washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

February 21: Combative Democratic Debaters Are Nothing Like 2016’s Republicans

There was a lot of Republican crowing about Democrats in Disarray after the February 19 Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas. So at New York I offered a reminder of what real fighting looked like:

It’s probably a good time to remind everyone that last night’s battle in Vegas pales in comparison to the regular spectacle of insults, eye gouging, and kneecapping that characterized many of the 2016 Republican debates. Yes, Bloomberg got taken down a few notches as Elizabeth Warren showed why she got a debate scholarship for college. But it was nothing like the incredible disrespect and downright hatred expressed toward Trump by his 2016 rivals, which (unlike Bloomberg last night) he reciprocated in full, giving us all a preview of the depths to which he would plunge presidential communications.

“On the debate stage, Trump stretched his hands out for the audience to see — then insisted the suggestion that ‘something else must be small’ was false.

“’I guarantee you there’s no problem,’ Trump said to howls from the audience at the Fox debate.”

Then there was the endless insultfest between Trump and Ted Cruz, which extended beyond the debate season when “Lyin’ Ted” (Trump’s nickname for the senator) refused to endorse the nominee at the Republican convention (likely because of Trump’s bizarre, outrageous suggestion that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the JFK assassination).

And how about the endless war of contemptuous words Trump aimed at “low-energy” Jeb Bush and the two former presidents in his family? It all finally provoked the normally pacific Jebbie to fire back:

“Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander-in-chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.

“With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.”

Were you impressed by Warren’s challenge to Bloomberg’s reputation for sexism? Well, its direct predecessor in presidential politics was Carly Fiorina’s angry rebuke of Trump during a September 2015 debate for insulting her appearance and treating it as a disqualifier.

To be clear, the 2016 Republican combat didn’t always require Trump to be a direct participant. Rubio and Cruz regularly took nasty personal shots at each other over the authenticity of their relative positioning on immigration policy. And one of the nomination contest’s key moments occurred in a debate just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when Chris Christie took down putative front-runner Rubio effectively and remorselessly:

“Christie, in the worst condition of any of the establishment challengers, in fifth place in the polls and with no obvious path to the nomination, landed the strongest blows on Rubio we’ve seen yet. Worse yet, Rubio responded to a pounding from Christie for being a paper-thin senator with no accomplishments by playing the part to a T: robotically repeating talking points even as the New Jersey governor mocked him for robotically repeating talking points.”

Now, in the end, all these Trump rivals other than Bush (Fiorina had withdrawn her endorsement of the nominee after the Access Hollywood video confirmed his arrogant piggishness) clamored onboard his foul-smelling bandwagon, and Rubio and Cruz are administration toadies in the Senate. And most obviously, in 2016 Republicans won the White House and both Houses of Congress despite all the discord. So I wouldn’t write off Democratic prospects this November simply because the candidates gambled a bit on aggressiveness in Las Vegas.


Combative Democratic Debaters Are Nothing Like 2016’s Republicans

There was a lot of Republican crowing about Democrats in Disarray after the February 19 Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas. So at New York I offered a reminder of what real fighting looked like:

It’s probably a good time to remind everyone that last night’s battle in Vegas pales in comparison to the regular spectacle of insults, eye gouging, and kneecapping that characterized many of the 2016 Republican debates. Yes, Bloomberg got taken down a few notches as Elizabeth Warren showed why she got a debate scholarship for college. But it was nothing like the incredible disrespect and downright hatred expressed toward Trump by his 2016 rivals, which (unlike Bloomberg last night) he reciprocated in full, giving us all a preview of the depths to which he would plunge presidential communications.

“On the debate stage, Trump stretched his hands out for the audience to see — then insisted the suggestion that ‘something else must be small’ was false.

“’I guarantee you there’s no problem,’ Trump said to howls from the audience at the Fox debate.”

Then there was the endless insultfest between Trump and Ted Cruz, which extended beyond the debate season when “Lyin’ Ted” (Trump’s nickname for the senator) refused to endorse the nominee at the Republican convention (likely because of Trump’s bizarre, outrageous suggestion that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the JFK assassination).

And how about the endless war of contemptuous words Trump aimed at “low-energy” Jeb Bush and the two former presidents in his family? It all finally provoked the normally pacific Jebbie to fire back:

“Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander-in-chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.

“With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.”

Were you impressed by Warren’s challenge to Bloomberg’s reputation for sexism? Well, its direct predecessor in presidential politics was Carly Fiorina’s angry rebuke of Trump during a September 2015 debate for insulting her appearance and treating it as a disqualifier.

To be clear, the 2016 Republican combat didn’t always require Trump to be a direct participant. Rubio and Cruz regularly took nasty personal shots at each other over the authenticity of their relative positioning on immigration policy. And one of the nomination contest’s key moments occurred in a debate just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when Chris Christie took down putative front-runner Rubio effectively and remorselessly:

“Christie, in the worst condition of any of the establishment challengers, in fifth place in the polls and with no obvious path to the nomination, landed the strongest blows on Rubio we’ve seen yet. Worse yet, Rubio responded to a pounding from Christie for being a paper-thin senator with no accomplishments by playing the part to a T: robotically repeating talking points even as the New Jersey governor mocked him for robotically repeating talking points.”

Now, in the end, all these Trump rivals other than Bush (Fiorina had withdrawn her endorsement of the nominee after the Access Hollywood video confirmed his arrogant piggishness) clamored onboard his foul-smelling bandwagon, and Rubio and Cruz are administration toadies in the Senate. And most obviously, in 2016 Republicans won the White House and both Houses of Congress despite all the discord. So I wouldn’t write off Democratic prospects this November simply because the candidates gambled a bit on aggressiveness in Las Vegas.


February 20: A Close Look at Trump’s Rising Job Approval Ratings

After neurotically avoiding the topic for a two days, I buckled down at New York to consider POTUS’s significantly improving job approval numbers and what they might mean.

One of the stone verities of national life over the last three years, right up there with regular California wildfires and a dysfunctional Congress, has been the stability of Donald J. Trump’s job-approval assessments by the public. Yes, they sometimes went up well into the low 40s, and sometimes went down into the mid-to-high 30s, depending mostly on the presence or absence of conspicuously bizarre and destructive Trump behavior. But as Geoffrey Skelley noted in March last year, Trump has stood out from past presidents in this respect:

“Trump’s approval rating has the least variation of any post–World War II president. Granted, Trump hasn’t yet served a full term, but changes in his approval rating have been remarkably small.”

That may be changing, and at the perfect time for Trump. His average job-approval rating according to RealClearPolitics had but rarely drifted just above 45 percent since Inauguration Day. Today, it stands at 46 percent. And you can’t blame that on some unusual mix of pro-Trump surveys like Rasmussen or The Hill–HarrisX. The venerable Gallup Poll has for two straight months placed the president’s job-approval number at 49 percent, far above his average Gallup rating of 40 percent over the course of his presidency.

RCP does not weigh job-approval polls for reliability and partisan bias, so sometimes its numbers are suspect. But FiveThirtyEight conducts multiple adjustments to boost accuracy, and its job-approval ratings for Trump are also spiking in the direction of previously unreached levels. It’s at 44.3 percent utilizing all polls, and at 45.9 percent if you limit the sample to those of registered voters or likely voters (as opposed to “all adults”). Both these numbers are highs for Trump since early 2017.

The comparison to which some observers leap is, ironically, Barack Obama, whose job-approval rating also began to drift upward just before he faced voters for a second time in 2012. A year out, his job-approval rating was at 43 percent (per Gallup), much where Trump’s was in November 2019. By Election Day 2012, it was up to 52 percent, and he won 51 percent of the popular vote.

The most commonly cited explanation for why Trump’s approval rating might be spiking, of course, is that Greatest Economy Ever he keeps boasting about. Multiple public-opinion outlets are reporting that optimism about the economy is on the rise, and, along with it, confidence in Trump’s stewardship of the economy (despite the lack of evidence that his policies have much to do with the steady job growth that began when Obama was in office).

But Trump’s overall job-approval rating — by all accounts the measurement most closely associated with reelection prospects — has long lagged the positive economic numbers. Indeed, Ron Brownstein has capably shown that the key to his reelection or defeat may be a group of voters who basically can’t stand Trump personally, but like the economy for which he claims all credit. Is anything happening with the economy now that should flip these voters into enthusiasm for the president? Or is something else going on?

Another theory is that Trump’s impeachment and acquittal has revved up his MAGA base to a level of excitement associated with some sort of massive social movement, boosting the likelihood that his fans will show up in November to a near certainty as they seek to consummate the destruction of POTUS’ evil persecutors. And in that explanation lies the possibility of some distortion in the polling, since people excited about their politics are more likely to respond to polls to a degree that doesn’t necessarily correspond to higher voting turnout. There’s even a hint of that in the Gallup data that looks so good for Trump:

“Gallup has observed an increase in the percentage of Americans identifying as Republicans (32% in the past two surveys, up from 28% in the prior two surveys), along with a decline in the percentage identifying as independents (41%, down from 43%) and Democrats (27%, down from 28%).”

So are Americans drifting into the Republican Party with its agenda of “entitlement reform,” militarism, nativism, climate-change denial, and unlimited presidential authority? Or are Trump’s bravos just skewing response rates?

It’s too early to know. For one thing, Trump has a habit of stepping on his best reelection messages with destructive behavior, such as his decision to throw a temper tantrum in late 2018 over border-wall money and shut down the federal government, which temporarily tanked his approval ratings. His sense of liberation in surviving impeachment could lead him to do really stupid things; would-be tyrants tend that way. But without question, he’s in better shape from the point of view of basic popularity than he has been for big stretches of his presidency, and if his numbers do improve, he may need to worry about his arrogance breeding complacency and overconfidence, matching Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.


A Close Look at Trump’s Rising Job Approval Ratings

After neurotically avoiding the topic for a two days, I buckled down at New York to consider POTUS’s significantly improving job approval numbers and what they might mean.

One of the stone verities of national life over the last three years, right up there with regular California wildfires and a dysfunctional Congress, has been the stability of Donald J. Trump’s job-approval assessments by the public. Yes, they sometimes went up well into the low 40s, and sometimes went down into the mid-to-high 30s, depending mostly on the presence or absence of conspicuously bizarre and destructive Trump behavior. But as Geoffrey Skelley noted in March last year, Trump has stood out from past presidents in this respect:

“Trump’s approval rating has the least variation of any post–World War II president. Granted, Trump hasn’t yet served a full term, but changes in his approval rating have been remarkably small.”

That may be changing, and at the perfect time for Trump. His average job-approval rating according to RealClearPolitics had but rarely drifted just above 45 percent since Inauguration Day. Today, it stands at 46 percent. And you can’t blame that on some unusual mix of pro-Trump surveys like Rasmussen or The Hill–HarrisX. The venerable Gallup Poll has for two straight months placed the president’s job-approval number at 49 percent, far above his average Gallup rating of 40 percent over the course of his presidency.

RCP does not weigh job-approval polls for reliability and partisan bias, so sometimes its numbers are suspect. But FiveThirtyEight conducts multiple adjustments to boost accuracy, and its job-approval ratings for Trump are also spiking in the direction of previously unreached levels. It’s at 44.3 percent utilizing all polls, and at 45.9 percent if you limit the sample to those of registered voters or likely voters (as opposed to “all adults”). Both these numbers are highs for Trump since early 2017.

The comparison to which some observers leap is, ironically, Barack Obama, whose job-approval rating also began to drift upward just before he faced voters for a second time in 2012. A year out, his job-approval rating was at 43 percent (per Gallup), much where Trump’s was in November 2019. By Election Day 2012, it was up to 52 percent, and he won 51 percent of the popular vote.

The most commonly cited explanation for why Trump’s approval rating might be spiking, of course, is that Greatest Economy Ever he keeps boasting about. Multiple public-opinion outlets are reporting that optimism about the economy is on the rise, and, along with it, confidence in Trump’s stewardship of the economy (despite the lack of evidence that his policies have much to do with the steady job growth that began when Obama was in office).

But Trump’s overall job-approval rating — by all accounts the measurement most closely associated with reelection prospects — has long lagged the positive economic numbers. Indeed, Ron Brownstein has capably shown that the key to his reelection or defeat may be a group of voters who basically can’t stand Trump personally, but like the economy for which he claims all credit. Is anything happening with the economy now that should flip these voters into enthusiasm for the president? Or is something else going on?

Another theory is that Trump’s impeachment and acquittal has revved up his MAGA base to a level of excitement associated with some sort of massive social movement, boosting the likelihood that his fans will show up in November to a near certainty as they seek to consummate the destruction of POTUS’ evil persecutors. And in that explanation lies the possibility of some distortion in the polling, since people excited about their politics are more likely to respond to polls to a degree that doesn’t necessarily correspond to higher voting turnout. There’s even a hint of that in the Gallup data that looks so good for Trump:

“Gallup has observed an increase in the percentage of Americans identifying as Republicans (32% in the past two surveys, up from 28% in the prior two surveys), along with a decline in the percentage identifying as independents (41%, down from 43%) and Democrats (27%, down from 28%).”

So are Americans drifting into the Republican Party with its agenda of “entitlement reform,” militarism, nativism, climate-change denial, and unlimited presidential authority? Or are Trump’s bravos just skewing response rates?

It’s too early to know. For one thing, Trump has a habit of stepping on his best reelection messages with destructive behavior, such as his decision to throw a temper tantrum in late 2018 over border-wall money and shut down the federal government, which temporarily tanked his approval ratings. His sense of liberation in surviving impeachment could lead him to do really stupid things; would-be tyrants tend that way. But without question, he’s in better shape from the point of view of basic popularity than he has been for big stretches of his presidency, and if his numbers do improve, he may need to worry about his arrogance breeding complacency and overconfidence, matching Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.


February 15: Democracy Versus Quick Election Results

I’ve been brooding over the Caucus Night disaster in Iowa, but then read a piece that cast light on broader questions, which I wrote about at New York:

During the long, agonizing evening of February 3, if you were watching cable news, you saw two interrelated things happening. The first and most obvious was that a terrible meltdown had struck the flawed volunteer-based and technologically afflicted system that Iowa Democrats had for tabulating results, which did not come in at the expected mid-evening juncture — or at all that night. The second is that a lot of highly paid, puffed-up talking heads were enraged that they were denied the raw material for their punditry. No telling how many planned and even paid-for witticisms and future catchphrases went unuttered, or how many maps of Iowa counties were tossed into digital wastebaskets.

As the renowned political scientist Norman Ornstein observes, we should beware putting too much stock in the perceived needs of those who want instant gratification on election nights. Some reforms that improve democracy make results harder to calculate and slower to harvest. Ornstein cites ranked-choice voting as one of those we are likely to see more of in the immediate future:

“It allows voters to give their first, second and subsequent choices, and allocates those second choices if no candidate gets over 50%, dropping off sequentially the lowest-performing candidates until a winner can be declared.

“This gives a truer picture of voter preferences and takes away the ability of independent or third-party candidates to distort the outcomes, or enable a candidate to win an election with a vote that is much less than a majority.”

But it takes time to tabulate ranked-choice votes, which is why when it was deployed in Maine in 2018 Democratic primaries the winners weren’t known for eight days. That was frustrating to a lot of people with a stake in the results, including journalists. But it arguably fulfilled the prime directive of the election in better reflecting the actual preferences of Maine Democrats.

As Ornstein also notes, there is a far more common democracy-enhancing reform that slows down election results — voting by mail:

“States have different ways to count those mail ballots, but because the envelopes have to be opened manually, one by one, and then tallied, they can take a lot of time — weeks in the case of California.

“And frequently, the mail ballots have voter preferences different from those of voters who go to the polls on Election Day, making the initial counts made on election eve misleading. In California, Democrats tend to vote more by mail, and several contests that had initial Republican leads were changed when the mail ballots were counted, leading many Republicans to cry foul.”

That was particularly true after California changed its laws to allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day but received by the following Friday to be considered valid. And why not? Why does the act of filling out a ballot at a polling place on election day possess more civic virtue than filling it out at home or work and placing it in the mail or dropping it off the very same day?

Yet when late mail ballots slowed down and then (as Ornstein said, predictably) reversed the results of key California congressional races in 2018, Republicans (notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and his successor as House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy) erupted with 100 percent unsubstantiated cries of “voter fraud.” Their candidates were ahead on Election Night! Then they lost! Those godless socialistic Democrats must have cooked the books, right?

Wrong. Partial results are just partial results, and there’s nothing magic about those cast or tabulated or reported on Election Night. Perhaps part of the problem is that the older set of political observers grew up on lurid tales of candidates being “counted out” by crooked election officials who waited until the wee hours to see how many votes they needed for victory and then fabricated them one way or another. That likely still happens in isolated circumstances (along with the very new threat of hacking), and in others, incompetence or inadequate investment in election technology is to blame. But we really do need to get over the idea that instant results are some sort of testament to the integrity of elections and a media birthright.


Democracy Versus Quick Election Results

I’ve been brooding over the Caucus Night disaster in Iowa, but then read a piece that cast light on broader questions, which I wrote about at New York:

During the long, agonizing evening of February 3, if you were watching cable news, you saw two interrelated things happening. The first and most obvious was that a terrible meltdown had struck the flawed volunteer-based and technologically afflicted system that Iowa Democrats had for tabulating results, which did not come in at the expected mid-evening juncture — or at all that night. The second is that a lot of highly paid, puffed-up talking heads were enraged that they were denied the raw material for their punditry. No telling how many planned and even paid-for witticisms and future catchphrases went unuttered, or how many maps of Iowa counties were tossed into digital wastebaskets.

As the renowned political scientist Norman Ornstein observes, we should beware putting too much stock in the perceived needs of those who want instant gratification on election nights. Some reforms that improve democracy make results harder to calculate and slower to harvest. Ornstein cites ranked-choice voting as one of those we are likely to see more of in the immediate future:

“It allows voters to give their first, second and subsequent choices, and allocates those second choices if no candidate gets over 50%, dropping off sequentially the lowest-performing candidates until a winner can be declared.

“This gives a truer picture of voter preferences and takes away the ability of independent or third-party candidates to distort the outcomes, or enable a candidate to win an election with a vote that is much less than a majority.”

But it takes time to tabulate ranked-choice votes, which is why when it was deployed in Maine in 2018 Democratic primaries the winners weren’t known for eight days. That was frustrating to a lot of people with a stake in the results, including journalists. But it arguably fulfilled the prime directive of the election in better reflecting the actual preferences of Maine Democrats.

As Ornstein also notes, there is a far more common democracy-enhancing reform that slows down election results — voting by mail:

“States have different ways to count those mail ballots, but because the envelopes have to be opened manually, one by one, and then tallied, they can take a lot of time — weeks in the case of California.

“And frequently, the mail ballots have voter preferences different from those of voters who go to the polls on Election Day, making the initial counts made on election eve misleading. In California, Democrats tend to vote more by mail, and several contests that had initial Republican leads were changed when the mail ballots were counted, leading many Republicans to cry foul.”

That was particularly true after California changed its laws to allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day but received by the following Friday to be considered valid. And why not? Why does the act of filling out a ballot at a polling place on election day possess more civic virtue than filling it out at home or work and placing it in the mail or dropping it off the very same day?

Yet when late mail ballots slowed down and then (as Ornstein said, predictably) reversed the results of key California congressional races in 2018, Republicans (notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and his successor as House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy) erupted with 100 percent unsubstantiated cries of “voter fraud.” Their candidates were ahead on Election Night! Then they lost! Those godless socialistic Democrats must have cooked the books, right?

Wrong. Partial results are just partial results, and there’s nothing magic about those cast or tabulated or reported on Election Night. Perhaps part of the problem is that the older set of political observers grew up on lurid tales of candidates being “counted out” by crooked election officials who waited until the wee hours to see how many votes they needed for victory and then fabricated them one way or another. That likely still happens in isolated circumstances (along with the very new threat of hacking), and in others, incompetence or inadequate investment in election technology is to blame. But we really do need to get over the idea that instant results are some sort of testament to the integrity of elections and a media birthright.


February 12: Virginia To End the Rebel Yell and Make Election Day a State Holiday

Something richly symbolic is underway thanks to Virginia Democrats, and I wrote about it at New York:

When Democrats won control of the Virginia legislature last year (along with the governorship under Ralph Northam), it gave them a governing trifecta. Bills more than doubling the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 are moving through both chambers of the legislature. A bill abolishing the Commonwealth’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees has been passed by the House of Delegates and is moving toward passage in the Senate.

But the most richly symbolic sign of a new day in the Old Dominion is undoubtedly this one, as reported by CNN:

“Virginia is one step closer to ending its tradition of honoring Confederate generals.

“This week, the Virginia House voted to strike Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. The holiday, observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, honors Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as ‘defenders of causes.’

“Both men owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery in the US.

“In its place, the House bill proposed that the state replace it with Election Day, the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November, instead.

“Gov. Ralph Northam included the measure in his 2020 legislative proposals. If Election Day becomes a state holiday, he said, it’ll be easier for Virginians to vote.”

Lee, of course, has been the object of an enormous and region-wide cult of Confederate memorial and neo-Confederate defiance. In Virginia, though, he has long been rivaled in esteem among admirers of the Lost Cause by his most famous field commander, General James “Stonewall” Jackson (given that nickname after heroics in the first major engagement of the Civil War at Bull Run). Military prowess aside, the intensely religious Jackson became known as the epitome of the “Christian soldier,” a reputation somewhat at odds with his advocacy of brutal treatment for disobedient soldiers and enemy combatants. And without question, part of the devotion surrounding him in subsequent decades derived from the belief that had he not died of an injury from friendly fire in 1863, the South would have won the war and its right to become an independent slave-owning republic.

Now, at long last, the rebel yell of defiance associated with a state holiday in honor of these two racist traitors (which, no matter how you judge them otherwise, they most definitely were) is apparently going to be silenced. And it is highly appropriate that this particular state replace this particular tradition with an Election Day holiday to encourage voting. Under Jim Crow and the Byrd Machine, Virginia famously disenfranchised poor whites as well as African-Americans; the great historian of southern politics V.O. Key said of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s: “By contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”

Fare thee well, Lee-Jackson Day! Soon enough only open, hard-core racists will mourn its passing.


Virginia To End the Rebel Yell and Make Election Day a State Holiday

Something richly symbolic is underway thanks to Virginia Democrats, and I wrote about it at New York:

When Democrats won control of the Virginia legislature last year (along with the governorship under Ralph Northam), it gave them a governing trifecta. Bills more than doubling the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 are moving through both chambers of the legislature. A bill abolishing the Commonwealth’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees has been passed by the House of Delegates and is moving toward passage in the Senate.

But the most richly symbolic sign of a new day in the Old Dominion is undoubtedly this one, as reported by CNN:

“Virginia is one step closer to ending its tradition of honoring Confederate generals.

“This week, the Virginia House voted to strike Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. The holiday, observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, honors Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as ‘defenders of causes.’

“Both men owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery in the US.

“In its place, the House bill proposed that the state replace it with Election Day, the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November, instead.

“Gov. Ralph Northam included the measure in his 2020 legislative proposals. If Election Day becomes a state holiday, he said, it’ll be easier for Virginians to vote.”

Lee, of course, has been the object of an enormous and region-wide cult of Confederate memorial and neo-Confederate defiance. In Virginia, though, he has long been rivaled in esteem among admirers of the Lost Cause by his most famous field commander, General James “Stonewall” Jackson (given that nickname after heroics in the first major engagement of the Civil War at Bull Run). Military prowess aside, the intensely religious Jackson became known as the epitome of the “Christian soldier,” a reputation somewhat at odds with his advocacy of brutal treatment for disobedient soldiers and enemy combatants. And without question, part of the devotion surrounding him in subsequent decades derived from the belief that had he not died of an injury from friendly fire in 1863, the South would have won the war and its right to become an independent slave-owning republic.

Now, at long last, the rebel yell of defiance associated with a state holiday in honor of these two racist traitors (which, no matter how you judge them otherwise, they most definitely were) is apparently going to be silenced. And it is highly appropriate that this particular state replace this particular tradition with an Election Day holiday to encourage voting. Under Jim Crow and the Byrd Machine, Virginia famously disenfranchised poor whites as well as African-Americans; the great historian of southern politics V.O. Key said of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s: “By contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”

Fare thee well, Lee-Jackson Day! Soon enough only open, hard-core racists will mourn its passing.


February 6: Bad Moon Rises Over the Iowa Caucuses

When I went to Iowa this last weekend to observe the Caucuses, I had no idea disaster would strike the event’s machinery, and I wrote sadly about it for New York:

For political media and other political junkies, the meltdown in the Iowa caucus results tabulation and reporting system was deeply annoying. TV gabbers were left with little to say, other than to lash out at the people of this proud and sometimes sensitive state. For the presidential campaigns most directly affected by the uncertainty of it all, it was a logistical and messaging challenge of the highest order. Amy Klobuchar showed the way by getting out there first with a happy speech claiming a level of success in Iowa that no one had the hard data to refute — and then jetting off to New Hampshire. Everyone eventually adapted to the weird half-light of the first voting event of the 2020 presidential cycle culminating in a long night with no results at all other than an entrance poll no one trusted.

But for political — and even apolitical — people here in Iowa, this has been a catastrophe all out of proportion to the technical and training glitches that produced it. The caucuses in their complexity have always represented a half-miracle pulled off quadrennially by a vast army of volunteers and a relatively small cadre of professionals. This year’s trebled reporting requirements (forced on Iowa by the national party) and the technological means chosen to accommodate them finally broke the Iowa Democratic Party. And that happened at the worst possible time, when critics and coveters of Iowa’s privileged perch in the nomination process had already built up a head of hateful steam.

“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Iowa journalism legend David Yepsen told Politico.

Et tu, David?

Here in Des Moines, as the TV pundits spat fire at the caucuses last night, there was a growing sense of horror among locals that this was indeed a breakdown moment for the state’s political influence and legacy. It wasn’t confined to Democrats. This morning, even as taunts from their president echoed across the Twitterverse, Iowa’s Republican governor and senator leapt to the defense of the Iowa Democratic Party and the Caucuses, insisting that Iowa was still “the ideal state to kick off the nominating process.”

But if the nominating process for 2024 and beyond isn’t clear, there’s a feeling of what can only be described as mourning this morning in Des Moines. And best as I can tell, Iowans are not angry about the 2020 caucus meltdown the way so many members of the traveling political circus seem to be. After all, who’s to blame? The state party professionals struggling as always to comply with new party rules under the watchful eyes of campaigns? The hundreds of volunteers, many of them elderly, who couldn’t deal with the new reporting app? The volunteers at party headquarters trying to juggle late-night calls on overburdened phone lines as puzzled and frustrated precinct chairs tried to use the 2016 reporting system? It’s not like Caucus Night was the first random catastrophe of the cycle for Iowa, given the surveying mishap that killed the much-awaited Iowa Poll this last weekend, which fed the uncertainty felt by all going into the contest.

Everyone and no one is to blame for an almost inevitable collapse of a tradition-bound process in which there was too much room for human error. And so people here are now left wondering about the civic and economic consequences of this perhaps being the last of the Iowa caucuses as we have known them since 1972. Iowa haters will enjoy the moment before they set upon one another along the treacherous path to a different “system.” But for Iowans, and the many adopted Iowans who have spent winter weeks and months here every four years, it’s a sad morning.


Bad Moon Rises Over the Iowa Caucuses

When I went to Iowa this last weekend to observe the Caucuses, I had no idea disaster would strike the event’s machinery, and I wrote sadly about it for New York:

For political media and other political junkies, the meltdown in the Iowa caucus results tabulation and reporting system was deeply annoying. TV gabbers were left with little to say, other than to lash out at the people of this proud and sometimes sensitive state. For the presidential campaigns most directly affected by the uncertainty of it all, it was a logistical and messaging challenge of the highest order. Amy Klobuchar showed the way by getting out there first with a happy speech claiming a level of success in Iowa that no one had the hard data to refute — and then jetting off to New Hampshire. Everyone eventually adapted to the weird half-light of the first voting event of the 2020 presidential cycle culminating in a long night with no results at all other than an entrance poll no one trusted.

But for political — and even apolitical — people here in Iowa, this has been a catastrophe all out of proportion to the technical and training glitches that produced it. The caucuses in their complexity have always represented a half-miracle pulled off quadrennially by a vast army of volunteers and a relatively small cadre of professionals. This year’s trebled reporting requirements (forced on Iowa by the national party) and the technological means chosen to accommodate them finally broke the Iowa Democratic Party. And that happened at the worst possible time, when critics and coveters of Iowa’s privileged perch in the nomination process had already built up a head of hateful steam.

“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Iowa journalism legend David Yepsen told Politico.

Et tu, David?

Here in Des Moines, as the TV pundits spat fire at the caucuses last night, there was a growing sense of horror among locals that this was indeed a breakdown moment for the state’s political influence and legacy. It wasn’t confined to Democrats. This morning, even as taunts from their president echoed across the Twitterverse, Iowa’s Republican governor and senator leapt to the defense of the Iowa Democratic Party and the Caucuses, insisting that Iowa was still “the ideal state to kick off the nominating process.”

But if the nominating process for 2024 and beyond isn’t clear, there’s a feeling of what can only be described as mourning this morning in Des Moines. And best as I can tell, Iowans are not angry about the 2020 caucus meltdown the way so many members of the traveling political circus seem to be. After all, who’s to blame? The state party professionals struggling as always to comply with new party rules under the watchful eyes of campaigns? The hundreds of volunteers, many of them elderly, who couldn’t deal with the new reporting app? The volunteers at party headquarters trying to juggle late-night calls on overburdened phone lines as puzzled and frustrated precinct chairs tried to use the 2016 reporting system? It’s not like Caucus Night was the first random catastrophe of the cycle for Iowa, given the surveying mishap that killed the much-awaited Iowa Poll this last weekend, which fed the uncertainty felt by all going into the contest.

Everyone and no one is to blame for an almost inevitable collapse of a tradition-bound process in which there was too much room for human error. And so people here are now left wondering about the civic and economic consequences of this perhaps being the last of the Iowa caucuses as we have known them since 1972. Iowa haters will enjoy the moment before they set upon one another along the treacherous path to a different “system.” But for Iowans, and the many adopted Iowans who have spent winter weeks and months here every four years, it’s a sad morning.