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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

April 22: RIP Walter F. Mondale

When Fritz Mondale passed away this week, I eulogized this Democratic leader at New York:

Some career politicians who achieve national fame are known as policy innovators or political insurgents, while others flame out and return to obscurity thanks to bad luck or bad behavior. Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale was another type altogether: a reliable public servant in all of the many jobs he held and a steady steward of the Minnesota liberal political traditions he inherited. He was also, by all accounts, a decent man, and it was characteristic of him that just before his death this week at the age of 93, he sent a grateful email to former staffers, saying “Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”

Mondale was fated to spend much of his career in the shadow of other leaders. A protégé of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legends Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman, he was appointed state attorney general by Freeman in 1960 and then four years later occupied Humphrey’s Senate seat when his mentor became Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president. Like Humphrey, Mondale was a rigorous New Deal liberal who was quick to support the labor and civil-rights movements and slow to abandon the Vietnam War. He began and quickly dropped a presidential candidacy in 1974 after Humphrey’s ill health kept him from running; Mondale famously said he didn’t want to spend the next two years living in Holiday Inns. But when eventual Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter needed a northern running mate with close ties to labor, Mondale signed up after securing a pledge from Carter that they would form a true partnership in office.

The wheels soon came off for the coalition Carter and Mondale had put together in 1976, and when Mondale finally ran for the top spot in 1984, the Republican ascendancy that had been delayed by Watergate and Carter’s southern identity fully arrived. The Minnesotan narrowly won the presidential nomination against forward-leaning candidacies by Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart, but eventually won just his own state plus the District of Columbia against the “Morning in America” reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan. The Mondale presidential campaign’s only positive legacy was his pioneering choice of a woman, New York’s Gerald Ferraro, as running mate. Again, All Things Veep was Mondale’s signature.

He returned to public office when Bill Clinton reclaimed the White House, spending over three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan, where he is still remembered for his efforts to scale back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

But after he returned to Minnesota to practice law and semi-retire, this paragon of party loyalty had one more bitter cup to drink. He was drafted in 2002 to run for his old Senate seat after Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane accident just 11 days before the general election. A close race turned into a Democratic defeat, after a boisterous Wellstone memorial service that offended some voters. Mondale finally retired from politics.

His and Carter’s longevity (the former president is 96) made them the longest-surviving ex-president and vice-president ever. And the strong personal qualities of both men have allowed their political mistakes to fade over time.

Upon news of Mondale’s death, President Biden released a statement crediting his vice-presidential predecessor with offering him sound counsel when Barack Obama chose him as his 2008 running mate. And in some respects, the old-school liberal tradition Mondale typified is shared by Biden, who served with him in the Senate for eight years (four when Mondale was president of the Senate) more than four decades ago. Ideology aside, both men unfashionably viewed public service as an honorable profession. One lives in the White House, and the other lives on in many fond memories.


RIP Walter F. Mondale

When Fritz Mondale passed away this week, I eulogized this Democratic leader at New York:

Some career politicians who achieve national fame are known as policy innovators or political insurgents, while others flame out and return to obscurity thanks to bad luck or bad behavior. Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale was another type altogether: a reliable public servant in all of the many jobs he held and a steady steward of the Minnesota liberal political traditions he inherited. He was also, by all accounts, a decent man, and it was characteristic of him that just before his death this week at the age of 93, he sent a grateful email to former staffers, saying “Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”

Mondale was fated to spend much of his career in the shadow of other leaders. A protégé of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legends Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman, he was appointed state attorney general by Freeman in 1960 and then four years later occupied Humphrey’s Senate seat when his mentor became Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president. Like Humphrey, Mondale was a rigorous New Deal liberal who was quick to support the labor and civil-rights movements and slow to abandon the Vietnam War. He began and quickly dropped a presidential candidacy in 1974 after Humphrey’s ill health kept him from running; Mondale famously said he didn’t want to spend the next two years living in Holiday Inns. But when eventual Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter needed a northern running mate with close ties to labor, Mondale signed up after securing a pledge from Carter that they would form a true partnership in office.

The wheels soon came off for the coalition Carter and Mondale had put together in 1976, and when Mondale finally ran for the top spot in 1984, the Republican ascendancy that had been delayed by Watergate and Carter’s southern identity fully arrived. The Minnesotan narrowly won the presidential nomination against forward-leaning candidacies by Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart, but eventually won just his own state plus the District of Columbia against the “Morning in America” reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan. The Mondale presidential campaign’s only positive legacy was his pioneering choice of a woman, New York’s Gerald Ferraro, as running mate. Again, All Things Veep was Mondale’s signature.

He returned to public office when Bill Clinton reclaimed the White House, spending over three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan, where he is still remembered for his efforts to scale back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

But after he returned to Minnesota to practice law and semi-retire, this paragon of party loyalty had one more bitter cup to drink. He was drafted in 2002 to run for his old Senate seat after Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane accident just 11 days before the general election. A close race turned into a Democratic defeat, after a boisterous Wellstone memorial service that offended some voters. Mondale finally retired from politics.

His and Carter’s longevity (the former president is 96) made them the longest-surviving ex-president and vice-president ever. And the strong personal qualities of both men have allowed their political mistakes to fade over time.

Upon news of Mondale’s death, President Biden released a statement crediting his vice-presidential predecessor with offering him sound counsel when Barack Obama chose him as his 2008 running mate. And in some respects, the old-school liberal tradition Mondale typified is shared by Biden, who served with him in the Senate for eight years (four when Mondale was president of the Senate) more than four decades ago. Ideology aside, both men unfashionably viewed public service as an honorable profession. One lives in the White House, and the other lives on in many fond memories.


April 16: Brian Kemp Is Cynically Using Voter Suppression To Win Back MAGA Support

When an underwhelming primary rival to Brian Kemp announced his candidacy I took a look at the Georgia governor’s comeback strategy and wrote it up at New York.

Until March 25, Georgia governor Brian Kemp was looking pretty finished politically. Very publicly and vociferously blamed by Donald Trump for ratifying Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s certification of Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia on November 20, Kemp was persona non grata in MAGA country. He had already been periodically in Trump’s doghouse over his handling of the pandemic in his state, and before that, over his rejection of the Boss’s instruction that he appoint Representative Doug Collins to an open U.S. Senate seat. But getting in the way of the 45th president’s attempted election coup was the final straw: Trump has been publicly and privately vowing to take down Kemp in next year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, as recently as the RNC donor retreat in Florida last weekend. During his brief campaign appearance in Georgia before the January Senate runoffs that ended in defeat for his party, Trump even called on Collins to challenge Kemp in 2022, which wasn’t exactly a Georgia GOP talking point. Nor was Trump’s later suggestion that Kemp should resign.

Kemp managed to keep his mouth shut in the face of all these provocations, grimly promising to support Trump in 2024 and generally taking his medicine. But his comeback strategy became apparent when he made a big show of signing Georgia’s highly controversial new election law on March 25. It’s unclear whether he deliberately courted the appearance of racist impropriety, though he did sign the bill under a painting of a plantation and barred a Black Democratic legislator from his office during his remarks on the bill. (State Representative Park Cannon was subsequently manhandled by state troopers who wrestled her out of the Georgia Capitol to be arrested on multiple felony counts.)

“[T]he sweeping election law could be one of Kemp’s last hopes to rekindle a bond with Republicans who remain fiercely loyal to Trump and will be a critical force in next year’s GOP primary. The legislation, which Kemp signed into law, could give him an opening to persuade Republicans that he is an outsider, willing to stand up to Democrats, corporate leaders, and sports leagues who have derided the measure as an affront to democracy that is based on false claims and needs to be rewritten.

“’This is an absolute godsend for Brian Kemp,’ said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant and former top aide to Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal.”

Kemp has eagerly been making the rounds of conservative media outlets to defend the new law, struggling, no doubt, to hide his glee at the liberal criticism it has attracted. The furor is helping him back home where it matters as well, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein observes:

“In recent weeks, Kemp has been a mainstay on conservative cable TV shows and enjoyed raucous receptions at grassroots meetings across the state, seemingly dissuading better-known Republican rivals such as former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump once recruited to run.”

Morning Consult reports that Kemp’s job-approval rating among Georgia Republicans rose from 59 percent in mid-March to 74 percent in early April. Nonetheless, a well-known Georgia pol close to Trump has now announced a 2022 primary bid against the governor. But his identity could be a blessing in disguise to the incumbent.

Vernon Jones is a Black former state legislator and county CEO who endorsed Trump’s reelection last year and has more recently switched parties. He got a lot of MAGA attention, particularly after his featured role at the GOP National Convention. He has really taken to his new career in Republican politics, speaking at the notorious January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and basking in the affection of the Big Man (“When are you announcing? When are you announcing?” Trump said to Jones at Mar-a-Lago last week).

Jones’s announcement made it clear that he’s the former president’s surrogate.

Jones, however, is a risky proposition as Trump’s instrument of vengeance against Kemp. Aside from the fact that he’s a career Democratic politician from a jurisdiction (the Atlanta inner suburb of Dekalb County) that your average rural Republican wouldn’t visit on a bet, he has always had some issues, as Bluestein explains, calling him “a uniquely polarizing figure in state politics”:

“Jones launched his political career in the early 1990s in the Georgia House before winning the first of two terms as DeKalb County’s chief executive officer in 2000. His stint was marked by controversy …

“[H]is angry outbursts and clashes with other local officials dominated headlines, as did more serious allegations …

“[A] wide-ranging special grand jury report released in 2013, after Jones left office, recommended an investigation against Jones and other DeKalb officials into possible bid-rigging and theft when he was chief executive, painting a picture of a culture of corruption that spanned from his office to workers and contractors in the watershed department.”

Worse yet, Jones was accused of rape in 2005. His successful defense was that the intercourse in question was part of a consensual three-way sexual encounter. This is still not a great look for candidates in the Christian-right- dominated Georgia GOP. And speaking of the Christian right, Jones had a problem with a vote in the legislature against a “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban Kemp had championed in 2019. On the eve of his candidacy, Jones executed a straight-out flip-flop on abortion, stating he now believed zygotes should be protected “from the moment of conception.”

You get the sense that Jones will serve as an irritant to Kemp but not a serious threat unless Trump himself forcefully intervenes in the race (and/or if a more formidable Trump-backed candidate, like Collins, who is reportedly mulling a Senate race, jumps in). And even then, Georgia Republicans will remember that Trump had strongly endorsed Kemp during the last gubernatorial primary. MAGA bravos looking for a pound of flesh may instead focus on Raffensperger, who has drawn an actual member of Congress as his 2022 primary opponent, along with the rival he barely defeated in 2018.

If Kemp does escape, he will likely face a rematch with his nemesis, voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams. And in that contest, all the treasure he has stored up in Republican circles by boasting of his commitment to “election integrity” may earn him a backlash from the voters he and his party have sought to bedevil.


Brian Kemp Is Cynically Using Voter Suppression to Win Back MAGA Support

When an underwhelming primary rival to Brian Kemp announced his candidacy I took a look at the Georgia governor’s comeback strategy and wrote it up at New York.

Until March 25, Georgia governor Brian Kemp was looking pretty finished politically. Very publicly and vociferously blamed by Donald Trump for ratifying Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s certification of Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia on November 20, Kemp was persona non grata in MAGA country. He had already been periodically in Trump’s doghouse over his handling of the pandemic in his state, and before that, over his rejection of the Boss’s instruction that he appoint Representative Doug Collins to an open U.S. Senate seat. But getting in the way of the 45th president’s attempted election coup was the final straw: Trump has been publicly and privately vowing to take down Kemp in next year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, as recently as the RNC donor retreat in Florida last weekend. During his brief campaign appearance in Georgia before the January Senate runoffs that ended in defeat for his party, Trump even called on Collins to challenge Kemp in 2022, which wasn’t exactly a Georgia GOP talking point. Nor was Trump’s later suggestion that Kemp should resign.

Kemp managed to keep his mouth shut in the face of all these provocations, grimly promising to support Trump in 2024 and generally taking his medicine. But his comeback strategy became apparent when he made a big show of signing Georgia’s highly controversial new election law on March 25. It’s unclear whether he deliberately courted the appearance of racist impropriety, though he did sign the bill under a painting of a plantation and barred a Black Democratic legislator from his office during his remarks on the bill. (State Representative Park Cannon was subsequently manhandled by state troopers who wrestled her out of the Georgia Capitol to be arrested on multiple felony counts.)

“[T]he sweeping election law could be one of Kemp’s last hopes to rekindle a bond with Republicans who remain fiercely loyal to Trump and will be a critical force in next year’s GOP primary. The legislation, which Kemp signed into law, could give him an opening to persuade Republicans that he is an outsider, willing to stand up to Democrats, corporate leaders, and sports leagues who have derided the measure as an affront to democracy that is based on false claims and needs to be rewritten.

“’This is an absolute godsend for Brian Kemp,’ said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant and former top aide to Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal.”

Kemp has eagerly been making the rounds of conservative media outlets to defend the new law, struggling, no doubt, to hide his glee at the liberal criticism it has attracted. The furor is helping him back home where it matters as well, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein observes:

“In recent weeks, Kemp has been a mainstay on conservative cable TV shows and enjoyed raucous receptions at grassroots meetings across the state, seemingly dissuading better-known Republican rivals such as former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump once recruited to run.”

Morning Consult reports that Kemp’s job-approval rating among Georgia Republicans rose from 59 percent in mid-March to 74 percent in early April. Nonetheless, a well-known Georgia pol close to Trump has now announced a 2022 primary bid against the governor. But his identity could be a blessing in disguise to the incumbent.

Vernon Jones is a Black former state legislator and county CEO who endorsed Trump’s reelection last year and has more recently switched parties. He got a lot of MAGA attention, particularly after his featured role at the GOP National Convention. He has really taken to his new career in Republican politics, speaking at the notorious January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and basking in the affection of the Big Man (“When are you announcing? When are you announcing?” Trump said to Jones at Mar-a-Lago last week).

Jones’s announcement made it clear that he’s the former president’s surrogate.

Jones, however, is a risky proposition as Trump’s instrument of vengeance against Kemp. Aside from the fact that he’s a career Democratic politician from a jurisdiction (the Atlanta inner suburb of Dekalb County) that your average rural Republican wouldn’t visit on a bet, he has always had some issues, as Bluestein explains, calling him “a uniquely polarizing figure in state politics”:

“Jones launched his political career in the early 1990s in the Georgia House before winning the first of two terms as DeKalb County’s chief executive officer in 2000. His stint was marked by controversy …

“[H]is angry outbursts and clashes with other local officials dominated headlines, as did more serious allegations …

“[A] wide-ranging special grand jury report released in 2013, after Jones left office, recommended an investigation against Jones and other DeKalb officials into possible bid-rigging and theft when he was chief executive, painting a picture of a culture of corruption that spanned from his office to workers and contractors in the watershed department.”

Worse yet, Jones was accused of rape in 2005. His successful defense was that the intercourse in question was part of a consensual three-way sexual encounter. This is still not a great look for candidates in the Christian-right- dominated Georgia GOP. And speaking of the Christian right, Jones had a problem with a vote in the legislature against a “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban Kemp had championed in 2019. On the eve of his candidacy, Jones executed a straight-out flip-flop on abortion, stating he now believed zygotes should be protected “from the moment of conception.”

You get the sense that Jones will serve as an irritant to Kemp but not a serious threat unless Trump himself forcefully intervenes in the race (and/or if a more formidable Trump-backed candidate, like Collins, who is reportedly mulling a Senate race, jumps in). And even then, Georgia Republicans will remember that Trump had strongly endorsed Kemp during the last gubernatorial primary. MAGA bravos looking for a pound of flesh may instead focus on Raffensperger, who has drawn an actual member of Congress as his 2022 primary opponent, along with the rival he barely defeated in 2018.

If Kemp does escape, he will likely face a rematch with his nemesis, voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams. And in that contest, all the treasure he has stored up in Republican circles by boasting of his commitment to “election integrity” may earn him a backlash from the voters he and his party have sought to bedevil.


April 14: Was Trump’s 2020 Election Coup Attempt a Dress Rehearsal?

I stumbled on a piece at the Never-Trump site The Bulwark, and it stunned me enough to write it up at New York.

You may have heard about the 45th president’s reported rant at a Republican donor conference near his Florida home over the weekend. Trump is apparently still furious at Brian Kemp for impeding his election coup, and Mike Pence for failing to steal a second term for him anyway, and at Mitch McConnell for refusing to back his electoral vote challenge and then criticizing him for inciting a riot.

To Republicans who aren’t deep in the fever swamps of MAGA-land, this is just Trump continuing his narcissistic and destructive post-election behavior. Just as he blew up those crucial Georgia Senate runoffs in January because he couldn’t let go of his own lies about the presidential election, he’s blowing up the party at a time when the GOP needs to stay unified in the fight against Biden.

But what if Trump’s attacks on those who “betrayed” him in 2020 aren’t just narcissistic or backward-looking? What if it’s part of a forward-looking plan to rerun 2020 and get it right this time?

That’s the question Jonathan V. Last of The Bulwark appears to have asked himself, and he’s answered it with a hair-raising hypothesis that is as plausible as the assumption that Trump is just throwing temper tantrums. He presents his theory as the likely product of an implicit Republican 2020 “autopsy” that has turned defeat into a near-victory:

“It is likely Republicans will have majorities in the congressional delegations of at least 26 states for the foreseeable future. They have a >50 percent chance of winning the House in 2022 and a pretty good shot at flipping the Senate.

“So the first two preconditions for winning the presidency while losing the election are very much on the table.

“Which leaves just one project: Mustering the political will to move past both the popular vote and the Electoral College.”

If you begin not with the assumption that Trump’s entire effort to steal the election was absurd, but regard it as an audacious plan that wasn’t executed with the necessary precision, then reverse engineering it to fix the broken parts makes sense:

“[T]he key parts of the Republican autopsy have been (1) building the political will to use raw power next time and (2) removing the Republican officials who were not willing to comply last time.

“That’s why Republican state parties have censured nearly every Republican who did not participate in Trump’s attempted coup.”

And the really heady thing for Trump is knowing how easy it was to convince the GOP rank-and-file base that his lies were the gospel truth:

“The Big Lie is actually the biggest insight to come from the Republican autopsy. Republicans and their enablers discovered that if they make false, evidence-free claims often and loudly enough, then the vast majority of their voters will believe them.

“And then, once Republican voters were onboard, they found that the rest of the party elites would either join them or stay silent. Only a handful of Republicans dared to object. And those figures are in the process of being either defeated or coopted.”

So why not play it again with a prepared and united party that won’t hesitate to seize on bogus “voter fraud” claims and either steal electoral votes before they can be certified by the states, or refuse to certify a Democratic victory and throw the election into Congress?

“[E]ven though the success of such a gambit is a longshot given all of the various failure points, since political power is derived from their voters, many Republicans politicians will be incentivized to embrace the challenge anyway, since they will gain power within the party from the voters who have been primed to demand such a fight.”

But it’s not any more implausible than the election coup hypothesis sounded when some of us began predicting it in the spring of 2020. And in retrospect, it was spot-on except for a few crucial mistakes Team Trump made after Election Night.

From Last’s perspective, in ranting about disloyal Republicans Trump isn’t engaged in hindsight or vengeance, but is following an ambitious schedule for success in 2024 by getting rid of potential troublemakers within his party. And here’s the thing: it’s a strategy that doesn’t necessarily depend on Trump running for president again. It’s available to anyone determined to do whatever it takes to reconquer Washington at a time when Republicans look to be a minority of the electorate for the foreseeable future. Trump has prepared the way with a dress rehearsal.

It’s a chilling thought, and one to revisit if Trump’s Republican enemies go down to primary challenges next year.


Was Trump’s 2020 Election Coup Attempt a Dress Rehearsal?

I stumbled on a piece at the Never-Trump site The Bulwark, and it stunned me enough to write it up at New York.

You may have heard about the 45th president’s reported rant at a Republican donor conference near his Florida home over the weekend. Trump is apparently still furious at Brian Kemp for impeding his election coup, and Mike Pence for failing to steal a second term for him anyway, and at Mitch McConnell for refusing to back his electoral vote challenge and then criticizing him for inciting a riot.

To Republicans who aren’t deep in the fever swamps of MAGA-land, this is just Trump continuing his narcissistic and destructive post-election behavior. Just as he blew up those crucial Georgia Senate runoffs in January because he couldn’t let go of his own lies about the presidential election, he’s blowing up the party at a time when the GOP needs to stay unified in the fight against Biden.

But what if Trump’s attacks on those who “betrayed” him in 2020 aren’t just narcissistic or backward-looking? What if it’s part of a forward-looking plan to rerun 2020 and get it right this time?

That’s the question Jonathan V. Last of The Bulwark appears to have asked himself, and he’s answered it with a hair-raising hypothesis that is as plausible as the assumption that Trump is just throwing temper tantrums. He presents his theory as the likely product of an implicit Republican 2020 “autopsy” that has turned defeat into a near-victory:

“It is likely Republicans will have majorities in the congressional delegations of at least 26 states for the foreseeable future. They have a >50 percent chance of winning the House in 2022 and a pretty good shot at flipping the Senate.

“So the first two preconditions for winning the presidency while losing the election are very much on the table.

“Which leaves just one project: Mustering the political will to move past both the popular vote and the Electoral College.”

If you begin not with the assumption that Trump’s entire effort to steal the election was absurd, but regard it as an audacious plan that wasn’t executed with the necessary precision, then reverse engineering it to fix the broken parts makes sense:

“[T]he key parts of the Republican autopsy have been (1) building the political will to use raw power next time and (2) removing the Republican officials who were not willing to comply last time.

“That’s why Republican state parties have censured nearly every Republican who did not participate in Trump’s attempted coup.”

And the really heady thing for Trump is knowing how easy it was to convince the GOP rank-and-file base that his lies were the gospel truth:

“The Big Lie is actually the biggest insight to come from the Republican autopsy. Republicans and their enablers discovered that if they make false, evidence-free claims often and loudly enough, then the vast majority of their voters will believe them.

“And then, once Republican voters were onboard, they found that the rest of the party elites would either join them or stay silent. Only a handful of Republicans dared to object. And those figures are in the process of being either defeated or coopted.”

So why not play it again with a prepared and united party that won’t hesitate to seize on bogus “voter fraud” claims and either steal electoral votes before they can be certified by the states, or refuse to certify a Democratic victory and throw the election into Congress?

“[E]ven though the success of such a gambit is a longshot given all of the various failure points, since political power is derived from their voters, many Republicans politicians will be incentivized to embrace the challenge anyway, since they will gain power within the party from the voters who have been primed to demand such a fight.”

But it’s not any more implausible than the election coup hypothesis sounded when some of us began predicting it in the spring of 2020. And in retrospect, it was spot-on except for a few crucial mistakes Team Trump made after Election Night.

From Last’s perspective, in ranting about disloyal Republicans Trump isn’t engaged in hindsight or vengeance, but is following an ambitious schedule for success in 2024 by getting rid of potential troublemakers within his party. And here’s the thing: it’s a strategy that doesn’t necessarily depend on Trump running for president again. It’s available to anyone determined to do whatever it takes to reconquer Washington at a time when Republicans look to be a minority of the electorate for the foreseeable future. Trump has prepared the way with a dress rehearsal.

It’s a chilling thought, and one to revisit if Trump’s Republican enemies go down to primary challenges next year.


April 9: Democrats Have a Clear National Position on Voting Rights. Republicans? Not So Much.

Some of the contradictions in Republican talking points on election law and voting rights are becoming clear to me, so I wrote about it at New York:

During the intense controversy raised by Georgia’s new election law, which included a negative reaction from Major League Baseball and a number of corporations, many defenders of the law have played a game of whataboutism. What about voting laws in Colorado, the state to which the MLB’s all-star game has been shifted? What about liberal New York? A lot of these comparisons have been factually challenged, or have zeroed in on one benign feature of the Georgia law while ignoring others. But it does raise a pretty important question: What is the posture nationally of the GOP or the conservative movement on the right to vote and its limits?

Not long ago you might have said that Republicans and conservatives were firmly committed to the view that rules governing voting and elections —even federal elections — were purely within the purview of state and local policy-makers. But that was before Donald Trump spent four years disparaging the decisions made by liberal and conservative jurisdictions on voting procedures whenever they contradicted his often-erratic but always forcefully expressed views. If, for example, voting by mail was as inherently pernicious as Trump said it was, almost daily from the spring through the autumn of 2020, allowing states to permit it was a Bad Thing, right? That simply added to the complaints made by Trump after the 2016 elections that California’s alleged openness to voting by noncitizens cost him a popular vote win over Hillary Clinton, and the widespread Republican whining after 2018 that the same jurisdiction had counted out Republican congressional candidates (whining that somehow subsided when Republicans did better in the exact same districts following the exact same rules in 2020).

And if the prevailing conservative idea is that decision-makers closest to the people should determine voting and election rules, then it’s hard to explain the provisions in the Georgia law (and in pending legislation in Texas) that preempt local government prerogatives decisively.

So what doctrine of voting rights does the GOP favor, other than whatever is necessary to produce Republican election victories? That’s hard to say.

Yes, at the Heritage Foundation you will find experts who more or less think everything other than in-person voting on Election Day should be banned everywhere. And now and then you will get someone like Kevin Williamson who will articulate the provocative old-school conservative case for restricting the franchise to “better” voters, which was pretty much the ostensible case for the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, snooty contrarianism isn’t a particularly helpful guide to the development of voting laws, and most Republicans (other than those caught in a gaffe) are unlikely to agree out loud with the Williamson proposition.

Until quite recently, most Republicans agreed that the jurisdictions that had for so many years discriminated against the voting rights of minorities deserved extra federal scrutiny and some additional hoops to jump through before changing their rules. In 2006, George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act that did just that, after it passed the Senate unanimously and the House with scattered opposition. Then a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key feature of the VRA, and now it’s almost exclusively Democrats (via the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) who want to restore it. Where are Republicans on that idea? With the states and localities, or just with the states and localities where federal intervention in voting and election practices doesn’t inconvenience Republicans?

Whatever you think of Democratic attitudes toward voting and elections, at least they can answer such questions coherently. They have united to an amazing extent around highly detailed legislation (the House and Senate versions of the For the People Act and the aforementioned John Lewis Act) that generally expands voting rights and sets clear federal standards for procedures in and surrounding federal elections. The Republican response to these proposals has been almost universally negative. But it’s unclear what, if anything, they would propose of their own accord.

If the implicit GOP position on voting and elections is simply that such rules are part of the give and take of partisan politics and that both sides are free to play fast and loose with the facts and get what advantages they can, then I can understand why they are loathe to make it explicit. But in that case, people who care about voting rights one way or the other should simply choose sides and have it out.


Democrats Have a Clear National Position on Voting Rights. Republicans? Not So Much

Some of the contradictions in Republican talking points on election law and voting rights are becoming clear to me, so I wrote about it at New York:

During the intense controversy raised by Georgia’s new election law, which included a negative reaction from Major League Baseball and a number of corporations, many defenders of the law have played a game of whataboutism. What about voting laws in Colorado, the state to which the MLB’s all-star game has been shifted? What about liberal New York? A lot of these comparisons have been factually challenged, or have zeroed in on one benign feature of the Georgia law while ignoring others. But it does raise a pretty important question: What is the posture nationally of the GOP or the conservative movement on the right to vote and its limits?

Not long ago you might have said that Republicans and conservatives were firmly committed to the view that rules governing voting and elections —even federal elections — were purely within the purview of state and local policy-makers. But that was before Donald Trump spent four years disparaging the decisions made by liberal and conservative jurisdictions on voting procedures whenever they contradicted his often-erratic but always forcefully expressed views. If, for example, voting by mail was as inherently pernicious as Trump said it was, almost daily from the spring through the autumn of 2020, allowing states to permit it was a Bad Thing, right? That simply added to the complaints made by Trump after the 2016 elections that California’s alleged openness to voting by noncitizens cost him a popular vote win over Hillary Clinton, and the widespread Republican whining after 2018 that the same jurisdiction had counted out Republican congressional candidates (whining that somehow subsided when Republicans did better in the exact same districts following the exact same rules in 2020).

And if the prevailing conservative idea is that decision-makers closest to the people should determine voting and election rules, then it’s hard to explain the provisions in the Georgia law (and in pending legislation in Texas) that preempt local government prerogatives decisively.

So what doctrine of voting rights does the GOP favor, other than whatever is necessary to produce Republican election victories? That’s hard to say.

Yes, at the Heritage Foundation you will find experts who more or less think everything other than in-person voting on Election Day should be banned everywhere. And now and then you will get someone like Kevin Williamson who will articulate the provocative old-school conservative case for restricting the franchise to “better” voters, which was pretty much the ostensible case for the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, snooty contrarianism isn’t a particularly helpful guide to the development of voting laws, and most Republicans (other than those caught in a gaffe) are unlikely to agree out loud with the Williamson proposition.

Until quite recently, most Republicans agreed that the jurisdictions that had for so many years discriminated against the voting rights of minorities deserved extra federal scrutiny and some additional hoops to jump through before changing their rules. In 2006, George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act that did just that, after it passed the Senate unanimously and the House with scattered opposition. Then a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key feature of the VRA, and now it’s almost exclusively Democrats (via the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) who want to restore it. Where are Republicans on that idea? With the states and localities, or just with the states and localities where federal intervention in voting and election practices doesn’t inconvenience Republicans?

Whatever you think of Democratic attitudes toward voting and elections, at least they can answer such questions coherently. They have united to an amazing extent around highly detailed legislation (the House and Senate versions of the For the People Act and the aforementioned John Lewis Act) that generally expands voting rights and sets clear federal standards for procedures in and surrounding federal elections. The Republican response to these proposals has been almost universally negative. But it’s unclear what, if anything, they would propose of their own accord.

If the implicit GOP position on voting and elections is simply that such rules are part of the give and take of partisan politics and that both sides are free to play fast and loose with the facts and get what advantages they can, then I can understand why they are loathe to make it explicit. But in that case, people who care about voting rights one way or the other should simply choose sides and have it out.


April 7: Explaining Republican Optimism

I tried to put myself in Republican shoes for a moment, and explored at New York why so many of these elephants think their current path is a winner.

At FiveThirtyEight this week, Perry Bacon Jr. explores a very important political mystery: why a Republican Party that lost control of the White House and Congress over the last four years — and that is at the north end of a south-bound brontosaurus when it comes to demographic trends — seems so completely happy with standing pat on its ideology and leadership.

Bacon goes through multiple theories for this resistance to introspection, including activist and media love for Trump and Trumpism; rank-and-file complacency with the current direction of the GOP; Trump’s own refusal to go away; and perhaps most important, the realization that this is an old story by now, that we are looking at a “[c]ollective decision of conservative activists and Republican elected officials to stay on the anti-democraticracist trajectory that the GOP had been on before Trump — but that he accelerated.”

Since we are talking about people operating in what is largely a winner-take-all political system, who are following a leader who professes to be all about “winning,” perhaps the most interesting reason for the manifest Republican complacency is the belief that an immediate comeback is not simply possible but likely. Some of this is a matter of degree, says Bacon:

“Historically, parties have done more self-reflection and been more likely to change course when they’ve hit electoral low points….

“In contrast, Trump would have won reelection had he done only about 1 percentage point better in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and about 3 points better in Michigan. Republicans would still control the Senate had Republican David Perdue won about 60,000 more votes (out of nearly 4.5 million cast) against Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s Senate runoff. A slew of court rulings that forced the redrawing of House district lines in less favorable ways to the GOP helped the Democrats win several seats — otherwise, Republicans might have won back the House. Add all that up, and 2020 wasn’t that far from resulting in a Republican trifecta.”

But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Republicans have now lost three of the last four presidential elections, and have won the national popular vote just once in the last eight presidential elections. They are still getting clobbered among the younger voters (61 percent of under-30 voters preferred Biden to Trump, according to a Tufts study) who will increasingly dominate elections. Trends among the youngest voters, from increased diversity to decreased church attendance, are not friendly to the GOP.

So where does the Republican optimism come from? There are several factors, as I explore below:

The 2022 midterms look sunny

The over-performance by Republicans in 2020 House races gives them what is historically a very good chance to retake that chamber in 2022, as Kyle Kondik recently noted:

“Since the Civil War, there have been 40 midterm elections. The party that held the White House lost ground in the House in 37 of those elections, with an average seat loss of 33. Since the end of World War II, the average seat loss is a little smaller — 27 — but still significant.”

Based on the House as it was shaped after November 2020, Republicans would only need to flip five net seats to regain the majority. The Senate is iffier thanks to a landscape dotted with GOP retirements. But busting up the Democratic trifecta would have a massive effect on the Biden administration’s ability to enact legislation.

Redistricting will beef up Republican gains

The decennial process of reapportioning and redistricting congressional and state legislative seats will soon be underway. And thanks to what one analyst called “an abysmal showing by Democrats in state legislative races” in 2020, Republicans are in a good position to reinforce their advantage over the next decade.

At the congressional level, reapportionment of seats between the states will give GOP-controlled state legislatures new seats to play with (especially in Florida, which will gain two seats, and in Texas, which will gain three). Redistricting is harder to predict, but as Geoffrey Skelley noted in November, it will likely favor Republicans:

“The GOP is set to fully control redistricting for about two-fifths of all House seats, while Democrats will only hold sway over one-tenth of them, with the remaining seats are in states with divided governments or where redistricting is done by a commission system. The Republican line-drawing advantage should help the party draw favorable maps that could help the GOP win more seats than we might otherwise expect.”

Republicans will do more with less popular support

The redistricting factor is one of several examples of the GOP’s willingness and ability to counter Democratic popular support with institutional arrangements that magnify minority power, from gerrymandering to the Electoral College to the Senate filibuster to voter suppression efforts. Perhaps Republicans didn’t get close enough in 2020 to convert such bonus points into trifecta control, but they understand that actual popular majorities are not the point.

They think Trumpism is a strategy for party expansion

While most Democrats tend to think of Trumpism as the last-gasp effort of a reactionary party to hold onto power by polarizing the country and eking out narrow electoral victories by mobilizing culturally threatened voters with hate and rage, Republicans naturally don’t see it that way. As Representative Jim Banks illustrated in his recent memo to Kevin McCarthy about GOP messaging in 2021 and beyond, they think Trumpism is about making a country-club party the “party of the [white] working class,” which can appeal to a growing segment of minority voters as well. This notion is mostly based on the theory that cultural conservatism is more powerful among white working-class voters and Black and Latino men than the more tangible economic offerings of Democrats.

It’s an approach which Republicans have been pursuing since the days of Richard Nixon, when the white working-class portion of the population was vastly larger, but it’s still exciting to those who think Trump invented it.

Many of them think they really won in 2020

While those of us in the reality-based community scoff at the claims of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party that Democrats stole the 2020 election (and presumably control of Congress along with it), the fact remains that it’s an article of faith among many of the rank-and-file Republicans (55 percent of them, according to a recent Reuters-Ipsos survey) who are the most important consumers for GOP messaging going forward. Accordingly, the current crusade in Republican-controlled state governments in key battleground states to restrict voting rights isn’t viewed by them as a matter of vengeance or of panic-striken authoritarianism, but as a blow to fraudsters that is likely to produce or expand Republican victories in the near future.

This factually-challenged but emotionally powerful perspective, which has been reinforced constantly by Trump-aligned media, a big share of Republican elected officials, and state and local party leaders, also explains the strong interest in a Trump comeback in 2024.

In the bloody-shirt campaign so many Republicans think they are now waging, the alleged “victim” of the “rigged election” is an indispensable figure, even though no defeated incumbent president has successfully staged a comeback since 1892. And that is why even if Trump decides against running again in 2024, Trumpism in all its particulars will very likely remain dominant until the stain of 2020 is erased.

And if you are a follower of the man who said over and over again that “we can’t lose unless it’s rigged,” victory is always just over the horizon.

Maybe winning isn’t everything after all

Perry Bacon offers one more angle on Republican optimism that’s worth pondering: there’s an ““own the libs’ bloc exemplified by many Fox News personalities and elected officials such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene:”

“For the ‘own the libs’ bloc, winning elections isn’t that important anyway — they aren’t really invested in policy or governing and will be fine if Republicans remain out of the White House and in the minority on Capitol Hill.”

Maybe Democrats and these happy losers can both get their way.


Explaining Republican Optimism

I tried to put myself in Republican shoes for a moment, and explored at New York why so many of these elephants think their current path is a winner.

At FiveThirtyEight this week, Perry Bacon Jr. explores a very important political mystery: why a Republican Party that lost control of the White House and Congress over the last four years — and that is at the north end of a south-bound brontosaurus when it comes to demographic trends — seems so completely happy with standing pat on its ideology and leadership.

Bacon goes through multiple theories for this resistance to introspection, including activist and media love for Trump and Trumpism; rank-and-file complacency with the current direction of the GOP; Trump’s own refusal to go away; and perhaps most important, the realization that this is an old story by now, that we are looking at a “[c]ollective decision of conservative activists and Republican elected officials to stay on the anti-democraticracist trajectory that the GOP had been on before Trump — but that he accelerated.”

Since we are talking about people operating in what is largely a winner-take-all political system, who are following a leader who professes to be all about “winning,” perhaps the most interesting reason for the manifest Republican complacency is the belief that an immediate comeback is not simply possible but likely. Some of this is a matter of degree, says Bacon:

“Historically, parties have done more self-reflection and been more likely to change course when they’ve hit electoral low points….

“In contrast, Trump would have won reelection had he done only about 1 percentage point better in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and about 3 points better in Michigan. Republicans would still control the Senate had Republican David Perdue won about 60,000 more votes (out of nearly 4.5 million cast) against Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s Senate runoff. A slew of court rulings that forced the redrawing of House district lines in less favorable ways to the GOP helped the Democrats win several seats — otherwise, Republicans might have won back the House. Add all that up, and 2020 wasn’t that far from resulting in a Republican trifecta.”

But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Republicans have now lost three of the last four presidential elections, and have won the national popular vote just once in the last eight presidential elections. They are still getting clobbered among the younger voters (61 percent of under-30 voters preferred Biden to Trump, according to a Tufts study) who will increasingly dominate elections. Trends among the youngest voters, from increased diversity to decreased church attendance, are not friendly to the GOP.

So where does the Republican optimism come from? There are several factors, as I explore below:

The 2022 midterms look sunny

The over-performance by Republicans in 2020 House races gives them what is historically a very good chance to retake that chamber in 2022, as Kyle Kondik recently noted:

“Since the Civil War, there have been 40 midterm elections. The party that held the White House lost ground in the House in 37 of those elections, with an average seat loss of 33. Since the end of World War II, the average seat loss is a little smaller — 27 — but still significant.”

Based on the House as it was shaped after November 2020, Republicans would only need to flip five net seats to regain the majority. The Senate is iffier thanks to a landscape dotted with GOP retirements. But busting up the Democratic trifecta would have a massive effect on the Biden administration’s ability to enact legislation.

Redistricting will beef up Republican gains

The decennial process of reapportioning and redistricting congressional and state legislative seats will soon be underway. And thanks to what one analyst called “an abysmal showing by Democrats in state legislative races” in 2020, Republicans are in a good position to reinforce their advantage over the next decade.

At the congressional level, reapportionment of seats between the states will give GOP-controlled state legislatures new seats to play with (especially in Florida, which will gain two seats, and in Texas, which will gain three). Redistricting is harder to predict, but as Geoffrey Skelley noted in November, it will likely favor Republicans:

“The GOP is set to fully control redistricting for about two-fifths of all House seats, while Democrats will only hold sway over one-tenth of them, with the remaining seats are in states with divided governments or where redistricting is done by a commission system. The Republican line-drawing advantage should help the party draw favorable maps that could help the GOP win more seats than we might otherwise expect.”

Republicans will do more with less popular support

The redistricting factor is one of several examples of the GOP’s willingness and ability to counter Democratic popular support with institutional arrangements that magnify minority power, from gerrymandering to the Electoral College to the Senate filibuster to voter suppression efforts. Perhaps Republicans didn’t get close enough in 2020 to convert such bonus points into trifecta control, but they understand that actual popular majorities are not the point.

They think Trumpism is a strategy for party expansion

While most Democrats tend to think of Trumpism as the last-gasp effort of a reactionary party to hold onto power by polarizing the country and eking out narrow electoral victories by mobilizing culturally threatened voters with hate and rage, Republicans naturally don’t see it that way. As Representative Jim Banks illustrated in his recent memo to Kevin McCarthy about GOP messaging in 2021 and beyond, they think Trumpism is about making a country-club party the “party of the [white] working class,” which can appeal to a growing segment of minority voters as well. This notion is mostly based on the theory that cultural conservatism is more powerful among white working-class voters and Black and Latino men than the more tangible economic offerings of Democrats.

It’s an approach which Republicans have been pursuing since the days of Richard Nixon, when the white working-class portion of the population was vastly larger, but it’s still exciting to those who think Trump invented it.

Many of them think they really won in 2020

While those of us in the reality-based community scoff at the claims of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party that Democrats stole the 2020 election (and presumably control of Congress along with it), the fact remains that it’s an article of faith among many of the rank-and-file Republicans (55 percent of them, according to a recent Reuters-Ipsos survey) who are the most important consumers for GOP messaging going forward. Accordingly, the current crusade in Republican-controlled state governments in key battleground states to restrict voting rights isn’t viewed by them as a matter of vengeance or of panic-striken authoritarianism, but as a blow to fraudsters that is likely to produce or expand Republican victories in the near future.

This factually-challenged but emotionally powerful perspective, which has been reinforced constantly by Trump-aligned media, a big share of Republican elected officials, and state and local party leaders, also explains the strong interest in a Trump comeback in 2024.

In the bloody-shirt campaign so many Republicans think they are now waging, the alleged “victim” of the “rigged election” is an indispensable figure, even though no defeated incumbent president has successfully staged a comeback since 1892. And that is why even if Trump decides against running again in 2024, Trumpism in all its particulars will very likely remain dominant until the stain of 2020 is erased.

And if you are a follower of the man who said over and over again that “we can’t lose unless it’s rigged,” victory is always just over the horizon.

Maybe winning isn’t everything after all

Perry Bacon offers one more angle on Republican optimism that’s worth pondering: there’s an ““own the libs’ bloc exemplified by many Fox News personalities and elected officials such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene:”

“For the ‘own the libs’ bloc, winning elections isn’t that important anyway — they aren’t really invested in policy or governing and will be fine if Republicans remain out of the White House and in the minority on Capitol Hill.”

Maybe Democrats and these happy losers can both get their way.