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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

March 16: DeSantis/Trump Alliance on Ukraine May Create Larger GOP Divisions

Ron DeSantis’ sudden lurch into a position opposing U.S. assistance to Ukraine may unravel his own 2024 coalition and introduce splits into the entire GOP, as I explained at New York:

Cynics have wondered if Ron DeSantis’s recent emergence as a populist culture warrior is a bit of an opportunistic act meant to help him both sideline and co-opt Donald Trump’s MAGA movement in the 2024 presidential race. After all, before Trump helped lift him to the Florida governorship, DeSantis was a congressman with a conventional conservative profile. He was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus back when its claim to fame was a favoring fiscal austerity even if that meant cutting popular retirement programs (as Trump has acidly pointed out). DeSantis’s recent antics could be seen as an attempt to attract both Trump supporters and Republicans who have had enough of the 45th president but know that some Trumpism is necessary to win the election.

If that’s his play, DeSantis may have taken it a bit too far in his recent about-face on Ukraine, which he broadcast in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. As my colleague Jonathan Chait explains, the governor didn’t just hedge his strong support in Congress for U.S. aid to Ukraine or criticize Joe Biden’s handling of the conflict. Nor did he only describe Ukraine’s plight as the lesser of competing priorities — as he has done in the very recent past. No, he systematically went through the isolationist catechism on Ukraine, describing Russia’s aggression as a “territorial dispute” in which both sides are at fault while denouncing U.S. aid as “wasteful” and our whole posture as risking nuclear war.

This all sounded pretty familiar, Trump immediately noted, saying that DeSantis is “following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants.”

Nikki Haley, another announced candidate in the 2024 Republican presidential contest, agreed. “President Trump is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him — first in his style, then on entitlement reform, and now on Ukraine. I have a different style than President Trump, and while I agree with him on most policies, I do not on those. Republicans deserve a choice, not an echo,” Haley said in a statement, per the Washington Examiner.

More generally, the backlash to DeSantis’s comments on Ukraine from key members of the Republican Establishment in the U.S. Senate was quite intense — with Lindsey GrahamJohn CornynMarco RubioJohn Thune, and Mitt Romney all deploring his new position with varying degrees of heat. Former governor and 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie went furthest, saying that DeSantis “sounds like Neville Chamberlain talking about when Germany had designs on Czechoslovakia.”

One of conservatism’s major media pillars, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, blasted DeSantis for a “puzzling surrender this week to the Trumpian temptation of American retreat,” comparing his indifference to Russian aggression unfavorably to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” posture toward adversaries like the Soviet Union. The editorial’s headline calls this DeSantis’s “first big mistake,” reflecting its perceived importance.

DeSantis is even getting serious guff over his Ukraine repositioning in the pages of National Review, which is often described as a “fanzine” for the Florida governor. National Review regular Noah Rothman denounced DeSantis’s statement to Carlson as “weak and convoluted” and “likely to haunt DeSantis in both the primary campaign and, should he make it that far, the general election. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a ‘dispute’ over territory in the same way a bank robber and depositor have a ‘dispute’ over money.” Just as telling was National Review senior political correspondent Jim Geraghty’s defensive treatment of the Ukraine flip-flop as a piece of cheap campaign demagoguery that DeSantis would likely abandon if he actually makes it to the White House.

One pertinent question is how GOP voters feel about Ukraine and U.S. support for the beleaguered country. As Charlie Sykes notes, the party’s rank and file are divided: “A Pew poll in January found that 40 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think the United States is giving too much aid to Ukraine, a number that has been steadily rising. But 41 percent still thought that we were not giving them enough, or that the aid was ‘about right.’” That means the sweet spot for GOP candidates is probably to attack Biden for all-purpose “weakness” — saying he emboldened thugs like Vladimir Putin, then overcompensated by making commitments to Ukraine that may exceed legitimate national interest. DeSantis has clearly gone beyond that safe posture and into America First disdain for the whole “dispute.”

The risk for DeSantis is more than just stoking doubts among some GOP primary voters, who are probably more interested in his anti-woke crusade in Florida than in what sort of foreign policy he might pursue in office. And the issue isn’t that he’s “copying” Trump, though that’s not a good look either. The bigger strategic problem is that DeSantis is trying to put together a mind-bending coalition that includes some Trump supporters as well as anti-Trump Republicans. Senator Mitt Romney, for example, seemed to hint recently that it was time for other potential candidates to give DeSantis a clean shot at the reigning champ.

What DeSantis is saying about Ukraine is precisely the kind of thing that could repel many anti-Trump Republicans or drive them into the arms of other candidates. And other GOP candidates will likely be quick to exploit a joint DeSantis-Trump position on Ukraine that alienates some GOP voters and a lot of GOP elites. Mike Pence is especially likely to join Haley in speaking out on the issue, as his mantra has been that “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” In seeking to co-opt Trump on this issue, DeSantis may be shrinking what looked like a very big tent of post-Trump Republicans who looked to him as ringmaster.

March 15: Abortion Policy Could Complicate DeSantis Presidential Bid

It looks like Ron DeSantis’ efforts to enter the 2024 presidential contest as the master of his large state could be complicated by the fraught issue of abortion, as I explained at New York:

Florida governor Ron DeSantis visited Iowa as he prepares to announce he’s running for president, and his pitch to Republicans is contained in his new book’s subtitle: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival. He can boast of turning his state into a national right-wing model where lockdowns aren’t tolerated and liberals are fully “owned” by a series of audacious state laws banning “wokeness” in all its forms. So far, it appears to be working, with DeSantis building a formidable head of steam to take on Donald Trump, who calls him a phony.

So Florida’s laws pertaining to abortion should be of special concern to anyone valuing reproductive rights. DeSantis and his party’s first pass on restrictive abortion laws could have been worse: Last April, just prior to the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade, he signed a new law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. Since well over 90 percent of abortions are performed prior to 15 weeks of pregnancy (depending on the estimate), it was inevitable that Florida’s anti-abortion lobby and the Republican Party it all but controls would not be satisfied. Indeed, more stringent bans were enacted in other southern states (notably next-door Georgia), making Florida a medical-travel destination for women seeking abortions that are illegal in their own jurisdictions.

But while DeSantis made it clear he would be happy to accommodate GOP hopes for a more draconian law if one were sent to his desk, the word around Tallahassee, according to one source plugged into Florida politics, is that he was blindsided when Republican lawmakers introduced a six-week ban amid signs that it would move rapidly toward enactment. (Republicans have legislative supermajorities that make Democratic opposition futile and a few GOP defections tolerable.) Now DeSantis must quickly calculate how this might help or hurt his presidential ambitions.

The path of least resistance for DeSantis is to sign the bill as an indication of the people’s will as reflected by the legislature without offering the new law as a national model. But anti-abortion activists no longer accept a “state’s rights” approach to abortion law now that the federal constitutional right to choose has been abolished. One major anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List, has made a 2024 litmus test out of support for a federal abortion ban at 15 weeks or fewer, preempting blue-state laws while allowing red-state laws that are even more restrictive, and other activists will likely follow. Allowing blue states to keep abortion legal as an exception to his general demands for “making America more like Florida” may enhance DeSantis’s general-election prospects, but that would be perilous in a Republican Party that has endorsed a full-on federal constitutional ban on all abortions in every national party platform since 1980. To activists who regard a fertilized ovum as a “baby” deserving full personhood rights, the kind of half a loaf DeSantis has previously championed just won’t be enough. They are especially powerful in Iowa, the first state on the Republican nomination-contest calendar, where DeSantis is polling about with Trump in terms of favorability.

The proposed Florida law does include an exception for rape or incest (though only if a court order or police report documents the cause of pregnancy), which puts Florida in sync with Trump’s otherwise incoherent position on what the law should be now that his justices have overturned Roe. DeSantis could try to nudge the law in one direction or another, but there is no position that can bridge the gap between respecting and abridging reproductive rights and no way for him to know which way Trump may weave on the subject. And DeSantis’s dilemma doesn’t just extend to the Republican primaries: An extremist position on abortion that might be helpful in wresting the nomination from the formidable Trump could be an enormous liability in the general election, where a solid majority of voters, including a sizable minority of Republicans, don’t want abortion outlawed.

A couple of factors complicate the Florida GOP’s freedom of action in this area. The state’s constitution includes an explicit right to privacy (similar to the right the Supreme Court inferred from the Constitution in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe), which in the past has been held to confer a right to an abortion. Indeed, a state judge initially put the 15-week ban on hold on these grounds, but the hold was overturned pending a Florida Supreme Court review. It’s generally expected that DeSantis’s appointees to that court will let the law (and probably a subsequent six-week ban) take full effect.

More ominously for the forced-birth lobby is that Florida is a state with citizen-initiated ballot measures. It’s already likely that an abortion-rights ballot initiative will appear as early as 2024, and enactment of a six-week ban will make a pro-choice initiative even more likely to appear and then to overcome Florida’s 60 percent approval requirement for constitutional amendments. Pro-choice advocates have won every abortion ballot measure — including those in red states like Kansas and Kentucky — since Roe was reversed. It could be more than embarrassing to DeSantis if his state moves tangibly toward the cancellation of a GOP abortion law as he’s running for president on a pledge to make America one big Florida. It’s. not a great sign that one of Florida’s two Republican senators, the normally ultra-MAGA Rick Scott, has already come out against the six-week ban.

All in all, DeSantis’s easy acquiescence to radical abortion legislation could represent a rare political misstep, making him even more of an ogre than he already is to many swing voters while proving himself an ineffective would-be tyrant who can’t control events in his own state.

March 9: Is Trump Un-Electable? Don’t Be So Sure About It

It’s become common for Republicans to say they want to “move on” from Donald Trump because he’s unelectable in 2024. Democrats need to understand where these dismissals are coming from, and take them with a grain of salt, as I explained at New York.

There are plenty of reasons for Republican elites to oppose the renomination of Donald Trump next year. He’s erratic and selfish as a party leader. He’s repudiated many historic GOP issue positions that Republicans would love to bring back and implement. His constant boasting and lying is embarrassing. His conduct in 2020 was inexcusable to anyone who values the rule of law. And he’s not that much younger than Joe Biden, whose alleged decrepitude will be a major party talking point in 2024.

None of these concerns are terribly politic to say out loud; there’s a strong possibility that anyone who voices them will wind up in a scorching Truth Social post attacking RINOs and the party Establishment. So instead, would-be post-Trump Republicans prefer to talk about the 45th president’s alleged lack of “electability,” as The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein found when exploring the Trump-o-phobia of GOP elites:

“Jennifer Horn, the former Republican state party chair in New Hampshire and a leading Trump critic, told me that it’s likely the institutional resistance to him this time ‘will be stronger and more organized’ than it was in 2016. Doubts about Trump’s electability, she added, could resonate with more GOP primary voters than opponents’ 2016 arguments against his morality or fealty to conservative principles did. ‘His biggest vulnerability in a primary is whether or not he can win a general election,’ she said.”

That sounds superficially plausible to those of us who saw Joe Biden defy the odds and win the 2020 Democratic nomination because Democratic voters (even more than elites) considered him electable. In this high-stakes era of polarized politics, with the two major parties roughly equal in strength, everybody is looking for a sure winner. But is Trump really any less viable of a candidate today than he was during the 2016 primary, when he steamrolled his more “electable” opponents?

An odd amnesia seems to have obliterated memories of how completely screwed Trump initially seemed as a prospective rival to Hillary Clinton. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages from that year, Trump trailed Clinton by nearly 20 points in trial heats shortly after he announced his candidacy. Yes, he did better in later polls, but despite the partisan hype, few people were convinced he would win. He was all but written off by a variety of party figures after the Access Hollywood tapes came out in October 2016. Republican senators Kelly Ayotte, John Thune, Deb Fischer, Mike Crapo, Cory Gardner, Mark Kirk, Lisa Murkowski, and Dan Sullivan, as well as governors Gary Herbert and Bill Haslam, all renounced their support for him instantly. Then–Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told his members they should feel free to abandon their presidential nominee. How electable did he look then? Even when the furor had calmed down, there was a raging debate among pollsters and pundits aimed at Nate Silver’s allegedly too positive projection that Trump had a 29 percent chance of winning. And disputes about how so many people got so much of the 2016 election wrong dragged on for years.

So are we now supposed to believe that the Republicans who made Trump president in 2016 are going to write him off in 2024 because he can’t possibly win? The same Donald Trump who again defied the polls and nearly pulled off another shocker in 2020? And the same Republican voters who to a considerable extent believe Trump actually won a second time? This does not make a great deal of sense.

Some Trump critics suggest that the former president proved himself unelectable when “his” candidates (for the Senate, at least) did poorly in 2022. There’s some sleight of hand in that argument. Sure, some bad Senate candidates endorsed by Trump lost winnable races in 2022. But it’s a different matter to claim that they lost because of Trump’s support, showing how toxic his “brand” had become. The counterargument from MAGA-land, of course, is that just as Republican underperformed in the 2018 midterms, the 2022 results showed the GOP needs Trump on the ballot to win. It’s not an argument that’s easy to brush off.

Advocates for Trump’s non-electability also need to come to grips with the fact that (so far, at least) Trump is not looking particularly weak in head-to-head polls for a prospective rematch with Joe Biden. According to RCP’s averages of Trump-versus-Biden trial heats, the ex-president currently leads the sitting president by an eyelash (44.6 percent to 44.4 percent). How does the presumed beneficiary of all this fear about Trump’s electability do? Ron DeSantis trails Biden in trial heats 42.8 percent to 43.2 percent. There’s not much difference between the two Republicans’ performance against the incumbent, but again: Where’s the evidence that DeSantis is so vastly more electable that Republican should risk the wrath of Trump’s base (and even a possible third-party run) by dumping him?

I am reminded of the 1968 Republican presidential-nomination contest in which Nelson Rockefeller ran incessantly on the theme that he was more electable than Richard Nixon. But on the eve of the Republican convention when the deal would go down, Rocky was devastated by a poll showing Nixon running ahead of him against putative Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. Anti-Trump Republicans would be prudent to come right out with substantive arguments about why it would be a bad idea to let Donald Trump slither back into the White House instead of hiding behind “electability” concerns that may soon be as ephemeral as Hillary Clinton’s unassailable lead in 2016. And Democrats should beware believing all the hype.

March 3: Pence Trudges Down Path Blazed by Huckabee, Santorum and Cruz

As part of an effort to keep up in some detail with Republican presidential machinations, I took a deeper look at Mike Pence’s 2024 strategy, such as it is, at New York:

It’s easy to dismiss former vice-president Mike Pence’s presidential ambitions as he moves closer to a declaration of candidacy for 2024. He is nationally famous for two contradictory things: his toadying conduct toward Donald Trump through nearly the entire administration and his courageous refusal to help steal the 2020 election on January 6 (after quite a bit of equivocation). With Trump running again and Florida governor Ron DeSantis looking likely to consolidate support among Republicans who want to move on from the 45th president for various reasons, it’s easy to see Pence fading from sight — like his friend and fellow Hoosier veep Dan Quayle, whose 2000 presidential bid has been justly forgotten.

In early polls, Pence has been battling newly announced candidate Nikki Haley for a distant third place in the 2024 GOP primary. And he has the unenviable combination of high name recognition and relatively low popularity among Republican voters, limiting his growth potential. The one thing Pence does possess that Haley and other potential rivals appear to lack is a strategy for a breakthrough. It begins in Iowa, and it harkens back to one of the more notable upset victories in recent GOP-presidential-contest history: Mike Huckabee’s win in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.

That year, Mitt Romney (then advertising himself as the “true conservative” candidate) was widely expected to win Iowa as a springboard to challenging early front-runners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Instead, he was trounced by the underfunded Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who skillfully campaigned among Iowa’s large conservative Evangelical population as one of their own (in muted contrast to Romney, the former LDS bishop). Huckabee subsequently ran out of gas (and money), but his Iowa performance touched off the demolition derby that eventually produced the McCain-Palin ticket. It’s no accident that Chip Saltsman, the man who ran that successful caucus campaign, has popped up in Pence’s orbit this year.

Pence isn’t the first Republican to follow the Huckabee blueprint. Rick Santorum tried a similar path in 2012, narrowly upsetting Romney in Iowa via a highly targeted appeal to conservative Evangelicals along the Pizza Ranch circuit of grassroots appearances. So did Ted Cruz in 2016. One of Cruz’s victims, ironically, was Huckabee, whose follow-up presidential candidacy was crushed between the big wheels of the Cruz and Trump campaigns — a fate that could await Pence if he stumbles even a little.

The key to the Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz victories is the fact (as of the last competitive caucuses in 2016) that close to two-thirds of Iowa Republican caucus-goers are self-identified born-again or Evangelical Christians — a much higher percentage than in New Hampshire (where in 2016, they were only 25 percent of Republican primary voters). Cruz, for example, beat Trump in Iowa by clobbering him among Evangelicals by a 34-22 margin.

Pence, of course, has been a Christian-right stalwart for most of his career and was a key validator for Trump in that segment of the GOP base. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that conservative Evangelical supporters of the joint Trump-Pence project have not joined the general MAGA anger at the faithful veep, as Christianity Today noted not long after January 6:

“For evangelicals who backed Trump, ‘I think that actually many within this community were more stung by Trump’s open criticism of Pence than by what Pence chose to do in his refraining from exercising a questionable power,’ said Scott Waller, politics professor at Biola University.”

The former veep’s proto-campaign activities lately have shown quite the preoccupation with religiously oriented audiences and pre- or anti-Trump conservatives. While Trump and others were preparing to whoop it up at this year’s CPAC gathering outside of Washington, DC, here’s what Pence was doing, according to the Associated Press:

“In explaining why Pence declined to attend this year, his aides cited a full schedule of events, including a Club for Growth donor summit; a trip to South Carolina, where he will speak at the evangelical Bob Jones University; a speech at the conservative Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan; and a Students for Life of America event in Florida.”

Pence will have the perfect testing ground for an Evangelicals-first strategy in Iowa, where slow and steady campaigning is not only effective but essential, thanks to the long buildup to Caucus Night and the dominance of activists among those who show up. But he will, obviously, have to deal with Trump and DeSantis — assuming the Florida governor runs. And while Pence has uniquely strong ties to Iowa’s Christian right, the entire 2024 field will almost certainly share his focus on culture-war issues — notably, attacks on “woke” public schools in the name of “parental rights” and demands for public subsidies for private (and often religious) schools, which are both major themes for Iowa Republicans this year. Pence has managed already to get to the right of his rivals on abortion, echoing the demands of anti-abortion organizations for a federal ban on all abortions as a 2024 litmus test (DeSantis has banned abortions after 15 weeks in Florida, while Trump has annoyed his anti-abortion allies by insisting on exceptions for rape and incest).

It would be smart to watch what some of Iowa’s key Christian-right leaders say and do about Pence’s candidacy. In particular, the man often regarded as Iowa “kingmaker” (or at least weather vane), Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader, has backed every recent caucus winner. If Pence is going to go anywhere, he needs a lot of Evangelical street cred.

Pence’s path to a viable candidacy runs through Iowa, but it is very narrow and full of potholes, and it’s not clear where he’ll go from there if he does better than expected. New Hampshire has always been rocky ground for candidates of the Christian right (George W. Bush lost there in 2000, Huckabee finished a poor third in 2008, Santorum was a distant fifth in 2012, and Cruz lost to Trump in 2016 by a three-to-one margin). And while the next state on the calendar, South Carolina, is full of Pence-friendly Evangelicals, it’s the base of one or, perhaps, two rivals (Haley and Tim Scott), and Trump has already locked up significant support among Republican leaders there.

At this point, Pence has little choice but to trudge ahead — placing one foot in front of the other and hoping his competitors either falter or damage each other irrevocably. It’s a turtle-versus-hare strategy at best. But probably one that a career plodder like Pence can execute well.

March 1: Biden Adds Obamacare and Medicaid to His Litany of Republican Threats

I’ve been watching Joe Biden skillfully trap Republicans into swearing off Social Security and Medicare cuts this year. Now he’s smoking them out on other head care programs, as I explained at New York:

President Biden has done a great job in preemptively going after Republican schemes to secure cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits as part of a debt-limit deal. He has GOP lawmakers squabbling with one another and scrambling to take these ancient targets of conservative malice off the table.

But now Biden is amplifying his message about Republican bad intent to warn of threats to other key federal programs, the Washington Post reports:

“Today, during a trip to Virginia Beach, President Biden pivoted his attack on House Republicans as they remain in a standoff over raising the debt ceiling. Biden argued that spending cuts demanded by Republicans in exchange for raising the limit would do severe damage to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and Medicaid — two programs that Democrats have used to significantly expand health-care coverage. ‘Health care hangs in the balance,’ he said.

“On a stage surrounded by signs calling for ‘affordable health care,’ Biden pointed to the dozens of attempts Republicans have made to repeal the ACA. ‘If MAGA Republicans try to take away people’s health care by gutting Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act,’ the president said. ‘I will stop them.’”

The White House issued a statement challenging the House GOP to disclose its plans for Obamacare and Medicaid, the programs they incessantly if unsuccessfully went after for much of the Trump administration. The statement served as a reminder of what would have happened had any of the various GOP health-care plans known as Trumpcare — which would have repealed the Affordable Care Act and turned Medicaid into a block grant run by the states — been enacted:

“More than 100 million people with pre-existing health conditions could lose critical protections … Up to 24 million people could lose protection against catastrophic medical bills … Tens of millions of people could be at risk of lifetime benefit caps … Millions of people could lose free preventive care … Over $1,000 average increase in medical debt for millions covered through Medicaid expansion.”

And the really big numbers will be repeated again and again:

“40 million people’s health insurance coverage (through Obamacare) would be at risk.

“An additional 69 million people with Medicaid could lose critical services or could even lose coverage altogether.”

These arguments were pretty effective in the fight to stop the repeal of Obamacare, and they haven’t gotten any weaker with time.

It’s not just going to be old folks on Social Security and Medicare who will be hearing often from the president and his surrogates as the debt-limit fight and the 2024 campaign proceed. It will be the many millions of people relying on Obamacare health-insurance regulations and subsidies and on Medicaid benefits (including the families of seniors receiving long-term nursing care through Medicaid). If Republicans play Whac-a-Mole by shifting their domestic-spending budget demands from the most popular programs to slightly less popular ones, it looks as if Biden and the Democrats will already be there warning, “Hands off!” It may or may not work over the short and the longer term, but it’s better than letting the GOP succeed with vague anti-spending promises that later turn into lethally specific cuts.

February 24: “Upbeat” Tim Scott Offers Democrats Peace…After Unconditional Surrender

One of the most important political tasks for Democrats is to expose phony “moderation” among Republican pols who have charmed the mainstream media into thinking they are alternatives to Trump and DeSantis. In that spirit, I listened to a key speech by Tim Scott and wrote about it at New York.

With initial curiosity and then growing dismay, I watched a video of Senator Tim Scott delivering what came across as a presidential campaign preview in Iowa this week (it was officially the politically convenient starting point for the Republican’s “Faith in America listening tour“). It’s hard to recall a more stridently asserted expression of belief that the route to national peace and unity requires the subjugation of one party by the other.

You wouldn’t know that from some of the media coverage of Scott’s speech. The Hill called it “an encouraging speech — a step back from the gloomy and distressed messaging other Republicans have focused on, centered on the Biden administration, early in the campaign.” CBS News reported that Scott “brought a message of ‘a new American sunrise,’ articulating a positive vision that sets him apart from some possible rivals who have focused more on the cultural divides in the nation.” That’s not at all what I heard. The Washington Post was closer to the truth in calling Scott’s speech a “combative presidential vision,” though the Post also brought up Scott’s past criticisms of Donald Trump and Republican racism, which decidedly did not make it into the remarks he delivered at Drake University in Des Moines.

Not to mince any words, the Scott speech was a relentlessly partisan screed accusing Joe Biden and “the left” of pursuing a “blueprint for ruining America.” Take out the references to Scott’s personal experiences and it could have been delivered by Trump or Ron DeSantis. The senator included just about every standard right-wing attack line. He talked about Democrats wanting to “replace law and order with fear and chaos”; about “indoctrinating kids with nonsense like CRT” while “trapping them in failed public schools”; about subjecting workers to “union bosses”; about liberals “persecuting Christians” and “empathizing with killers while prosecuting” anti-abortion protesters;” about Biden “keeping our minerals in the ground.” He attacked “woke corporations” and “politicians … getting communities hooked on the drug of victimhood” — presumably excluding the communities of conservative Christians whose sense of victimhood he encouraged. And he accused “liberals” of “suggesting” something I have never once heard in my many decades of following politics: that “people like my mama would have a dignified and better life than if I had not been born” (though yes, “liberals” might have suggested having a child was her decision to make, not a politician’s).

Throughout the speech Scott treated “Democrats” as synonymous with every marginal leftist opinion ever uttered (which “woke prosecutors” was he talking about in his attack on Democratic coddling of criminals? The one that San Francisco’s overwhelmingly Democratic voters tossed out of office?). And in the heart of the speech Scott asserted that Biden and his party had broken with “two and a half centuries” of consensus American values. He didn’t quite call Biden a traitor, but that was certainly the clear implication.

So what’s all this media talk about Scott exuding optimism and predicting an American “sunrise”? Is he positioning himself as a kind of Republican Barack Obama, calling on the country to unite across party and ideological lines? No: The “sunrise” business was a proclamation of what could happen if conservatives restored their control of the country, with a GOP presidential candidate carrying “49 states.” Maybe this was a sly reference to the Republican Party prioritizing electability in 2024, but it could just as plausibly be interpreted as a call for a one-party authoritarian state. At the very end of his remarks Scott made a vague reference to a hope that Americans could “again tolerate differences of opinion,” but that may have simply been an echo of his earlier attacks on Big Tech suppression of conservative voices. And in one of the few specific examples of the spectacular GOP future we can expect, Scott credited the Trump tax cuts with creating a virtual economic paradise — until the evil woke left began to implement its “blueprint for ruining America.”

Presumably, Tim Scott will keep spreading this “upbeat message” of partisan and ideological warfare as he tours the country in the coming weeks, like some sort of MAGA Johnny Appleseed. If people really listen, they may stop talking about him as the GOP’s antidote to the raw political passions of the recent past.

February 23: Democrats Can Find Pro-Choice Votes in Many Republican Strongholds

In a continuing effort to figure out the political consequences of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, I took a look at an important new survey and wrote it up at New York:

Since the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade empowered state governments to ban abortion, predictions about the future of U.S. abortion policy have focused on which party holds power in state governments. But public opinion in red states is not always aligned with the majority party’s positions, as shown by voters in deep-red Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana rejecting anti-abortion ballot measures last year. It’s been clear all along that there is a formidable pro-choice majority nationally, but how this majority is distributed matters a great deal under the Dobbs regime. Fortunately, the Public Religion Research Institute has now published a 50-state survey on abortion attitudes. And it should make a lot of Republican politicians and anti-abortion activists fearful.

PPRI found that there are pro-choice majorities in all but seven states:

“Majorities of residents in 43 states and the District of Columbia say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and in 13 of those states and in DC, more than seven in ten residents support legal abortion. There are only seven states in which less than half of residents say abortion should be legal in most or all cases: South Dakota (42%), Utah (42%), Arkansas (43%), Oklahoma (45%), Idaho (49%), Mississippi (49%), and Tennessee (49%).”

There are also some particularly large pockets of pro-choice opinion in electoral-battleground states. Even if this data is only roughly accurate, it raises some important questions. Do Nevada Republicans really want to stake their future on imposing abortion policies opposed by 80 percent of their citizens? And do they want to defy 60 percent–plus support for legal abortion in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin? The trend lines are pretty clear as well: “Residents of nearly all states have become more likely to say abortion should be legal in most or all cases since PRRI’s last state-level data analysis, in 2018.”

Perhaps even more significantly, the percentage of those on either side of the abortion debate who treat the issue as a litmus test for voting has changed dramatically since Dobbs. In 2020, only 15 percent of pro-choice voters told PRRI “they will only vote for candidates who share their view on abortion”; now that number is 26 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of anti-abortion voters treating this as a litmus test has declined slightly from 29 percent to 25 percent. Abortion is no longer an issue salient mostly for those most likely to vote Republican.

There are some signs of hope in this data for would-be Republican anti-abortion lawmakers. PRRI finds that somewhat larger minorities of Americans support selected abortion restrictions that fall short of total bans (though not majorities in any of the restrictions tested), such as prohibitions on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. But, by the same token, there is overwhelming public opposition to some draconian measures the anti-abortion movement is insisting upon, such as bans on interstate travel to secure abortions (77 percent opposition) or the refusal to allow rape/incest exceptions to bans (72 percent opposition).

One potentially significant finding for Republicans who want to shake the iron grip of anti-abortion activists on their party is that the proportion of their own partisans who say they want to make all abortions illegal has dropped from 21 percent in 2021 to 14 percent in 2022. There is a sizable pro-choice minority among Republicans, as we saw in some of the 2022 ballot measure votes. PRRI finds that 37 percent of Republicans want abortion to be legal in all or most cases. In contrast, the anti-abortion faction of Democrats has all but disappeared; 86 percent of Democrats want all or most abortions to be legal, up from 71 percent as recently as 2010.

All in all, the notion that this is an equally divided nation on abortion policy, or that Republican state-level strength will make anti-abortion policies prevail everywhere other than in “coastal elite” pockets, doesn’t reflect the realities on the ground. The long-standing debate over gun violence does show that the GOP is willing and able to buck public opinion on issues near and dear to the hearts of those in their conservative base. But it’s no longer clear that Republican politicians or most Republican voters want to stake everything on remaining the party of forced birth.

February 16: “Red Mirage” Scenario Getting Less Likely for 2024

The task of preventing another election theft effort in 2024 has rung up a few modest victories, including the enactment of Electoral Count Act reforms and the relatively small number of contested midterm results. But another step forward came from a most unlikely direction, as I explained at New York:

Of all the many evil (as opposed to merely criminal) things Donald Trump did during the 2020 presidential election cycle, what he did to demonize perfectly legal voting-by-mail opportunities ranked high. His unsubstantiated fraud claims against non–Election Day voting in person not only clouded (in the minds of his credulous supporters and cynical advisers) the legitimacy of marginal folk taking advantage of “convenience voting” to back the Democratic Party. He also convinced a lot of Republican voters to avoid mail-voting opportunities as morally tainted. And that created what came to be prophetically known as the “Red Mirage” scenario, in which Republicans would build up an early lead based on Election Day votes and then disparage late-arriving mail ballots as somehow fraudulent. Trump pulled the trigger on this strategy on Election Night, claiming an early victory that Democrats might subvert with ballot-box-stuffing utilizing presumably fake mail ballots that would be counted later on.

It all led to January 6, and then disgrace and ultimate defeat. And all along many Republicans complained that telling GOP voters to avoid early voting gave Democrats an advantage. A two-to-one advantage in the percentage of Democrats as compared to Republicans voting by mail in 2020 wound up being crucial. And finally, Trump is agreeing that’s unsustainable, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

“After years of assailing early voting, Donald Trump is having a change of heart. …

“Mr. Trump highlighted the move in a fundraising email this week, saying, ‘The radical Democrats have used ballot harvesting to cancel out YOUR vote and walk away with elections that they NEVER should have won. But I’m doing something HUGE to fight back.’

“The email added, ‘Our path forward is to MASTER the Democrats’ own game of harvesting ballots in every state we can. But that also means we need to start laying the foundation for victory RIGHT NOW.'”

Now this isn’t just a strategic retreat, much less an admission that critics of his attacks on voting by mail were right all along. Trump is essentially claiming Republicans need to engage in as much electoral skullduggery as Democrats in order to win.

It doesn’t mean he or his party will ever admit the legitimacy of past, present, or future electoral defeats.

But it does mean that Trump is going along with the GOP’s desire to compete with rather than attack or avoid early voting. And going down the road to 2024, it means Republicans (even if the 45th president is their presidential candidate) will be far less likely to claim premature victories or reject ultimate defeats on the basis of the flawed idea that only Election Day votes are legitimate. And for democracy, that is a very good thing.


February 15: What If Biden Did Retire? It Wouldn’t Be Pretty.

The odds of Joe Biden running for reelection are now very high, but since we keep hearing of polls where Democratic voters are restive, it’s worth pondering the road that probably won’t be taken, so I did that at New York:

The estimable New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recent came out and said what a good number of Democrats occasionally think: They like Joe Biden and think he’s done a good job as president, but they’d rather see the 80-year-old step aside and let someone else run in 2024. Goldberg was very direct about it:

“It’s been widely reported that Biden plans to use the State of the Union to set up his case for re-election. There’s a rift in the Democratic Party about whether this is wise for an 80-year-old to do. Democratic officials are largely on board, at least publicly, but the majority of Democratic voters are not. ‘Democrats say he’s done a good job but he’s too old,’ said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who conducts regular voter focus groups. ‘He’ll be closer to 90 than 80 by the end of his second term.’ Perhaps reflecting this dynamic, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that while 78 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents approved of the job Biden has done as president, 58 percent of them wanted a different candidate next year.”

Regardless of what Democrats may want, the odds of Biden stepping aside are very low. The last sitting president to retire on his own terms after just one full term was Calvin Coolidge nearly a century ago. There are zero signs of any serious challengers stepping up to challenge Biden’s renomination, and restive Democratic voters will almost certainly come around once the 46th president becomes the party’s standard-bearer again.

But it’s worth considering what might happen if Biden does step aside. Goldberg’s view of this scenario is fairly sunny:

“Plenty of Democrats worry that if Biden steps aside, the nomination will go to Vice President Kamala Harris, who polls poorly. But Democrats have a deep bench, including politicians who’ve won in important purple states, like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia. Biden said he wanted to be a bridge to the next generation of Democrats. There are quite a few promising people qualified to cross it. A primary will give Democrats the chance to find the one who is suited for this moment.”

Unfortunately, a contested 2024 Democratic primary probably wouldn’t be a calm, deliberative process. It would more likely be a nasty and complicated slugfest leading to a shaky general-election campaign. The GOP presidential field is coming together pretty late compared with previous cycles, and even if Biden made a call soon, Democratic candidates would find themselves scrambling to put together a national campaign. Here are some likely consequences of a sudden Biden retirement.

Kamala Harris would run, but she wouldn’t clear the field.

The vice-president is Biden’s heir apparent, though most observers figured she would have until 2028 to polish her image and (assuming she and Biden were reelected) chalk up some distinctive accomplishments. Harris’s candidacy could get a big boost if Biden promoted her candidacy, but he might decide it’s more appropriate to stay out of the nominating process, much as Barack Obama did in the early stages of the 2016 primaries. Even with Biden’s active support, though, it’s unlikely Harris has the sort of political clout to preempt a challenge.

Furthermore, Harris might have to prove her appeal to Black voters. In 2020, Black voters strongly preferred Biden to Harris, ruining her efforts to pursue a strategy modeled on Obama’s in 2008. Would she do better with this crucial segment of the primary electorate in a second presidential campaign? It’s unclear, particularly if the “electability” concerns that helped boost Biden among Black and white voters alike turn out to be a millstone for Harris.

2020 candidates would flood the race.

In 2020, the Democratic primary field was the largest since the start of the modern primary system, and the many candidates who performed better than Harris would certainly be tempted to challenge her again.

Two progressive heavyweights, 81-year-old Bernie Sanders and 73-year-old Elizabeth Warren, probably retired their own presidential ambitions on the assumption that Biden would be the party’s candidate in 2024. But if he’s not in, they might consider running. In particular, the huge following Sanders built over two presidential campaigns might convince him to run again; he has pointedly not ruled out a bid if Biden isn’t in the field.

There are also younger 2020 candidates who envision themselves in the White House and may accelerate their plans given the surprising appearance of an “open” nomination contest and the uncertainty as to when the next “opening” might occur. For some reason, Pete Buttigieg is often the sole object of speculation on this possibility, but Amy KlobucharCory BookerJulian Castro, and even Michael Bennet might go for the gold again.

The primary would attract plenty of fresh candidates, too.

The 2024 primary field could be even more crowded than it was four years earlier. There are several major Democratic officeholders thought to be waiting for the right moment to run for president. If Biden doesn’t run, that moment might arrive early for three governors: California’s Gavin Newsom, Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker, and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer. The first two governors have vast resources at their disposal, while the third checks an awful lot of boxes for Democrats valuing electability above all else.

The fight over the Democratic primary calendar would become red hot.

Right now, the Democratic National Committee’s Biden-driven bid to shake up the presidential primary calendar is a bit of an abstract proposition; it doesn’t really matter if Biden runs unopposed. If Biden isn’t the nominee, it will suddenly matter a great deal whether the primaries begin with South Carolina rather than New Hampshire, whether Iowa is excluded from the early states altogether, and whether Georgia or Michigan go third or fourth or fifth. In a late-developing open nomination contest, candidates may rise or fall based on how well they navigate the new calendar. So the DNC’s tentative decision to move ahead with a new order of states could suddenly become controversial and even disputed.

Democrats would fall right back into “disarray.”

Democrats are rightly proud of the unity they have been displaying in Congress lately in sharp contrast to the chaos and factionalism of the GOP.

But the relative ideological unity of the Democratic Party would by no means guarantee a peaceful nomination process if Biden retires. In primaries in which everyone is mostly aligned on the issues, candidates tend to differentiate themselves on personal matters, often leading to especially nasty battles. Warren’s demolition of billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 candidacy candidacy in just one debate could provide the template for 2024. And, ideology aside, a competitive contest could revive disagreements over race and gender at a time when the Democratic coalition couldn’t afford any self-inflicted wounds.

Costs could be high for Democrats.

A Biden retirement might air out some dirty Democratic laundry and help identify future talent, but it would come at a high price. The money and energy that would be siphoned off into what would almost certainly be a big fight involving a large field of candidates could be more usefully deployed on behalf of a Biden-Harris reelection campaign. Yes, there’s a risk in moving forward with an 80-year-old nominee who doesn’t excite Democratic voters. But it’s not as big a risk as distracting Democratic voters with the carnage of a primary fight while Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis waits to pick up the pieces and blast all Democrats to perdition.


February 10: The Dobbs Backlash Is Just Getting More Intense

As someone who has closely followed the law and politics of the abortion issue literally for decades, I am fascinated by what’s been happening to public opinion since the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, and did an update on that subject at New York: 

During the near half-century in which the Supreme Court precedent of Roe v. Wade protected the right to choose abortion, public-opinion research on the topic tended to be of questionable value. Respondents were asked to categorize themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” depending on their subjective self-definitions. Polls asked people to engage in hair-splitting on the degree to which they wanted abortion to be legal or illegal. And the whole subject was overshadowed by the fundamental reality that political maneuvering on abortion policy had limited consequences for a majority of voters (though not for those who couldn’t access or afford abortion services).

With Roe gone, the basic laws governing reproductive decisions depend to an enormous extent on where one lives, and abortion policy is a central and urgent political decision (at least outside those few states that have re-enshrined abortion rights in state constitutions). So it’s getting easier for pollsters to weigh how the public feels about what should happen on abortion policy.

There’s already clear evidence that the abortion backlash had a tangible effect on the 2022 midterm elections and the underperformance of Republicans compared to historical precedents. But the effect on political preferences is ongoing.

The pro-choice majority that has always existed is now clearly being mobilized by what the Supreme Court and Republican state legislators and governors have wrought, as Gallup recently found:

“Americans are more dissatisfied with U.S. abortion policies now than they have been at any point in Gallup’s 23-year trend, and those who are dissatisfied are three times as likely to prefer less strict rather than more strict abortion laws.

“The record-high 69% of U.S. adults dissatisfied with abortion laws includes 46% who prefer that these laws be made less strict, marking a 16-percentage-point jump in this sentiment since January 2022. In addition, 15% of Americans are dissatisfied and favor stricter laws, and 8% are dissatisfied but want them to stay the same.”

The number of unhappy pro-choice respondents is striking for several subgroups:

“The percentage of women who are dissatisfied with U.S. abortion policies and support less strict laws has risen 18 points this year to 50%, compared with a 13-point increase among men to 41% over the past year. Both readings are the highest on record for those groups …

“For the first time in Gallup’s trend, pluralities of Catholic (38%) and Protestant (37%) Americans and a majority of those with no religious identity (69%) express dissatisfaction with abortion policies and a preference for less strict laws …

“Before 2022, dissatisfied Catholics and Protestants were typically more likely to favor stricter rather than less strict abortion laws.”

What do dissatisfied pro-choice Americans want to do about it? According to an NPR-Ipsos poll last month, they want to decide abortion policy themselves:

“Without a federal law in place, state abortion policies are shaped by lawsuits, state laws and constitutional amendments.

“A majority of Americans say they would like the decision to be in their hands, not elected officials. Nearly 7 in 10 of those surveyed say they would strongly or somewhat support their state using a ballot measure or voter referendum to decide abortion rights, if they had the option, rather than leaving the decision to state lawmakers.”

After pro-choice voters won all seven ballot tests in 2022, there’s a grim battle underway elsewhere to provide or deny voters a chance to weigh in on abortion in 2024. As NBC News reported late last year, the potential landscape for abortion ballot initiatives is quite broad:

“Activists are already planning citizen-led ballot initiatives that would enshrine abortion rights in the constitutions of 10 states: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

“Those states all ban or restrict abortion, and it is also legal for citizens to initiate ballot proposals that amend the states’ constitutions.”

Given these realities, it’s unsurprising that the anti-abortion activists whose battle cry for decades was to let the people decide are now beginning to rely on right-wing judicial activists determined to ban abortion from the bench, or a bit down the road, a Republican trifecta in Washington willing to override the states and ban abortion nationally. The stakes for 2024 are rising steadily.