately. With the margin of victory for the “no on recall” campaign roughly doubling the already-robust advantage shown in pre-election polls, the earlier scare that the recall threw into the ranks of the Golden State’s dominant party dissipated entirely. With about three-fourths of the expected vote now counted, “no” leads “yes” by a 63.8 to 36.2 margin (which could get even larger if the usual pattern of last-cast mail ballots leaning Democratic manifests itself once again).

The “no” vote was remarkably close to Joe Biden’s performance in California in 2020 (he won 63.5 percent). Given the extreme partisan polarization that underlay the recall vote (exit polls showed 89 percent of self-identified Republicans voting “yes” and 94 percent of self-identified Democrats voting “no”), that means the partisan patterns of the presidential race were reduplicated to a remarkable extent in a non-presidential special election, where Democrats often experience a “falloff,” particularly when they control the White House (and in this case, the governorship). That’s great news for California Democrats, and not a bad sign for Democrats nationally, who are bracing for the midterm losses the “White House Party” typically suffers.

Precisely because of the reduplication of the 2020 patterns, there’s really nothing about the recall returns that suggests Democrats are sure to claw back some House seats in California. Two of the four seats Republicans flipped in 2020 (with Asian-American women Young Kim and Michelle Steele as candidates) were centered in Orange County. While “no” won in Orange, the recall race there was closer than the Biden-Trump contest of 2020. A third battleground seat was the one Republican David Valadao won in a very competitive section of the San Joaquin Valley. The recall improved on Trump’s 2020 performance in every county in his district (e.g., Trump won 55 percent in Kings County, but “yes” on recalling Newsom won 63 percent). These results could reflect an intensifying alienation of this heavily agricultural area from Sacramento’s environmental and water-supply policies. Or it could reflect a drop-off in Latino turnout that could spell disaster for Democrats in close 2022 races. Either way the recall numbers should give pause to Democratic optimism about midterm House races.

One study of 2020 returns in California showed Latino turnout trailing non-Latino turnout by about 10 percent. One mail-ballot tracker for the recall showed the turnout gap between Latinos and non-Latino white voters swelling to 20 percent. Youth turnout for the recall was also terrible, exit polls suggest. Yes, these are constituencies that are difficult to mobilize in special elections. But that’s also true of midterm elections, which is a problem Democrats in California and elsewhere need to solve.

The bottom line is that Newsom won the Democratic and Democratic-leaning elements of the California electorate by strongly encouraging partisan polarization via his lavishly funded campaign. This was the obvious smart strategy in this heavily Democratic state. It’s less clear the same strategy will work wonders downballot for Democrats in 2022, which they probably will not have a big financial advantage and shifts in public opinion away from the presidential winner may have settled in, as they did for the last three presidents. Even if Democrats hang onto their monopoly of statewide offices and their super-majorities in the state legislature, any failure to make progress in House races could contribute to the much-dreaded moment when Californian Nancy Pelosi hands over her gavel to Californian Kevin McCarthy, and the Democratic trifecta that gives Biden a chance to implement his agenda comes to an end.


September 16: You Can’t Save Democracy By Appeasing Its Enemies

Having spotted an argument for stubborn bipartisanship on voting rights, I decided to respond at New York:

Right now, voting rights in America are subject to a condition of partisan gridlock in Washington that preserves Republicans’ ability to wreak havoc on voting and election laws in the states they control. So long as centrist Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to consider a carve-out for voting-rights legislation to liberate it from the Senate filibuster, that’s where things will stand at least through the 2022 elections, in which the GOP has a very good shot at busting up the current Democratic trifecta.

The Manchin-Sinema position is that voting-rights protections must be enacted by a bipartisan coalition to instill confidence in the system given the Trump-induced mistrust that metastasized during and after the 2020 elections, inspiring the attempted and ongoing MAGA coup to challenge or overturn the results. The central question now is what happens when (it’s no longer really a matter of “if”) it becomes unmistakably clear that Republicans won’t cooperate with “compromise” efforts like those in which Manchin has engaged twice this year.

At the invaluable Election Law Blog, Ohio State University professor Ned Foley answers the question by suggesting Democrats might just want to let the GOP do its worst for a while, assuming the “worst” doesn’t fall below some hypothetical “floor” of “minimal conditions necessary for an election to qualify as being small-d democratic.” His basic argument provides sort of a theoretical underpinning for Manchin’s reflexive belief (sincere or merely tactical, given the very red political coloration of his state) that election reforms that aren’t bipartisan simply aren’t worth enacting.

Before addressing Foley’s take, I will emphasize that his counsel of strategic surrender for Democrats is contingent, not absolute: If Republicans violate the hypothetical “floor” that Foley discusses but does not define, then he says Democrats have no choice but to override GOP voter-suppression measures if they can, even if such partisan action exacerbates the GOP’s “electoral McCarthyism” (his term for the Big Lie ideology of pervasive but never documented “voter fraud” claims).

But Foley pretty clearly thinks that what Republicans are doing in states like Georgia and Texas isn’t so very bad, and concentrates his argument on the importance of keeping Republicans from falling into an authoritarian pit forever:

“[W]hen as now the especially dangerous and distinctive paranoid conditions of electoral McCarthyism have taken root, and are growing, it seems as if that kind of one-party imposition of its electoral policy preference upon the other party that suffers from the paranoia of electoral McCarthyism has the potential of being extremely counterproductive. Indeed, it risks propelling forward the possibility of a reaction that would cause the society to fall below the floor of what’s essential for small-d democracy, thereby bringing out the circumstance that is exactly desired to be avoided.”

It’s less obvious how Foley (or Manchin) would ameliorate “electoral McCarthyism,” other than this very wishful thinking:

“Might it not be a smarter strategy to let Republicans write the rules for upcoming elections (as long as they remain within the realm of adequacy in terms of casting and counting votes), and then be able to say to them after they have lost, ‘Hey, we conducted the process exactly how you wanted it; what possibly gives you a basis for complaining with the result just because you lost?'”

There are two pretty big and obvious problems with this surrender strategy. The first is the most obvious: What if Republicans don’t lose in 2022 or 2024? If they win, they may very well be convinced that making it harder for their enemies to vote saved them, and ask for more helpings of the same satisfying meal. They will, moreover, have the power to do just that in more states, and to thwart Democratic voting-rights efforts in Washington for the foreseeable future. A Democratic surrender on voting rights that produces defeat would be accurately viewed as a betrayal of the loyal minority constituencies that lifted Democrats to victory in 2020.

The second flaw in the surrender strategy is it relies on the premise there is some silver bullet that will slay the Big Lie; that there is a single item feeding Republican “mistrust” of the electoral system that can be disproved by letting them indulge their malign fantasies. There really isn’t.

Yes, some Republican base voters believe without evidence that there is currently rampant “voter fraud” that can be prevented with greater vigilance. Others think voting by mail is inherently corrupt; since it hasn’t been outlawed anywhere, wouldn’t reestablishing the traditional Election Day — part of the lost America Donald Trump promised to restore — be an important agenda item to be pursued with renewed vigor? Still others think the problem is easily herded minority voters who want to vote themselves government benefits (the heart of Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” remark); they might favor a return to literacy tests or polls taxes. Some “constitutional conservatives” reject any electoral outcomes that undermine “natural rights” (e.g., to property or to fetal “personhood”) that they regard as having been established by the Founders and God Almighty. They aren’t going to wake up and recommit to small-d democracy.

And then you have the people who exist in both political parties, and indeed every political party from the beginning of time, who don’t bother with theories or evidence or “rights” at all and simply favor whatever electoral arrangements improve their chances of victory. What makes today’s Republicans distinctive in that respect is that their leader, the 45th president of the United States, exemplifies that attitude as much as Jesus Christ exemplified the Golden Rule. Indeed, winning at any cost is Donald Trump’s Golden Rule.

Even in the more “reasonable” precincts of the Republican Party, among people who don’t promote the Big Lie and all but visibly roll their eyes at Trump’s excesses, there is currently an iron and nearly universal opposition to the enhancement of any federally established voting rights, even those (most notably those protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965) that their own party accepted and even celebrated until the U.S. Supreme Court began tearing them apart in recent years. So even if Foley is right and the current passion for vitiating voting rights at the state level burns itself out, does that mean bipartisan support for establishing a durable national floor for voting rights via federal legislation will magically return? There’s no reason to think so.

It’s regrettable that purely partisan avenues are the only ones available to Democrats right now on this and so many other crucial questions. And yes, wherever possible, Democrats should exhibit reasonableness unilaterally as the sole custodians of small-d democracy. A voting-rights bill imposed by a filibuster carve-out or (even less likely) budget reconciliation need not include every conceivable or advisable reform, so as to enable Republican claims of a “power grab.” Restoring the Voting Rights Act to its original dimensions might be enough, along with modest measures to clarify how post-election challenges work so the courts don’t have to litigate them endlessly.

If today’s wave of voter suppression in the States grows worse next year and after the midterms, the folly of Manchinism will become more evident than ever. You cannot restore bipartisanship, on voting rights or anything else of significance, by giving power to your extremist opponents in hopes they will come to their senses or become glutted with too much winning.


You Can’t Save Democracy By Appeasing Its Enemies

Having spotted an argument for stubborn bipartisanship on voting rights, I decided to respond at New York:

Right now, voting rights in America are subject to a condition of partisan gridlock in Washington that preserves Republicans’ ability to wreak havoc on voting and election laws in the states they control. So long as centrist Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to consider a carve-out for voting-rights legislation to liberate it from the Senate filibuster, that’s where things will stand at least through the 2022 elections, in which the GOP has a very good shot at busting up the current Democratic trifecta.

The Manchin-Sinema position is that voting-rights protections must be enacted by a bipartisan coalition to instill confidence in the system given the Trump-induced mistrust that metastasized during and after the 2020 elections, inspiring the attempted and ongoing MAGA coup to challenge or overturn the results. The central question now is what happens when (it’s no longer really a matter of “if”) it becomes unmistakably clear that Republicans won’t cooperate with “compromise” efforts like those in which Manchin has engaged twice this year.

At the invaluable Election Law Blog, Ohio State University professor Ned Foley answers the question by suggesting Democrats might just want to let the GOP do its worst for a while, assuming the “worst” doesn’t fall below some hypothetical “floor” of “minimal conditions necessary for an election to qualify as being small-d democratic.” His basic argument provides sort of a theoretical underpinning for Manchin’s reflexive belief (sincere or merely tactical, given the very red political coloration of his state) that election reforms that aren’t bipartisan simply aren’t worth enacting.

Before addressing Foley’s take, I will emphasize that his counsel of strategic surrender for Democrats is contingent, not absolute: If Republicans violate the hypothetical “floor” that Foley discusses but does not define, then he says Democrats have no choice but to override GOP voter-suppression measures if they can, even if such partisan action exacerbates the GOP’s “electoral McCarthyism” (his term for the Big Lie ideology of pervasive but never documented “voter fraud” claims).

But Foley pretty clearly thinks that what Republicans are doing in states like Georgia and Texas isn’t so very bad, and concentrates his argument on the importance of keeping Republicans from falling into an authoritarian pit forever:

“[W]hen as now the especially dangerous and distinctive paranoid conditions of electoral McCarthyism have taken root, and are growing, it seems as if that kind of one-party imposition of its electoral policy preference upon the other party that suffers from the paranoia of electoral McCarthyism has the potential of being extremely counterproductive. Indeed, it risks propelling forward the possibility of a reaction that would cause the society to fall below the floor of what’s essential for small-d democracy, thereby bringing out the circumstance that is exactly desired to be avoided.”

It’s less obvious how Foley (or Manchin) would ameliorate “electoral McCarthyism,” other than this very wishful thinking:

“Might it not be a smarter strategy to let Republicans write the rules for upcoming elections (as long as they remain within the realm of adequacy in terms of casting and counting votes), and then be able to say to them after they have lost, ‘Hey, we conducted the process exactly how you wanted it; what possibly gives you a basis for complaining with the result just because you lost?'”

There are two pretty big and obvious problems with this surrender strategy. The first is the most obvious: What if Republicans don’t lose in 2022 or 2024? If they win, they may very well be convinced that making it harder for their enemies to vote saved them, and ask for more helpings of the same satisfying meal. They will, moreover, have the power to do just that in more states, and to thwart Democratic voting-rights efforts in Washington for the foreseeable future. A Democratic surrender on voting rights that produces defeat would be accurately viewed as a betrayal of the loyal minority constituencies that lifted Democrats to victory in 2020.

The second flaw in the surrender strategy is it relies on the premise there is some silver bullet that will slay the Big Lie; that there is a single item feeding Republican “mistrust” of the electoral system that can be disproved by letting them indulge their malign fantasies. There really isn’t.

Yes, some Republican base voters believe without evidence that there is currently rampant “voter fraud” that can be prevented with greater vigilance. Others think voting by mail is inherently corrupt; since it hasn’t been outlawed anywhere, wouldn’t reestablishing the traditional Election Day — part of the lost America Donald Trump promised to restore — be an important agenda item to be pursued with renewed vigor? Still others think the problem is easily herded minority voters who want to vote themselves government benefits (the heart of Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” remark); they might favor a return to literacy tests or polls taxes. Some “constitutional conservatives” reject any electoral outcomes that undermine “natural rights” (e.g., to property or to fetal “personhood”) that they regard as having been established by the Founders and God Almighty. They aren’t going to wake up and recommit to small-d democracy.

And then you have the people who exist in both political parties, and indeed every political party from the beginning of time, who don’t bother with theories or evidence or “rights” at all and simply favor whatever electoral arrangements improve their chances of victory. What makes today’s Republicans distinctive in that respect is that their leader, the 45th president of the United States, exemplifies that attitude as much as Jesus Christ exemplified the Golden Rule. Indeed, winning at any cost is Donald Trump’s Golden Rule.

Even in the more “reasonable” precincts of the Republican Party, among people who don’t promote the Big Lie and all but visibly roll their eyes at Trump’s excesses, there is currently an iron and nearly universal opposition to the enhancement of any federally established voting rights, even those (most notably those protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965) that their own party accepted and even celebrated until the U.S. Supreme Court began tearing them apart in recent years. So even if Foley is right and the current passion for vitiating voting rights at the state level burns itself out, does that mean bipartisan support for establishing a durable national floor for voting rights via federal legislation will magically return? There’s no reason to think so.

It’s regrettable that purely partisan avenues are the only ones available to Democrats right now on this and so many other crucial questions. And yes, wherever possible, Democrats should exhibit reasonableness unilaterally as the sole custodians of small-d democracy. A voting-rights bill imposed by a filibuster carve-out or (even less likely) budget reconciliation need not include every conceivable or advisable reform, so as to enable Republican claims of a “power grab.” Restoring the Voting Rights Act to its original dimensions might be enough, along with modest measures to clarify how post-election challenges work so the courts don’t have to litigate them endlessly.

If today’s wave of voter suppression in the States grows worse next year and after the midterms, the folly of Manchinism will become more evident than ever. You cannot restore bipartisanship, on voting rights or anything else of significance, by giving power to your extremist opponents in hopes they will come to their senses or become glutted with too much winning.