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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

January 26: A Democratic Senate After the Midterms May Depend on Republican Mistakes

With all the attention being placed on the battle for the House in 2022, realistic analysis of the battle for the Senate has been lacking, so I tried to provide some at New York:

Political handicappers looking to the 2022 midterms have focused on House races because the very predictable pattern of midterm House losses by the president’s party makes continuation of a Democratic House a real long shot (and probably a prohibitive long shot unless Joe Biden’s job-approval rating shows significant improvement soon). The loss of either chamber, of course, means the governing trifecta that has made enactment of part of Biden’s legislative agenda possible will be gone, probably for a good while (at least until 2026, by my reckoning). But there is some independent value in continued Democratic control of the Senate thanks to that chamber’s role in confirming Biden’s executive branch and judicial nominees along with the ability to control committee and floor action in a way that gives Democrats significant leverage and opportunities for conveying their message.

Because only one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years, there is not the sort of predictable relationship between Senate outcomes and the general political climate. In other words, a bad year for either party in presidential, House, or gubernatorial contests doesn’t mean a bad year in Senate races if the landscape is positive. We saw that most recently in 2018, when Republicans lost 41 net House seats and seven net governorships yet picked up two net Senate seats because the landscape (with 26 Democratic Senate seats and only nine Republican Senate seats at stake) was very positive for the GOP.

The Senate landscape is modestly positive in 2022 for Democrats, who have to defend only 14 seats as compared with 20 seats for Republicans. Moreover, as Amy Walter points out, none of the 14 Democratic seats are in a state carried by Donald Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending two seats in states carried by Biden in 2020, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But at the same time, Democrats are defending three Senate seats (in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada) in states Biden carried very narrowly (he won by 0.30 percent in Arizona, 0.24 percent in Georgia, and a relatively luxurious 2.39 percent in Nevada). Republicans in the two nominally blue states whose Senate seats they control don’t have much ground to make up, either (Biden won Pennsylvania by 1.17 percent and Wisconsin by 0.63 percent). They also control an open seat in North Carolina, a state Trump won by only 1.3 percent.

To give you an idea of how much “swing” Republicans might rationally expect in a midterm, consider that Republicans won the national House popular vote by 1.1 percent in 2016 and Democrats won it by 8.6 percent in 2018. That’s a lot of movement against the party controlling the White House. Anything remotely like that in 2022 — again, controlling for state aberrations despite the trend toward straight-ticket voting in recent years — and Republicans could pretty easily sweep the six contests mentioned above, all rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, and take control of the Senate by a 53-to-47 margin, assuming neither party breaks serve by winning in a less competitive state.

What may give Democrats better Senate odds is the current nature of Republican intrastate and intraparty dynamics. There are potentially fractious GOP Senate primaries in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania that could produce nominees with real weaknesses. Moreover, in these states and others (notably Ohio, a “red” state that recently reelected a progressive Democratic senator), Trump’s insistence on turning GOP primaries into referenda on loyalty to his ludicrous 2020 election claims could interfere with the expected pro-Republican midterm trend.

Potential Trump-generated problems affecting Senate races aren’t limited to his involvement in just those races. Georgia is a classic example. Freshman Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who along with Jon Ossoff won by an eyelash in 2021’s unique dual general-election Senate runoff in what has become the ultimate battleground state, ought to be a sitting duck in 2022 with even a minimal midterm swing. But Trump enormously complicated Georgia politics by pushing the man Ossoff beat a year ago, David Perdue, into a primary challenge to the incumbent governor, Brian Kemp, as part of a purge effort aimed at those who didn’t support the 45th president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. The Perdue-Kemp primary is sure to be an extremely expensive and divisive affair. It could weaken the ultimate winner in a general election against Stacey Abrams and might spill over into the Senate race, where Republican front-runner and Trump favorite Herschel Walker hasn’t shaken questions about his background and temperament (or rid himself of primary opposition).

Divisive Republican gubernatorial primaries seem likely in Arizona and Pennsylvania, as well, and could extend to Wisconsin, where incumbent GOP Senator Ron Johnson is struggling with low favorability numbers.

Republicans should be considered the slight favorites to flip the Senate (and much stronger favorites to flip the House) in 2022, assuming Biden’s popularity doesn’t seriously improve by November. But Mitch McConnell should not be making big plans for 2023. His party’s lord and master, Trump, could screw things up yet, and you never know entirely what will happen in a wide array of competitive Senate races.

January 21: The Terrible Consequences of Abandoning Objective Measures of What Americans Want

I returned to one of my favorite themes at New York this week in the context of the ongoing MAGA delegitimization of elections:

Donald Trump’s obsession with inflated estimates of the crowd sizes at his various live events has been a long-running joke in American politics. This was exhibited most famously in his bitter argument with the National Park Service over the number of people who attended his inauguration five years ago. But as Elaine Godfrey notes at The Atlantic, the phenomenon persists even today, and it’s central to MAGA claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump:

“Before the 2020 election, Trump and his fans would often ask reporters how Joe Biden could possibly win when he didn’t have rallies as big as Trump’s. Now that Biden is president, Trump-rally goers say things like Trump couldn’t really have lost. Look at all of these people! In Arizona this weekend, 51-year-old Tammy Shutts put it this way to me: ‘100 percent, 1,000 percent, 1 million percent Biden didn’t win’ her state, she said, gesturing to the hordes of people around her. ‘I’ve been in Arizona for almost 21 years. There is no way—no way—we went blue.’”

As Godfrey acutely observes, big crowds aren’t “just a bragging point” for Trump and his supporters. It’s “proof they are part of the American majority.” This both reflects and reinforces the core belief in MAGA land that more objective measurements of Trump’s popularity, like polls and election results, are unreliable and likely “rigged.” The proof? Look at those crowds!

Th preference for subjective instead of  objective standards for political strength was not, of course, invented by Trump or his followers. It’s pretty common among political groups who don’t want to accept evidence that they are outnumbered or outgunned. During the home stretch of the very competitive 2012 presidential campaign, with polls showing Barack Obama building a solid lead over Mitt Romney, there was a profusion of Republican wishful thinking based not only on comparative crowd size but on the number of Romney yard signs evident along the highways and byways of the country. This obsession with the display of popularity reached epic levels during Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, which greatly valued huge flags and signs, boat parades, owning the libs with obnoxious motorcades through Democratic areas, and, of course, Trump’s rallies. The Biden campaign could not remotely match all this frenetic activity, in part, to be clear, because it considered it unsafe to voters, campaign operatives, and volunteers alike in the middle of a pandemic. But to an extent that leaves coastal elites baffled, the conviction has spread that Biden’s base of support was a statistical Potemkin village because it was far less visible.

Political operatives and pundits should examine themselves in the mirror before making too much fun of this hammerheaded, snail’s-eye view of political popularity. Some of its also stems from the incessantly discussed and near-universally accepted emphasis in recent political discourse on enthusiasm as a tangible election-winning asset. It does matter, to be sure, particularly in midterm and off-year contests, in which lukewarm voters often do not participate. But a candidate does not get extra votes for having supporters who are teeming with joy or fury, and enthusiasm beyond the point needed to get voters to the polls only helps if it is communicable. As a substitute for objective data about electoral outcomes, enthusiasm and its visible signs can be actively misleading.

But if your favorite president and partisan media have told you day in and day out for years that polls are fake news and elections are rigged, then direct experience of the strength of the political cause you share with so many others (in many places, with virtually all of your friends and neighbors) is all you’ve got. Add in a polarized atmosphere in which the other “team” is deemed actively evil and its supporters are dismissed as dupes or fellow-travelers in sin, and you get January 6, 2021. On that day, another crowd — “the biggest crowd I’ve ever,” according to Trump — formed to overwhelm Congress with its conviction that Biden’s victory was a lie because the Democrat didn’t command those monster crowds.

The sense that the MAGA movement feels like a majority and thus must be one is naturally growing stronger at a time when Democratic enthusiasm is low and Trump is plotting a triumphant restoration to power, whatever it takes. As Yeats famously said of post–World War I Europe just over a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Unfortunately, some of the worst believe their passionate intensity entitles them to rule.

January 20: Biden’s Approval Rating Is High Enough to Beat His Most Likely 2024 Opponent

There’s been a lot of buzzing lately about the president’s job approval ratings, so I gave them a close look at New York:

Midterm elections almost always serve as referenda on the perceived job performance of the president. It’s no accident that just prior to the two recent midterms (1998 and 2002) in which the party controlling the White House gained House seats, which is rare, the president’s job approval ratings were in the 60s. On three other occasions (1962, 1986, and 1990), presidents with job-approval ratings of at least 58 percent kept midterm losses for their party in the single digits.

With Democrats currently holding a five-seat margin in the House, President Joe Biden would probably need one of those very-high-job-approval moments to save his party’s control of the House in the 2022 midterms. Unfortunately, in this era of partisan polarization, a Biden boom in popularity is improbable. According to the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, the president’s approval rating peaked at 55.1 percent on March 22. It’s currently at 42.1 percent, and it is “underwater” (below his disapproval rating) by 9.8 percent. If Biden can turn the fairly steady downward drift in his approval ratings around, he can certainly help Democrats mitigate midterm House losses. On two occasions, presidents with pre-midterm approval ratings in the 40s lost only a handful of seats: Carter’s party lost 11 seats in 1978, with a Gallup rating of 49 percent, and Obama’s party lost 13 seats in 2014, with a Gallup rating of 44 percent. On the other hand, Democrats lost 53 House seats when Obama was at 45 percent in 2010 and 63 House seats when Clinton was at 46 percent in 1994. So Democrats can almost certainly kiss their trifecta goodbye, barring something unforeseeable.

The Senate is invariably another matter, since the particular “class” of senators up for reelection in any midterm has a huge impact on partisan performance. In 2018, to cite the most recent example, Republicans managed to gain two net Senate seats despite losing 40 net House seats, mostly because Democrats had an incredible 26-9 disadvantage in seats they had to defend. It was a terrible Senate landscape for Democrats, who, by contrast, face a marginally favorable Senate landscape in 2022. Still, a pretty reliable Senate model devised by Sean Trende projects that Democrats are likely to lose control of the upper chamber in 2022 if Biden’s job-approval ratings haven’t rebounded to the high 40s by Election Day.

In the longer term, there is a definite silver lining to Biden’s current popularity woes, reflected in this ostensibly very negative headline at FiveThirtyEight: “One Year in, Biden Has the Second-Lowest Approval Rating of Any President.” Guess who had the very lowest at this point in his presidency? That’s right: Donald J. Trump, whose approval rating was at 39 percent a year after his inauguration. If, as is currently more likely than not, the 2024 presidential election is a Biden-Trump rematch, you have to like Biden’s odds for a second term if he can improve his public standing even slightly between now and then. Yes, ex-presidents usually become more popular after they leave office. But they generally don’t insist on making the low point of their presidencies a signature moment, and defense of it a litmus test for their party, as Trump is doing with the Capitol riot and his broader campaign to steal the presidency. It’s as if George W. Bush had tried a 2012 comeback (and hadn’t been term-limited) based on the eternal righteousness of the Iraq War.

With better skill than he has showed lately and a bit of luck, Biden can make the midterms a nick rather than a grievous wound to his party. Then, like his friend and former boss Barack Obama, he could win reelection two years after being underestimated.

January 14: A Biden-Cheney Ticket for 2024 Is a Really Bad Idea

I read a Thomas Friedman column this week that really required a smackdown. So I supplied one at New York:

How much political capital should Democrats invest in a probably doomed effort to save the political career of Liz Cheney? Earlier this week, Never Trump Republican Linda Chavez penned a column urging Wyoming Democrats to take a dive this November in order to give the incumbent a chance to survive as an independent, assuming (as it safe) that Cheney will be purged in her own party’s primary. And now, in an apparent coincidence, in comes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggesting a far more radical step by Democrats to align themselves with the small slice of Republicans who follow Cheney’s example in repudiating Donald Trump. He wrote:

“Is that what America needs in 2024 — a ticket of Joe Biden and Liz Cheney? Or Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or Stacey Abrams and Liz Cheney, or Amy Klobuchar and Liz Cheney? Or any other such combination.”

Friedman phrases this as a question, but clearly he thinks it’s a good idea given the “existential moment” America would face if Trump is allowed to regain the presidency in 2024. It’s a bit of a loaded question, too, since it postulates that nothing short of a previously unimaginable “sacrifice” by Democrats and Never Trump Republicans alike can stop Trump — and that it would, in fact, succeed in stopping Trump.

I certainly agree that Democrats dumping Kamala Harris to give their vice-presidential nomination to a conservative Republican who opposes legalized abortion and is a militarist by conviction and heredity would be a “sacrifice,” to put it very mildly. It would also be very, very weird. Friedman cites the recent establishment of a mind-bending coalition government in Israel to thwart Bibi Netanyahu as a development comparable to what he is suggesting. But as he acknowledges, Israel has a parliamentary system in which multiparty coalitions are the rule rather than the exception. A presidential system in which parties invariably run separate tickets for the top job is another thing altogether.

The U.S. has had exactly one example of multiparty fusionism in a presidential election. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Republicans nominated Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee — then serving as U.S. military governor of Tennessee — to run with Lincoln on a “Union” ticket. The experiment did not turn out well, beginning with Johnson’s drunken inaugural address in 1865 and continuing with the racist solidarity he exhibited toward ex-Confederates after Lincoln’s assassination, culminating in his impeachment and near removal from office. There are important reasons politicians sort themselves out into major parties, which should be apparent in an era of polarization over issues other than the scofflaw behavior of Donald Trump.

Is the threat of Trump’s return to the White House the equivalent of the U.S. Civil War? Not in itself, I would contend, though that horrific development could lead eventually to grave conditions comparable if not equal to a civil war. The premise that a Biden-Cheney fusion ticket would uniquely doom Trump to failure is even more dubious. There has never been much evidence of a mass following for Never Trump Republicans, and such as it is, it is mostly composed of people who would (and did in 2020) gladly vote for Biden and Harris. The baleful effect that replacing Harris with Cheney on the ticket would have on Democratic turnout could easily offset or exceed the alleged benefits of bipartisan and trans-ideological fusion.

So Democrats should say thanks, but no thanks, to Friedman for the idea of submitting their party to some sort of unwieldy and unnatural coalition of national salvation, so long as there is the slightest possibility of beating Trump the old-fashioned way. Liz Cheney deserves great respect for the courage she has shown in defying Trump at the expense of her own career, and if Biden is reelected with her support, perhaps she deserves an ambassadorship, a minor Cabinet post, or a major sub-Cabinet position. But she has no business being at the top of the line of succession to a Democratic president.

January 12: Stopping a 2024 Election Coup Is Essential, But May Not Be Easy

I have been very involved in warning Democrats about the strong possibility of another attempted Trump election coup In 2024, and wrote up my latest advice on the subject at New York:

As someone who spent months before the 2020 election warning that Trump was planning an election coup, then had to watch and write about his efforts that were finally foiled on January 6, 2021, I felt the anniversary of that day brought back in sharp relief bad memories that had never really faded. I realized that the fire we avoided last time might in future require more than a beefed-up Capitol police corps or resolute judges or a smattering of responsible Republicans. Like my colleague Errol Louis, I accepted that we might each need more of a personal commitment to democracy than just a willingness to vote and hope for the best.

But the most galvanizing January 6 meditation yet came in a New York Times op-ed by election-law expert Rick Hasen. This sober analyst of developments threatening the right to vote and subverting impartial election administration is clearly convinced that one of our two major political parties has sufficiently abandoned the causes he holds dear that they have gained a veto power over any remedial action in Washington and many crucial states. This leaves Democrats and the remaining responsible Republicans with few options going forward, particularly since the power they do hold in Washington and in the states may soon be significantly diminished.

Paradoxically, that means Democrats cannot afford to spurn any Republican efforts to help them prevent a 2024 coup. Hasen writes:

“A coalition with the minority of Republicans willing to stand up for the rule of law is the best way to try to erect barriers to a stolen election in 2024, even if those Republicans do not stand with Democrats on voting rights or other issues. Remember it took Republican election officials, elected officials, and judges to stand up against an attempted coup in 2020.”

It’s understandable that Democrats distrust the feelers some Republicans are putting out for cooperation on legislation to fix the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the hazy and confusing law that Team Trump tried to exploit to overturn Biden’s victory with the help of a mob. If the offer comes with the precondition of Democratic abandonment of voting-rights legislation, it may rightly be rejected. But at some point, accepting just enough Senate Republican help to close off one avenue to a stolen 2024 presidential election may be vital for Democrats, unfair is it may seem from a partisan point of view.

A more vexing problem, however, is what happens if the stolen election attempt occurs not in Washington but in the states. That’s where Trump is busily working to install loyalists in key election offices and where he may expect better and quicker complicity from Republican state legislators who could be in a position to control the certification of presidential electors. Hasen offers a specific scenario:

“What happens if a Democratic presidential candidate wins in, say, Wisconsin in 2024, according to a fair count of the vote, but the Wisconsin legislature stands ready to send in an alternative slate of electors for Mr. Trump or another Republican based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud or other irregularities?”

In that contingency, he argues, “widespread public protests made up of people of good faith from across the political spectrum” may be the only effective recourse. Indeed, says Hasen: “If the officially announced vote totals do not reflect the results of a fair election process, that should lead to nationwide peaceful protests and even general strikes.”

That last resort of labor protests, the general strike (a work stoppage not confined to any one industry or segment of the population), is not something that has ever been successfully deployed as a political weapon in the United States. The potential need to attempt one — even if it’s confined to a single locale like a state capital where a legislature is engaged in subverting a democratic election result — shows the gravity of the situation we may face in 2024 based not on paranoid fears but on what we witnessed this time last year and what we can see happening in MAGA-land right now.

January 7: Pelosi’s Successor Will Have New and Different Challenges

One of the expected developments of 2022 caught my eye, and I wrote about it at New York:

Assuming Nancy Pelosi keeps her earlier pledge to step down as Democratic House leader after the 2022 midterms, there will be a jockeying for party-leadership positions that already has aficionados of the “Democrats in Disarray” meme excited. The Washington Post is positively salivating:

“House Democrats are bracing for a turnover in leadership next year that would amount to a seismic event for the party — one that could empower a new, diverse generation of members while also exacerbating tensions over the direction of the caucus and the policies it should pursue.”

To be fair, it isn’t just the usual progressives-versus-moderates battle fueling this “seismic event”; there’s also generational change. Word is that Pelosi may be heading to the exits with company from her other octogenarian leadership colleagues, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn, and even if they don’t retire from the leadership or from Congress, they could be bypassed by a Democratic Caucus wanting some fresh blood. The front-runner to succeed Pelosi is the fourth-leading member of the leadership, Brooklyn’s Hakeem Jeffries, a mere lad, at the age of 51, who would represent both continuity and change.

As the change of command grows nigh, we will hear a lot from the chattering classes about Jeffries’s ties to House Democratic moderates and how he can mend fences with progressives, including his Gotham frenemy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the bigger issue for House Democrats in and out of leadership is the context in which they will serve after the midterms, when many of today’s much-discussed factional conflicts could change or even fade. Let’s look at a few likely upcoming scenarios:

Life in the minority

The enormous pressure Pelosi dealt with every day last year as she discharged the responsibility of shepherding Joe Biden’s agenda through the House may not be a problem for her 2023 successor. Odds are very high (per both history and such leading indicators as Biden’s job-approval ratings) that the party controlling the White House will lose House seats in the midterms. This will likely flip control of the House given Democrats’ very narrow margin of control along with other discouraging factors like retirements and redistricting. If so, then Jeffries (assuming he is the Pelosi successor) won’t have to worry about how to wield the Speaker’s gavel, and Democratic divisions will probably fade in significance (just as the House Freedom Caucus lost its leverage among Republicans when they lost the chamber in 2018, becoming simply a noisy auxiliary to the MAGA movement).

Given the gulf between the two parties and the lack of interest Republicans have in bipartisanship these days, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep moderates and progressives in harness in opposing Republican-sponsored legislation. They will lose the headaches associated with the need to coordinate and reconcile legislation with Senate Democrats. It really won’t matter much if Republicans enjoy a veto via control of the House (and the GOP could, of course, control the upper chamber as well if 2022 trends go south).

Life without a trifecta

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Democrats lose the House in 2022 but regain it in 2024 along with a Biden reelection victory, an entirely plausible scenario. Trouble is, the 2024 Senate landscape is bad for the Donkey Party, so even if Democrats reflip the House and maintain the presidency, they could easily fall short of what they’d need to reconstruct a trifecta. If so, House Democrats will be in the position of having to regularly advance the president’s legislative initiatives with little or no hope that they will actually become law.

This sort of legislating without consequences has its own challenges but shouldn’t strain party unity all that much and is certainly easier than preconferencing every bill with the other chamber.

Life without an iron hand

Pelosi is regarded as one of recent history’s most effective Speakers and congressional party leaders in part because of her exceptional legislative and vote-counting skills. But her effectiveness is also owed a lot to the respect and — yes — fear she was able to rely on in dealing with fractious members of her caucus. This is a form of political capital it takes time to build, and no Pelosi successor will have it from the get-go. Indeed, if Jeffries or any rival for the House leadership tries to play badass prematurely, it could backfire. There won’t be an iron hand at the controls for a good while.

Life with a broad party coalition

One thing that won’t soon change for House Democratic leaders is the simple fact that their party remains a broad coalition as compared to the more ideologically rigid GOP (reflecting a more ideologically rigid activist base in the electorate). In historic terms, of course, the House Democratic Caucus is far more united than it has been, well, maybe ever (certainly more than it was when a significant number of self-described conservatives were around). But there are still factions and individual members willing to take advantage of whatever leverage they can muster without much fear of primary challenges or grassroots fury.

Congressional Democrats in both chambers also typically experience more tensions over the influence of moneyed interests than do Republicans. At some point, Democrats may need to unilaterally implement long-stalled initiatives aimed at reducing the power of lobbyists and the shadowy forces they represent, who have all along constituted a faction as powerful as moderates or progressives.

But in any event, the distinctive problems and opportunities that House Democrats are experiencing in the final two years of the Pelosi era will simply not be extended beyond 2022. However new or old, and left or center, the party’s future leadership turns out to be, the outlook for House Democrats will change significantly from cycle to cycle. It would be nice if House-watchers also adjust accordingly.

January 5: 2021: For Democrats, Echoes of 2009

When looking back over the last year, I noticed some familiar data points, and wrote about them at New York:

There was a year not very long ago when Democrats spent January not only feeling their oats but believing they had turned a corner in the direction of a sustainable and perhaps even transformative majority. But that year ended in doldrums, with the party’s situation rapidly growing worse. It was 2009, though the description certainly applies to 2021 as well. During Barack Obama’s first year in office, his party experienced a fall from grace that felt a lot like the year that just ended (minus the pandemic and the persistent presence of former president Donald Trump, of course).

What happens in the coming year will soon determine whether we’re really moving in a predictable political cycle, but for now, let’s consider some of the similarities between 2009 and 2021 and what they might portend:

The 2008 elections produced a huge Democratic win

The sense of deliverance that accompanied the 2020 election results for most Democrats was an echo of how they felt 12 years earlier. I was in Washington on Election Night and will never forget walking out of the restaurant where I had heard the Obama victory announced into what looked like a citywide street party. Part of that euphoria, of course, stemmed from the unlikely election of the first Black president. But it was a partisan Democratic event as well: 2008 produced the first governing trifecta (control of the White House and both congressional chambers) since the Republican landslide of 1994, with a particularly impressive Senate majority of 59, soon to become 60 (a supermajority that could in theory override any filibuster) when Republican Arlen Specter flipped.

The Obama-Biden win was by a comfortably large margin (of more than 7 percent in the popular vote and 192 in the electoral one) after photo finishes in 2000 and 2004. Obama, for all his later demonization by Republicans, won 20 percent of all self-identified conservatives and 60 percent of moderates. It felt, at the time, like an era of gridlock might have come to an end — not quite as dramatic as the ejection of Donald Trump from the White House in 2020 and the Democrats’ picking up two Senate seats in Georgia, but a big deal nonetheless. Or so it seemed initially.

Democrats entered 2009 with an ambitious agenda and hopes of bipartisan traction

While there was no pandemic-induced economic collapse in 2009, there was an even stronger sense of economic malaise in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 and the intensification of what had already become known as the Great Recession (which, according to economic indicators, ended in June 2009). The new Obama administration came into office with an ambitious agenda that included both short-term economic relief and stimulus, and its much-discussed campaign platform planks including health-care reform and an attack on climate change. Obama had talked a lot about bipartisanship during his short career in the Senate and then his run for the presidency, so he made an effort to secure Republican input and buy-in for all of his legislative agenda but had very little success (thanks to a GOP strategy of total obstruction designed by Mitch McConnell, who is running the same plays today).

Like Biden’s Democrats in 2021, Obama’s in 2009 compiled a record of partial success combined with frustration and failure. A stimulus package wound up smaller and less effective than originally planned thanks to concessions needed to bring a few Republicans onboard. Senate Democratic moderates vetoed key provisions of the president’s signature health-care initiative, including a “public option” for insurance in areas when private insurance was unavailable or unaffordable and a Medicare “buy-in” program for near-seniors. The entire Affordable Care Act legislation nearly crashed and burned when Republicans won an upset special Senate election in Massachusetts at the beginning of 2010; Democrats resorted to the budget-reconciliation process to avoid a fatal filibuster. Greenhouse-gas-emissions legislation got through the House but never gained traction in the Senate.

Hostility to Obama rapidly mounted as the anti-government tea-party movement spread, launched by furious conservatives who claimed that Democrats were socialistically redistributing wealth to undeserving minorities — claims similar to the those lobbed at Biden’s Build Back Better agenda these days. There was no precise equivalent to “Let’s Go, Brandon,” in part because Obama haters saw little need for euphemism.

Democrats were facing a 2010 midterm fiasco

The first midterm elections after the Democratic triumph of 2008 were a disaster for the Donkey Party. Republicans made net gains of 63 House seats (winning control of the chamber), six Senate seats, six governorships, and 19 state legislative chambers. The enormousness of the state victories for Republicans was magnified by the timing, with decennial congressional and state legislative redistricting immediately on tap in 2011. While midterm House losses for the party controlling the White House are normal, the top-to-bottom wipeout of 2010 was not. A major factor in the results was a big drop-off in Democratic turnout, some of it probably reflecting the higher-than-normal youth-and-minority turnout when Obama was on the ballot in 2008.

Republicans are currently expected to make solid gains in 2022, including a reconquest of the House. However, the landscape is not really ripe for a 2010-style landslide. For one thing, polarization has limited wins and losses alike for both parties. For another, the disappointing 2020 performance by House Democrats has made them less exposed to losses in marginal districts. And for still another thing, the Senate landscape for Democrats in 2022 is significantly better than it was in 2010.

Big state legislative losses for Democrats in 2022 are also far less likely; their party controlled 27 state legislatures going into 2010 and shared power in eight others. Now Republicans control 30 legislatures and share power in another. Even if Democratic losses do occur, they will be less consequential, since redistricting will have been completed by the fall of 2022.

Obama’s future looked iffy (but he bounced back)

In a period when today’s partisan polarization was still under construction, Obama posted a 67 percent job approval rating (per Gallup) at the beginning of his presidency; his job approval had dropped into the 40s by the end of 2009, and remained there throughout 2010. After Democrats were trounced in the 2010 midterms, the odds of a second term for Obama looked pretty slim

But just like Bill Clinton after the previous Democratic midterm disaster of 1994, Obama executed a slow but steady comeback. His job-approval rating was even lower in 2011 than in the previous year, but it gradually rose, reaching 50 percent just before the 2012 elections. And even though Republican Mitt Romney improved on McCain’s performance, he ultimately lost the popular vote by 3.9 percent — a bit less than Donald Trump’s 4.4 percent popular-vote loss in 2020.

We are obviously a long way from the 2024 elections and have no way of knowing if Biden — whose approval rating has taken a dive — can reprise Obama’s comeback. One variable, of course, is whether Trump will again be his opponent. Only three major-party presidential losers have won their party’s nomination in the next election, and only one, Grover Cleveland, went on to retake the White House. But Cleveland’s party had won one of the biggest midterm landslides ever two years before his final presidential victory. So Republicans may have an uphill climb to recover the White House even if they do well in next year’s midterms, particularly if they insist on renominating the most divisive president ever.


December 23: The Iowa-New Hampshire Duopoly May Survive After All

I am an inveterate student of the Iowa Caucuses, so news this week about the 2024 presidential nominating processes fascinated me, as I explained at New York:

On February 4, 2020, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses suffered a meltdown when results could not be tabulated and reported on Caucus Night. This perfect storm of dysfunction fed a lot of preexisting discontent about the privileged position of the not-terribly-diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Democratic presidential-nominating process. It looked like a change in the process, or at least a toppling of Iowa, was inevitable.

As late as this past autumn, that was still the prevailing mood in the Democratic Party, as the Washington Post reported:

“President Biden is not a big fan. Former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez is openly opposed. And elsewhere in the Democratic inner sanctum, disdain for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus has been rising for years.

“Now the day of reckoning for Iowa Democrats is fast approaching, as the national party starts to create a new calendar for the 2024 presidential nomination that could remove Iowa from its privileged position for the first time since 1972, when candidates started flocking to the state for an early jump on the race to the White House.”

But now, as a disappointing year for Democrats comes to an end, Politico explains that the impetus for changing the nominating process has ground to a near halt:

“Democrats, including in the White House, suddenly have more pressing problems. And as party leaders gathered in recent days for year-end meetings here, interest in what was once a red-hot effort to overhaul the order of the early nominating states had all but vanished.

“Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic National Committee members, state party chairs and strategists laid bare widespread desire to avoid a divisive, intraparty dispute in 2022 — and skepticism that any change enacted after the midterm elections could be done in time for the next presidential campaign.”

Even if DNC members were strongly in favor of changing the nominating process, there are a lot of obstacles to wholesale reforms. For one thing, the national parties do not control what individual states decide to do; there isn’t a “system” in place but rather an interlocking set of decisions by state parties and legislatures. The most common form of nominating contest is a state-funded primary, which typically requires bipartisan cooperation in state legislatures and usually involves a common date for both parties (anything else would be deemed an inefficient waste of tax dollars).

If Democratic Iowa critics had their way, the state would replace the caucuses with a primary that would be held later in the year. But the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature is perfectly happy with the status quo, and, in fact, there is no evident interest among Republicans anywhere (including the party’s 2024 front-runner, Donald Trump) in a “reformed” nominating process. This is evidenced by the fact that Iowa’s GOP chair has been designated to lead the national-party committee that sets the calendar. And if Iowa did try to stay first but shift to a primary, New Hampshire has a state law that empowers and requires the secretary of state to move the Granite State’s election date back perpetually to head off any rivals for the first primary. Nevada has already bid for first place (it is currently third) in the process by junking its caucuses for a primary and scheduling it ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. But New Hampshire will fight for its primacy, and it’s unclear if the national party really wants to adjudicate fights between the states.

It’s possible that residual anger at Iowa among Democrats over its non-diversity or its 2020 meltdown could lead to a simple national-party veto on Iowa going first. Short of creating a state-funded primary, Iowa Republican legislators would have no leverage over that sort of decision. The national party could also try to force Iowa Democrats to abandon caucuses, though in the absence of legislative action, the only option would be a party-funded so-called firehouse primary, so named because financial considerations usually mean that polling places would be limited to inexpensive public facilities like firehouses.

Iowa Democrats could also take some of the heat off themselves by simplifying the caucus process to make a recurrence of the 2020 fiasco far less likely. Iowa Republicans, after all, just show up, hear a few announcements, eat some cookies, and vote for their favorite presidential candidate before going home. Moving to that sort of process instead of the complex system of candidate thresholds and affinity groups and “votes” measured in multiple ways might boost participation while making the results much easier to tabulate and report.

In the end, the decision to stand pat or try to change the system may come down to how interested Joe Biden is in changing the calendar or the procedures by which particular states elect national-convention delegates. Biden is famously not invested in the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly; he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire in 2020 and then began his comeback with second place in Nevada and a big landslide win in South Carolina. Some of his closest party allies are those who think more diverse states should weigh in first.

Biden, however, obviously has other fish to fry and doesn’t need any additional intraparty drama at present. If he runs again in 2024, he will almost certainly win the nomination no matter which state goes first, second, third, or 35th.

December 19: Freedom Caucus Invades the States

An alarming bit of news you might have missed is the subject of a piece I wrote this last week at New York:

Been wondering what former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has been up to when he wasn’t dodging subpoenas and questions from the House Select Committee to Investigate January 6? Turns out he’s spending some time helping his old friends in the House Freedom Caucus to spread their noxious activities from Washington to state capitals around the country, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

“Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is making headlines in Washington today, but he’s also looking to make a mark on state legislatures, including Georgia’s, with the launch of the State Freedom Caucus Network.

“The network will be an extension of the House Freedom Caucus, the group of conservative House members that Meadows once chaired, which has successfully moved the House GOP agenda to the right since it was founded in 2015.

“The network will be supported by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a Washington-based non-profit founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, where Meadows has been a senior partner since leaving the White House earlier this year.

“Also on the CPI staff with Meadows is Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican attorney who helped Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.”

The State Freedom Caucus Network will start initially with affiliates in 22 states from Connecticut to Alaska, with representatives attending a gala kickoff dinner in Atlanta. Its stated purpose is to organize “principled, America-First conservatives” to focus on “election integrity, critical race theory, school choice, vaccine mandates, and police reform,” issues where “our nation’s most important battles are taking place in state legislatures.” An unstated purpose is to encourage such pain-in-the-ass tactics as legislative hostage-taking, disruption of routine governing practices, and shakedowns of the “Republican establishment,” while serving as outposts for Trump’s efforts to get back to the White House by book or by crook.

This new organization, which will likely spread to other states soon, will help ensure that Republican state elected officials can’t get away with simply tugging the forelock to Trump and then getting along with their regular business back home. MAGA agitation is a permanent revolution with foot soldiers wherever cultural resentment and political opportunism meet.

December 2: No, Biden Doesn’t Need a “Sister Souljah Moment”

As a old guy and a history buff, this topic attracted me like catnip, and I addressed it at New York:

Seth Masket did something important and admirable at Politico this week: He examined the historical premise for some advice being offered to President Biden by many voices and found it to be ill-founded:

“Joe Biden needs a ‘Sister Souljah Moment.’ At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.”

The allusion is to a speech famously made by Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992 (when he had already nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination) to a conference of the Jesse Jackson–chaired Rainbow Coalition criticizing the organization for holding a panel the previous day that included Sister Souljah. The rapper had recently made remarks related to the L.A. riots that some interpreted as promoting the killing of white people (a claim she denied).

Jackson (who had expressed pride in Souljah’s appearance at his conference) was sitting on the stage near Clinton as he spoke and understandably felt blindsided and exploited by what Clinton said. So it has gone down in legend as a “moment” when a Democratic politician pandered to swing voters (and perhaps to white racists) by conspicuously separating himself from Black political activists. And that, as Masket notes, is what some commentators want Biden to do to stem the political bleeding over controversies surrounding racial justice, including Black Lives Matter protests, the “defund the police” movement, and the alleged influence of critical race theory in public-school classrooms.

The principal trouble with the claim Biden can do wonders via a little measured race-baiting, Masket explains, is that it didn’t do Clinton much good in 1992. A lot of factors lifted him to victory that fall, but clearly it was the economy (stupid!) and the temporary withdrawal of Ross Perot from the race that were most important. There is little-to-no evidence that the Sister Souljah “moment” had any particular effect on the contest. Yet the legend persists:

“Is it possible that Clinton got some help on Election Day from his bashing of Souljah five months earlier? It’s possible, but unlikely. Campaign effects just generally don’t last that long. It was a very old story by then, and it’s hard to even discern much of an effect when the story was fresh. Polling that year shows that voters were more likely to trust Clinton on issues related to racial politics, but that was true prior to the Souljah moment, as well.

“So why is it important to interrogate this piece of political lore three decades later? Because clearly many opinion leaders take it as an article of faith that a Democratic president can make himself more popular by bashing advocates for racial justice. The evidence doesn’t really support this, but they make the argument anyway.”

I would go a step further than Masket in debunking the “Sister Souljah Moment” theory. I say this not because I have any insider information on what was going on in the Clinton campaign (or in the candidate’s mind) before he made that Rainbow Coalition speech. But I was an early Clinton supporter and later worked for the decidedly Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council, and I sure didn’t think the incident was mostly about race. Obviously, racists in the electorate probably perceived it that way, though few of them at that point in history were likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. The broader perception at the time was captured by Tom Edsall’s on-site report on the speech for the Washington Post:

“Clinton’s frank remarks seemed designed to demonstrate his willingness to challenge core Democratic constituent groups and to begin to break his image in the public as a “political” person who would bend to pressure from major forces within his party …

“The power of the Perot campaign, and growing public animosity to both the Republican and the Democratic parties, has been interpreted in the Clinton campaign as a powerful message requiring the Arkansas governor to attempt to regain the status of an ‘outsider’ candidacy — a status first lost to former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas, then to former California governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. and most recently to Perot.”

Indeed, the idea that Clinton was triangulating against Black folks generally on race was not borne out by the reaction from, well, Black folks, other than those very close to the justifiably insulted Jackson, as Steve Kornacki later observed:

“Clinton did not suffer any discernible fallout among black voters; in fact, many black political leaders — some nursing their own grudges against Jackson — used the occasion to throw their support behind Clinton.”

That could be in part because even if you think Clinton was pushing off the left, he wasn’t exactly moving right. In the same speech in which he chastised Sister Souljah for allegedly smiling upon the hypothetical killing of white people for the sins of their race, Clinton sounded some familiar populist themes that were entirely congenial to his audience:

“The speech included repeated attacks on the Bush administration, with a well received line about Vice President Quayle — ‘I’m tired of people on trust funds telling people on food stamps how to live’ — and praise for ‘the real story of Los Angeles — that most people who live in that city did not burn, loot or riot.’”

So what would a more nuanced understanding of the “Sister Souljah Moment” tell Joe Biden?

First of all, Biden is in a vastly different position than was Clinton in 1992. There is no Ross Perot on the horizon, appealing to a huge block of swing voters temporarily estranged from both parties. When Clinton rejected Jesse Jackson’s advice to run a base-mobilization campaign, there were plenty of reasons to fear that identification of Clinton with Democratic orthodoxy would be disastrous: At the time of the Sister Souljah speech, Clinton was running third in many polls behind Perot and George H.W. Bush. And when Perot did (temporarily) withdraw from the race right after the Democratic convention (I was involved in speech preparations for that convention and remember when the word came down: No more criticisms of Perot!), he basically confirmed that Clinton had succeeded in redeeming his pledge to become “a different kind of Democrat,” as the Los Angeles Times explained:

“’When we started … there was a climate there where we could win outright,’ Perot asserted. But now, he said, ‘the Democratic Party has revitalized itself. They’ve done a brilliant job, in my opinion, in coming back.’

:Perot did not elaborate on that point. But Morton H. Meyerson, a longtime Perot confidant and campaign adviser, later cited the Democratic Party’s platform as something that ‘Ross feels good about.’

“Meyerson added: ‘The Democrats seem to be listening to the people.'”

Biden, by contrast is operating in a highly polarized climate with few swing voters and no Perot-like centrist to challenge him. He has zero reason to gamble on separating himself rhetorically from his party.

Second of all, while Clinton was dealing with decades of perceived Democratic subservience to the party’s interest and constituency groups, Biden is dealing with a conservative media environment in which nothing he says will effectively contradict assertions that he wants to defund the police, open the prison doors, impose “woke” speech codes and racial quotas on colleges and workplaces, and usher in a socialist revolution. It’s all preposterous, but Biden has already tried and failed to challenge the smears with rhetorical signals. Some hypothetical equivalent to the supposed message Clinton sent in the “Sister Souljah Moment” would mostly be heard by those who feared, not hoped, he was separating himself from his party under pressure.

And third, even if Joe Biden thought he needed to “push off” the left (as though defeating Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primaries wasn’t enough “pushing off”), he should stay far away from racially inflammatory subjects. Biden would have never won the presidential nomination without the kind of staunch Black support that destroyed the potentially strong nomination campaigns of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, even though Biden’s history on racial issues was far more problematic than Clinton’s in 1992. Besides, now and in 1992, the idea that “the left” and “Black voters” are somehow synonymous is simply wrong.

If Biden feels the need to make it clear he’s still the moderately progressive Democrat who hates racism but is by no means a socialist or especially “woke,” he should just say so, as often as possible. No “pushing off” is necessary.