washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democratic Strategist

Congressional Democrats Are Actually More Unified Than Ever

After months of reading and writing about Democratic congressional battles over infrastructure and reconciliation, I offered a bit of a historical corrective at New York:

If you follow the buzz in Washington, you would think there are massive divisions in the Democratic Party between “progressives” and “centrists” that threaten to blow up Joe Biden’s agenda. The “centrists” in particular have been troublesome by insisting on the shrinkage of said agenda, both quantitatively (various demands to reduce the price tag on the Build Back Better budget-reconciliation package) and qualitatively (complaints about too much climate-change activism or too many new entitlements or too little means-testing or too many taxes).

But lost in all the bickering and hostage taking is the fact that Democrats in Congress are almost certainly more united than they’ve ever been. And there are a lot more “centrists” working quietly in harness with party leaders and progressives than are out there making demands at press conferences.

There are two major groupings of Democratic centrists (or “moderates,” a term used almost interchangeably) in the U.S. House: the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition. The Blue Dogs have eternally made “fiscal discipline” a signature issue for their membership and have in the past been more than willing to stand up to party leaders. Of the nine “rebels” led by Josh Gottheimer who insisted on a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before they would countenance a reconciliation bill in the big blowup in September, eight were Blue Dogs (plus, Blue Dog co-chair Stephanie Graham made some sympathetic noises). But ten Blue Dogs stayed out of the rebellion.

The minority status of the rebels becomes even clearer if you look at the New Democrat Coalition, a newer group that was once considered close to the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (the famously controversial organization that coined the “New Democrat” brand). There are 95 NDC members in the House. Nine of them (ten if you count Murphy) were among Gottheimer’s rebels. Fully 85, including all the group’s leadership, were not.

In the Senate, every member is a caucus, so you don’t tend to have factional groups. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been the hostage takers and naysayers among “centrist” Democrats. But think about all the other “centrists” who haven’t been issuing demands or kicking and screaming about the Build Back Better package. I would count a lot of Senate Democrats as conspicuously moderate over the years: Michael Bennet, Tom Carper, Chris Coons, Dianne Feinstein, Maggie Hassan, Jeanne Shaheen, John Hickenlooper, Tim Kaine, Mark Kelly, Amy Klobuchar, Jon Tester, and Mark Warner. Maybe some of them sympathize with Manchin and Sinema on this or that issue. But they aren’t out there disrupting Democratic unity, are they?

In fact, if you look back at legislative challenges faced by recent Democratic presidents, the relative loyalty of today’s brand of “centrists,” becomes plainer. In 1993, Bill Clinton, himself a stalwart of the DLC who would drive some progressives batty, pushed a budget-reconciliation bill through Congress that had already been significantly pared of progressive provisions before it was introduced. In the end, though, Clinton lost 41 House Democrats and six Senate Democrats (nearly all of them conspicuous moderates or conservatives) who joined Republicans in voting against the legislation.

In 2009, Barack Obama had to deal with well-organized centrist Democrats in both chambers to get his budget enacted; the complex structure of Obamacare was one legacy of the compromises he had to accept after Joe Lieberman, among others, killed the “public option” before it was even incorporated into legislation. Fifteen Senate Democrats worked together to reduce the overall cost of the budget. In the end, 20 House Democrats voted against the package despite a host of accommodations.

The bigger picture is that in recent decades, ideological polarization has consolidated left-of-center voters and pols in the Democratic Party while right-of-center voters and pols have gone Republican. And partisan polarization has greatly reduced the number of ticket splitters. Both forces tend to enhance party unity in Congress. In 2008, despite Obama’s big national victory, 48 Democrats were elected in House districts carried by John McCain. In 2021, there are only seven House Democrats representing districts Trump won last year and only three from districts Trump carried by more than two points. The real outlier among House Democrats is Jared Golden of Maine, whose district went for Trump by seven points. Is it any wonder he’s one of the most vociferously adamant rebels against Biden’s budget bill? Or could anyone be surprised that Manchin isn’t “loyal to Biden” when Biden got less than 30 percent of the vote in West Virginia?

The real problem for Democrats in 2021 isn’t ideological disunity: It’s their shaky control of both chambers, which tempts individual House and Senate members to set themselves up as power brokers and posture for swing voters and wealthy and powerful interests back home.

After the 1992 elections, Clinton’s Democrats held 257 House seats and 57 Senate seats. After the 2008 election, Obama’s Democrats held 257 House seats and 59 Senate seats (which would soon become 60 when Arlen Specter changed parties). Now, Biden’s Democrats control 220 House seats and 50 Senate seats. Even a very unified party will have problems with such a small margin for error and that much incentive for factional or individual demands. And those who treat the current tensions as some sort of inherent “Democrats in Disarray” problem may be forgetting how much trouble Republicans had managing small congressional margins in 2017 and 2018. Remember the Obamacare repeal that never happened?

The cure for Democratic “disunity” isn’t expulsions or an imposed ideology; it’s to win bigger margins in Congress or to lose majorities altogether. Difficult as the status quo undoubtedly is, all Democrats would prefer the turbulent exercise of power to no power at all.

Brownstein: How Dems Can Escape a ‘Midterm Blowout’

Ronald Brownstein explains “What Democrats Need to Understand About the Changing Electorate: How the president’s party can avoid a midterm blowout” at The Atlantic:

Follow the sun. That’s the advice to Democrats from a leading party fundraising organization in an exhaustive analysis of the electoral landscape released today.

The study, from the group Way to Win, provided exclusively to The Atlantic, argues that to solidify their position in Congress and the Electoral College, Democrats must increase their investment and focus on Sun Belt states that have become more politically competitive over recent years as they have grown more urbanized and racially diverse. “The majority of new, likely Democratic voters live in the South and Southwest, places the Democratic establishment have long ignored or are just waking up to now,” the group argues in the report.

The study, focusing on 11 battleground states, is as much a warning as an exhortation. It contends that although the key to contesting Sun Belt states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona is to sustain engagement among the largely nonwhite infrequent voters who turned out in huge numbers in 2018 and 2020, it also warns that Republicans could consolidate Donald Trump’s gains last year among some minority voters, particularly Latino men. “These trends across our multiracial coalition demonstrate the urgent need for campaigns and independent groups to stop assuming voters of color will vote Democrat,” the report asserts.

The study echoes the findings of other Democratic strategists such as Mike Podhorzer, the longtime political director of the AFL-CIO, in arguing that the Democrats’ best chance to avoid the usual midterm losses is to turn out large numbers of those surge voters next year.

Such a strategy would be the polar opposite of the “skip the south” approach advocated by some Democratic strategists a decade ago. Further,

Using an analysis of voter files by the firm TargetSmart, the report studied the 64.8 million voters who cast ballots last year in the 11 states where Way to Win focused its efforts: a Sun Belt–heavy list that includes Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida in the Southeast; Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas in the Southwest; and Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt.

TargetSmart projects that nearly 41 million of the voters in those states turned out in all three of the most recent elections—2016, 2018, and 2020—and that those dependable voters split almost exactly in half between Biden and Trump. Way to Win sees little opportunity for moving those voters through persuasion efforts, writing that they “are polarized, deeply entrenched, partisan base voters.” Only about one in seven of these habitual voters, the group concludes, might be genuinely persuadable from election to election.

Instead, the report argues that the Democratic Party has greater opportunity among less reliable voters. Despite Trump’s own success at energizing infrequent voters, the study found that in these crucial states, Biden actually generated more support from voters who turn out only occasionally.

Across the 11 states, TargetSmart calculated, nearly 13 million 2020 voters participated in just two of the past three elections, and they preferred Biden 52 percent to 48 percent. Another 11.1 million 2020 voters did not vote in either 2018 or 2016, and they gave Biden an estimated advantage of 54 percent to 46 percent. Looking beyond these infrequent voters, the study found that another nearly 25 million registered adults did not vote in any of the three most recent elections, and they model as more Democratic- than Republican-leaning in all 11 states.

These concentric circles of irregular voters—especially those who have now turned out to oppose Trump or his party in either 2018 or 2020, or both—represent the Democrats’ best chance of expanding their support, and contesting new states, in the years ahead, the report argues. “To expand the Democratic base with a durable coalition,” the report maintains, all of these infrequent voters “must be invited to become more habitual voters who consistently break for Democrats. Democrats cannot afford a scarcity mindset where we only talk to high-frequency ‘persuadable’ voters in 2022.”

But there are some caveats in this argument:

Even as it flags that opportunity, the Way to Win study echoes other Democratic analysts who have seen signs through Biden’s first months that Republicans may be preserving the unexpected gains Trump recorded among Latino voters, particularly men, and even (though fewer) Black voters. “In some ways this is a clarion call and a warning sign because it means that we need more investment and more work to figure out what is happening in these communities,” Gavito says. One lesson that’s clear already regarding Latinos, she says, is that emphasizing “a traditional Democratic message that’s centered on racial justice” without delivering improvement in material day-to-day conditions is “falling on deaf ears.”

….In the Sun Belt, non-college-educated white voters are both a smaller share of the electorate and more resistant to Democrats, in part because more of them than in the Rust Belt are evangelical Christians. (Although exit polls showed Biden winning about two in five non-college-educated white voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Iowa, he carried only about one in five of them in North Carolina and Georgia and only about one in four in Texas.) Conversely, the opportunity for mobilization is greater in the Sun Belt—where people of color constitute a majority of the population turning 18 each year in many of the states—than in the Rust Belt. Given those political and demographic realities, most Democratic campaigns and candidates across the Sun Belt believe their future depends primarily on engaging younger and nonwhite voters—and the registration and turnout efforts led by Stacey Abrams in Georgia is the model they hope to emulate.

But the best way forward for Democrats has never been to prioritize one region over the other; Dems have to focus on both ‘expansion’ and ‘persuasion’ to build an enduring voter coalition.

Fernandez Ancona says Way to Win isn’t calling for Democrats to abandon the Rust Belt, or to concede more working-class white voters to the GOP. Rather, she says, the group believes that party donors and campaigns must increase the resources devoted to “expansion” of the minority electorate so that it more closely matches the greater sums already devoted to the “persuasion” of mostly white swing voters.

“I don’t think it’s expansion versus persuasion: It’s that we have to prioritize expansion just as we have historically prioritized persuasion,” she says. “We saw that in 2020. It’s very clear: We needed it all.”

In fact, both Fernandez Ancona and Gavito argue, the entire debate over whether to stress recapturing more white voters or mobilizing more nonwhite voters obscures the party’s actual challenge: finding ways to unify a coalition that is inherently more multiracial and multigenerational than the Republicans’. Even with Trump’s gains among some minority voters, white voters still supplied almost 92 percent of his votes across these 11 states, the analysis found. Biden’s contrasting coalition was much more diverse: just under 60 percent white and more than 40 percent nonwhite.

“Sometimes we are missing the whole and we are not grasping that the multiracial coalition includes white people and people of color, and we have to hold that coalition together,” Fernandez Ancona says. “Thinking about the whole coalition [means] we have to find messages that unite around a shared vision that includes cross-racial solidarity.”

Democrats have a good mix of policies in b both the reconciliation and infrastructure legislation, although the substance of their legislative proposals is getting smothered be media emphasis on the economic cost. Democrats have to figure out how to get more focus on “the kind of kitchen-table programs embedded in the Democrats’ big budget-reconciliation bill, such as tax credits for children, lower prescription-drug prices, and increased subsidies for health- and child-care expenses.”

Brownstein concludes that, unless Dems can “persuade Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to pass the bill, debates about the Sun Belt versus the Rust Belt, or white versus nonwhite voters, may be washed away by a tide of disapproval from all of those directions.” Put another way, do the Manchin and Sinema visions of ‘bipartisanship’ have room for a viable Democratic Party, or do they prefer a wholesale cave to Mitch McConnell’s one-man veto?

Kamala Harris and the Electoral Count Act of 1887

Got far down in the weeds of an obscure but important issue at New York this week:

The now-notorious Eastman memo — the script Donald Trump gave to Mike Pence for overturning the election results on January 6, 2021 — was potentially more dangerous to our nation than the rioters he incited to storm the building. The document provided a spurious, but convenient, constitutional rationale for Pence to abuse the authority granted to him in the 12th Amendment to tabulate electoral votes as part of a pro forma process for confirming Joe Biden’s election. According to Eastman, a lawyer on the president’s legal team, Pence had the lordly power to disregard state-certified electors, ignore the procedures spelled out in the “unconstitutional” Electoral Count Act, and either hand an unearned victory to his own ticket or kick the election into the House. Pence decided not to go there, though he seems to have strongly considered it.

I have feared that the attempted 2020 electoral coup may have been a dress rehearsal for Trump. But no matter what happens in the 2022 and 2024 elections, there will be one important change in the scenery when a joint session of Congress convenes to count electoral votes in January of 2025: Instead of Republican Pence, Democrat Kamala Harris will preside. As Russell Berman notes in The Atlantic, there’s a quiet debate underway as to what role she might play if Trump is the Republican nominee and tries again to steal the election:

“Should Trump or his acolytes try to subvert the 2024 election, the last Democrat with any power to stop the steal — or at least try to — would be Harris. ‘She’s certainly going to have quite a job on her hands on January 6, 2025,’ Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and liberal constitutional scholar, told me. Nine months ago, Tribe and other Democrats praised Pence for interpreting his authority narrowly, but the next time around, they might ask Harris to wield the same gavel more forcefully.”

This does not mean there is significant support in liberal legal circles for some sort of reverse-Eastman memo, with Kamala Harris refusing to acknowledge electors that Trump won, relying on some outlandish constitutional argument. As Matthew Seligman of the Campaign Legal Center told me, election lawyers are unwavering on this point.

“It’s critical to be clear that the Constitution does not vest the vice-president (as president of the Senate) with any unilateral authority at all to reject electoral votes or to resolve disputes about competing slates of electors,” he said. “That theory was the basis of the Eastman memo, and it is absolutely incorrect — whether it’s Vice-President Pence, Vice-President Harris, or any other politician of any political party.”

But the Electoral Count Act (which Eastman wanted Pence to disregard) does give some powers to the vice-president, while leaving certain potential issues maddeningly unclear, with virtually no court precedents to govern the sort of scenarios that could conceivably emerge in future elections. Distinguished Harvard emeritus professor Laurence Tribe told Berman it was clear the ECA gave the vice-president the power to reject “ungrounded challenges to state certifications.”

So if, hypothetically, a Republican-controlled Congress was tempted to supplant electors certified by the appropriate officials under a given state’s laws with some self-appointed alternative slate (like the fake Trump electors Eastman wanted Pence to recognize), Harris might be able to gavel such a move out of order. But as Seligman told me, the ECA does not give the veep “freewheeling authority to pick and choose how to count electoral votes, for good reasons or for bad reasons, and it would be dangerous if it did so.”

If a 2024 Team Trump (or anyone else) gets its act together enough to organize more regularly constituted electoral vote larceny — either by an entirely legal certifying authority that chooses to ignore or distort the popular vote, or by muddying the waters with a conflicting certification by a legitimate state body such as the legislature — there may be nothing Harris can do about it short of asserting powers she doesn’t have, and which a Republican Congress could formally deny her by challenging her decisions. But here’s the thing: The operations of the ECA in such uncharted territory are murky at best, as one might expect from an 1887 statute developed under the shadow of the very different disputed presidential election of 1876.

But prospects for fixing the ECA in the near term have been stalled by the lack of interest of congressional Republicans determined to “move on” from the embarrassing events of January 6. Perhaps the realization that Kamala Harris will be in the chair in 2025 will sink in enough to make them reconsider that hands-off stance toward placing clear limits on her power — power she will be strongly encouraged to exercise to the maximum extent if she’s defending not just another Democratic victory but democracy itself. For that matter, lawmakers in both parties need to understand the ECA is going to be a problem in future elections after which we have no way of knowing who will be sitting in the vice-president’s chair when the deal goes down, or which party will control Congress.

It’s true congressional Republicans may fear the wrath of Trump should he decide an otherwise non-controversial ECA fix could tidy up the muddy track he prefers in order to keep his legal and extralegal options open for a post–Election Day reversal of fortune. But if they value the Constitution and the rule of law, they may be forced to cast a very difficult vote to stop a Trump coup in 2025. Precluding at least some of this risk by clarifying the ECA at this early juncture might be an easier vote, and they can always tell their MAGA constituents they are just reining in Kamala Harris.

Political Strategy Notes

At Newsweek, Alexandra Hutzler reports that “Bookmakers currently have Republicans defeating Democrats to win control of Congress next year….The Republican Party is the favorite to take majority control of the Senate following the 2022 midterms, with their odds of winning the chamber at 5/6 (54 percent), according to betting aggregator US-Bookies….The GOP’s odds of capturing the House stand at 2/5, or 71.4 percent….The Democratic Party‘s odds of holding control of the Senate are 21/10, or roughly 32 percent. The party’s odds for keeping their majority in the House are slightly higher at 2/1, or 33 percent, according to the site….”While the odds favor Republicans winning control of Congress come midterms, their odds [to] take the House are stronger than the Senate,” a US-Bookies spokesperson said in a news release….Plus, for Democrats the 2022 map has dwindled following the redistricting process. Axios reported last month that Democrats have cut their list of Republican House seats to target from 39 to 21.” Lest we get too Chicken Little about the midterms, Hutzler also notes, “But polling has shown the competition to be close. FiveThirtyEight’s generic congressional ballot shows Democrats and Republicans less than 3 percentage points apart when voters are asked which party they will support in next year’s elections.” Hutzler adds that “Political betting is illegal in the United States but is popular in Europe and other areas abroad.”

“Biden’s approval rating has failed to improve even as Afghanistan has faded from the headlines,” Nate Silver writes at FiveThirtyeight. “According to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, from Aug. 12 through Sept. 1, the three major cable-news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) mentioned Afghanistan in an average of 1,320 15-second clips per day. From Sept. 2 through Sept. 30, however, they mentioned the country in an average of only 403 clips per day. (This is, however, still more often than Afghanistan was in the news before the Taliban’s takeover. From Aug. 1 through Aug. 11, the three networks mentioned Afghanistan in an average of just 56 clips per day.)….This is consistent with the argument that the decline in Biden’s approval rating was never just about Afghanistan. The timing of it suggested it was also driven by the resurgent pandemic, dissatisfaction with the economy, or even natural post-honeymoon reversion to a mean that is more realistic in these polarized times. In other words, a myriad of factors….Of course, case counts remain quite high in absolute terms (higher than at any point in the pandemic other than last winter), so Americans may not quite be in a mood to give Biden credit just yet. It doesn’t mean, however, that Biden won’t receive a political boost if and when the pandemic truly ends….Other news developments could help or hurt Biden politically as well, such as whether Democrats in Congress pass their infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills or if the government defaults on its debt. So we’ll have to wait and see what happens to Biden’s approval rating going forward — which will be important for, among other reasons, assessing how big of a shellacking Democrats will receive in the 2022 midterm elections (or if they will receive one at all).”

New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall probes the authoritarian politics of ‘true believers,’ and notes that “David C. Barker, Morgan Marietta and Ryan DeTamble, all political scientists, argue in “Intellectualism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Epistemic Hubris in Red and Blue America” that epistemic hubris — the expression of unwarranted factual certitude — is “prevalent, bipartisan and associated with both intellectualism (an identity marked by ruminative habits and learning for its own sake) and anti-intellectualism (negative affect toward intellectuals and the intellectual establishment).” Edsall quotes barker in a follow up interview: “The populist right hates the intellectual left because they hate being condescended to, they hate what they perceive as their hypersensitivity and they hate what they view as an anti-American level of femininity (which is for whatever reason associated with intellectualism)….the intellectual left really does see the G.O.P. as a bunch of deplorable rubes. They absolutely feel superior to them, and they reveal it constantly on Twitter and elsewhere — further riling up the “deplorables.”….The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.”

Campaigns & Elections has a post on “Finding TV Ad Efficiencies In the Midterm Year,” which adds some insight into the relative efficiency of the ad campaigns that elected Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff to the U.S. Senate in January, and Dems can hope will bode well for Warnock’s re-election next year: “Midterm ad spending next year is projected  to top $9 billion, which will exacerbate the issue of clutter that political media buyers are already struggling with….In fact, maneuvering through the ad saturation of voters’ screens may be a greater challenge for the Republican side, which hasn’t been as effective as Democrats in channeling donor money to candidates who get the lowest unit rate when buying TV time, according to Adam Wise, VP of client strategy at National Media….He pointed to the Georgia Senate runoff where $520 million was spent in a 45-day  period from Election Day 2020 to Jan. 5….“Republicans held a significant linear spend advantage, but candidate dollars, when you go back and look at purchasing power parity, [Democrats] actually outspent Republicans by $45 million because their dollars went 4.4 times further and 75 percent of their spend was with Warnock and Ossoff,” Wise said Sept. 9 at C&E’s Reed Awards Conference in DC…..“Really that’s going to be a big challenge for the Republicans going into next cycle. [Last cycle] on the Senate map, we were outspent by an effective dollar amount of $298 million dollars, he added. “How we can get that money to candidates and how candidates can function smarter and bigger is going to be a really big challenge for the party.”….Getting the money into candidates’ hands is one thing, spending it efficiently is another.”

How Dems Can Still Win ‘Historic Reforms,’ Despite ‘Hard Choices’

Fom “Biden and the Democrats Need to Make Hard Spending Choices: Historic reforms are possible if the Party can agree on its priorities” by John Cassidy at The New Yorker:

“The first decision facing the White House now is a strategic one. Should it try and squeeze as many programs as it can into a smaller reconciliation bill, using delayed implementation dates, early sunsets, and other accounting ploys to hold down the over-all price tag? (During the Administrations of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, Republicans successfully employed similar tactics to pass hefty tax cuts that primarily benefitted large corporations and the rich.) Or should Biden try to focus the bill on a handful of his top priorities, insuring that these programs get adequately funded for longer, an approach that would make it harder for Republicans to roll them back in a future Congress? The first option may well be the easiest to sell to individual Democrats on the Hill, who each have their own priorities, and it appears to be the favored option of some prominent progressives. The second option, by providing more clarity to voters, could conceivably work out better for Biden and the Party as a whole going into the 2022 midterms and the 2024 Presidential election, and it could also make it more likely that the policy changes stick.

“I think some of my fellow progressives who want to do everything for a few years are making a big mistake,” Robert Greenstein, a veteran budget analyst who has worked with Democrats and is now at the Brookings Institution, told me on Monday. “The idea that all this stuff will be so popular that the Republicans will roll over and extend everything is extremely naïve—and dangerous. Trying to do everything for a short time is a recipe for ending up with little that is enduring over the long term.”

Cassidy urges Biden and Democrats to focus on thr Child Tax Credit, “paid medical and family leave for all American workers, affordable child care, and universal preschool for all three-year-old and four-year-old children,” pared-down ‘green proposals,” community college support, expanding Medicaid and “shaming Manchin and Sinema into supporting a long-overdue measure to allow Medicare to negotiate the prices that it pays for prescription drugs.”

Acknowledging that “There are other ways to do the math and split the pot, of course,” Cassidy argues, “But, if the White House is now fully committed to a much smaller total spending cap, choices have to be made. By centering the reconciliation bill on five or six key elements of the original Build Back Better Plan, Biden could argue to voters that he was fulfilling his electoral promises. To progressives, he could say that, despite the lower cap, he was still making some transformative reforms.”

Teixeira: What Country Does the Left Think It’s Living In?

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

The Congressional left probably feels pretty good after their apparent victory, with Biden’s backing, in delaying the infrastructure bill vote until there’s…..well, something on the reconciliation bill. Of course, this whole process increases the likelihood Democrats manage to do nothing at all in the end. Moreover, it’s been blindingly clear for some time that Democrats will not be able to forge agreement on the full $3.5 trillion Building Back Better bill. It will have to be cut down considerably–Manchin’s at $1.5 trillion and Biden has floated $2.3 trillion–and this delay changes that not at all. Indeed, it is not clear that the entire refuse to vote on the infrastructure bill ploy has really accomplished much other than to delay the necessary and inevitable work to cut down and compromise on a smaller reconciliation bill. What’s to stay and what’s to go–what are the core commitments to be put into the bill and communicated to the public?

Perhaps the left wishes to avoid these questions because they misunderstand the country they live in and the actually existing political situation. They think they’re on the verge of Something Big. In reality Democrats are in a very tenuous situation and cannot accomplish what they want in just this Congress given the scale of the problems to be solved and the thinness of their margins. It will take years and more electoral success over larger areas of the country. That’s the long game they should be playing instead of pretending that the only obstacle to the maximum left program is the unaccountable failure of politicians to be bold enough.

David Von Drehle has it right:

“The left lost ground among Latino voters [in 2020] — the fastest-growing slice of the electorate. Sanders and Warren failed to connect with key Black communities in the Democratic Party’s stalwart base. Republicans strengthened their hold on state government, now controlling 30 state legislatures and 27 governorships. This edge can be felt in today’s redistricting battles, which will shape the next 10 years.

With so much handwriting on the wall, progressives have dug in their heels for maximum spending. They professed shock when news broke that Manchin wanted to cap the reconciliation bill at $1.5 trillion, an amount that Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) dismissed as “crumbs.” Deep down, Bush and others on the left may know that an awful lot of voters think $1.5 trillion is more than crumbs.

In hopes of moving President Biden in their direction — though, honestly, no one has any idea where Biden might be, on spending or any number of other issues — progressives have been cooing to him about the New Deal. Biden’s legacy, they purr, could be the greatest since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s.

But Roosevelt did not become the most successful Democratic politician of modern times by holding popular bills hostage to unpopular ones. Today’s progressives misunderstand FDR and his New Deal, and they would have a more promising future if they were to study the example more closely.

Some of the most ambitious progressive legislation of the New Deal — for example, Social Security and the pro-union Wagner Act — did not pass Congress in 1933, immediately after Roosevelt won his first presidential election. These laws passed two years later, after Democrats picked up seats in the midterm election. FDR allowed the public to deliver its verdict on his governing approach. Only then, after voters approved what they had seen so far, did Roosevelt give them more.

If progressives truly want to expand on FDR’s legacy, they will follow in his footsteps. They will take the mountain of money that Manchin is offering to support, add the long-promised infrastructure bill (giving Biden that rarest of talking points, a bipartisan win), stack the cash atop the $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief from last winter and get busy showing what they can deliver if given a chance.

Voters will reward them at the next election if their plans work as well as they say. Instead of finding themselves on the downslope of power, they’ll be strengthened to climb some more.”

Political Strategy Notes

In “Wanted: A better Build Back Better campaign,” E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes at The Washington Post: ““The public chaos of last week demonstrated many things: that the various wings of the Democratic Party misread each other; that the relentless focus on the single number of $3.5 trillion has left most Americans clueless about what Biden wants to do; and that the party’s exceptionally narrow majorities in Congress require more finesse than even its most skilled vote-counters anticipated….If there is good news for Biden and his party, it’s that each side in the internal skirmishes now knows the other’s strengths and red lines….Moderates learned that progressives have the numbers in the House to block a physical infrastructure bill if Biden’s broader social and climate investment program isn’t passed alongside it. Progressives learned that the overall spending number in the package has to come down more than they initially thought to satisfy Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.)….And Biden administration officials acknowledge that the president and his allies need to do a far better job in refocusing the debate away from the big numbers and toward the concrete help the president’s initiatives offer to middle-class and lower-income families. He plans extensive travel to stress such measures as expanded child care, the child tax credit and health coverage, along with the urgency of action on climate change….What Democrats must fight above all are misrepresentations of the Build Back Better bill as some left-wing scheme. On the contrary, Biden’s proposals are a direct response to critiques often emanating from middle-of-the-road Democrats: that the party needs to spend less time on cultural issues and more on fighting for direct benefits to the working and middle classes, a cause that unites voters across racial and regional lines….“This package goes to the very heart of why working-class Americans vote Democratic,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), one of Biden’s earliest and staunchest supporters, told me. “If we are able to pass this bill, I am confident it will help us with those blue-collar voters who went for Obama twice and swung to Trump.”

“Sinema has, for the last few years, had the same ideological record as Manchin,” Harry Enten writes in “Why Kyrsten Sinema’s tactics may backfire” at CNN Politics. “As I’ve noted before, Manchin’s ideological record is about the best Democrats can hope for from West Virginia….But Democrats can hope for more from an Arizona Democrat. Their party has a much easier time winning in Arizona than West Virginia….Start with what happened in last year’s presidential election. President Joe Biden won the state of Arizona by 0.3 points. West Virginia, unlike Arizona, is a red state. Biden lost the state by 39 points. This came after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lost the state by more than 40 points in 2016….Arizona, on the other hand, is purple and has been chugging to the left. Biden did 4 points better than Clinton, who in turn did 6 points better than Barack Obama in 2012….Part of what may be happening is that Sinema thinks that Arizona is a redder state than it actually is. That’s understandable insofar as Democrats have only started winning statewide races there with regularity recently….Democrats in Arizona now control two of the five seats on the state’s corporation commission, the secretary of state’s office and superintendent of public instruction office. They also hold five of the nine US House seats….Sinema may be leaving herself open to a primary challenge — a possibility certain liberal groups are already eyeing….And unlike Manchin, who has beaten back primary challenges easily, Sinema isn’t going to face a primary electorate where less than 40% of registered Democrats call themselves liberal….Democrats in Arizona are about as liberal as the national average, according to both the 2020 primary exit polls and CES. More than 60% of Democrats called themselves liberal in both surveys….The bottom line is that Sinema may be unnecessarily moderate for her own electoral good. Maybe it’ll work out for her. Still, It’s possible though that not only is she making Biden’s life more difficult, but her own electoral future more difficult as well.”

Is the pivotal importance of the infrastructure and reconciliation packages over-hyped? At The Washington Monthly, Matthew Cooper writes in “Stay Calm. Biden’s Presidency Is Not “On the Line with Build Back Better” that “we don’t know what will determine the fate of the midterm elections next year. There are past trends, such as the president’s party losing seats in Congress. But that’s hardly preordained. In two of the past seven midterms, the president’s party has gained seats. In 1998, Democrats increased their House numbers when the public was more revolted by Ken Starr’s hyper-zealous prosecution of Bill Clinton than by the latter’s behavior. In 2002, voters gave the GOP a boost in the midterms as George W. Bush prosecuted his “global war on terrorism” but hadn’t yet lurched into Iraq. Biden, like Bush in 2002, post-9/11, or even FDR in 1934 amid the Depression, may benefit from the unparalleled challenge of the pandemic. We don’t know….We do know that passing significant legislation doesn’t guarantee midterm success. The first two years of Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson’s terms suggest as much. If passing Medicare didn’t help Democrats in 1966 when they got slaughtered, will Build Back Better help in 2022?….The COVID-19 pandemic will shape the midterm elections more than the fate of the bill. If we go from a Delta variant to, say, a more transmissible, more toxic Sigma variant next year, that’ll matter more than the phase-in of paid family and medical leave. Flattening the curve will prevent Republicans from flattening Democrats….Another reason Build Back Better might not affect the midterms is that its benefits won’t be felt for some time, far after the midterms. The immensely popular provision in the bill to provide Medicare benefits for hearing aids and dental care will be phased in, so it’s not like Aunt Gladys will have a new set of teeth by Election Day.

Cooper adds, “Other provisions will require a long delay while federal agencies craft regulations. Probably the most important item in the bill is a long extension of the child care tax credits passed earlier this year in the American Rescue Plan Act, which are due to expire. If passed, that won’t be felt at all. It’ll just be a continuation of what families are getting now….Of course, passage of the massive legislation, even trimmed, combined with the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, would give Democrats some bragging rights come November 2022. But if Build Back Better doesn’t pass, Biden can still run on what he’s done: overseen the vaccination of what will be more (possibly way more) than 200 million Americans; passed a series of emergency measures that kept the economy from hemorrhaging; and enacted the American Rescue Plan Act, with its stimulus checks and health insurance subsidy…..Biden can also brag about leveraging his power for popular mask mandates. He can brag about bringing an end to the unpopular war in Afghanistan (albeit without glory), and ending the insanity and corruption of the Trump years. Those are things to run on. The economy seems to be on a good trajectory, inshallah….But will the public say that, since Democrats control both chambers, they’re dolts because they couldn’t pass the president’s bill? I doubt it. It may give Biden a reason to argue in the midterms that he needs a real majority in Congress, not a precariously thin one that one intransigent senator can scuttle. The collapse of Build Back Better might give him and members an excellent chance to make a public case for killing or curtailing the filibuster. What’s more, if the failure of Build Back Better led to the passage of a voting rights bill, that could potentially do more to help the party than anything else….I don’t know where this all ends. I tend to think that Schumer and Pelosi can and will pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill and Build Back Better in some limited form, maybe by another name. They might shorten the bill’s duration from 10 to five years or excise some significant chunks until next year. Even if it doesn’t pass, however, it’s not the Democrats’ last chance at holding on to their majority. Their fate has much more to do with protecting the nation from the ravages of viral mutations than anything else.”

Yeah, It’s Tough Right Now For Democrats in Washington. But It Could Be Far Worse

Watching all the arguing and fighting among Democrats over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, it occurred to me we should count some blessing, so I did so at New York:

September was a tough slog for the Democrats whose trifecta control of Congress and the White House has made it essential, but hardly easy, to reach internal agreement on the Biden priorities of an infrastructure and budget reconciliation bill. As of Thursday night, it is entirely possible the Build Back Better reconciliation bill will get a severe haircut thanks to the demands of centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and that the package will be significantly less progressive than originally envisioned. Totally aside from this set of problems, Democrats are presently stymied by the Senate filibuster on other key priorities ranging from voting rights to abortion rights to a path to citizenship for immigrants.

But these frustrated and sometimes battling donkeys should stop kicking and braying long enough to count their blessings. They came very close to not having a trifecta at all. And the narrow margins Democrats have to work with now could have been less than zero.

Most obviously, Donald Trump’s efforts to illegally reverse the presidential election outcome based on the Big Lie that he won should not make us forget that a shift of just over 77,000 votes in four states (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin) would have given him a Electoral College majority, despite Biden’s large win (which would have nearly reached seven million votes even with the above-stipulated shift) in the national popular vote. You have to reach a little deeper to come up with a hypothetical Republican conquest of the House, since the GOP won eight of the closest ten House races and still fell five seats short.

It’s pretty easy, by contrast, to see how Democrats might have fallen short in the Senate long after November 3: Had the two Republican incumbents won those January 5 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, as most observers initially thought they would do, then Mitch McConnell would still be Majority Leader rather than the ranking obstructionist. Indeed, the most common explanation of those pivotal Democratic victories over David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler is that Trump made the runoffs all about his grievances while continuing to undermine Republican voter confidence in the electoral system.

Democrats were fortunate as well that new senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were solid progressive Democrats, not the sort of Blue Doggy centrists wary of the national party that Georgia and other southern states once routinely sent to Washington.

In any event, life in America would obviously be very different if Trump were still in the White House. And had Republicans hung on to control of the Senate, there would be no Democratic-designed FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill for Manchin and Sinema to undermine. In all likelihood, Congress might have still enacted a significantly pared-down version of the American Rescue Plan, but would have probably called it a day. It’s doubtful McConnell would have felt any real pressure to let a significant number of Senate Republicans back a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Donald Trump loudly opposed. And all the developments that have depressed Joe Biden’s job approval ratings in recent months would still have likely happened anyway, with no countervailing public appreciation for what he may yet accomplish with his congressional allies.

The Democratic trifecta of the 116th Congress will leave a massive or modest legacy depending on what happens between now and November of 2022 — and obviously on what happens in the 2022 midterms. But the situation could be so much less promising and so much more depressing, and Democrats, especially disappointed progressives hoping for a new New Deal, should keep that in mind.


Why Dems Need More Moderate Senators

Chris Cillizza writes at CNN Politics:

“On Thursday afternoon, barraged by reporters asking about criticism from the  left for his opposition to a $3.5 trillion budget package, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin offered progressives some advice:

If they want a bigger, more costly bill, they should “elect more liberals.”
Which is a good line! But Manchin misses the mark when it comes to the modern Senate, which has grown far more partisan and watched its moderate center erode away.
While the polarization has been asymmetric — Republicans in the Senate (and even more so in the House) have grown more conservative than Democrats have grown liberal — the results are the same: The ideological middle is no more.
According to GovTrack’s ideology ratings, there are only two sitting Democratic senators — Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — who rank more conservatively than the least conservative Republican. The middle is slightly more robust on the Republican side, with six GOP senators ranking more liberally than the least liberal Democrat.”
Cilliza concludes, “The issue is that there are so few moderates — especially on the Democratic side — that when the margin between the parties is narrow (as it is now), a single senator, like Manchin, has almost total power.”

In his article, “A big problem for Democrats is they need more Joe Manchins, not fewer,” at The Washington Post, Philip Bump agrees, and writes, “There is no scenario under which the Democrats should have a senator in West Virginia, but they do. It is mostly rural and heavily White in a way that has proved disadvantageous elsewhere. And, in fact, he’s a reminder that the party needs to figure out a way to get more senators like him, a way to win places that are more rural and more White, or risk permanent disadvantages in both the Senate and the electoral college….it’s hard to imagine a Democrat who could replace Manchin in West Virginia, particularly one who would vote any more to his left. It’s similarly tricky to figure out how the party holds seats in other heavily rural places with Democratic senators, like Montana, or gains seats in deep-red ones.”

Railing against Manchin doesn’t do liberal Democrats much good. If he wasn’t there, Mitch McConnell would be running the senate and no good legislation would pass. Moreover, if Democrats had a few more moderate senators, Manchin’s power would be diluted by more of a consensus of moderate and liberal Democrats. Democrats have to work with what they have, or heed Manchin’s advice to ‘elect more liberals,” a worthy, but tough challenge for 2022.

Biden May Bounce Back Like Clinton and Obama Did

Surveying the gloom over Joe Biden’s current popularity, I offered some historical perspective at New York:

What do pessimists think about the trajectory of Joe Biden’s presidency? It’s not good, according to the Atlantic’s David Frum:

“Democracy is genuinely on the ballot in 2022 and 2024, as it was in 2016, 2018, and 2020. But this time, so too are prices, borders, and crime. If the Biden administration cannot deliver better on those issues than it has so far done, Trump and his enablers will be just as happy to scoop power by default as to grab it by stealth or force.”

That’s right: NeverTrumper Frum thinks conditions in the country could be so terrible by 2024 that Trump won’t even have to cheat or stage a coup to regain power. But while we cannot really know what course events may take between now and 2024, we do know the historical record, which suggests that presidents in Biden’s situation tend to get reelected, even if they look eminently beatable at some point during their first terms.

Since World War II, nine elected presidents have sought a second full term. Six of them (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) were reelected, the first three by landslides and the fourth by a near-landslide. Of the three losers, one, George H.W. Bush, had a “party fatigue” problem; his party had held the White House for 12 years when he ran for reelection. That leaves two presidents who pretty much earned defeat on their own: Carter and Trump. That’s probably unfair to Jimmy Carter, since he inherited a horrific domestic economic situation that had been largely cooked up by Nixon with a big assist from OPEC. He also took office in the midst of a giant ideological realignment that cut his southern regional base right out from under him. And even Trump, who worked very hard at alienating voters, had the back luck to be in office when COVID-19 struck, not that he helped matters much.

The point is that the power of incumbency should never be minimized. Five of the six reelection winners (all but George W. Bush in the highly anomalous 2002 midterms) lost ground in their first midterm election. Two lost calamitously: Democrats lost 52 House seats in Clinton’s first midterm in 1994 and 63 House seats in Obama’s first midterm in 2010. For that matter, Donald Trump lost 40 House seats in 2018, yet very nearly won reelection.

Yes, Biden’s job approval rating has been steadily sagging during the last three months and is now (per Gallup) at 43 percent. Using Gallup as well, Obama’s job approval rating hit 40 percent in August of 2011, and bumped along in the low 40s until it began to climb over 50 percent just prior to his reelection. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s rating fell all the way to 37 percent in mid-1993; was at 39 percent in August of 1994; and was only at 42 percent in early 1996. By the time he faced voters in November of that year his job approval was well over 50 percent. And yes, Trump secured some of the highest job approval ratings of his presidency during the run up to the 2020 elections, when he outperformed expectations.

Frum suggests Trump might cakewalk to a 2024 restoration if Biden doesn’t turn a lot of things around. But in reality, there is nothing that might give Uncle Joe more abiding hope of his own comeback than a comeback by his divisive predecessor, a totally known quantity with a demonstrated low ceiling on his support. Three times major parties have renominated a losing presidential candidate in the next cycle; on all three occasions these were rematches: Grover Cleveland (versus Benjamin Harrison) in 1892; William Jennings Bryan (versus William McKinley) in 1900; and Adlai Stevenson (versus Eisenhower) in 1956. Cleveland famously won. Bryan and Stevenson lost ground.

Does Trump resemble the stolid Cleveland in any significant way? Not really. He managed to come close to reelection by polarizing the country to the breaking point. Since then he has done absolutely nothing to appeal to any voters who failed to support him in 2020, and he’s the least likely person in America to change his ways.

Joe Biden will need both skill and luck to dispel the malaise currently afflicting his presidency. But based on what other presidents have done, and given his likely 2024 opponent, his reelection remains a solid — if hardly sure — bet.