washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

May 19: The Threat to Roe v. Wade

After the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided to deal with Mississippi’s sharply restrictive new abortion law, I wrote about the possible implications at New York:

After months of mysterious uncertainty, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade presented by a ban on abortions prior to 15 weeks of pregnancy, as enacted by the State of Mississippi. And the Court left no ambiguity about its willingness to get back to the basics of the constitutional law governing abortion by limiting its review to the question of “whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.” That’s the question that was answered affirmatively in 1973 in Roe and again in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Caseythe two Supreme Court precedents that have restrained eager Republican-controlled state legislatures and an increasingly conservative federal judiciary from eroding or abolishing reproductive rights.

Oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will occur in the next Court term this fall, which means a decision is likely in the spring or early summer of 2022. The early betting is that the six justices placed on the Court by the strongly anti-abortion presidents George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump will finally take the leap to seriously revise, if not reverse, a woman’s right to choose abortion prior to fetal viability. The chronically pessimistic progressive legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern may be right this time around:

“This action suggests that the conservative majority is no longer interested in gradually eroding abortion rights until they are, in reality, nonexistent. This strategy has guided the anti-abortion movement for decades. It has resulted in laws that shutter abortion clinics under a bogus pretext, compel doctors to read anti-abortion propaganda, force women to undergo ultrasounds and waiting periods, and forbid abortions for specific reasons, like fetal disability. After the confirmations of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, the conventional wisdom dictated that the Supreme Court would begin to uphold these laws, chipping away at Roe until it became a hollow promise. But the new conservative majority is not waiting for these half-measures to reach the court; with Dobbs, it has gone for the jugular. Roe itself is on the table.”

Under this reading, the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett flipped a Court that, as recently as 2020, was willing to invalidate a Louisiana law restricting access to abortion clinics on the grounds that it violated Casey’s standard prohibiting laws that placed an “undue burden” on women choosing pre-viability abortions. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch are almost certain votes to abandon Roe and Casey, while Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh have appeared to be more cautious about defying so long-standing a set of precedents.

But with only three justices (Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) being firmly committed to reproductive rights, and with virtually the entire Republican Party (not to mention its Federalist Society legal wing) opposing them, the time for a showdown may have now arrived. Indeed, among conservatives, the main difference of opinion is between those who favor a return to the pre-1973 status quo ante, in which the states (or, in theory, Congress) will determine abortion law, and those embracing the more radical doctrine of fetal “personhood” (which would have the effect of requiring a constitutional amendment to legalize abortion anywhere).

But before conceding defeat on the Court, reproductive-rights advocates should recall that we’ve been here before. In 1992, when SCOTUS accepted the Pennsylvania case that became Casey, it was widely expected that Roe was about to fall, in no small part because Thomas had just joined the Court. Indeed, we now know then–Chief Justice William Rehnquist circulated a draft opinion overturning Roe that was tentatively supported by five justices. But Justice Anthony Kennedy changed his mind and joined fellow Republican appointees Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter in affirming Roe’s viability standard, while replacing its trimester scheme with the “undue burden” test for pre-viability restrictions that is still in place.

Could that (i.e., a reframing rather than a reversal of the right to choose) happen again? It seems unlikely, but there is one straw in the wind that suggests it’s not necessarily a done deal. Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan did not choose to publish dissents to the order to hear Dobbs, which one might have expected if a conservative majority to reverse Roe is in place, given the unquestioned unconstitutionality of the Mississippi law under the existing precedents. It remains possible that Roberts and Kavanaugh, fearing an anti-Court outcry among women everywhere, could be persuaded to reaffirm the viability standard yet again, perhaps alongside some new leeway for less fundamental state restrictions. In other words, the 1992 saga could be replayed with a similar result. Short of a change of Court membership during the next year, that may be the abiding hope of reproductive-rights advocates. But they’d best focus most of their efforts on formulating a strategy for restoring the right to choose via intense political warfare in the states.


The Threat to Roe v. Wade

After the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided to deal with Mississippi’s sharply restrictive new abortion law, I wrote about the possible implications at New York:

After months of mysterious uncertainty, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade presented by a ban on abortions prior to 15 weeks of pregnancy, as enacted by the State of Mississippi. And the Court left no ambiguity about its willingness to get back to the basics of the constitutional law governing abortion by limiting its review to the question of “whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.” That’s the question that was answered affirmatively in 1973 in Roe and again in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Caseythe two Supreme Court precedents that have restrained eager Republican-controlled state legislatures and an increasingly conservative federal judiciary from eroding or abolishing reproductive rights.

Oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will occur in the next Court term this fall, which means a decision is likely in the spring or early summer of 2022. The early betting is that the six justices placed on the Court by the strongly anti-abortion presidents George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump will finally take the leap to seriously revise, if not reverse, a woman’s right to choose abortion prior to fetal viability. The chronically pessimistic progressive legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern may be right this time around:

“This action suggests that the conservative majority is no longer interested in gradually eroding abortion rights until they are, in reality, nonexistent. This strategy has guided the anti-abortion movement for decades. It has resulted in laws that shutter abortion clinics under a bogus pretext, compel doctors to read anti-abortion propaganda, force women to undergo ultrasounds and waiting periods, and forbid abortions for specific reasons, like fetal disability. After the confirmations of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, the conventional wisdom dictated that the Supreme Court would begin to uphold these laws, chipping away at Roe until it became a hollow promise. But the new conservative majority is not waiting for these half-measures to reach the court; with Dobbs, it has gone for the jugular. Roe itself is on the table.”

Under this reading, the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett flipped a Court that, as recently as 2020, was willing to invalidate a Louisiana law restricting access to abortion clinics on the grounds that it violated Casey’s standard prohibiting laws that placed an “undue burden” on women choosing pre-viability abortions. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch are almost certain votes to abandon Roe and Casey, while Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh have appeared to be more cautious about defying so long-standing a set of precedents.

But with only three justices (Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) being firmly committed to reproductive rights, and with virtually the entire Republican Party (not to mention its Federalist Society legal wing) opposing them, the time for a showdown may have now arrived. Indeed, among conservatives, the main difference of opinion is between those who favor a return to the pre-1973 status quo ante, in which the states (or, in theory, Congress) will determine abortion law, and those embracing the more radical doctrine of fetal “personhood” (which would have the effect of requiring a constitutional amendment to legalize abortion anywhere).

But before conceding defeat on the Court, reproductive-rights advocates should recall that we’ve been here before. In 1992, when SCOTUS accepted the Pennsylvania case that became Casey, it was widely expected that Roe was about to fall, in no small part because Thomas had just joined the Court. Indeed, we now know then–Chief Justice William Rehnquist circulated a draft opinion overturning Roe that was tentatively supported by five justices. But Justice Anthony Kennedy changed his mind and joined fellow Republican appointees Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter in affirming Roe’s viability standard, while replacing its trimester scheme with the “undue burden” test for pre-viability restrictions that is still in place.

Could that (i.e., a reframing rather than a reversal of the right to choose) happen again? It seems unlikely, but there is one straw in the wind that suggests it’s not necessarily a done deal. Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan did not choose to publish dissents to the order to hear Dobbs, which one might have expected if a conservative majority to reverse Roe is in place, given the unquestioned unconstitutionality of the Mississippi law under the existing precedents. It remains possible that Roberts and Kavanaugh, fearing an anti-Court outcry among women everywhere, could be persuaded to reaffirm the viability standard yet again, perhaps alongside some new leeway for less fundamental state restrictions. In other words, the 1992 saga could be replayed with a similar result. Short of a change of Court membership during the next year, that may be the abiding hope of reproductive-rights advocates. But they’d best focus most of their efforts on formulating a strategy for restoring the right to choose via intense political warfare in the states.


April 29: Republicans Can’t Get a Clear Focus on Biden

Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:

When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.

Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:

“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”

This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.

But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.

Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.

Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.

Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.


Republicans Can’t Get a Clear Focus on Biden

Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:

When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.

Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:

“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”

This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.

But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.

Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.

Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.

Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.


April 28: Democrats Should Use Power Fully While They Have It

There is a lot of neurotic fretting about past and future elections going on in Democratic circles right now. Introspection is fine, but there are limits, as I explained at New York:

Since Joe Biden took office, we’ve seen a striking contrast between the audacious legislative agenda that the new president and his congressional allies are implacably advancing and the anxiety that so many of them (but decidedly not Biden himself) are expressing about their narrow escape from defeat in 2020 and the probable rough electoral sledding ahead. Even as Congress accomplishes things unimaginable in the Obama administration, Democrats keep fretting about the lost opportunities that the expected 2020 landslide could have given them, the traction that many fear Republicans are obtaining with their anti-wokeness crusade, and the baleful history of midterm elections that have shattered the plans of new administrations.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Punchbowl he figures there is a direct connection between the political anxieties of congressional Democrats and their audacious legislative agenda:

“Majorities are not given, they are earned. This is not like 1994 and 2010 …

“[Y]ou had to win 40 seats in 2010 … I think everybody knows the majority is in play. So the reason why it’s different, the majority is in play. In ’94 and 2010, at the beginning of those years, they didn’t believe the majority was at play in the nation. I believe it is, and the Democrats, I think, believe it is too; that’s why they’re going so far left, knowing that they’re gonna lose it.”

So basically, McCarthy is charging that Democrats are shooting for the moon in 2021 because they understand that their governing trifecta is fragile and will likely end in 2022. It’s a hostile, self-serving hypothesis but nonetheless worth considering.

Any governing party implicitly has to balance, if not choose between, the goals of implementing its desired policies and of sustaining its power by positioning itself to win future elections. Ideally, of course, such parties hope their legislative priorities are popular enough to serve as a future campaign platform. Democrats who understand how ambitious their current legislative agenda is are particularly encouraged that it is polling well so far. And as New York’s Jonathan Chait has observed, Biden himself has adopted a presidential style that downplays the audacity of the legislation he is promoting, which helps get it enacted while giving the opposition fewer ripe targets.

But at some point very soon, Democrats may no longer be able to avoid a choice between accomplishments and political sustainability. Even if they are able to keep big policy proposals on issues like climate change, police reform, or housing supply from becoming politically fraught right away, they must take into account how they may play into Republican messaging on “socialism,” “wokeness,” or “class warfare.” Do they hold back on legislative audacity, then, in order to maximize the odds of hanging on to Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024? Or do they move ahead as quickly and ambitiously as they can and hope for the best? I’d offer four pretty compelling reasons for continuing to shoot for the moon.

Democrats’ power is too fragile to protect, so they may as well use it

Thanks to where 2020 left Democrats in Congress, a screeching halt to their legislative progress is no further away than an unexpected death or the resignation of a single senator, a decision by one senator that “going rogue” is in her or his self-interest, or an adverse ruling by the unelected Senate parliamentarian on the ability of Democrats to move a major item via the budget-reconciliation process (as has already happened on the $15 mimimum wage and will probably happen soon on immigration reform). Enacting as much legislation as possible before any of those setbacks occurs could be critical, justifying any and all political risks.

Similarly, the Democratic margin in the House is so small that it may be impossible to sustain against the overwhelming historical precedent of midterm losses by the party controlling the White House — especially since Republicans will have the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process, which is about to get under way.

If the Democratic trifecta is too weak to rely upon or is doomed anyway, why not get as much done as possible and hope for good luck in 2022 and 2024 and perhaps even better luck down the road?

Partisan polarization has made moderation meaningless

The idea that pulling legislative punches will improve future electoral outcomes may be a vestige of a bygone era of swing-voter hegemony and plausible bipartisanship. It’s not clear exactly who in the electorate will award Democrats for “moderation” in fully pursuing their policy goals. To put it another way, no matter what Biden and congressional Democrats do, McCarthy and the conservative-media machine are going to accuse them of “going so far left.” That was the great lesson of the Obama administration, in which every conciliatory gesture simply gave the GOP incentives to radicalize its demands and ramp up the volume of its protests against alleged Democratic extremism.

It also offers an alternative interpretation of the relative disappointment of Democratic underachievement in 2020. Instead of neurotically looking around to see which “woke” or “socialist” pol gave Republicans the opportunity to shriek about the terrible consequences of Democratic power, as many Democrats are doing now, it may make more sense to recognize that the Donkey Party can do nothing short of surrender that would undermine such messaging. The Republican base is clearly in a state of cultural panic that has little to do with the specter of the Green New Deal or the Iran nuclear pact or anything else Democrats say or do. Sure, Democrats can try to lower the temperature of political conflict as their chill president is doing, but they may as well use their current leverage as not. Joe Manchin will ensure that they don’t go hog wild.

America’s current condition demands, and will reward, bold policies — particularly after the Trump presidency

Intense partisan polarization isn’t the only feature of the contemporary political landscape that makes caution inadvisable for Democrats. Quite obviously, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic and social by-products built a highly conducive atmosphere for the Biden administration’s first bold and theoretically risky venture, the American Rescue Plan. And even if the sense of emergency fades and Biden-esque “normalcy” begins to reign, there could be a significant residual appetite within and beyond the Democratic Party for legislative activism after four years in which the GOP lost its already minimal interest in solving problems through public policy and submitted itself to the chaotic, often pointless rage-based leadership of Donald Trump.

There’s a lot to get done, and, among those who aren’t fantasizing about a vengeful comeback for the 45th president, there’s just one party offering much of anything. Scary as “socialism” seems to many Americans, nihilism is scarier yet.

Some legislative goals are conditions precedent for future political success

As Ron Brownstein has convincingly argued, some form of voting-rights legislation may no longer be optional for Democrats if they want to remain politically viable in the short-term and long-range future:

“If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats — and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws.”

Republicans understand that the power to limit ballot access for Democratic constituencies is something they need to exploit to the fullest right now. If Democrats demur from pursuing every avenue to preempt Republican voter suppression via federal legislation on grounds that it’s too “partisan,” the far more cynical GOP will have the last laugh, potentially for a long time. Loyalty to the young and minority voters most endangered by voter suppression should be enough to make voting rights job one in this Congress, even if that means risky tactics like filibuster reform. But it may also be a matter of political survival.

In general, this is no time for Democrats to be afraid of taking risks; like it or not, everything they do right now is risky business. The ancient arguments between progressives and centrists on the best way to appeal to swing voters are largely moot at this moment. They had best make hay while the sun shines.


Democrats Should Use Power Fully While They Have It

There is a lot of neurotic fretting about past and future elections going on in Democratic circles right now. Introspection is fine, but there are limits, as I explained at New York:

Since Joe Biden took office, we’ve seen a striking contrast between the audacious legislative agenda that the new president and his congressional allies are implacably advancing and the anxiety that so many of them (but decidedly not Biden himself) are expressing about their narrow escape from defeat in 2020 and the probable rough electoral sledding ahead. Even as Congress accomplishes things unimaginable in the Obama administration, Democrats keep fretting about the lost opportunities that the expected 2020 landslide could have given them, the traction that many fear Republicans are obtaining with their anti-wokeness crusade, and the baleful history of midterm elections that have shattered the plans of new administrations.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Punchbowl he figures there is a direct connection between the political anxieties of congressional Democrats and their audacious legislative agenda:

“Majorities are not given, they are earned. This is not like 1994 and 2010 …

“[Y]ou had to win 40 seats in 2010 … I think everybody knows the majority is in play. So the reason why it’s different, the majority is in play. In ’94 and 2010, at the beginning of those years, they didn’t believe the majority was at play in the nation. I believe it is, and the Democrats, I think, believe it is too; that’s why they’re going so far left, knowing that they’re gonna lose it.”

So basically, McCarthy is charging that Democrats are shooting for the moon in 2021 because they understand that their governing trifecta is fragile and will likely end in 2022. It’s a hostile, self-serving hypothesis but nonetheless worth considering.

Any governing party implicitly has to balance, if not choose between, the goals of implementing its desired policies and of sustaining its power by positioning itself to win future elections. Ideally, of course, such parties hope their legislative priorities are popular enough to serve as a future campaign platform. Democrats who understand how ambitious their current legislative agenda is are particularly encouraged that it is polling well so far. And as New York’s Jonathan Chait has observed, Biden himself has adopted a presidential style that downplays the audacity of the legislation he is promoting, which helps get it enacted while giving the opposition fewer ripe targets.

But at some point very soon, Democrats may no longer be able to avoid a choice between accomplishments and political sustainability. Even if they are able to keep big policy proposals on issues like climate change, police reform, or housing supply from becoming politically fraught right away, they must take into account how they may play into Republican messaging on “socialism,” “wokeness,” or “class warfare.” Do they hold back on legislative audacity, then, in order to maximize the odds of hanging on to Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024? Or do they move ahead as quickly and ambitiously as they can and hope for the best? I’d offer four pretty compelling reasons for continuing to shoot for the moon.

Democrats’ power is too fragile to protect, so they may as well use it

Thanks to where 2020 left Democrats in Congress, a screeching halt to their legislative progress is no further away than an unexpected death or the resignation of a single senator, a decision by one senator that “going rogue” is in her or his self-interest, or an adverse ruling by the unelected Senate parliamentarian on the ability of Democrats to move a major item via the budget-reconciliation process (as has already happened on the $15 mimimum wage and will probably happen soon on immigration reform). Enacting as much legislation as possible before any of those setbacks occurs could be critical, justifying any and all political risks.

Similarly, the Democratic margin in the House is so small that it may be impossible to sustain against the overwhelming historical precedent of midterm losses by the party controlling the White House — especially since Republicans will have the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process, which is about to get under way.

If the Democratic trifecta is too weak to rely upon or is doomed anyway, why not get as much done as possible and hope for good luck in 2022 and 2024 and perhaps even better luck down the road?

Partisan polarization has made moderation meaningless

The idea that pulling legislative punches will improve future electoral outcomes may be a vestige of a bygone era of swing-voter hegemony and plausible bipartisanship. It’s not clear exactly who in the electorate will award Democrats for “moderation” in fully pursuing their policy goals. To put it another way, no matter what Biden and congressional Democrats do, McCarthy and the conservative-media machine are going to accuse them of “going so far left.” That was the great lesson of the Obama administration, in which every conciliatory gesture simply gave the GOP incentives to radicalize its demands and ramp up the volume of its protests against alleged Democratic extremism.

It also offers an alternative interpretation of the relative disappointment of Democratic underachievement in 2020. Instead of neurotically looking around to see which “woke” or “socialist” pol gave Republicans the opportunity to shriek about the terrible consequences of Democratic power, as many Democrats are doing now, it may make more sense to recognize that the Donkey Party can do nothing short of surrender that would undermine such messaging. The Republican base is clearly in a state of cultural panic that has little to do with the specter of the Green New Deal or the Iran nuclear pact or anything else Democrats say or do. Sure, Democrats can try to lower the temperature of political conflict as their chill president is doing, but they may as well use their current leverage as not. Joe Manchin will ensure that they don’t go hog wild.

America’s current condition demands, and will reward, bold policies — particularly after the Trump presidency

Intense partisan polarization isn’t the only feature of the contemporary political landscape that makes caution inadvisable for Democrats. Quite obviously, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic and social by-products built a highly conducive atmosphere for the Biden administration’s first bold and theoretically risky venture, the American Rescue Plan. And even if the sense of emergency fades and Biden-esque “normalcy” begins to reign, there could be a significant residual appetite within and beyond the Democratic Party for legislative activism after four years in which the GOP lost its already minimal interest in solving problems through public policy and submitted itself to the chaotic, often pointless rage-based leadership of Donald Trump.

There’s a lot to get done, and, among those who aren’t fantasizing about a vengeful comeback for the 45th president, there’s just one party offering much of anything. Scary as “socialism” seems to many Americans, nihilism is scarier yet.

Some legislative goals are conditions precedent for future political success

As Ron Brownstein has convincingly argued, some form of voting-rights legislation may no longer be optional for Democrats if they want to remain politically viable in the short-term and long-range future:

“If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats — and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws.”

Republicans understand that the power to limit ballot access for Democratic constituencies is something they need to exploit to the fullest right now. If Democrats demur from pursuing every avenue to preempt Republican voter suppression via federal legislation on grounds that it’s too “partisan,” the far more cynical GOP will have the last laugh, potentially for a long time. Loyalty to the young and minority voters most endangered by voter suppression should be enough to make voting rights job one in this Congress, even if that means risky tactics like filibuster reform. But it may also be a matter of political survival.

In general, this is no time for Democrats to be afraid of taking risks; like it or not, everything they do right now is risky business. The ancient arguments between progressives and centrists on the best way to appeal to swing voters are largely moot at this moment. They had best make hay while the sun shines.


April 23: After 2020, Whither the Latino Vote?

One of my favorite analysts, Ron Brownstein, tackled a critical question, and I wrote about it at New York adding some of my own thoughts:

Immediately on Election Night it was obvious Trump and most down-ballot Republicans were doing well in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, which had a lot to do with Trump’s relatively easy wins in the two large states of Texas and Florida. But as more data drifted in, it became apparent the fiery nativist president who had insulted Mexican, Central and South American immigrants repeatedly, improved on his 2016 performance among Latinos, which in turn was an improvement over Mitt Romney’s share of that vote in 2012.

The rapidly increasing size of the Latino vote has been central to Democratic hopes of a demographically driven semi-permanent majority coalition in the near future, so flagging strength with that group is scary to them. And Trump’s ability to win a decent and growing share of Latino votes cheers Republicans who now figure they can have their race-baiting cake and eat minority votes too. But as Ron Brownstein explains in a characteristically thorough assessment of various theories about the direction of the Latino vote, it’s not exactly clear what to expect next or what if anything either party can do about the trend-lines.

One problem is that there have long been myriad problems in defining and measuring the Latino vote which bedevil any analysis. But the trend lines are pretty clear through 2020:

“If Trump won about one-third of Latino voters nationally (the figure most analysts agree on), that’s roughly the same share won by several previous Republican nominees, including John McCain in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000, George H. W. Bush in 1988, and Ronald Reagan during his two races in the 1980s. (George W. Bush did better than that in 2004.)”

But it’s troubling to Democrats that the immigrant-baiting Trump did as well among Latinos as McCain, who famously favored comprehensive immigration reform, or Reagan, who won by national landslides twice. So an immediate question is whether 2020 was simply a reversion to the mean or if Republicans can do better going forward, particularly if the Latino-unfriendly aspects of Trump’s persona and message are discarded.

Unfortunately, there’s some evidence 2020 Republican Latino gains were partially attributable to, not simply in spite of, Trump. A number of analysts argue that Latino men liked what Brownstein calls “Trump’s swaggering and belligerent persona.” But the Latino gender gap wasn’t particularly large, so others believe Trump’s “law and order” message resonated with the sizable segment of the Latino population who feel little if any solidarity with Black social justice advocates. Trump’s mildly ludicrous attacks on Joe Biden as a “socialist” were not taken humorously by Caribbean and South American immigrants who had experienced leftist dictatorships. And the incumbent almost certainly benefitted from his prioritization of the economy over public health in the COVID-19 pandemic among Latinos highly vulnerable to job losses.

These last 2020 Trump assets (along with simple incumbency) could certainly accrue to Democrats in 2022 and 2024 if the pandemic subsides and the economy continues to boom. But partisan cleavages on “socialism” and “law and order” will not likely go away even if Trump is no longer his party’s leader. Nor will the clear differences on cultural issues like abortion and “religious liberty” that push Latino Evangelicals and Pentecostals, along with traditionalist Catholics, towards the GOP. In general, it’s pretty clear that the Democratic assumption that most Latino voters would steer clear of a Republican Party associated with immigration restrictions was not warranted, particularly in a political environment like that of 2020 in which there were so many urgent competing concerns. And what may be going on, as David Shor has suggested, is that the intensifying climate of partisan polarization is pushing Latino conservatives who used to vote Democratic towards their more natural ideological home.

Almost everybody agrees Republicans have recently done immensely better in Latino voter engagement. Indeed, one reason for Democratic optimism is that the self-imposed restrictions Democrats placed on direct personal contacts with all kinds of voters during the pandemic will give way to a more even playing field in the future. But the regular complaints of Latino activists about inadequate outreach by Democrats to their communities indicate one simple way Republican success can be limited: just by trying more. Perhaps the party as a whole should pay better attention to Bernie Sanders’s strong Latino base during the 2020 Democratic nominating contest, which is often written off as just a byproduct of Bernie-mania among young voters.

The stakes for both parties in getting this right grow more each election, Brownstein’s sources tell him:

“The nonpartisan States of Change project anticipates that Latinos will grow from about one in seven eligible voters today to nearly one in five by the middle of the next decade…. [I]f Democrats can maintain the roughly two-to-one advantage they have traditionally enjoyed among Latinos, most in the party would probably be satisfied. But…it’s a mistake to assume that no Republican could do better than Trump, particularly if they sanded down some of the roughest edges of his approach on immigration.”

It’s as good a time as any to remember that in the end a vote’s a vote, and that major national political parties can win by losing big demographic groups by less than before. Beyond winning and losing, though, Democrats should beware giving Republicans grounds to believe that racism and nativism have no negative electoral consequences. That way lies Trumpism for as far as the eye can see.


After 2020, Whither the Latino Vote?

One of my favorite analysts, Ron Brownstein, tackled a critical question, and I wrote about it at New York adding some of my own thoughts:

Immediately on Election Night it was obvious Trump and most down-ballot Republicans were doing well in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, which had a lot to do with Trump’s relatively easy wins in the two large states of Texas and Florida. But as more data drifted in, it became apparent the fiery nativist president who had insulted Mexican, Central and South American immigrants repeatedly, improved on his 2016 performance among Latinos, which in turn was an improvement over Mitt Romney’s share of that vote in 2012.

The rapidly increasing size of the Latino vote has been central to Democratic hopes of a demographically driven semi-permanent majority coalition in the near future, so flagging strength with that group is scary to them. And Trump’s ability to win a decent and growing share of Latino votes cheers Republicans who now figure they can have their race-baiting cake and eat minority votes too. But as Ron Brownstein explains in a characteristically thorough assessment of various theories about the direction of the Latino vote, it’s not exactly clear what to expect next or what if anything either party can do about the trend-lines.

One problem is that there have long been myriad problems in defining and measuring the Latino vote which bedevil any analysis. But the trend lines are pretty clear through 2020:

“If Trump won about one-third of Latino voters nationally (the figure most analysts agree on), that’s roughly the same share won by several previous Republican nominees, including John McCain in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000, George H. W. Bush in 1988, and Ronald Reagan during his two races in the 1980s. (George W. Bush did better than that in 2004.)”

But it’s troubling to Democrats that the immigrant-baiting Trump did as well among Latinos as McCain, who famously favored comprehensive immigration reform, or Reagan, who won by national landslides twice. So an immediate question is whether 2020 was simply a reversion to the mean or if Republicans can do better going forward, particularly if the Latino-unfriendly aspects of Trump’s persona and message are discarded.

Unfortunately, there’s some evidence 2020 Republican Latino gains were partially attributable to, not simply in spite of, Trump. A number of analysts argue that Latino men liked what Brownstein calls “Trump’s swaggering and belligerent persona.” But the Latino gender gap wasn’t particularly large, so others believe Trump’s “law and order” message resonated with the sizable segment of the Latino population who feel little if any solidarity with Black social justice advocates. Trump’s mildly ludicrous attacks on Joe Biden as a “socialist” were not taken humorously by Caribbean and South American immigrants who had experienced leftist dictatorships. And the incumbent almost certainly benefitted from his prioritization of the economy over public health in the COVID-19 pandemic among Latinos highly vulnerable to job losses.

These last 2020 Trump assets (along with simple incumbency) could certainly accrue to Democrats in 2022 and 2024 if the pandemic subsides and the economy continues to boom. But partisan cleavages on “socialism” and “law and order” will not likely go away even if Trump is no longer his party’s leader. Nor will the clear differences on cultural issues like abortion and “religious liberty” that push Latino Evangelicals and Pentecostals, along with traditionalist Catholics, towards the GOP. In general, it’s pretty clear that the Democratic assumption that most Latino voters would steer clear of a Republican Party associated with immigration restrictions was not warranted, particularly in a political environment like that of 2020 in which there were so many urgent competing concerns. And what may be going on, as David Shor has suggested, is that the intensifying climate of partisan polarization is pushing Latino conservatives who used to vote Democratic towards their more natural ideological home.

Almost everybody agrees Republicans have recently done immensely better in Latino voter engagement. Indeed, one reason for Democratic optimism is that the self-imposed restrictions Democrats placed on direct personal contacts with all kinds of voters during the pandemic will give way to a more even playing field in the future. But the regular complaints of Latino activists about inadequate outreach by Democrats to their communities indicate one simple way Republican success can be limited: just by trying more. Perhaps the party as a whole should pay better attention to Bernie Sanders’s strong Latino base during the 2020 Democratic nominating contest, which is often written off as just a byproduct of Bernie-mania among young voters.

The stakes for both parties in getting this right grow more each election, Brownstein’s sources tell him:

“The nonpartisan States of Change project anticipates that Latinos will grow from about one in seven eligible voters today to nearly one in five by the middle of the next decade…. [I]f Democrats can maintain the roughly two-to-one advantage they have traditionally enjoyed among Latinos, most in the party would probably be satisfied. But…it’s a mistake to assume that no Republican could do better than Trump, particularly if they sanded down some of the roughest edges of his approach on immigration.”

It’s as good a time as any to remember that in the end a vote’s a vote, and that major national political parties can win by losing big demographic groups by less than before. Beyond winning and losing, though, Democrats should beware giving Republicans grounds to believe that racism and nativism have no negative electoral consequences. That way lies Trumpism for as far as the eye can see.


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.