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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

September 19: The Case for Court-Packing–Or At Least a Credible Threat

During a week in which there was a lot of talk about the Supreme Court, Jamelle Bouie wrote an interesting column that I decided to build on for a bit of history and strategy at New York.

American history classes often treat FDR’s 1937 “court-packing” scheme — a proposal to expand the size of the Supreme Court by adding as many as six justices — as a classic example of presidential overreach, which led to a widespread backlash even among Democrats and represented a high-water mark for New Deal audacity, subsequently curtailed. It’s not as well remembered that the Lochner-era conservative majority on the Court, in the habit of holding that virtually all economic regulation by Congress violated the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, was posing an existential threat not only to the New Deal but to democratic governance. It’s also sometimes forgotten that while FDR’s court-packing threats failed to secure congressional support, they did help frighten Justice Owen Roberts into quietly switching sides and ensuring validation of key New Deal legislation by the Supreme Court (the legendary “switch in time that saved nine”).

In other words, the legitimacy and independence of the Court were called into question not by FDR but by his opponents, and he found a way, however indirect and noisy, to restore the balance. As Jamelle Bouie notes in a New York Times column, a future Democratic president may find herself in similar straits:

“Trump’s Supreme Court appointments are mired in controversy. Justice Neil Gorsuch occupies a stolen seat, held open during Obama’s tenure by a blockade conducted for nearly a year by McConnell, who cited a previously nonexistent “tradition” of tabling nominations made in an election year. (In the 20th century alone, the Senate confirmed Supreme Court nominees in five different presidential election years — 1912, 1916, 1932, 1940 and 1988). And of course Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed last September under clouds of suspicion that stemmed from accusations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct to a bevy of ethics complaints.

“Democrats are left in an unenviable position. Should they win a federal ‘trifecta’ — the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives — they’ll still have to deal with a Trump-branded judiciary. It’s entirely possible that a future Democratic agenda would be circumscribed and unraveled by a Supreme Court whose slim conservative majority owes itself to minority government and constitutional hardball.”

You could add to Bouie’s case that the traditional norms of judicial politics have already been shattered. There’s the fact that Donald Trump broke every taboo by explicitly promising conservative Evangelicals a SCOTUS that would abolish a federal constitutional right to choose abortion, and then set up an outsourced and fiercely ideological judicial-selection process that is radically reshaping all federal courts. But he’s fundamentally and critically correct that what’s at stake in the immediate future isn’t just this or that constitutional precedent, but the ability of a popular majority to enact an agenda, at a time when one of the two major parties has committed itself to minority rule. So if Democrats gain power in 2020 or 2024, they could find themselves in the same position as their New Deal predecessors — or perhaps an even more dire situation, since today’s reactionaries are deliberately entrenching their allies throughout the federal judiciary, not just the Supreme Court.

So is it time for Democrats to openly talk about court-packing or something similarly radical-sounding? Bouie thinks so, and seven Democratic presidential candidates (Cory Booker, Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Wayne Messam, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang) have told the Washington Post they are “open” to the idea. Only Buttigieg has released a specific proposal (an expansion of the court to 15 members, with five nominated by each party and five more with short-term appointments chosen by SCOTUS consensus). Perhaps the alarming head count of Trump judges, and/or fresh allegations against sitting SCOTUS justices like Brett Kavanaugh, will make judicial appointments and their number and duration a 2020 primary issue among Democrats.

But it’s even more likely that any such talk will provide new fodder for the Trump/GOP message that today’s Democrats are dangerously radical and contemptuous of constitutional norms (not that court-packing is the least bit unconstitutional if it’s done by Congress). At a minimum, conservatives will spend a lot of time telling Christian-right audiences that Democrats are now fighting fire with fire and plan to thwart their own government-by-judiciary schemes aimed at a constitutional counterrevolution. And let’s face it: All the threats to democracy that Bouie and others are warning of will get a lot worse right away if Republicans hang on to the White House and the Senate in 2020. If discussion of judicial reform makes that even infinitesimally more likely, it’s probably a topic that should be placed on a back burner until after the election.

And if things do turn out well for Democrats and they enjoy a governing trifecta in 2021, they could emulate FDR in utilizing court-packing or similar reforms as a way to get the attention of conservatives and perhaps secure their agreement to de-escalate their politicization of the courts. There’s quite a bit of evidence that FDR really wanted to change the pattern of ancient justices hanging on to Court seats forever (their retirement incomes had recently been slashed by Congress, which didn’t help) while awaiting a president of their party to appoint a successor. If moral suasion doesn’t work, term limits for judges could have a much larger and more permanent impact than court-packing schemes (especially if expanded beyond SCOTUS), and just as importantly, it’s a popular idea. A 2018 Ipsos/UVA poll showed 70 percent of Americans — and big majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — favoring term limits for SCOTUS.

In any event, whether or not they embrace specific reforms, Democratic presidential candidates and the progressives whose votes they are currently seeking need to make the shape of the federal judiciary a big-time campaign issue for 2020 — much as Trump’s conservative Evangelical backers did in 2016.

September 18: Josh Hawley No Fit Defender of the Constitution

In the back-and-forth over Kavanaugh and other SCOTUS-related talk this week, I saw the name of a senator weighing in that make the bile rise, so I wrote about it at New York:

Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the lurch toward impeachment of Brett Kavanaugh that some Democrats made over the weekend. And I’m at least ambivalent about the court-packing schemes that Pete Buttigieg and others have embraced. But in both cases we don’t need any lectures from Republican officeholders about respect for precedents involving the judicial branch — not unless they are willing to admit their party denied President Obama’s SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland the hearings and confirmation vote he deserved.

And of all the Republicans who need to keep a low profile on this issue, I’d put Missouri’s young semi-theocratic Senator Josh Hawley near the top of my list. Yet here he is telling The Hill he’s terrified for the Constitution:

“’You know, they want to impeach Justice Kavanaugh, they want to pack the Supreme Court, I mean talk about destroying any institution they can’t control. It’s really unbelievable. This is a Democrat party that increasingly is at war with the American constitution,’ Hawley said.”

Last time I looked, both impeachment of judges and Congress’ power to regulate the size of the federal courts were right there in the constitution. I’m sure Hawley, a Yale Law School grad and a very bright boy, knows that. So maybe he is referring to that hazy concept, the spirit of the constitution?

“'[Democrats are] willing to destroy an entire branch of government, the independent judiciary; they want to destroy it why? Because it won’t rule the way they want it too. I mean is there anything more dangerous to constitutional government than that way of thinking.'”

I dunno, senator. I’d say this way of thinking is pretty inimical to constitutional government, too:

“Scripture teaches that political government is mandated by God for his service and is one means by which the enthroned Christ carries out his rule….

“These things together tell us something quite important about what government is for, and what Christians should be trying to do with it and with politics. Government serves Christ’s kingdom rule; this is its purpose. And Christians’ purpose in politics should be to advance the kingdom of God — to make it more real, more tangible, more present.”

That was Hawley in 2012. If that’s too long ago to be considered relevant (I don’t think it is, at all), there’s this reflection on constitutional liberty from a speech he made earlier this year:

“Perhaps the most eloquent contemporary statement of Pelagian freedom appears in an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, in a passage written by former Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 1992, in a case called Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, he wrote this: ‘At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.’

“It’s the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed, this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family, and tradition.”

I’d say treating the idea of individual liberty as the devilish reflection of an ancient heresy professing the perfectibility of human nature is more than a little hostile to the spirit of the constitution.

Perhaps a clue to Hawley’s strange attitude on this subject is that he likes to use the self-identifying label of “constitutional conservative.” This particular code-term, which was briefly in fashion at the height of the Tea Party Movement, is actually pretty radical, as I explained in 2014:

“It basically holds that a governing model of strictly limited (domestic) government that is at the same time devoted to the preservation of ‘traditional culture’ is the only legitimate governing model for this country, now and forever, via the divinely inspired agency of the Founders. That means democratic elections, the will of the majority, the need to take collective action to meet big national challenges, the rights of women and minorities, the empirical data on what works and what doesn’t–all of those considerations and more are so much satanic or ‘foreign’ delusions that can and must be swept aside in the pursuit of a Righteous and Exceptional America.”

That sounds like Josh Hawley, all right, who in 2018 had this to say about his wicked country:

“Excerpts of an audio tape have leaked of Hawley speaking to a conclave of Christian-right activists in December that’s more than a little out there, blaming the scourge of human trafficking on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Sexual freedom leads to sexual slavery, he explained.

“’It ends in the slavery and exploitation of young women. It will destroy our families,’ he said, per the Kansas City Star. ‘You know what I’m talking about, the 1960s, 1970s, it became commonplace in our culture among our cultural elites, Hollywood, and the media, to talk about, to denigrate the biblical truth about husband and wife, man and woman.'”

Yes, that’s the sort of thinking that has made Hawley the poster boy for a sinister sort of post-Trumpian conservatism that tends to pursue authoritarian means to achieving its godly ends.

September 13: 2020 Swing Voters May Have To Be Mobilized As Well As Persuaded

It’s never too late to do some fresh thinking about old political assumptions, and that’s what I tried to do this week at New York:

There are two bits of conventional wisdom about “swing voters” in this day and age that are often accepted without discussion. The first is that these critters have been all but hunted to extinction, or more specifically, have fled into one of the two partisan trenches from the “middle ground” poisoned by polarization. The second is that swing voters are discerning and sensitive souls who equally disdain the fanatics in the donkey and elephant herds, and long for sweetly reasonable compromise “solutions” between left and right. You know, people who nod their heads at newspaper editorials and think Howard Schultz makes sense.

With the benefit of a robust data set of registered voters provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Charlie Cook does a pretty good job of blowing up both of those preconceptions.

First off, there are a lot more swing voters than you might think — as long as you understand how they are defined:

“Thirty percent of the respondents, a total of 603, can be called swing voters, who were either undecided or only ‘probably’ going to vote for either Trump or the Democrat. Of the 9 percent who said they would probably vote for Trump, just over half (5 percent of all voters) said there was a chance they would vote for the Democrat, while 4 percent said no chance. Of the 13 percent who would probably vote for the Democrat, just a quarter (3 percent of all voters) said that there was a chance they would vote for Trump, while the others said there was no chance. Those who only probably would vote for one candidate but definitely would not vote for the other have a good chance of either not voting or throwing a vote to a third-party candidate.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. The genuine “undecided” vote is only 8 percent — a number which, historically, is likely to go down as we near the general election. And of the 22 percent who are leaners, 14 percent are not “swinging” between the two major parties, but swinging between voting for one of those parties, voting for a minor party, or staying home. So nearly half of “swing voters” are really more like base voters who need to be convinced to show up at the polls without straying into the ranks of the Greens or the Libertarians. And of the other half, roughly equal shares are truly undecided or are predisposed toward one party or the other (with Democrats holding a significant advantage in that respect).

“When asked, ‘How much attention do you normally pay to what is going on in national government and politics?’ 57 percent of voters and 68 percent of decided voters said they pay a lot of attention, but only 39 percent of swing voters said so. Twice as many swing voters said they pay only a little attention or none at all—17 percent, compared with just 8 percent of those who are decided.

“Not surprisingly, fewer swing voters believe it is important who wins. When asked whether it really matters who wins, somewhat matters, or doesn’t really matter, 82 percent of all voters and 92 percent of decided voters said they believe it matters, but just 66 percent of swing voters said they believe it really matters.”

So these are on average less informed, less discerning voters who often can’t tell the difference between two parties that offer wildly different visions for America’s future and the rights our citizens should possess. They tend to be younger, which means higher personal mobility, fewer connections to civic life, and a significantly lower probability to vote. I strongly suspect their relatively high level of self-identification as “moderates” has little or nothing to do with some “centrist” policy agenda, and more to do with a disinclination (or incapacity) to think ideologically at all.

This goes to a third misconception about swing voters that Cook doesn’t explicitly address, but that follows from his analysis. Traditionally, it is assumed that parties and candidates must choose between “mobilization” strategies aimed at base voters and “persuasion” strategies aimed at swing voters. Ideally, you want to do both, but there is an inevitable tension between beating on people with big sticks to go smite the partisan foe (one of the oldest and most important “mobilization” techniques is known as “knock and drag,” which means exactly what it sounds like), and convincing voters who are likely to vote to go your way rather than the other.

But if the most typical swing voters are, as Cook suggests, those who aren’t motivated to vote, and need convincing not that one candidate is better than the other but that the choice is consequential, then beating on them with big sticks makes a lot of sense, too — particularly for Democrats who lost a lot of crucial voters in 2016 because they figured Clinton had already won. Will such efforts sometimes fail? Yes, but again, the odds are that the turned-off swing voter won’t join the ranks of the opposition but will go to work or stay home on Election Day and make evening plans to watch washed-up pols compete on Dancing With the Stars.

As Cook concludes, we may not know how many “swing voters” are actually going to vote until the last minute:

“The key takeaway from this analysis is that while swing voters don’t look too different from the overall electorate in terms of demographics, they are very different temperamentally. Since they pay less attention than other voters and are less likely to believe that the outcome is important, you just have to wonder how many of these undecided will really vote. Further, we can expect those who do to check into the race very late.”

If the 2020 race goes down to the wire looking very close, swing voters “checking in” to politics at the last minute will be hit with an intense barrage of claims that this is the most important moment in American history since at least 1861. And that’s more likely to get them off the sofa than all the split-the-differences compromise policy proposals you can imagine.

September 12: Trump Decided To Build a Clintonesque Ground Game As Soon As He Could Afford One

Something in a report about Trump 2020 plans caught my eye as ironic, so I wrote about it at New York:

When you look back at why so many people thought Hillary Clinton was a lock late in the 2016 campaign despite tightening polls, two reasons stand out. The first is that in the month before the election, half the Republicans in captivity distanced themselves from their nominee (with many denouncing him as a disgusting pig) following the release of the Access Hollywood tape. The other was the belief that Hillary Clinton’s massive field operation gave her a thumb on the scales in the event that things really did get iffy.

In the postelection mythology of 2016, there was a tendency to go far in the other direction and argue that HRC’s “ground game” somehow lost the election for her. Nate Silver responded to that strange claim in his series on “the real story of 2016”:

“[W]hat went wrong with Clinton’s vaunted ground game? There are certainly some things to criticize. There’s been good reporting on how Clinton’s headquarters in Brooklyn ignored warning signs on the ground and rejected the advice of local operatives in states such as Michigan. And as I wrote in a previous installment of this series, Clinton did not allocate her time and resources between states in the way we would have recommended. In particular, she should have spent more time playing defense in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado and less time trying to turn North Carolina into a blue state or salvage Iowa from turning red.

“Here’s the thing, though: The evidence suggests those decisions didn’t matter very much …

“For one thing, winning Wisconsin and Michigan — states that Clinton is rightly accused of ignoring — would not have sufficed to win her the Electoral College. She’d also have needed Pennsylvania, Florida or another state where she campaigned extensively.”

Another part of the counter-mythology of 2016 held that the Clinton campaign was playing conventional checkers with its ground game, while Team Trump was playing some sort of three-dimensional social media chess with all those Facebook ads and maybe a little outside help from people who happen to drink a lot of vodka. Unsurprisingly, one person responsible for promoting this view of the election has been 2016 Trump digital director Brad Parscale:

“In an interview with CBS News’ ’60 Minutes’ that aired Sunday, Brad Parscale said Facebook ‘was the method’ for President Donald Trump’s stunning rise to the White House. Parscale, who spearheaded the small Trump campaign team’s digital and fundraising efforts, contended that the team took advantage of Facebook in a way Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not.

“’Facebook now lets you get to places and places possibly that you would never go with TV ads,’ Parscale, web director at San Antonio-based marketing and design firm Giles Parscale, told CBS. ‘Now, I can find, you know, 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for. And, we took opportunities that I think the other side didn’t.’”

Parscale has since been named as Trump’s overall 2020 campaign manager, and has continued to make noise suggesting he’s some sort of political Zen master who has transcended polls and other timeworn tools of the trade. But Team Trump is also rolling in the kind of money that its 2016 predecessor could barely imagine. So how are they planning to spend it? Pretty much like Hillary Clinton did in 2016, or so it sounds in this account from Brian Bennett, which emphasizes the blue states Trump is targeting but also indicates a very personnel-heavy field operation:

“Trump’s campaign is betting it can win in New Mexico. Flush with cash, the campaign is planning to announce a state director and additional ground staff there in the coming weeks, a campaign official tells TIME. Internal campaign data has convinced Trump’s political advisors they can energize a slice of the state’s Hispanic voters to vote for Trump in 2020 by emphasizing Trump’s handling of the economy, border security and his trade confrontation with China. According to U.S. Census data, 49.1 percent of New Mexico’s residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino …

“The move is part of a series of bets Trump is making to win states that went for Clinton in 2016. Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner says that voter data has convinced the reelection effort to fund robust field operations in a much larger number of states than in 2016. ‘I can see us very aggressively playing in 18 swing states,’ Jared Kushner tells TIME, adding that in his view, the 2016 Trump campaign “seriously played” in about 11 swing states.

It sure sounds like Team Trump disparaged the kind of ground game Hillary Clinton had in 2016 up until, but not beyond, the moment it could afford one of its own.

August 6: Senate Control Could Come Down to Georgia Runoff(s) in January 2021

A potentially close battle for control of the U.S. Senate next year is colliding with some unusual events in my home state of Georgia, and I wrote up the latest news and speculation at New York:

The intrigue involving the Senate seat Johnny Isakson is vacating for health reasons at the end of this year continues to roil Georgia politics, with some of the national implications beginning to sink in as well. One set of questions involves the decision Republican governor Brian Kemp will make about an interim replacement for Isakson until a special election takes place in November of next year (concurrently with the 2020 general election, in which the other Georgia Senate seat, held by Republican David Perdue, will be at stake as well).

The list of potential choices by Kemp continues to expand. The latest from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein tosses in a couple of names that might be considered if the GOP would like to go beyond its usual white-guy boundaries while appealing to suburbanites: Karen Handel, Kemp’s predecessor and boss as secretary of State, who is currently plotting a rematch with Democrat Lucy McBath for the U.S. House seat she briefly held before 2018; and U.S. Attorney and former state legislator BJay Pak, a Korean-American.

But there remain plenty of white guys in the mix, including multiple congressmen. One especially aggressive suitor is Doug Collins, who probably got Donald Trump’s attention with his aggressive defense of POTUS as ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee during the Mueller hearings. Indeed, the New York Times conducted an elaborate examination of the potential Beltway ripple effect of a Collins appointment to the Senate:

“A Senate appointment would not only elevate Mr. Collins, 53, to an influential perch but also set off a cascade of openings in House leadership that could empower some of the president’s best-known conservative allies, including Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

“Allies have pointed to the pugnacious Mr. Jordan as a natural choice to replace Mr. Collins in the top Judiciary position. If he were to get the slot — which requires the blessing of Republican leaders — Mr. Meadows could then ascend to Mr. Jordan’s position as the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, another battleground where Democrats are aggressively investigating Mr. Trump.

“Another Republican ally of both men, Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, could also get a look for the top Judiciary job.”

The Times is right in suggesting that Trump could have an impact on Kemp’s decision; aside from his wild popularity among Republicans everywhere, Kemp owes the president big time for his crucial endorsementof the “politically incorrect conservative” last year when he was in a runoff with then–Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle. Indeed, if the White House and the Perdue cousins (U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny and that other senator, David) got behind a single aspirant, they’d be hard to resist.

Several big-time Democrats with prior statewide experience are in the mix as well, including Perdue’s last opponent, Michelle Nunn; 2014 gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter; and Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who was elected Labor Commissioner three times back in the day, and was also Isakson’s 2010 opponent. Like McBath, Thurmond is African-American. So, too, is Stacey Abrams, the very popular 2018 gubernatorial candidate who earlier ruled out a challenge to Perdue and disclaimed interest in the Isakson seat instantly after the senator made his announcement. You can be sure national and Georgia Democrats will periodically check in with Abrams to see if she might change her mind.

As Kemp ponders his options and Democrats play musical chairs, there is one aspect of the 2020 Georgia Senate landscape that is gradually dawning on observers near and far. The special election for the Isakson seat will be a “jungle primary” in which any and all Democrats and Republicans — and for that matter members of minor parties — will compete. If no one wins a majority (and that’s a distinct possibility, particularly if the two major parties cannot clear the field for their candidates), there will be a runoff on January 5, 2021. But here’s the thing: Georgia also requires a majority of the vote to win general elections, which means that the Perdue race could go to a January runoff as well (as very nearly happened to Kemp last year).

If Georgia did have these two Republican seats at risk in runoffs, the odds would go up significantly that control of the Senate might be on the line — and with it the power of either a reelected Trump or a Democratic successor to enact an agenda and get executive and judicial appointees confirmed — in one state, two months after an exhausting election cycle. Any still-standing political operative — or unspent dollar — would be pulled into the Peach State to fight in an overtime contest for which there is really no precedent.

September 4: Trouble With the Virtual Caucus Plans of Iowa and Nevada

The Iowa caucuses are complicated enough without the “virtual caucus” option the DNC forced on the state’s Democrats. But now the DNC is disallowing the method Iowa and Nevada have proposed for implementing it, as I explained at New York:

In a potentially major development affecting two of the four protected “early states” in the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating process, the Democratic National Committee let it be known that it’s going to disallow the “virtual caucus” option for remote access to delegate selection events in Iowa and Nevada next February. The Des Moines Register broke the story:

“The decision was confirmed to the Des Moines Register late Thursday by two sources close to the conversations. It follows a meeting of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee last week in San Francisco, where members voiced concerns about the security of the Iowa plan and the potential for hacking.”

First Iowa, and then Nevada, have developed plans to let otherwise eligible voters cast their votes in caucuses by phone rather than showing up in person. What will make the apparent red light maddening to party officials in the two states is that the DNC forced them to make this option available in response to complaints — many of them from 2016 Bernie Sanders supporters, though Hillary Clinton offered similar criticism back in 2008 — that the traditional caucuses (and more generally, the traditional nominating process) excessively restricted participation. Iowa (followed by Nevada) wound up choosing a teleconference model for remote caucusing as more feasible than an absentee-ballot system or caucusing-by-proxy. But then this happened, as Bloomberg reported last weekend:

“At a closed-door session of the Rules and By-Laws Committee on Thursday, the DNC told the panel that experts convened by the party were able to hack into a conference call among the committee, the Iowa Democratic Party and Nevada Democratic Party, raising concerns about teleconferencing for virtual caucuses, according to three people who were at the meeting.”

The trouble — for Iowa, at least — with something less techno-dependent like mail ballots is that it could make the caucuses begin to resemble a primary and run afoul of New Hampshire’s law requiring its secretary of state to do whatever is necessary, including moving its primary to the previous year, to maintain its first-in-the-nation status.

It probably didn’t help the reputation of the “virtual caucus” system that it was even more fiendishly complicated than the traditional Iowa event, as Vox explains:

“The plan the Iowa Democratic party came up with would have given virtual caucus-goers six different days/times to call and choose their candidates. The last available day would have been February 3 — caucus day itself. Users would have dialed a phone number, entered a unique pin and their date of birth to verify their identities, and ranked up to five 2020 candidate choices over the phone.

“What was trickier is how these people’s votes were to be counted and how much they would have accounted for. Here’s how it was supposed to work: All of Iowa’s four congressional districts would have been allocated up to an additional 10 percent of the overall state delegate equivalents (or, the delegate totals from each county). In other words, if one congressional district had 400 people going to their delegate convention, they would get an extra 40 delegates that could be awarded based on the results from the virtual caucus.”

This wrinkle exacerbated complaints about Iowa’s “delegate equivalent” system for reporting caucus results; the DNC had already required that raw caucus totals be made public (to this day, many Bernie Sanders supporters believe he, not Clinton, would have won Iowa in 2016 had raw votes been reported). Two pots of raw votes — one of live caucusgoers, one of virtual caucusgoers — made the whole thing even more unwieldy.

Nevada had a simpler system whereby people could call in votes during one two-day window, but it has to go back to the drawing board as well.

With the Iowa and Nevada caucuses less than six months away, the DNC may simply decide to give Iowa and Nevada a waiver from its rules for 2020 and then work on fixing the system for the future — or perhaps even make more fundamental reforms in the nominating system. If that happens, a lot of campaign planning based on the virtual caucuses will have been wasted. Iowa political analyst Pat Rynard speculates about the potential impact:

“Politically speaking, the biggest beneficiary of this debacle is Joe Biden. One of the best strategies to winning the Iowa Caucus is to inspire, organize and bring out a lot of new, first-time caucus-goers. Candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Julian Castro are all very well-suited to do just that. While Biden has strong support among the older and long-time caucus veterans who always show up, it is harder to see how he would turn out a whole new generation of caucus-goers like Barack Obama did in 2008 or Sanders did in 2016.

“The virtual caucus would have greatly aided candidates who were focused on new voters. Even though they were still emphasizing showing up in person, campaigns would happily direct their supporters who simply can’t make it out on caucus night into the phone option.

“However, even if this caucus runs like a more traditional year, Warren’s superior ground game still poses the greatest threat to Biden. But Biden’s chances are certainly better without the virtual option, and any margin of victory from anyone who might pass him may be smaller.”

It’s possible as well that having provoked the reforms that led to the virtual caucus system, Sanders supporters will view the DNC action as another Establishment effort to “rig” the results. But this really isn’t a very good time in political history to adopt potentially hackable technologies for voting events.

Pity the pollsters and campaign tacticians who have to do their work without knowing the shape and size of the caucus-going universe, at least until this mess is sorted out.

August 29: Battleground Georgia in 2020

A major development in my home state of Georgia led me to explain its significance at New York:

Like Arizona, another potential sunbelt target, it has been slowly but steadily trending Democratic, making it an increasingly plausible presidential prize among the states carried by Donald Trump in 2016. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s impressive 2018 midterm showing was another sign of Georgia’s increasingly purple hue; she also proved you don’t have to run away from the national party’s progressive issue stance to do well in this former Blue Dog bastion. Republican senator David Perdue is up in 2020, and he’s thought to be potentially vulnerable. There are also two highly competitive U.S. House races on tap in north metro Atlanta, where Democrats picked up one seat in 2018 and are aiming for another next year.

Now, veteran Republican senator Johnny Isakson (who has Parkinson’s disease) has announced he will resign his seat at the end of 2019, which means the state will hold a special election in conjunction with the 2020 general election to fill the last two years of his term. That race, along with Atlanta’s status as a regional media center, should guarantee major bipartisan political spending in the state in 2020.

The Republican candidate to succeed Isakson will likely be chosen by Governor Brian Kemp, who will appoint an interim senator when the incumbent steps down at the end of the year. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein reports that a list of familiar statewide GOP pols is likely under consideration for the appointment:

“It’s not yet clear who Kemp will appoint to fill Isakson’s seat, though potential candidates include Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, state Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.”

This last name will surely raise eyebrows. The former governor is the cousin of that other Senator Perdue, and while two Perdues in the Senate would accurately reflect this extended family’s domination of the Georgia GOP, it would be a mite risky, too. This possibility could depend on how badly Sonny wants to get away from the angry farmers he is facing as Agriculture secretary, thanks to his boss’s trade policies. He’s also 72 years of age, a bit long in the tooth for a freshman senator.

The name of a much younger man with impeccable GOP credentials may also eventually come up: Nick Ayers, who, as a college student, was Sonny Perdue’s “body man” during his first gubernatorial bid. Ayers moved on to become a national Republican operative and wunderkind, and was most recently chief of staff to former political client Vice-President Mike Pence. His knack for being in the right place at the right time would certainly be enhanced by a Senate appointment, and he knows how to raise money.

Kemp has a while to ponder his choices, but Democrats looking at a second 2020 Senate race need to get it in gear. Stacey Abrams, the candidate most Democrats in Georgia and across the country would have preferred (for this Senate race, or as a challenger to David Perdue) instantly ruled it out, preempting a world of pressure.

One immediate question is whether any of the three initially viable Democrats who have been considering running against Perdue — former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson (likely the front-runner), outspokenly progressive Clarkston mayor Ted Terry, or 2018 nominee for Lieutenant Governor Sarah Riggs Amico — will switch to the other Senate race. But as Bluestein notes, the prospect of an open seat (or at least one occupied by an appointee) could attract some even more familiar names from the not-so-distant Democratic past:

“Among the potential Democratic contenders for the seat are the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church; Jon Ossoff, a former candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District; Jason Carter, the runner-up for governor in 2014; and Michelle Nunn, who was defeated by David Perdue in the 2014 Senate race.”

Ossoff, Carter, and Nunn are known as formidable fundraisers, but all lost after stirring up a lot of local and national Democratic excitement.

One important wrinkle about the race to fill Isakson’s seat is that, as a special election, it will not be part of the standard party primaries but a single “jungle primary” on general-election day, followed by what is likely to be a low-turnout runoff in January. So among Democrats in particular, there will be an effort to clear the field to give a single candidate a clear shot at a November win. It could all get crazy.

The impending end of Isakson’s career represents a landmark of its own. Arguably his retirement (along with that of Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander) removes one of the last vestiges of an old-school, moderate southern Republicanism that wasn’t based on racism and didn’t involve snarling partisanship. He’s gone along to get along in the Trump era, but he was increasingly a rather sad figure from an increasingly distant past. You can be sure that whoever the self-styled “politically incorrect conservative” Brian Kemp chooses to replace Isakson will not be his equal in basic decency.

August 28: “It’s a Republic, Not a Democracy” Is All About Privilege

Jamelle Bouie struck a chord with a column, so I decided to expand on it at New York with some examples of what he’s talking about:

Jamelle Bouie explains something important it in a very useful column for the New York Times:

“Spend enough time talking politics on the internet — or in any other public forum — and you’ll run into this standard reply to anyone who wants more democracy in American government: ‘We’re a republic, not a democracy.’

“You saw it over the weekend in an exchange between Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Dan Crenshaw of Texas. In a brief series of tweets, Ocasio-Cortez made the case against the Electoral College and argued for a national popular vote to choose the president. ‘Every vote should be = in America, no matter who you are or where you come from,’ she wrote. ‘The right thing to do is establish a Popular Vote. & GOP will do everything they can to fight it.’

“Crenshaw, who has sparred with Ocasio-Cortez before, jumped in with a response: ‘Abolishing the Electoral College means that politicians will only campaign in (and listen to) urban areas. That is not a representative democracy.’ And then he said it: ‘We live in a republic, which means 51% of the population doesn’t get to boss around the other 49%.'”

Bouie points out that this argument for the Electoral College is simply wrong on its own terms (like most arguments for the Electoral College). But he challenges the premise that the United States has a form of government that makes democratic principles irrelevant. In part, he does this by distinguishing between the direct democracy the Founders did fear and the representative democracy they gave us. But he also gives us a quick account of the unsavory history of the “republic, not a democracy” slogan:

“The term went from conservative complaint to right-wing slogan in the 1960s, when Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, used it in a September 1961 speech, ‘Republics and Democracies.’ In a democracy, Welch protested, ‘there is a centralization of governmental power in a simple majority. And that, visibly, is the system of government which the enemies of our republic are seeking to impose on us today.'”

For us baby-boomers, the Birchers’ use of the term republic to justify all sorts of artificial restraints on popular majorities rings familiar. But aside from its precise origins, the general intention in opposing a “republic” to a “democracy” is clear:

“The point of the slogan isn’t to describe who we are but to claim and co-opt the founding for right-wing politics — to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. What lies behind that quip, in other words, is an impulse against democratic representation. It is part and parcel of the drive to make American government a closed domain for a select, privileged few.”

Some specific examples beyond the defense of the Electoral College come to mind that reflect the conservative tendency to use “republican” limitations on democracy to justify and even expand privilege.

(1) States’ Rights Champions: The oldest and most thoroughly abused doctrine seeking to take “republican” restraints on democracy and justify privilege is the ancient rebel yell of “states’ rights.” Pre–Civil War defenders of slavery often claimed that the power of states to protect the peculiar institution was essential to the ability to maintain liberty and even democracy for white people (often citing the Athenian precedent). Similarly, the Southern revolt against Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow were rationalized as self-protection against the tyranny of the (black and/or carpetbagger) majority that prevailed in many parts of the region or, alternatively, against the race-mixing national political consensus. That this doctrine produced local tyranny and entrenched racial privilege was obvious, if often ignored by its defenders.

(2) The Lochnerians: This conservative legal movement — which harks back to the era of constitutional jurisprudence defined by the 1905 Supreme Court decision in New York v. Lochner (eventually overturned after its application, as invalidating much of the early New Deal produced a near constitutional crisis) — holds that fixed private-property rights embedded in the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment cannot be abrogated by federal or state legislatures. There is a neo-Lochnerian movement active in laws schools and corners of the federal and state judiciaries today, aimed at protecting wealthy individuals from democratic “violations” of their rights via regulation and taxation.

(3) Constitutional Conservatives: During the heyday of the Tea Party movement, conservative politicians (notably Sarah Palin and presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry) took to calling themselves “constitutional conservatives” to signify their adherence to a view of limited government that takes Lochnerism and expands it beyond property rights to prohibit all sorts of democratic interference with “natural rights,” ranging from state self-determination to the fetal “right to life.” It’s sort of a plenary juxtaposition of a republic dedicated to capitalism and cultural traditionalism as against any effort by majorities to change anything, forever. The privileges that posture protects stretch from the nearest property line to the most sweeping idea of cultural patriarchy.

(4) Religious-Self-Determination Supporters: Perhaps the most vibrant current example of conservative efforts to use “republican” limits on democracy to entrench special privileges involves expansive notions of “religious freedom” to give Christian conservatives far-reaching exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, hand in glove with public subsidies for religious education. The ultimate objective seems to be to create a sort of collective “Benedict Option” wherein militantly religious people can form parallel communities beyond the common law, where LGBTQ folk remain closeted and women and children remain under the firm hand of servant-leader menfolk.

In other words, “It’s a republic, not a democracy” reflects a persistent strain of conservative thinking that is focused less on vindicating individual rights than on protecting oligarchies of privilege, whether they be national, regional, or local. That many of the same people who cite this slogan are among the first to complain about liberal “activist judges” who interfere with “democracy” when conservatives are in the ascendancy just exposes the game for its hypocrisy.

August 23: Joni Ernst Offers Another Dumb Argument for the Electoral College

The more Republicans argue for maintaining the Electoral College, the more they tend to undermine their own positions. I wrote about an example this week at New York:

The case for the perpetual continuation of that grand anti-democratic institution, the Electoral College, is ancient and generally (as my college Eric Levitz definitively demonstrated earlier this year) threadbare. But it’s useful to blow up defenses for it one by one as they arise, with the latest being a remonstration by Senator Joni Ernst aimed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s arguments for abolishing the electoral dinosaur:

To state the most obvious issue, there’s something fundamentally stupid about the claim that giving voters everywhere the exact same power to elect a president is going to “silence” anyone. Besides, is voting for president the only way citizens can “voice” their opinions? What the hell is Joni Ernst doing in the U.S. Senate? Are her efforts just a waste of time unless presidential candidates are lusting after Iowa’s six electoral votes every four years?

Now it’s true that the “losers” — relatively speaking — in a shift from Electoral College to a popular-vote system would be closely contested “battleground states” that naturally attract candidate attention more than safely Democratic or Republican states. Presumably, Ernst thinks of Iowa as a battleground state, which it has indeed often been in recent years. But these things change. In the 2016 presidential election, Iowa was ten points more Republican than the nation as a whole. It was redder than Texas. Is Joni Ernst going to urge Iowans to tilt more Democratic so that the state remains a battleground, thus keeping their voice from being silenced? I don’t think so.

Generally speaking, Iowa needs the Electoral College to make sure presidents are aware of it about as much as the current president needs more self-esteem. Joni Ernst or whoever runs her Twitter account should take down that tweet before it really embarrasses her.

August 22: Trump Talks About Jews–To His Evangelical Base

In case you need an explainer for the president’s weird claim that American Jews are “disloyal” this week, I tried to oblige at New York:

This week the president strangely accused American Jews of being “disloyal”–to Israel, or to himself; it’s not clear which (and he may think they are the same thing). Why does the man keep excoriating Jews for voting for Democrats? Does he really not understand the bloody history of right-wing “nationalist” and “populist” movements when it comes to Jews?

Maybe he doesn’t; for an Ivy Leaguer, the president is impressively ignorant about an awful lot of things. But it’s more likely that all his talk about the Jews is really aimed at a very different audience: his white conservative Evangelical Christian electoral base, which has its own distinctive and unsettling form of philosemitism. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote in his explanation of Trump’s discussion of Jewry and Israel:

“One of Trump’s most fervent pockets of support is white evangelical Protestants, a group which consistently sides with Trump on political and policy questions. His approach to Israeli politics often lines up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it also reflects priorities that have been central to evangelical politics for years.

“In other words, Trump’s approach to the politics of Israel is likely driven in part by the same motivation that drives so much of what he does: Delivering for his base …

“It’s somewhat akin to his campaign-trail outreach to black Americans, a superficial outreach that seemed, at least in part, to be aimed at demonstrating to his base that he wasn’t racist. His reflexive insistence that Democrats are anti-Semitic seems to be much more about demonstrating to his base the fervency of his adherence to Israel than to be offering real, considered criticisms of his opponents.”

So why do Trump’s ruminations about Jews and Israel resonate so much with conservative Evangelicals? Strictly speaking, of course, they are largely of the opinion that Jews are going to burn in hell for all eternity if they don’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. But they also tend to view Jews through the prism of their own self-conception as the Chosen People of God — sort of the new, complete model for which Jews were a rough cut. Theologically, this is called “supersessionism,” the belief that a New Covenant God made with believers through Christ has replaced his Old Covenant with the Hebrews. It’s not an exclusive Evangelical belief; Catholic James Carroll wrote an entire book about it as the ultimate source of Christian anti-Semitism throughout the ages. But it shows no sign of fading among Evangelicals, who generally view the Hebrew scriptures as their own inheritance, and themselves as new, perfected Jews.

In this scheme (mostly laid out in the New Testament Book of Revelation, an elaborate allegory probably written in the traumatic aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70), Jerusalem plays a key role. This is why American Evangelicals were significantly more excited than American Jews at Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy there, as theologian Diana Butler Bass explained at the time, drawing on her own Evangelical upbringing:

“Jerusalem was our prophetic bellwether. God’s plan hung on its fate. Whenever Israel gained more political territory, whenever Israel extended its boundaries, it was God’s will, the end-times unfolding on the evening news. Jerusalem, as the spiritual heart of Israel, mattered. Jerusalem was God’s holy city, of the ancient past, in its conflicted present, and for the biblical future.

“For many conservative evangelicals, Jerusalem is not about politics. It is not about peace plans or Palestinians or two-state solutions. It is about prophecy. About the Bible. And, most certainly, it is about the end-times.”

And so, in tightening Israel’s grip on Jerusalem, and more generally supporting an aggressive and expansionist Jewish State, Trump may be appealing to Jewish solidarity with Israel, but more important to him politically is the demonstration to Evangelicals that in this, as in many other things (notably the fight to reverse LGBTQ and reproductive rights), he is an agent of the divine will, despite (or sometimes because of) his heathenish personal behavior.

From this perspective, Trump’s strange rhetoric begins to make sense: When he accuses American Jews of “disloyalty,” he really means they are not playing the role Christians have assigned them in the great redemptive saga of the human race. Voting for Democrats, from this point of view, isn’t a matter of abrogating Jewish self-interests as reflected in Israel’s interests (as exclusively vested in Trump and his close ally Bibi Netanyahu), but is an unholy betrayal of God Himself, who wants confrontation, not peace, in the Holy Land.

In other words, Trump’s not as interested in Jewish opinion as he often sounds. He’s just using Jews and Israel to express his solidarity with Israel’s, and God’s, truly loyal followers over there in that nice Evangelical church. He needs every one of them in 2020.