washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

January 30: Iowa, Obama and African-Americans

An old argument about Iowa popped back up this week, so I addressed it at New York:

Many Iowa Democrats are proud about their caucuses giving Barack Obama his first electoral win in 2008, in part because it showed Obama’s cross-racial and trans-partisan appeal (his campaign conspicuously turned out independent and even Republican voters in Iowa). In response to the perennial complaint about the state’s unrepresentative demographics, Iowans often tout their role in Obama’s rise as evidence of their broad-mindedness and lack of racism.

But these understandable claims have become conflated with the less defensible proposition — or “myth” as its critics rightly call it — that Iowa’s white Democrats “allowed” African-Americans in later states like South Carolina to support him. The myth has come back up in connection with dubious suggestions that whoever wins Iowa may suddenly experience a breakthrough with the black voters currently inclined to support Joe Biden. Astead Herndon has the story:

“It has become political lore, repeated on cable airwaves and by Democratic campaign consultants, even presidential candidates. In 2008, as the story goes, black voters were uncertain about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy until he won the Iowa caucuses, after which they rallied around him over the onetime front-runner, Hillary Clinton …

“The persistence of the narrative that Iowa made Mr. Obama has long irritated some of his advisers, who said that this recollection from 2008 had led campaigns astray since then, discounted the agency of black voters and minimized the robust grass-roots strategy that Mr. Obama’s team undertook in the South …

“’Black voters aren’t waiting for white people to tell them what to do,’ [Obama pollster Cornell] Belcher said. ‘It’s racist. It’s racial paternalism.’”

I sympathize with Belcher’s complaint. As I noted in a post earlier this year on Kamala Harris’s failure to implement Obama’s 2008 strategy, the future president was already doing well with black voters nationally and in South Carolina before his Iowa win (unlike Kamala Harris at a similar juncture in this cycle):

“A late-July 2007 Pew survey of African-American Democrats showed Obama winning 34 percent — trailing Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent in that demographic but still within striking distance. By contrast, a late-July 2019 Quinnipiac poll had Harris at 7 percent among black voters, far behind Biden’s 55 percent …

“Obama was running very close to Clinton among black South Carolina Democrats in August 2007 (Clinton was at 44 percent, Obama at 41 percent, according to Insider Advantage). Meanwhile, a late-July 2019 Monmouth poll of black South Carolina Democrats showed Biden leading Harris by 51 percent to 12 percent …

“Obama had built a solid 54-21 lead over Clinton among South Carolina’s African-Americans by December 2007, before Iowa. Afterward, he did surge to his eventual 78-19 landslide among black voters in the Palmetto State, but he built that win over an extended period of time.”

Now is is not a myth — much less a racist myth — to say that his performance in Iowa gave Obama a significant boost among African-Americans in later states. Then, as now, black and white voters alike cared about electability, and nothing raises confidence in electability like winning, particularly if you are a freshman senator hoping to become the first African-American president of the United States.

If a 2020 Iowa winner gets a bounce in South Carolina — or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or anywhere else — it won’t be because voters elsewhere are looking to Iowans and yearning for enlightenment. It will be because prevailing in the first actual real-live test of the cycle is a good sign for a candidate hoping to go the distance and take on Donald Trump.


Iowa, Obama and African-Americans

An old argument about Iowa popped back up this week, so I addressed it at New York:

Many Iowa Democrats are proud about their caucuses giving Barack Obama his first electoral win in 2008, in part because it showed Obama’s cross-racial and trans-partisan appeal (his campaign conspicuously turned out independent and even Republican voters in Iowa). In response to the perennial complaint about the state’s unrepresentative demographics, Iowans often tout their role in Obama’s rise as evidence of their broad-mindedness and lack of racism.

But these understandable claims have become conflated with the less defensible proposition — or “myth” as its critics rightly call it — that Iowa’s white Democrats “allowed” African-Americans in later states like South Carolina to support him. The myth has come back up in connection with dubious suggestions that whoever wins Iowa may suddenly experience a breakthrough with the black voters currently inclined to support Joe Biden. Astead Herndon has the story:

“It has become political lore, repeated on cable airwaves and by Democratic campaign consultants, even presidential candidates. In 2008, as the story goes, black voters were uncertain about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy until he won the Iowa caucuses, after which they rallied around him over the onetime front-runner, Hillary Clinton …

“The persistence of the narrative that Iowa made Mr. Obama has long irritated some of his advisers, who said that this recollection from 2008 had led campaigns astray since then, discounted the agency of black voters and minimized the robust grass-roots strategy that Mr. Obama’s team undertook in the South …

“’Black voters aren’t waiting for white people to tell them what to do,’ [Obama pollster Cornell] Belcher said. ‘It’s racist. It’s racial paternalism.’”

I sympathize with Belcher’s complaint. As I noted in a post earlier this year on Kamala Harris’s failure to implement Obama’s 2008 strategy, the future president was already doing well with black voters nationally and in South Carolina before his Iowa win (unlike Kamala Harris at a similar juncture in this cycle):

“A late-July 2007 Pew survey of African-American Democrats showed Obama winning 34 percent — trailing Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent in that demographic but still within striking distance. By contrast, a late-July 2019 Quinnipiac poll had Harris at 7 percent among black voters, far behind Biden’s 55 percent …

“Obama was running very close to Clinton among black South Carolina Democrats in August 2007 (Clinton was at 44 percent, Obama at 41 percent, according to Insider Advantage). Meanwhile, a late-July 2019 Monmouth poll of black South Carolina Democrats showed Biden leading Harris by 51 percent to 12 percent …

“Obama had built a solid 54-21 lead over Clinton among South Carolina’s African-Americans by December 2007, before Iowa. Afterward, he did surge to his eventual 78-19 landslide among black voters in the Palmetto State, but he built that win over an extended period of time.”

Now is is not a myth — much less a racist myth — to say that his performance in Iowa gave Obama a significant boost among African-Americans in later states. Then, as now, black and white voters alike cared about electability, and nothing raises confidence in electability like winning, particularly if you are a freshman senator hoping to become the first African-American president of the United States.

If a 2020 Iowa winner gets a bounce in South Carolina — or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or anywhere else — it won’t be because voters elsewhere are looking to Iowans and yearning for enlightenment. It will be because prevailing in the first actual real-live test of the cycle is a good sign for a candidate hoping to go the distance and take on Donald Trump.


January 29: Loeffler Tries to Prove Her Trumpiness

There’s some comedy amidst the solemnity of the Trump impeachment trial, as I noted at New York:

If there was any collegial friendship likely to blossom when Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, it was with Utah’s Mitt Romney. After all, according to a 2013 interview with Atlanta magazine, Loeffler’s husband Jeff Sprecher had very warm things to say of Mitt by way of explaining the couple’s combined $1.6 million contribution to Romney’s 2012 presidential effort:

Sprecher: [W]e met Mitt Romney and got to know him personally many, many years ago, when he was trying to run in the primaries against John McCain [in 2008]. We met him at a neighbor’s house here in Atlanta when people didn’t really know who he was and he was just exploring whether he could even run. We got to know him and his wife, and have been to his house many times and they’ve been to our house. Taking politics off the table, the Romneys are really lovely people, and well intended. We’d never known anybody that was running for president and actually had a friendship with them! And so it was easy to support a friend. [Turns to Loeffler] Is that fair?

Loeffler: Sure.

So it’s eyebrow-raising that Loeffler went after that “lovely” person today after Mitt expressed an interest in hearing what John Bolton had to say about President Trump and Ukraine:

Appease the left? Romney wants to hear testimony from a famously right-wing Republican foreign policy expert who occupied high-ranking positions in the administrations of three Republican presidents. I have no doubt that if Mitt had won in 2012, Bolton would have been in another high-ranking position (he joined Loeffler in endorsing Romney’s candidacy after mulling his own that year). And the idea that Utah’s junior senator needs to “appease the left” for purposes of being reelected back home is hilarious on multiple counts.

Loeffler’s ongoing effort to rebrand herself from a self-funding moderate that Governor Kemp hoped would appeal to suburban women to a wild partisan of the president’s is the real factor here. And it’s clear why this is happening, too: Loeffler faces a potential 2020 special jungle-primary election in which congressman Doug Collins — one of Trump’s favorite House impeachment pit bulls, and the Senate aspirant Trump pushed Kemp to appoint before he picked Loeffler — is considering a run with loud MAGA backing. In fact, Collins’s allies in Georgia are sponsoring legislation to force Loeffler to run in a regular Republican primary in May, which would not give the little-known, first-time candidate much time to build her ideological street cred.

So Loeffler is fighting the clock to get right with the GOP’s warrior-king so he doesn’t noisily back (or encourage his fans to noisily back) a challenge to her. And if that means shivving old friend Mitt Romney, well, that’s just a token of her understanding that Donald Trump is a jealous god who accepts no competing loyalties.


Loeffler Tries To Prove Her Trumpiness

There’s some comedy amidst the solemnity of the Trump impeachment trial, as I noted at New York:

If there was any collegial friendship likely to blossom when Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, it was with Utah’s Mitt Romney. After all, according to a 2013 interview with Atlanta magazine, Loeffler’s husband Jeff Sprecher had very warm things to say of Mitt by way of explaining the couple’s combined $1.6 million contribution to Romney’s 2012 presidential effort:

Sprecher: [W]e met Mitt Romney and got to know him personally many, many years ago, when he was trying to run in the primaries against John McCain [in 2008]. We met him at a neighbor’s house here in Atlanta when people didn’t really know who he was and he was just exploring whether he could even run. We got to know him and his wife, and have been to his house many times and they’ve been to our house. Taking politics off the table, the Romneys are really lovely people, and well intended. We’d never known anybody that was running for president and actually had a friendship with them! And so it was easy to support a friend. [Turns to Loeffler] Is that fair?

Loeffler: Sure.

So it’s eyebrow-raising that Loeffler went after that “lovely” person today after Mitt expressed an interest in hearing what John Bolton had to say about President Trump and Ukraine:

Appease the left? Romney wants to hear testimony from a famously right-wing Republican foreign policy expert who occupied high-ranking positions in the administrations of three Republican presidents. I have no doubt that if Mitt had won in 2012, Bolton would have been in another high-ranking position (he joined Loeffler in endorsing Romney’s candidacy after mulling his own that year). And the idea that Utah’s junior senator needs to “appease the left” for purposes of being reelected back home is hilarious on multiple counts.

Loeffler’s ongoing effort to rebrand herself from a self-funding moderate that Governor Kemp hoped would appeal to suburban women to a wild partisan of the president’s is the real factor here. And it’s clear why this is happening, too: Loeffler faces a potential 2020 special jungle-primary election in which congressman Doug Collins — one of Trump’s favorite House impeachment pit bulls, and the Senate aspirant Trump pushed Kemp to appoint before he picked Loeffler — is considering a run with loud MAGA backing. In fact, Collins’s allies in Georgia are sponsoring legislation to force Loeffler to run in a regular Republican primary in May, which would not give the little-known, first-time candidate much time to build her ideological street cred.

So Loeffler is fighting the clock to get right with the GOP’s warrior-king so he doesn’t noisily back (or encourage his fans to noisily back) a challenge to her. And if that means shivving old friend Mitt Romney, well, that’s just a token of her understanding that Donald Trump is a jealous god who accepts no competing loyalties.


January 24: There’s No Magic Wand for Reforming the Nominating Process

Just before the Iowa Caucuses occur, there’s always a crescendo of criticism of the presidential nominating process. But reforming it isn’t easy, as I explained at New York:

Perhaps it’s unhappiness with the winter weather in Iowa and New Hampshire, or more credible concern about the demographics of these two largely white states (offset, to some extent, a few cycles ago with the addition of Nevada and South Carolina to the ranks of protected early states). But whatever it is you can count on alternative proposals of various seriousness. Today we have one tested in a new Monmouth University poll:

“Nearly six in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents questioned in a new Monmouth University survey supported dramatically changing the current system of choosing their party’s presidential nominee.

“Given a list of four options, 58 percent of those questioned say they’d rather a single national primary be held where every state holds its primary or caucus on the same day.

“Only 11 percent called for keeping the calendar in its current form, with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina holding the first four contests ahead of the rest of the country. Fifteen percent want to modify the current calendar, by letting a few other states vote on the same days as Iowa and New Hampshire. And one in 10 say they want to see grouped state primaries.”

Great, a single national primary day. There’s only one problem: How are you going to do that?

Such polls — and for that matter, a lot of the commentary devoted to kvetching about Iowa and New Hampshire specifically or the nominating process generally — seem premised on the entirely erroneous presumption that we have a national system imposed by the Democratic National Committee deploying some sort of fiat powers. What we actually have is a set of nominating contests created, run, and financed by state legislatures and state parties with the DNC keeping things relatively organized via carrots and sticks. When it comes to the calendar, it’s not a system at all. It’s a loose framework based on what the states (in many cases legislatures controlled by the opposing party) can be talked and nudged into doing.

A complete overhaul could be accomplished, presumably, by some sort of interstate compact, though those generally take a good while to enact, and again, differences in the values and constituencies of the two parties would complicate everything. And the kind of one-day national primary the Monmouth poll finds so much support for would be particularly difficult, since some states prefer to hold their presidential and regular state primaries on the same day. Finding one that works for so many different contests in so many places may be impossible.

This particular “reform,” moreover, has its own perils. If you were to hold a one-day national primary right now, the odds-on favorite might well be Michael Bloomberg, the candidate whose ability to spend literally billions on his campaign could make him unbeatable in a landscape that broad, wide, and simultaneous. Is sticking it to Iowa and New Hampshire, or getting it all over with quickly, worth that risk?

The thing to do (which Democrats have done in the past — including the immediate past — to incrementally reform the nominating process) is to set up a reform initiative immediately following the current contest, when it’s more practicable and less likely to serve the interests of a single candidate. If it finds overwhelming and urgent support for a major change, it would have time to help draw up a framework and design a path to its adoption.

But make no mistake: Working around the edges of the current system will be a lot easier than adopting some grandiose scheme. And if you are going to directly take on Iowa and New Hampshire, you’d best build yourself a large coalition of states prepared to go to war because otherwise the early state folk will beat you to a long list of allies.


There’s No Magic Wand For Reforming the Nomination Process

Just before the Iowa Caucuses occur, there’s always a crescendo of criticism of the presidential nominating process. But reforming it isn’t easy, as I explained at New York:

Perhaps it’s unhappiness with the winter weather in Iowa and New Hampshire, or more credible concern about the demographics of these two largely white states (offset, to some extent, a few cycles ago with the addition of Nevada and South Carolina to the ranks of protected early states). But whatever it is you can count on alternative proposals of various seriousness. Today we have one tested in a new Monmouth University poll:

“Nearly six in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents questioned in a new Monmouth University survey supported dramatically changing the current system of choosing their party’s presidential nominee.

“Given a list of four options, 58 percent of those questioned say they’d rather a single national primary be held where every state holds its primary or caucus on the same day.

“Only 11 percent called for keeping the calendar in its current form, with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina holding the first four contests ahead of the rest of the country. Fifteen percent want to modify the current calendar, by letting a few other states vote on the same days as Iowa and New Hampshire. And one in 10 say they want to see grouped state primaries.”

Great, a single national primary day. There’s only one problem: How are you going to do that?

Such polls — and for that matter, a lot of the commentary devoted to kvetching about Iowa and New Hampshire specifically or the nominating process generally — seem premised on the entirely erroneous presumption that we have a national system imposed by the Democratic National Committee deploying some sort of fiat powers. What we actually have is a set of nominating contests created, run, and financed by state legislatures and state parties with the DNC keeping things relatively organized via carrots and sticks. When it comes to the calendar, it’s not a system at all. It’s a loose framework based on what the states (in many cases legislatures controlled by the opposing party) can be talked and nudged into doing.

A complete overhaul could be accomplished, presumably, by some sort of interstate compact, though those generally take a good while to enact, and again, differences in the values and constituencies of the two parties would complicate everything. And the kind of one-day national primary the Monmouth poll finds so much support for would be particularly difficult, since some states prefer to hold their presidential and regular state primaries on the same day. Finding one that works for so many different contests in so many places may be impossible.

This particular “reform,” moreover, has its own perils. If you were to hold a one-day national primary right now, the odds-on favorite might well be Michael Bloomberg, the candidate whose ability to spend literally billions on his campaign could make him unbeatable in a landscape that broad, wide, and simultaneous. Is sticking it to Iowa and New Hampshire, or getting it all over with quickly, worth that risk?

The thing to do (which Democrats have done in the past — including the immediate past — to incrementally reform the nominating process) is to set up a reform initiative immediately following the current contest, when it’s more practicable and less likely to serve the interests of a single candidate. If it finds overwhelming and urgent support for a major change, it would have time to help draw up a framework and design a path to its adoption.

But make no mistake: Working around the edges of the current system will be a lot easier than adopting some grandiose scheme. And if you are going to directly take on Iowa and New Hampshire, you’d best build yourself a large coalition of states prepared to go to war because otherwise the early state folk will beat you to a long list of allies.


January 22: Donald Trump and Andrew Johnson

The Vice President of the United States penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that motivated some acerbic commentary from me at New York:

[Pence’s] basic thrust is to call on Senate Democrats to defect from the party line to vindicate the unfairly persecuted Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, the way Edmond Ross broke with his fellow Republicans in 1868 to cast the crucial vote to acquit the equally persecuted Andrew Johnson. Very likely, what led him to this argument is the fact that Ross got a chapter in then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book Profiles in Courage, which gives Pence’s case a bipartisan veneer, however anachronistic. And so the veep tries to use this analogy to divert attention from the pressure on Republican senators today to break party ranks and allow a real impeachment trial:

“Then as now, a political faction has forced a partisan impeachment through the House in the heat of an argument over a difference in policy. Then as now, this faction has cheapened the impeachment process, which the Founders believed should be reserved for only the most grave abuses of the public trust.

“But despite the focus on what a handful of Republican senators may do, the true profile in courage, as Kennedy understood it, would be a Senate Democrat willing to stand up and reject a partisan impeachment passed by the Democrat-controlled House.”

As it happens, I agree with Pence that Trump is a lot like Andrew Johnson, and the case for impeaching both men has striking similarities. But neither of these crude, self-centered leaders with racist tendencies should be understood as any kind of martyr, as I noted when impeachment proceedings against Trump began:

“Johnson entered office as something of a figure of scandal, having delivered an inaugural address inside the Capitol in a very apparent state of inebriation (‘Do not let Johnson speak outside,’ Lincoln reportedly said before the public inaugural address that many consider his own greatest speech).

“Johnson also anticipated Trump in the violent abusiveness of his rhetoric toward political enemies….Among other things, Johnson called for ‘hanging’ his chief congressional Republican critic, Thaddeus Stevens, and abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips. According to prevailing standards of the day, Johnson held the functional equivalent of MAGA rallies.”

The most important similarity, though, is that Johnson systematically sought to “make America great again” by undermining congressional efforts to vindicate the sacrifices of the Civil War by extending the franchise to ex-slaves. So total were Johnson’s efforts to restore (to use the great Democratic slogan of that day) “the Union as it was and the Constitution as it is” that his erstwhile congressional colleagues struggled to find specific grounds to impeach a president engaged in the most dramatic counterrevolution in U.S. history, as The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum recently observed:

“The question facing Congress, and the public, was this: What do you do with a president whose every utterance and act seems to undermine the Constitution he is sworn to uphold? At first, Republicans pursued the standard mix of legislative remedies — holding hearings and passing bills designed to strip the president of certain powers. Many members of Johnson’s Cabinet worked with their congressional counterparts to constrain the president. Johnson began to see conspiracies around every corner. He moved to purge the bureaucracy of his opponents, denouncing the “blood-suckers and cormorants” who frustrated his desires.

“It was the campaign of white-nationalist terror that raged through the spring and summer of 1866 that persuaded many Republicans they could not allow Johnson to remain in office.”

In Pence’s account, Johnson was properly acquitted on contrived charges that he violated a statute subsequently deemed unconstitutional, the Tenure of Office Act. That’s only partially true at best. The 11th article of impeachment, the one against which Ross first voted in his “profile in courage,” also cited Johnson’s defiance of congressional Reconstruction generally, and of properly enacted laws regarding the military chain of command in the South that Johnson circumvented. Beyond that, in the context of the time the Tenure of Office Act was an important restraint on Johnson’s efforts to restore white supremacy in the former rebel states, as I noted early in the current impeachment saga:

“Because it was triggered by his effort to get rid of Edward Stanton just as the Secretary of War was deploying military force to halt ex-Confederate terrorism, [the Tenure of Office Act reflected] Johnson’s determination to fight for white supremacy. In that sense, it was similar to the apparent inclination of today’s House Democrats to impeach Trump for doing something equally illustrative of his overall pattern of lawlessness: using presidential powers to encourage a foreign government to drop a hammer on a domestic political threat.”

As Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy maintains, the real basis for removing Johnson from office was clear:

“[T]here was only one true Johnson scandal, just as there is only one true Trump scandal, and though the particulars are very different — the former’s class resentment was the inverse of the latter’s class entitlement — they share a common element: an open hostility to democratic ideals. That was Andrew Johnson’s high crime, and there was nothing conspiratorial or nitpicky about it. He was doing it in plain sight. The rest was noise.”

If Andrew Johnson was no persecuted defender of the Constitution, nor was Edmond Ross a courageous man of principle. As David Greenberg explained during the Clinton trial when people were touting Ross’s example, he was far more interested in patronage graft than in resisting legislative abrogation of executive powers:

“Ross’ vote wasn’t the lone act of bravery it was later made out to be. At least four other senators were prepared to oppose conviction had their votes been needed — a fact that has been forgotten, maybe, because it doesn’t square with the High Noon portrait of Ross as the man of principle facing down the mob.

“Ross wasted no time exploiting Johnson’s debt to him. On June 6, he wrote to Johnson to have him install one of his cronies as southern superintendent of Indian affairs, and Johnson agreed to oust his own friend in order to comply. Sensing opportunity, Ross kept upping the ante, like a Mafia henchman running a protection racket.”

There is one aspect of Pence’s argument that rings true: He is advancing a view of Johnson and Ross, and of the Reconstruction issues underlying the impeachment effort, that was common in 1956, when Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage (or more accurately, co-wrote with his famous ghostwriter Ted Sorenson). It’s the great myth that Johnson and white southerners were equally victims of a corrupt and extremist Radical Republican regime centered in Congress that sought to put carpetbaggers and ignorant ex-slaves in power over a supine region powerless to resist (though resist they did, through the enactment of violently discriminatory Black Codes and the white terror of the Ku Klux Klan). It’s the myth — best expressed in the racist classic Birth of a Nation — that justified the eventual disenfranchisement of black voters and the imposition of Jim Crow.

Jim Crow, of course, was still in place in 1956 when JFK and Sorenson wrote their misguided tribute to Ross. Whole generations of historians have debunked the myth that Pence now embraces. He may yet regret drawing parallels between the 17th and 45th presidents, and not just because there were aspects of Johnson’s defense that Team Trump wouldn’t for a moment emulate, like agreements to hear 41 witnesses. Johnson deserved removal from office for one of the greatest “high crimes and misdemeanors” in U.S. history, the betrayal of ex-slaves and the cause of equality under the law embodied by the first great Civil Rights Act of 1866, which he vetoed on grounds that equality discriminated against white people.

There is in fact only one relevant difference between Johnson and Trump: The former was a spent force by the time he was acquitted, soon unsuccessfully seeking a second-term nomination by Democrats who met under the slogan, “This is a white man’s party; let a white man rule.” Trump’s renomination is assured. So far, few in his party have had the courage to speak out against him — and certainly not Mike Pence.


Donald Trump and Andrew Johnson

The Vice President of the United States penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that motivated some acerbic commentary from me at New York:

[Pence’s] basic thrust is to call on Senate Democrats to defect from the party line to vindicate the unfairly persecuted Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, the way Edmond Ross broke with his fellow Republicans in 1868 to cast the crucial vote to acquit the equally persecuted Andrew Johnson. Very likely, what led him to this argument is the fact that Ross got a chapter in then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book Profiles in Courage, which gives Pence’s case a bipartisan veneer, however anachronistic. And so the veep tries to use this analogy to divert attention from the pressure on Republican senators today to break party ranks and allow a real impeachment trial:

“Then as now, a political faction has forced a partisan impeachment through the House in the heat of an argument over a difference in policy. Then as now, this faction has cheapened the impeachment process, which the Founders believed should be reserved for only the most grave abuses of the public trust.

“But despite the focus on what a handful of Republican senators may do, the true profile in courage, as Kennedy understood it, would be a Senate Democrat willing to stand up and reject a partisan impeachment passed by the Democrat-controlled House.”

As it happens, I agree with Pence that Trump is a lot like Andrew Johnson, and the case for impeaching both men has striking similarities. But neither of these crude, self-centered leaders with racist tendencies should be understood as any kind of martyr, as I noted when impeachment proceedings against Trump began:

“Johnson entered office as something of a figure of scandal, having delivered an inaugural address inside the Capitol in a very apparent state of inebriation (‘Do not let Johnson speak outside,’ Lincoln reportedly said before the public inaugural address that many consider his own greatest speech).

“Johnson also anticipated Trump in the violent abusiveness of his rhetoric toward political enemies….Among other things, Johnson called for ‘hanging’ his chief congressional Republican critic, Thaddeus Stevens, and abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips. According to prevailing standards of the day, Johnson held the functional equivalent of MAGA rallies.”

The most important similarity, though, is that Johnson systematically sought to “make America great again” by undermining congressional efforts to vindicate the sacrifices of the Civil War by extending the franchise to ex-slaves. So total were Johnson’s efforts to restore (to use the great Democratic slogan of that day) “the Union as it was and the Constitution as it is” that his erstwhile congressional colleagues struggled to find specific grounds to impeach a president engaged in the most dramatic counterrevolution in U.S. history, as The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum recently observed:

“The question facing Congress, and the public, was this: What do you do with a president whose every utterance and act seems to undermine the Constitution he is sworn to uphold? At first, Republicans pursued the standard mix of legislative remedies — holding hearings and passing bills designed to strip the president of certain powers. Many members of Johnson’s Cabinet worked with their congressional counterparts to constrain the president. Johnson began to see conspiracies around every corner. He moved to purge the bureaucracy of his opponents, denouncing the “blood-suckers and cormorants” who frustrated his desires.

“It was the campaign of white-nationalist terror that raged through the spring and summer of 1866 that persuaded many Republicans they could not allow Johnson to remain in office.”

In Pence’s account, Johnson was properly acquitted on contrived charges that he violated a statute subsequently deemed unconstitutional, the Tenure of Office Act. That’s only partially true at best. The 11th article of impeachment, the one against which Ross first voted in his “profile in courage,” also cited Johnson’s defiance of congressional Reconstruction generally, and of properly enacted laws regarding the military chain of command in the South that Johnson circumvented. Beyond that, in the context of the time the Tenure of Office Act was an important restraint on Johnson’s efforts to restore white supremacy in the former rebel states, as I noted early in the current impeachment saga:

“Because it was triggered by his effort to get rid of Edward Stanton just as the Secretary of War was deploying military force to halt ex-Confederate terrorism, [the Tenure of Office Act reflected] Johnson’s determination to fight for white supremacy. In that sense, it was similar to the apparent inclination of today’s House Democrats to impeach Trump for doing something equally illustrative of his overall pattern of lawlessness: using presidential powers to encourage a foreign government to drop a hammer on a domestic political threat.”

As Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy maintains, the real basis for removing Johnson from office was clear:

“[T]here was only one true Johnson scandal, just as there is only one true Trump scandal, and though the particulars are very different — the former’s class resentment was the inverse of the latter’s class entitlement — they share a common element: an open hostility to democratic ideals. That was Andrew Johnson’s high crime, and there was nothing conspiratorial or nitpicky about it. He was doing it in plain sight. The rest was noise.”

If Andrew Johnson was no persecuted defender of the Constitution, nor was Edmond Ross a courageous man of principle. As David Greenberg explained during the Clinton trial when people were touting Ross’s example, he was far more interested in patronage graft than in resisting legislative abrogation of executive powers:

“Ross’ vote wasn’t the lone act of bravery it was later made out to be. At least four other senators were prepared to oppose conviction had their votes been needed — a fact that has been forgotten, maybe, because it doesn’t square with the High Noon portrait of Ross as the man of principle facing down the mob.

“Ross wasted no time exploiting Johnson’s debt to him. On June 6, he wrote to Johnson to have him install one of his cronies as southern superintendent of Indian affairs, and Johnson agreed to oust his own friend in order to comply. Sensing opportunity, Ross kept upping the ante, like a Mafia henchman running a protection racket.”

There is one aspect of Pence’s argument that rings true: He is advancing a view of Johnson and Ross, and of the Reconstruction issues underlying the impeachment effort, that was common in 1956, when Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage (or more accurately, co-wrote with his famous ghostwriter Ted Sorenson). It’s the great myth that Johnson and white southerners were equally victims of a corrupt and extremist Radical Republican regime centered in Congress that sought to put carpetbaggers and ignorant ex-slaves in power over a supine region powerless to resist (though resist they did, through the enactment of violently discriminatory Black Codes and the white terror of the Ku Klux Klan). It’s the myth — best expressed in the racist classic Birth of a Nation — that justified the eventual disenfranchisement of black voters and the imposition of Jim Crow.

Jim Crow, of course, was still in place in 1956 when JFK and Sorenson wrote their misguided tribute to Ross. Whole generations of historians have debunked the myth that Pence now embraces. He may yet regret drawing parallels between the 17th and 45th presidents, and not just because there were aspects of Johnson’s defense that Team Trump wouldn’t for a moment emulate, like agreements to hear 41 witnesses. Johnson deserved removal from office for one of the greatest “high crimes and misdemeanors” in U.S. history, the betrayal of ex-slaves and the cause of equality under the law embodied by the first great Civil Rights Act of 1866, which he vetoed on grounds that equality discriminated against white people.

There is in fact only one relevant difference between Johnson and Trump: The former was a spent force by the time he was acquitted, soon unsuccessfully seeking a second-term nomination by Democrats who met under the slogan, “This is a white man’s party; let a white man rule.” Trump’s renomination is assured. So far, few in his party have had the courage to speak out against him — and certainly not Mike Pence.


January 17: 2020 Democrats Need to Focus More on What They Can Actually Accomplish

After the seventh Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, I called at New York for the turning of a corner:

[A]s the voting phase of the nominating process approaches, and the field of candidates inevitably continues to shrink, it’s time for the practical part of the debate discussions to grow a lot larger, as legal expert Jeffrey Toobin suggested earlier this week at the New Yorker:

“The Democratic debates so far have featured detailed discussions of the candidates’ competing health-care plans—none of which is likely to become law in any form close to what’s so far been described…. But one thing we know for sure is that, if a Democrat wins the White House this year, he or she will be responsible for appointing federal judges, including a few likely vacancies on the Supreme Court.”

Yes, that subject did come up in the October debate, but even then it was more about visionary ideas of how to reshape SCOTUS to protect cherished rights via court-packing or terms limits or some other unlikely-to-be-enacted scheme. More specific, short-term plans are more relevant. Will the candidates, for example, emulate Trump’s politically smart approach of setting up a vetting process for prospective SCOTUS candidates and a list of potential nominees before the 2020 election cycle ends? Bernie Sanders recently said in an interview that he’d “consider” doing that, even before the nominating contest is over. Let’s hear more about that from him and from his rivals. But that’s not the only question, even on judges: how will the candidate deal with such nominations if Republicans continue to control the Senate, which at present is more likely than not? And will she or he devote some real political capital to legal fights in the state and lower courts where reproductive rights, health care protections, treatment of immigrants, and other key issues are being litigated every single day?

As Toobin points out, a coalition of progressive groups focused on such issues (including the Demand Justice Initiative, the Center for Reproductive Rights and NARAL Pro-Choice America) are sponsoring a presidential forum (not a debate, but a series of candidate interviews) on February 8 in New Hampshire. That’s the day after the eighth official candidate debate, and just three days before the New Hampshire primary. It will be a great opportunity to get into real detail on each candidate’s perspective on constitutional rights, SCOTUS, and the judiciary generally. But this questions should be on the agenda wherever candidates gather.

The judiciary isn’t the only practical issue that needs more airing before the primary ends. Given the many structural obstacles to the enactment of progressive policies in Congress, with or without Democratic majorities, candidates need to be pressed on their “theories of change,” their strategies for overcoming entrenched opposition, whether it’s Amy Klobuchar’s focus on executive orders or Elizabeth Warren’s belief that an anti-corruption push can break the power of lobbyists. The health care and climate change arenas are both high-priority areas in which there simply aren not and won’t automatically be working majorities for what has to be done. It’s not enough to say, like Joe Biden does, that Trump’s departure will change everything, or to claim, like Bernie Sanders does, that a “political revolution” will materialize to square every circle. A sustained questioning of the candidates on crucial issues of implementation, definitively nailing them down on items like filibuster reform where several have been slippery, could be worth a lot to voters who seem very hard-headed when it comes to electability but not necessarily in terms of exactly what electable candidates are expected to accomplish.

Yes, some parts of the Democratic primary electorate may feel that beating Trump and getting him and his cronies out of power is enough for one year; actually accomplishing anything is gravy. But that’s a sad and defensive posture to have, and one that voters are not likely to reward, either. Values are essential and vision can be inspiring in a president. But if that’s all a candidate offers, we need to know the next four years could become a huge disappointment and a lost opportunity.


2020 Democrats Need to Focus More On What They Can Actually Accomplish

After the seventh Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, I called at New York for the turning of a corner:

[A]s the voting phase of the nominating process approaches, and the field of candidates inevitably continues to shrink, it’s time for the practical part of the debate discussions to grow a lot larger, as legal expert Jeffrey Toobin suggested earlier this week at the New Yorker:

“The Democratic debates so far have featured detailed discussions of the candidates’ competing health-care plans—none of which is likely to become law in any form close to what’s so far been described…. But one thing we know for sure is that, if a Democrat wins the White House this year, he or she will be responsible for appointing federal judges, including a few likely vacancies on the Supreme Court.”

Yes, that subject did come up in the October debate, but even then it was more about visionary ideas of how to reshape SCOTUS to protect cherished rights via court-packing or terms limits or some other unlikely-to-be-enacted scheme. More specific, short-term plans are more relevant. Will the candidates, for example, emulate Trump’s politically smart approach of setting up a vetting process for prospective SCOTUS candidates and a list of potential nominees before the 2020 election cycle ends? Bernie Sanders recently said in an interview that he’d “consider” doing that, even before the nominating contest is over. Let’s hear more about that from him and from his rivals. But that’s not the only question, even on judges: how will the candidate deal with such nominations if Republicans continue to control the Senate, which at present is more likely than not? And will she or he devote some real political capital to legal fights in the state and lower courts where reproductive rights, health care protections, treatment of immigrants, and other key issues are being litigated every single day?

As Toobin points out, a coalition of progressive groups focused on such issues (including the Demand Justice Initiative, the Center for Reproductive Rights and NARAL Pro-Choice America) are sponsoring a presidential forum (not a debate, but a series of candidate interviews) on February 8 in New Hampshire. That’s the day after the eighth official candidate debate, and just three days before the New Hampshire primary. It will be a great opportunity to get into real detail on each candidate’s perspective on constitutional rights, SCOTUS, and the judiciary generally. But this questions should be on the agenda wherever candidates gather.

The judiciary isn’t the only practical issue that needs more airing before the primary ends. Given the many structural obstacles to the enactment of progressive policies in Congress, with or without Democratic majorities, candidates need to be pressed on their “theories of change,” their strategies for overcoming entrenched opposition, whether it’s Amy Klobuchar’s focus on executive orders or Elizabeth Warren’s belief that an anti-corruption push can break the power of lobbyists. The health care and climate change arenas are both high-priority areas in which there simply aren not and won’t automatically be working majorities for what has to be done. It’s not enough to say, like Joe Biden does, that Trump’s departure will change everything, or to claim, like Bernie Sanders does, that a “political revolution” will materialize to square every circle. A sustained questioning of the candidates on crucial issues of implementation, definitively nailing them down on items like filibuster reform where several have been slippery, could be worth a lot to voters who seem very hard-headed when it comes to electability but not necessarily in terms of exactly what electable candidates are expected to accomplish.

Yes, some parts of the Democratic primary electorate may feel that beating Trump and getting him and his cronies out of power is enough for one year; actually accomplishing anything is gravy. But that’s a sad and defensive posture to have, and one that voters are not likely to reward, either. Values are essential and vision can be inspiring in a president. But if that’s all a candidate offers, we need to know the next four years could become a huge disappointment and a lost opportunity.