washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democratic Strategist

Why Kevin McCarthy Does What He Does

Some political observers seem baffled by the behavior of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. I’m not, and wrote about it at New York, just before McCarthy’s demagogic eight-hour speech opposing Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation.

In every respect, the House GOP fight against the censure of Paul Gosar for posting a tweet with an anime video depicting him murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was embarrassing. Republicans were defending a clearly dangerous and contemptible act while identifying themselves with a chronically dangerous and contemptible extremist politician. Beyond that, though, rallying around Gosar interrupted their efforts to make this week’s Beltway coverage revolve around the follies of the opposition Democrats. As Politico Playbook observed: “This was supposed to be a ‘Dems in Disarray’ week, but thanks to Rep. PAUL GOSAR (R-Ariz.), it turned into a ‘McCarthy Defends …’ week.

So why didn’t House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy toss Gosar onto the dustbin of political history where he belongs, or at least keep his troops from treating him like a martyr? I can’t see into McCarthy’s mind or soul, of course, but it’s reasonably clear he has adopted a policy of pas d’ennemis a droit (“no enemies to the right,” an inversion of the old Popular Front slogan “no enemies to the left,” deployed to prevent criticism of communists). And he did so because he does not want to go the way of his distinguished former colleagues in the House Republican leadership, Eric Cantor and John Boehner.

Cantor, you may recall, was the brilliant young Virginia congressman who was in top leadership spots (first as House Minority Whip then as House Majority Leader) from 2009 until 2014. That last year, he came crashing to earth in a primary loss to an obscure economics professor named Dave Brat, who demonized Cantor’s friendly attitude toward a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. More generally, Cantor painted a big bull’s-eye on his back by identifying himself with the famous “Growth and Opportunity Project” — better known as the “2012 GOP autopsy report” — that argued the Republican Party was doomed if it did not expand its base by attracting minority voters, with comprehensive immigration reform being a sine qua non. Brat’s nativist-tinged campaign found its most avid cheerleader in Ann Coulter, and got an assist from a former Michele Bachmann staffer named Stephen Miller. It was, arguably, the first MAGA campaign ever. And it sent shock waves through Washington that have yet to subside completely.

Who succeeded Cantor as House Majority Leader? Kevin McCarthy, of course. You think he remembers Cantor’s demise pretty well? I do. But there’s more.

Soon thereafter, the only House Republican who outranked the prelapsarian Cantor, Speaker John Boehner, crashed and burned as well, not in a primary, but by losing an internal party struggle with the House Freedom Caucus, which viewed the convivial wine-and-cigarettes Ohioan as insufficiently combative toward the hated Democrats and their especially hated president Barack Obama. When Kevin McCarthy sought to succeed Boehner, he was blocked by the HFC, which did not consider him ideologically reliable and preferred (and secured) Paul Ryan for the gig. In 2019, McCarthy finally did gain the top leadership spot and has been very solicitous toward the right wing of his conference ever since.

With the Speaker’s gavel in sight — he probably goes to sleep at night envisioning the moment he takes it away from his least-favorite colleague, fellow-Californian Nancy Pelosi — McCarthy isn’t going to blow it now by upsetting Gosar and his Freedom Caucus friends Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Andrew Clyde, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and … the list keeps growing. Periodic bad publicity about his tolerance of scary people saying and doing scary things is a small price to pay for ensuring there is no GOP leadership coup in 2023 if history repeats itself and the president’s party loses quite a few House seats. After all, if McCarthy isn’t careful, he could be brushed aside by a fresh new face aspiring to the Speakership: Donald J. Trump.

Reich: Dashed Hopes Fuel Drift from Biden, Dems

At The Guardian, former Secretary of Labor and political commentator Robert Reich addresses a question of current interest, “Why Are Americans So Unhappy With Joe Biden?” As Reich explains,

How can the economic and pandemic news be so good, and so much of Biden’s agenda already enacted – yet the public be so sour on Biden and the Democrats?

Some blame Biden’s and the Democrat’s poor messaging. Yes, it’s awful. Even now most Americans have no idea what the “Build Back Better” package is. It sounds like infrastructure, but that bill has been enacted. “Human infrastructure” makes no sense to most people.

Yet this can’t be the major reason for the paradox because the Democrats’ failure at messaging goes back at least a half century. I remember in 1968 after Nixon beat Humphrey hearing that the Democrats’ problem is they talk policy while Americans want to hear values – the same criticism we’re hearing today.

Some blame the media – not just despicable Fox News but also the corporate mainstream. But here, too, the problem predates the current paradox. Before Fox News, Rush Limbaugh was poisoning countless minds. And for at least four decades, the mainstream media has focused on conflict, controversy and scandal. Good news doesn’t attract eyeballs.

Some suggest Democrats represent the college-educated suburban middle class that doesn’t really want major social change anyway. Yet this isn’t new, either. Clinton and Obama abandoned the working class by embracing trade, rejecting unions, subsidizing Wall Street and big business and embracing deregulation and privatization.

So what explains the wide gap now between how well the country is doing and how badly Biden and the Democrats are doing politically?

In two words: dashed hopes. After four years of Trump and a year and a half of deathly pandemic, most of the country was eager to put all the horror behind – to start over, wipe the slate clean, heal the wounds, reboot America. Biden in his own calm way seemed just the person to do it. And when Democrats retook the Senate, expectations of Democrats and independents soared.

But those expectations couldn’t possibly be met when all the underlying structural problems were still with us – a nation deeply split, Trumpers still threatening democracy, racism rampant, corporate money still dominating much of politics, inequality still widening, inflation undermining wage gains, and the Delta variant of Covid still claiming lives.

Dashed hopes make people angry. Mass disappointment is politically poisonous. Social psychologists have long understood that losing something of value generates more anguish than obtaining it generated happiness in the first place.

Reich may be overstating the ‘good news’ about the economy, in light of concerns about inflation, however unmerited. Also, the frustrations of 31 million small businesses as they struggle to get enough employees and supplies in the wake of Covid-related disruptions may be increasing discontent. This could get worse in the year ahead. But it could also get better.

For those looking for an optimistic scenario in the 2022 midterms, Reich adds, “Biden and Democrats can take solace from this. Hopefully, a year from now the fruits of Biden’s initiatives will be felt, Covid will be behind us, bottlenecks behind the current inflation will be overcome, and the horrors of the Trump years will become more visible through Congress’s investigations and the midterm campaigns of Trumpers.”

Horse-Race Polling Is Not the Problem With Our Politics

I was in a contrarian mood, and wrote this piece for New York expressing an unpopular but empirically accurate point of view:

There is a vocal group of politically minded people who absolutely hate horse-race polling (i.e., polling about who is leading in election contests). They have varying reasons. Some think polls systemically underrepresent the viability of their favorite party or politicians. Others just dislike the hype surrounding poll findings and the phony conflicts over various numbers. And particularly among progressives, there are some who object to such polling because they feel the coverage it generates blots out the sky at the expense of the policy discussions that ought to be the focus of political media.

To all these poll-o-phobes, the recent emergence of self-doubt in the public-opinion industry based on polling errors in certain elections is a tiding of great comfort and joy. A particularly big moment came on November 4, after the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, when Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray, deploring his own big “miss” in the New Jersey race, made this statement in an op-ed:

“Public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes is abysmal. Honest missteps get conflated with ‘fake news’ — a charge that has hit election polls in recent years …

“Most public pollsters are committed to making sure our profession counters rather than deepens the pervasive cynicism in our society. We try to hold up a mirror that accurately shows us who we are. If election polling only serves to feed that cynicism, then it may be time to rethink the value of issuing horse race poll numbers as the electorate prepares to vote.”

As Murray pointed out, two of the big guns in public opinion, Gallup and Pew Research Center, have already stopped polling candidate preferences, though they still poll on issues, presidential job approval, ideological views, partisan affiliation, and other horse-race-adjacent matters. And Murray’s freak-out over polling error in New Jersey reflected broader anxieties expressed within and beyond the polling industry over high-profile “misses” in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Now it’s important to note that polls were quite accurate in the 2018 midterms, and were also spot-on in the Virginia gubernatorial race that occurred the same day as New Jersey’s (in the final RealClearPolitics polling averages for Virginia, Glenn Youngkin led Terry McAuliffe by 1.7 percent. He won by 1.9 percent). And it’s easy to exaggerate the 2016 and 2020 errors. In the former election, the final RCP average projected a 3.3 percent Clinton lead over Trump. Her actual popular vote plurality was 2.1 percent. The margin of error was larger in 2020, but was a less-than-astronomical 2.7 percent (RCP averages showed Biden up 7.2 percent, and he won the popular vote by 4.5 percent).

The more crucial errors in both cases were in state polling, which (a) is generally less accurate than national polling, and (b) is less frequent. Yes, the chatter about Clinton and Biden’s big national leads based on national polling may have misled people who forgot there was this thing called the Electoral College that actually determines the presidency. But this goes to my fundamental problem with horse-race-polling abolitionism: Bad media coverage of political races won’t necessarily go away, or even improve, if you get rid of candidate-preference polls. Indeed, getting rid of the polls will likely create a vacuum which will be filled with partisan spin, leaked campaign poll results (believe me, the candidates aren’t going to deny themselves polling data), and “reporting” that harvests predictable, self-confirming “data” from tiny samples, conspiracy theories, and other misinformation.

FiveThirtyEight’s Galen Druke raised a lot of these and other concerns with Murray in a podcast interview this week. The more you listen to the back-and-forth, the more it becomes clear that Murray’s big fear is that the perception of pollster bias, fed by polling errors, is contributing to the loss of “public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes,” which he cited in his op-ed. This is a pretty clear allusion to the anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) fallout reflected in heavy Republican subscription to the Big Lie about the 2020 elections. And it helps explain why Murray is upset about New Jersey but not Virginia, and about 2020 polling but not 2018 polling. The crisis, it seems, is that misleading (or more accurately, misinterpreted) polls are among the factors turning Republicans into authoritarians who won’t believe anyone other than Donald Trump.

It’s an understandable fear, and one that may particularly grip pollsters, who suspect a disproportionate refusal to participate in polls by Republicans is at the root of the 2020 polling “miss,” and perhaps others. Maybe not doing horse-race polls at all will keep the problem from getting worse.

There are, fortunately, remedies short of abolitionism that could help ameliorate the legitimate issues Murray and others have raised, without unnecessarily obscuring elections for political office in a data-free fog. Pollsters can more cautiously establish and publicize margins of error and what they mean. They can also simply refuse to conduct likely voter calculations — which Murray rightly suggests is the source of a lot of, or maybe most, polling error — relying on predefined samples like registered voters, or even the “all adults” samples typical of the job-approval and issues polls no one seems to find objectionable. Then pollsters could make it clear that they are not estimating turnout patterns, which might significantly reduce perceptions of bias.

Because misuse of polling data is probably the biggest problem of all, media outlets should be strongly encouraged to balance polling data with other kinds of political coverage, whether it’s on-the-ground campaign reporting, issues polling, or simply a focus on events remote from the campaign trail (e.g., actual governing activity in the three branches of government, and at the federal, state, and local level). And even in reporting polls, consumers of this data (including media) should absolutely look at averages, and warn that sparse polling of particular contests (which, ironically, voluntary decisions to stop horse-race polling by individual pollsters will exacerbate) is a danger sign in making predictions. It’s no accident that the New Jersey governor’s race featured less public polling than its counterpart in Virginia; similarly, the state polls that were off in 2016 and 2020 were, in most cases, conducted less frequently than national polling. Should there be any surprise that more polling means greater overall accuracy?

But make no mistake, there’s no silver bullet. As the deep skepticism over exit polls (sort of a combination of candidate-preference and issues polling) shows, non-horse-race polling has its own problems. There is a lot of “pure” issues polling out there that’s unreliable and downright biased, thanks to tricks of wording and question order (and a lot of it is commissioned by special interests promoting a particular point of view).

Some high-minded folks might ask a more fundamental question: What would we lose if we got rid of horse-race polling and instead did a lot more issues polling? My answer to that may infuriate such people, but it’s the truth: In our system, and especially with today’s extreme partisan polarization, who wins elections has much greater influence on policy outcomes than all the policy “debates” and public-opinion surveys you can devise. Politicians in both parties — and particularly Republicans, I would argue — routinely ignore issues polling in what they decide to do; ideology and pressure from donors and activists typically matters more, which is why Republicans won’t support even the most modest gun-safety measures, and Democrats won’t give government the prescription-drug-price negotiation powers the public has demanded for years. To put it another way, you can’t take the politics out of politics.

Polling of all sorts can and should be improved, and without question, we must do a better job of reporting and interpreting survey findings. But it’s folly to think that a reduction or an abolition of one type of polling is going to keep Republicans from believing Big Lies, or give politicians in both parties overpowering incentives to focus on policies rather than politics. In the end, the answer to flawed data is more, not less, data, with the kind of transparency and accountability we can’t get from private polls done for private purposes and then leaked and spun selectively.

Political Strategy Notes

“The rise of inflation, supply chain shortages, a surge in illegal border crossings, the persistence of Covid, mayhem in Afghanistan and the uproar over “critical race theory” — all of these developments, individually and collectively, have taken their toll on President Biden and Democratic candidates, so much so that Democrats are now the underdogs going into 2022 and possibly 2024,” Thomas B. Edsall writes in his New York Times column, “Democrats Shouldn’t Panic. They Should Go Into Shock.” Edsall goes on to add the fumbling of the infrastructure and social spending bills, GOP edge in redistricting, historical patterns and high crime rates to the list. He cites polls and quotes pundits to make his case, including Duke political scientist Herbert Kitschelt, who, “quoting James Carville, noted in his email: “It’s the economy, stupid. And that means inflation, the supply chain troubles and the inability of the Democrats to extend the social safety net in an incremental fashion.” Edsall doesn’t see a lot of silver lining for Dems. But he does note that Trump’s divisive “vengeance tour” could help Biden’s re-election and he cites the possibility that midterm losses for Dems would put the spotlight on the GOP’s failure to deliver any reforms. But the hope of booming, covid-free economy a year from now appears to be the Dems best hope for holding their congressional majorities.

From “GOP recruitment struggles give Democrats hope in 2022 Senate fight” by , and  Senate on Tuesday when a top Republican prospect decided not to run….In New Hampshire, popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu shocked party leaders when he announced that he wouldn’t launch a bid for a Democratic-held seat, preferring instead to seek re-election for a fourth term as governor….With one-third of the Senate up for grabs next year and a handful of competitive states likely to decide control, Democrats are looking for any advantage as they try to defend their majority. They’ve been getting some help recently from Republicans….From New England to Arizona, Republicans are struggling to land top-tier recruits even as the deteriorating political climate for Democrats puts them in a strong position to win back the chamber. Party operatives find themselves having to keep a close eye on several Senate hopefuls they see as unelectable, a familiar problem for the GOP….Brian Walsh, a former Senate GOP campaign operative, said he sees “echoes of 2010″ in the pro-Republican political environment and the potential for subpar candidates to cost Republicans the majority….”Arguably, Republicans lost five seats between 2010 and 2012 because of bad general election candidates,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s necessarily going to happen here. We don’t know that yet. But broadly, candidates matter.”

Russell Berman has a different kind of warning for Democrats at The Atlantic. It goes like this: “The people who fear the most for the future of American democracy weren’t watching the election returns in Virginia and New Jersey earlier this month for clues about next year’s midterms. These voting-rights advocates didn’t pay much attention to who won mayoral or school-board races. Instead, they’ve spent the past two weeks trying to discern how many Donald Trump loyalists captured control of elections in a pivotal 2024 swing state: Pennsylvania….Voters across the Keystone State decided who will run their polling places in the next two elections, but you could forgive them if they didn’t realize it. Buried near the bottom of their ballots on November 2 were a pair of posts: judge of elections and inspector of elections, bureaucratic titles that most people have never heard of. In many counties, the contests didn’t even make the first page of local races, falling far beneath those for supreme-court justice, county executive, and the school board—even tax collector and constable merited higher placement….Yet the people who hold these election positions will play an important—if often overlooked—role in determining whether elections in Pennsylvania go off smoothly. Grassroots Republican supporters of Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat targeted these posts throughout the state, and many of them won their race last week. “There hasn’t been a sophisticated, concerted effort to sabotage elections like the one we’re facing now,” Scott Seeborg, the Pennsylvania state director for the nonpartisan group All Voting Is Local, told me.”

Some good pro-Democratic message points from Simon Rosenberg at ndn.org: “Biden’s 5.6m jobs is already three times as many than were created in the 16 years of the last 3 Republican Presidencies, combined.  It is also millions more than were created in the entirety of any of their three individual Presidencies.  Many millions more.  Since 1989 and the end of the Cold War, the US has seen 42 million new jobs created.  Remarkably 40 million of those 42 million were created under Democratic Presidents….since this new age of globalization began in 1989, a modern and forward looking Democratic Party has repeatedly seen strong economic growth on its watch.  Republican Presidents, on the other hand, have overseen three consecutive recessions – the last two, severe. The contrast in performance here is very stark, it is not a stretch to state that the GOP’s economic track record over the past 30 years has been among the worst in the history of the United States….And look at the jobs created per month over these Presidencies – Rs at just 10k per month over 16 years.  Biden is running more than 60 times times that so far in 2021.  Yes 60x….The rigid ideological approach of the modern GOP has left it unable to govern in a time of rapid change; and those repeated failures have left many Republicans angry, reactionary and willing to do the unthinkable to stay in or regain power.  The modern GOP has no answers for many of the most important challenges America faces today, and rather than modernizing, adapting, as all institutions must in a time of change, the GOP has decided to fight the future by rigging the system to remain in power while the country and its people drift from their narrow grasp.”

DCCC Launches Plan to Win More Black, Latino and Asian American Voters

We focus a lot at TDS on exploring ways the Democrats can get a bigger bite of the white working-class vote to insure a stable working majority in both houses of congress. It wouldn’t take all that much, as Andrew Levision has argued in his recent strategy memo. Of course Dems must do it in such a way that the gains are not offset by a reduceded share of African American votes or diminished Black voter turnout.

Toward that end, Juana Summers reports that “House Democrats have a new strategy to engage voters of color in the midterm elections” at npr.org, and writes:

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is launching a new, multimillion-dollar effort to engage and mobilize voters of color ahead of the midterm elections, including investments in local organizing and a seven-figure research and polling effort.

The plan, the details of which were shared first with NPR, includes an initial $30 million investment to hire local community organizers, launch targeted advertising campaigns aimed at nonwhite communities, as well as building voter protection and education programs. The committee is also working to combat disinformation efforts that are specifically focused on voters of color.

The announcement comes as Democrats are preparing to defend their slim congressional majorities in 2022, and as many in the party are still assessing their unexpected losses in significant elections this month. It is an early signal of how national Democrats plan to work to ensure that the racially diverse coalition that elected President Biden and delivered victories in key states across the country that gave Democrats a bare Senate majority shows up again.

Summers quotes Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney, who said, “as part of the Building our Base Project, he wants “boots on the ground much earlier, not just showing up at election time, and putting the resources behind it with a culturally competent, diverse team that knows what it’s doing.”

Teixeira: How Dems Can Reach Working-Class Voters

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Comrades! Here Is How We Reach the Working Class!

Everybody should take a look at the new study by Jacobin/Center for Working Class Politics/YouGov on how the left (running as Democrats) can actually reach working class voters. It’s really quite good and remarkably free from the usual left blinders about the actually-existing working class. Hats off to Jacobin, which despite its professed Marxism and fondness for great Communists of the past stories (which I actually quite like as a student of left history), has an ongoing flirtation with practical politics that very much runs through this study. The full report is well worth a look but here’s a little bit:

“In the last five years, a rejuvenated progressive left has established itself as a potent force in American politics….And yet, for the most part….progressive triumphs have been concentrated in well-educated, relatively high-income, and heavily Democratic districts. Even when progressives have won primaries in working-class areas, they have generally done so without increasing total turnout or winning over new working-class voters. And in races outside the friendly terrain of the blue-state metropolis, the same progressive candidates have largely struggled. Overall, progressives have not yet made good on one key promise of their campaigns: to transform and expand the electorate itself.

This poses a major challenge to any hope for a national political realignment on progressive terms. Recent events suggest that left-wing candidates may continue to replace moderate Democrats in demographically favorable urban districts, which could lead to more progressive policies at the municipal or state level. But the national picture is less promising. There are simply not enough districts of this kind to win control of the US House of Representatives, never mind the Senate. For the kind of majority necessary to pass Medicare for All or any of the other big-ticket items on the social democratic agenda, progressive candidates will need to win in a far wider range of places. Until they do, their political leverage will remain sharply limited at the local, state, and national levels.”

Exactly. Sounds like something I’d say.

Some key takeaways from the report:

“Working-class voters prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. This is especially true outside deep-blue parts of the country. Candidates who prioritized bread-and-butter issues (jobs, health care, the economy), and presented them in plainspoken, universalist rhetoric, performed significantly better than those who had other priorities or used other language. This general pattern was even more dramatic in rural and small-town areas, where Democrats have struggled in recent years.

* Populist, class-based progressive campaign messaging appeals to working-class voters at least as well as mainstream Democratic messaging. Candidates who named elites as a major cause of America’s problems, invoked anger at the status quo, and celebrated the working class were well received among working-class voters — even when tested against more moderate strains of Democratic rhetoric.

* Progressives do not need to surrender questions of social justice to win working-class voters, but certain identity-focused rhetoric is a liability. Potentially Democratic working-class voters did not shy away from progressive candidates or candidates who strongly opposed racism. But candidates who framed that opposition in highly specialized, identity-focused language fared significantly worse than candidates who embraced either populist or mainstream language.

* Working-class voters prefer working-class candidates. A candidate’s race or gender is not a liability among potentially Democratic working-class voters. However, a candidate’s upper-class background is a major liability. Class background matters.

* Working-class nonvoters are not automatic progressives. We find little evidence that low-propensity voters fail to vote because they don’t see sufficiently progressive views reflected in the political platforms of mainstream candidates.

* Blue-collar workers are especially sensitive to candidate messaging — and respond even more acutely to the differences between populist and “woke” language. Primarily manual blue-collar workers, in comparison with primarily white-collar workers, were even more drawn to candidates who stressed bread-and-butter issues, and who avoided activist rhetoric.”

All quite sensible in my view and consistent with other available data. But give the whole report a look–it’s worth it.

David Leonhardt also has a useful piece on report findings relevant tor reaching swing voters.

Political Strategy Notes

Today President Biden will sign legislation that provides the most far-reaching infrastructure upgrades since the administration of FDR. The Greensboro News and Record marks the occasion with their editorial on “The bipartisan infrastructure deal.” which notes “The passage of President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, after months of wrangling and tough negotiating, is good news for everyone — or certainly should be. Our infrastructure has required attention for some time now, as we were first warned decades ago, when roads began failing and bridges began falling….And now, thanks to Biden’s deal, which he plans to sign into law on Monday, we’ll finally receive structural repairs and improvements that will put us on a better platform to grow our economy and compete with other nations….Here are some highlights of the bill’s provisions:…$110 billion to repair 173,000 total miles of America’s highways and major roads and 45,000 bridges that are in poor condition….$39 billion to expand transportation systems, improve accessibility for people with disabilities and buy zero-emission and low-emission buses….$7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and $5 billion for the purchase of electric school buses and hybrids, reducing reliance on school buses that run on diesel fuel….$65 billion for broadband access to improve internet service for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities….$65 billion to improve the reliability and resiliency of the power grid — while boosting carbon-capture technologies and more environmentally friendly electricity sources like clean hydrogen….$55 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure — including $15 billion to replace lead pipes and $10 billion to address water contamination from known pollutants….The deal is expected to bring billions in investments to North Carolina, both our urban and rural areas….“The jobs created by this legislation are jobs that cannot be outsourced. They will be performed here in the United States of America,” Rep. Deborah Ross of N.C.’s 2nd Congressional District said during a news conference Monday in Raleigh. “It will boost all of our workers, from the folks who pave the roads to the scientists and engineers who are designing 21st century transportation networks, water and sewer systems and cutting-edge electrical grids.”…It is a victory for Biden. It’s also a victory for his vision of bipartisanship. Best of all, it’s a victory for the American people as we compete to be the world’s marketplace, strive to provide our children with a world-class education and set the stage for a prosperous and peaceful future.”

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. asks “Why do Democrats let Republicans set the terms of debate?,” and writes: “Ever since the House passed the bipartisan bill to do lots of building and rebuilding around the country, Republicans have been at each other’s throats….Some Republicans said it was great to vote for roads, bridges and broadband. But most in the party — encouraged by Mr. Infrastructure Week himself, Donald Trump — said that voting for roads, bridges and broadband made you a traitor for helping President Biden, and maybe even a socialist. There are two lessons here. First, those who regularly pretend that polarization affects both parties equally need to reckon with a GOP so committed to obstruction that a majority of its House members and senators insist that party loyalty demands opposing new highways in their own districts or states….The more important lesson relates to the importance of controlling the terms of the political debate….Taking your opponent’s bait and playing on your opposition’s turf is the surest path to defeat. To succeed in politics, you need to make your opponent respond to you….This is what Democrats did by moving the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk. The GOP’s internal bloodletting quickly followed. Approving Biden’s Build Back Better initiatives could have the same effect….Taking your opponent’s bait and playing on your opposition’s turf is the surest path to defeat. To succeed in politics, you need to make your opponent respond to you….This is what Democrats did by moving the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk. The GOP’s internal bloodletting quickly followed. Approving Biden’s Build Back Better initiatives could have the same effect…….No doubt, the media typically gravitates toward eye-catching cultural issues that don’t involve the detailed explanations that, say, a tax credit or a health-care expansion require. And Democrats’ narrow majorities, coupled with the Senate’s arcane rules, make passing anything — not just voting rights — excruciatingly difficult….But alibis and excuses don’t win arguments (or elections), and if the bad news for Democrats in The Post-ABC News poll published Sunday doesn’t get their attention, I don’t know what will….The party, starting with the president when he signs the infrastructure bill on Monday, can use the power it has now to change the nation’s political conversation. Or it can resign itself to defeat at the hands of a GOP in which a majority is not even willing to fix the damned roads.”

At The Hill, Bill Press writes, “In itself, the BIF is the largest public works investment since President Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System in 1956. But its impact will be far greater. Biden’s bill is not just about roads, bridges, and tunnels. It also covers public transportation, passenger and freight rail, electric vehicles, ports and airports, water and wastewater treatment plants, the electric grid, and broadband access….But the BIF does more than pump money into the economy. It also serves a greater purpose: to prove, once again, that government can be a force for good and — as Joe Biden promised but nobody wanted to believe – that Democrats and Republicans, working together, can still get big things done….Our broken-down infrastructure’s not the only thing that needs a good fix. So’s the Democratic Party’s message machine. Democrats need to stop playing defense and start playing offense. Stop explaining process and start talking product….Their message should be loud and clear. You elected us to end the Trump chaos and get big things done and we delivered: the biggest public works program ever. And we’ll soon add, in the “Build Back Better Bill,” the biggest boost for families ever and the strongest action ever taken to combat climate change….Democrats have a great product. Now it’s time to sell it.”

“The bipartisanship that began with the passage of the physical infrastructure bill in the Senate could not have been extended to the House if the bill got yoked to the Build Back Better bill, as no Republican could tolerate a vote for the former being perceived as a vote for the latter,” Bill Scher writes in “With the Infrastructure Act, Washington’s Trust Gap Closes a Bit” at The Washington Monthly. “Meanwhile, moderate House Democrats wanted to replicate the Senate and keep a modicum of Republicans on board, so they would have an indisputable bipartisan success to tout at home….As she moved to bring the Senate infrastructure bill to the House floor, in the final hours, Pelosi managed to satisfy all camps—distancing the bill from Build Back Better to attract sufficient Republican support, securing enough commitment from the moderates on Build Back Better to hold the bulk of progressive support….Knowing that six Democrats were planning to vote “Nay” (and believing that only two of them could be flipped if necessary), Pelosi still needed a few Republicans to cross the aisle. Thirteen did, providing the margin of victory. In fact, without the 13 House Republicans and the 19 Senate Republicans who voted yes, the physical infrastructure bill would not have passed either congressional chamber….First, moderate Democrats have to follow through on Build Back Better. Manchin and Sinema have been busy shaping the bill to their liking, so they should support it. Besides, if they killed it, the Democratic circular firing squad would jeopardize the already slim Democratic chances in the 2022 midterm elections. Do Manchin and Sinema really want to doom Senators Mark Kelly, Catherine Cortez Masto, or Michael Bennet?…Trust needs to be trending for Congress to do anything next year. The cold reality is that once the Build Back Better process is finished, what comes next for Biden’s legislative agenda is unclear….to prematurely give up would be to take the wrong lesson from what just happened with infrastructure. The only way to overcome long odds is to trust and to try.”

Walter: Why ‘Wokeness’ Is Not the Biggest Problem for Dems

From “It’s Competence, Not “Wokeness” That’s Hurting Democrats” by Amy Walter at The Cook Political Report:

In the wake of last week’s defeat of Democratic candidates across the country, an elite consensus has formed that blames Democrats’ failures at the ballot box on their “wokeness.” In attempting to address structural racial injustice, they argue, Democrats have become as inflexible and judgmental as those they are fighting against. They’ve become addicted to litmus tests and sloganeering (i.e., “defund the police”) as a way to measure success.

On PBS NewsHour, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville blamed Democrats’ losses on “stupid wokeness,” arguing that “this ‘defund the police’ lunacy, this ‘take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools,’ that — people see that.” It’s time for Democrats, said Carville, “to go to a woke detox center.” Plenty of other columnists jumped on the ‘detox’ bandwagon, including The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, whose most recent column was headlined: “Wokeness Derails Democrats.”

But, there is a chicken and the egg problem with these theories. Are Democrats losing because they are embracing progressive policies like critical race theory? Or are they losing because they are in charge in Washington and the economy and COVID remain significant concerns? Imagine for a moment that the progress we saw earlier this spring on COVID and the economy had continued unabated. Or if the administration had better handled the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Do we think that President Biden’s job approval rating would be in the low 40s? Probably not. Suppose Biden’s job approval ratings were still at 53 percent this fall (as they had been earlier this summer). Do we really think that attacks on critical race theory would have been enough for a Republican to win in Virginia? I don’t.

A recent Monmouth poll asked voters these very questions. By a seven-point margin, more voters said that the president’s bigger problem was his inability to get Washington working (36 percent) than the party’s leftward swing (29 percent). More critical, independent voters, “are more likely to point to capability (42%) than ideology (26%) as Biden’s bigger problem.”

In other words, the challenge for this administration is less about ‘wokeness’ than it is about competence. More specifically, rising inflation is a bigger threat to Democrats in 2022 than teaching about racism.

Walter goes on to present more data to support her case. At The New York Times, however, columnist Paul Krugman argues that fears about inflation damage are likely overwrought, in light of historical experience. But the perception of inflation can have more dire political consequences than the reality of it. Of course it’s possible that both factors, and a few more, contributed to the Democratic defeats in Virginia.

Political Strategy Notes

New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall writes, “In the 11 months from January 2020 to February 2021, Fox referred to critical race theory — which has come to be known as C.R.T. — 164 times, according to the liberal advocacy group Media Matters. In the subsequent three and a half months, from May through mid-August, as the contest between Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe for governor in Virginia intensified, the number of on-air references shot up to more than 1,900….There is clear evidence that this issue touched a nerve across a wide swath of the electorate, evidence that suggests that C.R.T. can simultaneously be a Republican dog whistle and a significant political liability for the Democratic Party. Fox News raised the salience of C.R.T., but it resonated beyond the network’s viewers….As [Youngkin strategist Kristin ]Davison recounted the story to [Politico writer Ryan] Lizza: Within three hours of the debate where Terry said “I don’t think parents should be involved in what the school should be teaching,” we had a video out hitting this because it tapped into just parents not knowing. And that was the fight. It wasn’t just C.R.T. That’s an easier issue to talk about on TV. That’s not what we focused on here; it was more “parents matter.” Launching that message took the education discussion to a different level. Edsall adds, “Nonetheless, the immediate political question is this: How should Democrats deal with the “weaponization” of critical race theory?…’

Among the responses, Edsall notes, “I asked Anat Shenker-Osorio, a California-based communications consultant who specializes in the development of progressive messaging, especially in techniques to counter conservative and Republican campaign themes. Her reply by email: ‘What Democrats need to do is recognize that this is simply Republicans recording a new cover of the same song. They cast a new scapegoat and remix, hoping to divide us along lines of race, background or gender identity, and distract us from their corruption.’ There are, she continued, “proven ways to best right-wing divide-in-order-to-conquer strategies”:Democrats begin by saying, for example, “No matter our color, background, or ZIP code, we want our kids to learn to reckon with the mistakes of our past, understand our present, and create a better future for us all.” Embracing the critical — and highly contested — value of freedom, by championing kids’ freedom to learn who they are, where they come from, and all they can become, is also paramount. Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, had a harder edge in his emailed reply to my inquiry: “Democratic candidates should deal seriously and forthrightly with the cultural issues that clearly concern many voters.” Learning, he continued, “entails dialogue and pluralism and self-disciplined willingness to listen even to those with whom one may disagree strongly, which is why the far-flung efforts to erase or muzzle the 1619 Project, or critical race theory or other manifestations of anti-racist pedagogy must be rejected. Democrats should put themselves firmly on the side of open discussion, not compelled silence….”They should vocally eschew bad ideas such as the notion that there has been no substantial betterment in race relations over the past fifty years, or that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are unworthy of commemoration, or that Black people are incapable of being racist, or that speech that is allegedly racist ought to be banned. At the same time, they should vocally embrace what is difficult for any sensible person to deny: that racial injustice has been and remains a destructive force that must be overcome if we are to enjoy more fully the promising potential of our multiracial democracy….I agree.”

In their article, “Joe Manchin has a point: Means-testing would make ‘social infrastructure’ bill affordable,” at The Hill, Douglas J. Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and director of its Welfare Reform Academy and Douglas M. Call a lecturer at the University of Maryland and the deputy director of the Welfare Reform Academy, write: “Now that the physical infrastructure bill has passed, Democrats are working to shoehorn their social priorities into a shrinking budget target, pared down from an earlier $3.5 trillion to around $1.75 trillion. But instead of real cuts, it appears that they are aiming to simply reduce the number of years for which some programs are approved — to make them seem less expensive — without actually lowering their long-term cost….The idea is that, after enacted, public support will grow and Democrats (or the Republicans, should they win control next year) will extend the programs. But given the comments of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and others, that feels like a “riverboat gamble,” as the late Sen. Howard Baker called the Reagan tax cuts. Wiser policy would be to make the programs affordable by targeting them to families really needing help. In other words, as Manchin and others have pointed out: Means-testing would make the social infrastructure bill more affordable….For years, fixing the work and marriage disincentives in the EITC and other safety-net programs was stymied by the inability of advocates to find ways to pay for them. Now there is money on the table. Removing them might not be as dramatically sweeping as “a tax cut for all,” but it could be just the policy bridge needed to make a real improvement in the lives of struggling families — one that progressives and moderates could get behind.”

In “Biden has reached a critical moment in the battle for blue-collar voters,” Ronald Brownstein writes at CNN Politics: “In Republican-leaning states and districts, “Democratic candidates have to forcibly separate themselves from the Democratic brand” on cultural questions, says Andrew Levison, a contributing editor at The Democratic Strategist, a website that debates the party’s choices. He argues that “a reckoning does have to be done with certain elements of the progressive wing of the party” and that Biden should directly renounce some left-leaning ideas on race the way Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he criticized the rapper Sister Souljah. “Standing up for certain traditional cultural principles against the left might help Biden establish his own bona fides” for 2024, says Levison. “He can’t really ride on ‘Amtrak Joe.’ ” Levison, a long-time advocate of Black political empowerment and multi-racial coalitions for social reform, has recently written that “If Democrats could simply regain the white working class vote share that they won in 2008, this would be adequate to win many elections that Dems now loose. As a result it is not necessary for Democrats to try to win a large majority of all white working class voters and certainly not to try to win passionate Trump supporters. It is just necessary to regain perhaps 10-15% of the white working class vote that once voted Democratic and now goes Republican….In red state districts Democratic candidates need to proudly embrace white working class culture and then consciously and intensely attack their Republican opponents as being “extremists” who do not embody the decent elements of traditional American culture and values.”

The Centrist Third Party Delusion

Some new data relevant to one of my favorite false political theories became available, so I wrote about it at New York:

An enduring fantasy about American politics is that our polarized two-party system may give way to a centrist third party that will rise to power on the frustrations of voters tired of gridlock and refusals to compromise in the national interest. You hear this cry for a fresh option more and more as Republicans systematically deploy the filibuster to obstruct Joe Biden’s agenda, and Joe Biden’s Democrats cannot or will not chase Republicans around Washington with candy and valentines until deals are cut and things get done. Indeed, Gallup found earlier this year that a record-high 62 percent of Americans agreed that “the parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.”

That’s in theory, of course. In reality, a lot of Americans who say they are angry at the two-party system are really just angry at the party opposing their own for failing to get out of the way or go off to die. And even if you could somehow get all the malcontents together in one room, do they actually speak the same ideological language and agree on what is to be done when all the “getting things done” commences?

A new typology of American voters from the Pew Research Center shows why a centrist third party is problematic in the extreme. After asking a very large sample of voters a battery of questions aimed at determining their partisan leanings and ideological tendencies, alongside positions on key issues, Pew came up with nine groups. Four (Progressive Left, Establishment Liberals, Democratic Mainstays, and Outsider Left) are Democratic leaning, four more (Faith and Flag Conservatives, Committed Conservatives, Populist Right, and Ambivalent Right) are Republican leaning, and one (Stressed Sideliners) leans neither way.

If you take the left and right groups least intensely partisan (the Outsider Left and the Ambivalent Right) and add them to the nonpartisan Stressed Sideliners, you get a substantial 37 percent of the electorate, enough to form a plurality in close three-way political contests. But there are two big obstacles to them becoming an effective Third Force, notes Pew:

“Surveys by Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations have found broad support, in principle, for a third major political party. Yet the typology study finds that the three groups with the largest shares of self-identified independents (most of whom lean toward a party) — Stressed Sideliners, Outsider Left and Ambivalent Right — have very little in common politically. Stressed Sideliners hold mixed views; Ambivalent Right are conservative on many economic issues, while moderate on some social issues; and Outsider Left are very liberal on most issues, especially on race and the social safety net.”

These three groups do have one negative point of conjunction:

“What these groups do have in common is relatively low interest in politics: They had the lowest rates of voting in the 2020 presidential election and are less likely than other groups to follow government and public affairs most of the time.”

So even if you designed a party or a candidate that could somehow appeal to all of the politically dispossessed, many in the target audience might not notice or wouldn’t vote anyway. And if they did get motivated enough to consider the Third Force, they might tear each other apart on the way to saving the country.

Ultimately, the purported constituents for a centrist third party aren’t as large a group as is often imagined and aren’t really centrists, either. And their alienation from both parties may be more about alienation from politics or, to put it another way, from the prospect of doing anything about their grievances. This fantasy will never die, but it’s not springing into real life in the foreseeable future.