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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

February 15: Democracy Versus Quick Election Results

I’ve been brooding over the Caucus Night disaster in Iowa, but then read a piece that cast light on broader questions, which I wrote about at New York:

During the long, agonizing evening of February 3, if you were watching cable news, you saw two interrelated things happening. The first and most obvious was that a terrible meltdown had struck the flawed volunteer-based and technologically afflicted system that Iowa Democrats had for tabulating results, which did not come in at the expected mid-evening juncture — or at all that night. The second is that a lot of highly paid, puffed-up talking heads were enraged that they were denied the raw material for their punditry. No telling how many planned and even paid-for witticisms and future catchphrases went unuttered, or how many maps of Iowa counties were tossed into digital wastebaskets.

As the renowned political scientist Norman Ornstein observes, we should beware putting too much stock in the perceived needs of those who want instant gratification on election nights. Some reforms that improve democracy make results harder to calculate and slower to harvest. Ornstein cites ranked-choice voting as one of those we are likely to see more of in the immediate future:

“It allows voters to give their first, second and subsequent choices, and allocates those second choices if no candidate gets over 50%, dropping off sequentially the lowest-performing candidates until a winner can be declared.

“This gives a truer picture of voter preferences and takes away the ability of independent or third-party candidates to distort the outcomes, or enable a candidate to win an election with a vote that is much less than a majority.”

But it takes time to tabulate ranked-choice votes, which is why when it was deployed in Maine in 2018 Democratic primaries the winners weren’t known for eight days. That was frustrating to a lot of people with a stake in the results, including journalists. But it arguably fulfilled the prime directive of the election in better reflecting the actual preferences of Maine Democrats.

As Ornstein also notes, there is a far more common democracy-enhancing reform that slows down election results — voting by mail:

“States have different ways to count those mail ballots, but because the envelopes have to be opened manually, one by one, and then tallied, they can take a lot of time — weeks in the case of California.

“And frequently, the mail ballots have voter preferences different from those of voters who go to the polls on Election Day, making the initial counts made on election eve misleading. In California, Democrats tend to vote more by mail, and several contests that had initial Republican leads were changed when the mail ballots were counted, leading many Republicans to cry foul.”

That was particularly true after California changed its laws to allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day but received by the following Friday to be considered valid. And why not? Why does the act of filling out a ballot at a polling place on election day possess more civic virtue than filling it out at home or work and placing it in the mail or dropping it off the very same day?

Yet when late mail ballots slowed down and then (as Ornstein said, predictably) reversed the results of key California congressional races in 2018, Republicans (notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and his successor as House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy) erupted with 100 percent unsubstantiated cries of “voter fraud.” Their candidates were ahead on Election Night! Then they lost! Those godless socialistic Democrats must have cooked the books, right?

Wrong. Partial results are just partial results, and there’s nothing magic about those cast or tabulated or reported on Election Night. Perhaps part of the problem is that the older set of political observers grew up on lurid tales of candidates being “counted out” by crooked election officials who waited until the wee hours to see how many votes they needed for victory and then fabricated them one way or another. That likely still happens in isolated circumstances (along with the very new threat of hacking), and in others, incompetence or inadequate investment in election technology is to blame. But we really do need to get over the idea that instant results are some sort of testament to the integrity of elections and a media birthright.

February 12: Virginia To End the Rebel Yell and Make Election Day a State Holiday

Something richly symbolic is underway thanks to Virginia Democrats, and I wrote about it at New York:

When Democrats won control of the Virginia legislature last year (along with the governorship under Ralph Northam), it gave them a governing trifecta. Bills more than doubling the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 are moving through both chambers of the legislature. A bill abolishing the Commonwealth’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees has been passed by the House of Delegates and is moving toward passage in the Senate.

But the most richly symbolic sign of a new day in the Old Dominion is undoubtedly this one, as reported by CNN:

“Virginia is one step closer to ending its tradition of honoring Confederate generals.

“This week, the Virginia House voted to strike Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. The holiday, observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, honors Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as ‘defenders of causes.’

“Both men owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery in the US.

“In its place, the House bill proposed that the state replace it with Election Day, the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November, instead.

“Gov. Ralph Northam included the measure in his 2020 legislative proposals. If Election Day becomes a state holiday, he said, it’ll be easier for Virginians to vote.”

Lee, of course, has been the object of an enormous and region-wide cult of Confederate memorial and neo-Confederate defiance. In Virginia, though, he has long been rivaled in esteem among admirers of the Lost Cause by his most famous field commander, General James “Stonewall” Jackson (given that nickname after heroics in the first major engagement of the Civil War at Bull Run). Military prowess aside, the intensely religious Jackson became known as the epitome of the “Christian soldier,” a reputation somewhat at odds with his advocacy of brutal treatment for disobedient soldiers and enemy combatants. And without question, part of the devotion surrounding him in subsequent decades derived from the belief that had he not died of an injury from friendly fire in 1863, the South would have won the war and its right to become an independent slave-owning republic.

Now, at long last, the rebel yell of defiance associated with a state holiday in honor of these two racist traitors (which, no matter how you judge them otherwise, they most definitely were) is apparently going to be silenced. And it is highly appropriate that this particular state replace this particular tradition with an Election Day holiday to encourage voting. Under Jim Crow and the Byrd Machine, Virginia famously disenfranchised poor whites as well as African-Americans; the great historian of southern politics V.O. Key said of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s: “By contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”

Fare thee well, Lee-Jackson Day! Soon enough only open, hard-core racists will mourn its passing.

February 6: Bad Moon Rises Over the Iowa Caucuses

When I went to Iowa this last weekend to observe the Caucuses, I had no idea disaster would strike the event’s machinery, and I wrote sadly about it for New York:

For political media and other political junkies, the meltdown in the Iowa caucus results tabulation and reporting system was deeply annoying. TV gabbers were left with little to say, other than to lash out at the people of this proud and sometimes sensitive state. For the presidential campaigns most directly affected by the uncertainty of it all, it was a logistical and messaging challenge of the highest order. Amy Klobuchar showed the way by getting out there first with a happy speech claiming a level of success in Iowa that no one had the hard data to refute — and then jetting off to New Hampshire. Everyone eventually adapted to the weird half-light of the first voting event of the 2020 presidential cycle culminating in a long night with no results at all other than an entrance poll no one trusted.

But for political — and even apolitical — people here in Iowa, this has been a catastrophe all out of proportion to the technical and training glitches that produced it. The caucuses in their complexity have always represented a half-miracle pulled off quadrennially by a vast army of volunteers and a relatively small cadre of professionals. This year’s trebled reporting requirements (forced on Iowa by the national party) and the technological means chosen to accommodate them finally broke the Iowa Democratic Party. And that happened at the worst possible time, when critics and coveters of Iowa’s privileged perch in the nomination process had already built up a head of hateful steam.

“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Iowa journalism legend David Yepsen told Politico.

Et tu, David?

Here in Des Moines, as the TV pundits spat fire at the caucuses last night, there was a growing sense of horror among locals that this was indeed a breakdown moment for the state’s political influence and legacy. It wasn’t confined to Democrats. This morning, even as taunts from their president echoed across the Twitterverse, Iowa’s Republican governor and senator leapt to the defense of the Iowa Democratic Party and the Caucuses, insisting that Iowa was still “the ideal state to kick off the nominating process.”

But if the nominating process for 2024 and beyond isn’t clear, there’s a feeling of what can only be described as mourning this morning in Des Moines. And best as I can tell, Iowans are not angry about the 2020 caucus meltdown the way so many members of the traveling political circus seem to be. After all, who’s to blame? The state party professionals struggling as always to comply with new party rules under the watchful eyes of campaigns? The hundreds of volunteers, many of them elderly, who couldn’t deal with the new reporting app? The volunteers at party headquarters trying to juggle late-night calls on overburdened phone lines as puzzled and frustrated precinct chairs tried to use the 2016 reporting system? It’s not like Caucus Night was the first random catastrophe of the cycle for Iowa, given the surveying mishap that killed the much-awaited Iowa Poll this last weekend, which fed the uncertainty felt by all going into the contest.

Everyone and no one is to blame for an almost inevitable collapse of a tradition-bound process in which there was too much room for human error. And so people here are now left wondering about the civic and economic consequences of this perhaps being the last of the Iowa caucuses as we have known them since 1972. Iowa haters will enjoy the moment before they set upon one another along the treacherous path to a different “system.” But for Iowans, and the many adopted Iowans who have spent winter weeks and months here every four years, it’s a sad morning.

January 30: Iowa, Obama and African-Americans

An old argument about Iowa popped back up this week, so I addressed it at New York:

Many Iowa Democrats are proud about their caucuses giving Barack Obama his first electoral win in 2008, in part because it showed Obama’s cross-racial and trans-partisan appeal (his campaign conspicuously turned out independent and even Republican voters in Iowa). In response to the perennial complaint about the state’s unrepresentative demographics, Iowans often tout their role in Obama’s rise as evidence of their broad-mindedness and lack of racism.

But these understandable claims have become conflated with the less defensible proposition — or “myth” as its critics rightly call it — that Iowa’s white Democrats “allowed” African-Americans in later states like South Carolina to support him. The myth has come back up in connection with dubious suggestions that whoever wins Iowa may suddenly experience a breakthrough with the black voters currently inclined to support Joe Biden. Astead Herndon has the story:

“It has become political lore, repeated on cable airwaves and by Democratic campaign consultants, even presidential candidates. In 2008, as the story goes, black voters were uncertain about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy until he won the Iowa caucuses, after which they rallied around him over the onetime front-runner, Hillary Clinton …

“The persistence of the narrative that Iowa made Mr. Obama has long irritated some of his advisers, who said that this recollection from 2008 had led campaigns astray since then, discounted the agency of black voters and minimized the robust grass-roots strategy that Mr. Obama’s team undertook in the South …

“’Black voters aren’t waiting for white people to tell them what to do,’ [Obama pollster Cornell] Belcher said. ‘It’s racist. It’s racial paternalism.’”

I sympathize with Belcher’s complaint. As I noted in a post earlier this year on Kamala Harris’s failure to implement Obama’s 2008 strategy, the future president was already doing well with black voters nationally and in South Carolina before his Iowa win (unlike Kamala Harris at a similar juncture in this cycle):

“A late-July 2007 Pew survey of African-American Democrats showed Obama winning 34 percent — trailing Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent in that demographic but still within striking distance. By contrast, a late-July 2019 Quinnipiac poll had Harris at 7 percent among black voters, far behind Biden’s 55 percent …

“Obama was running very close to Clinton among black South Carolina Democrats in August 2007 (Clinton was at 44 percent, Obama at 41 percent, according to Insider Advantage). Meanwhile, a late-July 2019 Monmouth poll of black South Carolina Democrats showed Biden leading Harris by 51 percent to 12 percent …

“Obama had built a solid 54-21 lead over Clinton among South Carolina’s African-Americans by December 2007, before Iowa. Afterward, he did surge to his eventual 78-19 landslide among black voters in the Palmetto State, but he built that win over an extended period of time.”

Now is is not a myth — much less a racist myth — to say that his performance in Iowa gave Obama a significant boost among African-Americans in later states. Then, as now, black and white voters alike cared about electability, and nothing raises confidence in electability like winning, particularly if you are a freshman senator hoping to become the first African-American president of the United States.

If a 2020 Iowa winner gets a bounce in South Carolina — or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or anywhere else — it won’t be because voters elsewhere are looking to Iowans and yearning for enlightenment. It will be because prevailing in the first actual real-live test of the cycle is a good sign for a candidate hoping to go the distance and take on Donald Trump.

January 29: Loeffler Tries to Prove Her Trumpiness

There’s some comedy amidst the solemnity of the Trump impeachment trial, as I noted at New York:

If there was any collegial friendship likely to blossom when Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, it was with Utah’s Mitt Romney. After all, according to a 2013 interview with Atlanta magazine, Loeffler’s husband Jeff Sprecher had very warm things to say of Mitt by way of explaining the couple’s combined $1.6 million contribution to Romney’s 2012 presidential effort:

Sprecher: [W]e met Mitt Romney and got to know him personally many, many years ago, when he was trying to run in the primaries against John McCain [in 2008]. We met him at a neighbor’s house here in Atlanta when people didn’t really know who he was and he was just exploring whether he could even run. We got to know him and his wife, and have been to his house many times and they’ve been to our house. Taking politics off the table, the Romneys are really lovely people, and well intended. We’d never known anybody that was running for president and actually had a friendship with them! And so it was easy to support a friend. [Turns to Loeffler] Is that fair?

Loeffler: Sure.

So it’s eyebrow-raising that Loeffler went after that “lovely” person today after Mitt expressed an interest in hearing what John Bolton had to say about President Trump and Ukraine:

Appease the left? Romney wants to hear testimony from a famously right-wing Republican foreign policy expert who occupied high-ranking positions in the administrations of three Republican presidents. I have no doubt that if Mitt had won in 2012, Bolton would have been in another high-ranking position (he joined Loeffler in endorsing Romney’s candidacy after mulling his own that year). And the idea that Utah’s junior senator needs to “appease the left” for purposes of being reelected back home is hilarious on multiple counts.

Loeffler’s ongoing effort to rebrand herself from a self-funding moderate that Governor Kemp hoped would appeal to suburban women to a wild partisan of the president’s is the real factor here. And it’s clear why this is happening, too: Loeffler faces a potential 2020 special jungle-primary election in which congressman Doug Collins — one of Trump’s favorite House impeachment pit bulls, and the Senate aspirant Trump pushed Kemp to appoint before he picked Loeffler — is considering a run with loud MAGA backing. In fact, Collins’s allies in Georgia are sponsoring legislation to force Loeffler to run in a regular Republican primary in May, which would not give the little-known, first-time candidate much time to build her ideological street cred.

So Loeffler is fighting the clock to get right with the GOP’s warrior-king so he doesn’t noisily back (or encourage his fans to noisily back) a challenge to her. And if that means shivving old friend Mitt Romney, well, that’s just a token of her understanding that Donald Trump is a jealous god who accepts no competing loyalties.

January 24: There’s No Magic Wand for Reforming the Nominating Process

Just before the Iowa Caucuses occur, there’s always a crescendo of criticism of the presidential nominating process. But reforming it isn’t easy, as I explained at New York:

Perhaps it’s unhappiness with the winter weather in Iowa and New Hampshire, or more credible concern about the demographics of these two largely white states (offset, to some extent, a few cycles ago with the addition of Nevada and South Carolina to the ranks of protected early states). But whatever it is you can count on alternative proposals of various seriousness. Today we have one tested in a new Monmouth University poll:

“Nearly six in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents questioned in a new Monmouth University survey supported dramatically changing the current system of choosing their party’s presidential nominee.

“Given a list of four options, 58 percent of those questioned say they’d rather a single national primary be held where every state holds its primary or caucus on the same day.

“Only 11 percent called for keeping the calendar in its current form, with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina holding the first four contests ahead of the rest of the country. Fifteen percent want to modify the current calendar, by letting a few other states vote on the same days as Iowa and New Hampshire. And one in 10 say they want to see grouped state primaries.”

Great, a single national primary day. There’s only one problem: How are you going to do that?

Such polls — and for that matter, a lot of the commentary devoted to kvetching about Iowa and New Hampshire specifically or the nominating process generally — seem premised on the entirely erroneous presumption that we have a national system imposed by the Democratic National Committee deploying some sort of fiat powers. What we actually have is a set of nominating contests created, run, and financed by state legislatures and state parties with the DNC keeping things relatively organized via carrots and sticks. When it comes to the calendar, it’s not a system at all. It’s a loose framework based on what the states (in many cases legislatures controlled by the opposing party) can be talked and nudged into doing.

A complete overhaul could be accomplished, presumably, by some sort of interstate compact, though those generally take a good while to enact, and again, differences in the values and constituencies of the two parties would complicate everything. And the kind of one-day national primary the Monmouth poll finds so much support for would be particularly difficult, since some states prefer to hold their presidential and regular state primaries on the same day. Finding one that works for so many different contests in so many places may be impossible.

This particular “reform,” moreover, has its own perils. If you were to hold a one-day national primary right now, the odds-on favorite might well be Michael Bloomberg, the candidate whose ability to spend literally billions on his campaign could make him unbeatable in a landscape that broad, wide, and simultaneous. Is sticking it to Iowa and New Hampshire, or getting it all over with quickly, worth that risk?

The thing to do (which Democrats have done in the past — including the immediate past — to incrementally reform the nominating process) is to set up a reform initiative immediately following the current contest, when it’s more practicable and less likely to serve the interests of a single candidate. If it finds overwhelming and urgent support for a major change, it would have time to help draw up a framework and design a path to its adoption.

But make no mistake: Working around the edges of the current system will be a lot easier than adopting some grandiose scheme. And if you are going to directly take on Iowa and New Hampshire, you’d best build yourself a large coalition of states prepared to go to war because otherwise the early state folk will beat you to a long list of allies.

January 22: Donald Trump and Andrew Johnson

The Vice President of the United States penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that motivated some acerbic commentary from me at New York:

[Pence’s] basic thrust is to call on Senate Democrats to defect from the party line to vindicate the unfairly persecuted Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, the way Edmond Ross broke with his fellow Republicans in 1868 to cast the crucial vote to acquit the equally persecuted Andrew Johnson. Very likely, what led him to this argument is the fact that Ross got a chapter in then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book Profiles in Courage, which gives Pence’s case a bipartisan veneer, however anachronistic. And so the veep tries to use this analogy to divert attention from the pressure on Republican senators today to break party ranks and allow a real impeachment trial:

“Then as now, a political faction has forced a partisan impeachment through the House in the heat of an argument over a difference in policy. Then as now, this faction has cheapened the impeachment process, which the Founders believed should be reserved for only the most grave abuses of the public trust.

“But despite the focus on what a handful of Republican senators may do, the true profile in courage, as Kennedy understood it, would be a Senate Democrat willing to stand up and reject a partisan impeachment passed by the Democrat-controlled House.”

As it happens, I agree with Pence that Trump is a lot like Andrew Johnson, and the case for impeaching both men has striking similarities. But neither of these crude, self-centered leaders with racist tendencies should be understood as any kind of martyr, as I noted when impeachment proceedings against Trump began:

“Johnson entered office as something of a figure of scandal, having delivered an inaugural address inside the Capitol in a very apparent state of inebriation (‘Do not let Johnson speak outside,’ Lincoln reportedly said before the public inaugural address that many consider his own greatest speech).

“Johnson also anticipated Trump in the violent abusiveness of his rhetoric toward political enemies….Among other things, Johnson called for ‘hanging’ his chief congressional Republican critic, Thaddeus Stevens, and abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips. According to prevailing standards of the day, Johnson held the functional equivalent of MAGA rallies.”

The most important similarity, though, is that Johnson systematically sought to “make America great again” by undermining congressional efforts to vindicate the sacrifices of the Civil War by extending the franchise to ex-slaves. So total were Johnson’s efforts to restore (to use the great Democratic slogan of that day) “the Union as it was and the Constitution as it is” that his erstwhile congressional colleagues struggled to find specific grounds to impeach a president engaged in the most dramatic counterrevolution in U.S. history, as The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum recently observed:

“The question facing Congress, and the public, was this: What do you do with a president whose every utterance and act seems to undermine the Constitution he is sworn to uphold? At first, Republicans pursued the standard mix of legislative remedies — holding hearings and passing bills designed to strip the president of certain powers. Many members of Johnson’s Cabinet worked with their congressional counterparts to constrain the president. Johnson began to see conspiracies around every corner. He moved to purge the bureaucracy of his opponents, denouncing the “blood-suckers and cormorants” who frustrated his desires.

“It was the campaign of white-nationalist terror that raged through the spring and summer of 1866 that persuaded many Republicans they could not allow Johnson to remain in office.”

In Pence’s account, Johnson was properly acquitted on contrived charges that he violated a statute subsequently deemed unconstitutional, the Tenure of Office Act. That’s only partially true at best. The 11th article of impeachment, the one against which Ross first voted in his “profile in courage,” also cited Johnson’s defiance of congressional Reconstruction generally, and of properly enacted laws regarding the military chain of command in the South that Johnson circumvented. Beyond that, in the context of the time the Tenure of Office Act was an important restraint on Johnson’s efforts to restore white supremacy in the former rebel states, as I noted early in the current impeachment saga:

“Because it was triggered by his effort to get rid of Edward Stanton just as the Secretary of War was deploying military force to halt ex-Confederate terrorism, [the Tenure of Office Act reflected] Johnson’s determination to fight for white supremacy. In that sense, it was similar to the apparent inclination of today’s House Democrats to impeach Trump for doing something equally illustrative of his overall pattern of lawlessness: using presidential powers to encourage a foreign government to drop a hammer on a domestic political threat.”

As Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy maintains, the real basis for removing Johnson from office was clear:

“[T]here was only one true Johnson scandal, just as there is only one true Trump scandal, and though the particulars are very different — the former’s class resentment was the inverse of the latter’s class entitlement — they share a common element: an open hostility to democratic ideals. That was Andrew Johnson’s high crime, and there was nothing conspiratorial or nitpicky about it. He was doing it in plain sight. The rest was noise.”

If Andrew Johnson was no persecuted defender of the Constitution, nor was Edmond Ross a courageous man of principle. As David Greenberg explained during the Clinton trial when people were touting Ross’s example, he was far more interested in patronage graft than in resisting legislative abrogation of executive powers:

“Ross’ vote wasn’t the lone act of bravery it was later made out to be. At least four other senators were prepared to oppose conviction had their votes been needed — a fact that has been forgotten, maybe, because it doesn’t square with the High Noon portrait of Ross as the man of principle facing down the mob.

“Ross wasted no time exploiting Johnson’s debt to him. On June 6, he wrote to Johnson to have him install one of his cronies as southern superintendent of Indian affairs, and Johnson agreed to oust his own friend in order to comply. Sensing opportunity, Ross kept upping the ante, like a Mafia henchman running a protection racket.”

There is one aspect of Pence’s argument that rings true: He is advancing a view of Johnson and Ross, and of the Reconstruction issues underlying the impeachment effort, that was common in 1956, when Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage (or more accurately, co-wrote with his famous ghostwriter Ted Sorenson). It’s the great myth that Johnson and white southerners were equally victims of a corrupt and extremist Radical Republican regime centered in Congress that sought to put carpetbaggers and ignorant ex-slaves in power over a supine region powerless to resist (though resist they did, through the enactment of violently discriminatory Black Codes and the white terror of the Ku Klux Klan). It’s the myth — best expressed in the racist classic Birth of a Nation — that justified the eventual disenfranchisement of black voters and the imposition of Jim Crow.

Jim Crow, of course, was still in place in 1956 when JFK and Sorenson wrote their misguided tribute to Ross. Whole generations of historians have debunked the myth that Pence now embraces. He may yet regret drawing parallels between the 17th and 45th presidents, and not just because there were aspects of Johnson’s defense that Team Trump wouldn’t for a moment emulate, like agreements to hear 41 witnesses. Johnson deserved removal from office for one of the greatest “high crimes and misdemeanors” in U.S. history, the betrayal of ex-slaves and the cause of equality under the law embodied by the first great Civil Rights Act of 1866, which he vetoed on grounds that equality discriminated against white people.

There is in fact only one relevant difference between Johnson and Trump: The former was a spent force by the time he was acquitted, soon unsuccessfully seeking a second-term nomination by Democrats who met under the slogan, “This is a white man’s party; let a white man rule.” Trump’s renomination is assured. So far, few in his party have had the courage to speak out against him — and certainly not Mike Pence.

January 17: 2020 Democrats Need to Focus More on What They Can Actually Accomplish

After the seventh Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, I called at New York for the turning of a corner:

[A]s the voting phase of the nominating process approaches, and the field of candidates inevitably continues to shrink, it’s time for the practical part of the debate discussions to grow a lot larger, as legal expert Jeffrey Toobin suggested earlier this week at the New Yorker:

“The Democratic debates so far have featured detailed discussions of the candidates’ competing health-care plans—none of which is likely to become law in any form close to what’s so far been described…. But one thing we know for sure is that, if a Democrat wins the White House this year, he or she will be responsible for appointing federal judges, including a few likely vacancies on the Supreme Court.”

Yes, that subject did come up in the October debate, but even then it was more about visionary ideas of how to reshape SCOTUS to protect cherished rights via court-packing or terms limits or some other unlikely-to-be-enacted scheme. More specific, short-term plans are more relevant. Will the candidates, for example, emulate Trump’s politically smart approach of setting up a vetting process for prospective SCOTUS candidates and a list of potential nominees before the 2020 election cycle ends? Bernie Sanders recently said in an interview that he’d “consider” doing that, even before the nominating contest is over. Let’s hear more about that from him and from his rivals. But that’s not the only question, even on judges: how will the candidate deal with such nominations if Republicans continue to control the Senate, which at present is more likely than not? And will she or he devote some real political capital to legal fights in the state and lower courts where reproductive rights, health care protections, treatment of immigrants, and other key issues are being litigated every single day?

As Toobin points out, a coalition of progressive groups focused on such issues (including the Demand Justice Initiative, the Center for Reproductive Rights and NARAL Pro-Choice America) are sponsoring a presidential forum (not a debate, but a series of candidate interviews) on February 8 in New Hampshire. That’s the day after the eighth official candidate debate, and just three days before the New Hampshire primary. It will be a great opportunity to get into real detail on each candidate’s perspective on constitutional rights, SCOTUS, and the judiciary generally. But this questions should be on the agenda wherever candidates gather.

The judiciary isn’t the only practical issue that needs more airing before the primary ends. Given the many structural obstacles to the enactment of progressive policies in Congress, with or without Democratic majorities, candidates need to be pressed on their “theories of change,” their strategies for overcoming entrenched opposition, whether it’s Amy Klobuchar’s focus on executive orders or Elizabeth Warren’s belief that an anti-corruption push can break the power of lobbyists. The health care and climate change arenas are both high-priority areas in which there simply aren not and won’t automatically be working majorities for what has to be done. It’s not enough to say, like Joe Biden does, that Trump’s departure will change everything, or to claim, like Bernie Sanders does, that a “political revolution” will materialize to square every circle. A sustained questioning of the candidates on crucial issues of implementation, definitively nailing them down on items like filibuster reform where several have been slippery, could be worth a lot to voters who seem very hard-headed when it comes to electability but not necessarily in terms of exactly what electable candidates are expected to accomplish.

Yes, some parts of the Democratic primary electorate may feel that beating Trump and getting him and his cronies out of power is enough for one year; actually accomplishing anything is gravy. But that’s a sad and defensive posture to have, and one that voters are not likely to reward, either. Values are essential and vision can be inspiring in a president. But if that’s all a candidate offers, we need to know the next four years could become a huge disappointment and a lost opportunity.

January 16: One Debate, Two Very Different Takes

After watching the seventh Democratic candidate debate this week, I observed a strangely bifurcated treatment of the event in the news media, and wrote up the phenomenon for New York:

If you didn’t watch last night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate from Des Moines and just checked into your favorite media outlets this morning to see what happened, you might have seen two distinctive takes that might as well have described two different events. One (offered by such veteran observers as Vox’s Matt YglesiasTNR’s Walter Shapiro, and Politico’s Ryan Lizza) tended to treat the debate as unremarkable, with the candidates performing at various levels but not really generating any big moments, in part out of fear of offending Iowans’ famous sensitivity to negative politics. The other (including one I posted last night) focused heavily on the unsettling confrontations of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders after CNN moderator Abby Phillip, citing CNN reporting, injected an alleged statement by Sanders to Warren that a woman cannot beat Trump, into an otherwise mild-mannered debate. The dispute culminated in Warren refusing to shake Sanders’s hand after the event and Sanders seeming to storm away in frustration after a brief exchange of words.

The more comprehensive takes from Yglesias, Shapiro, and Lizza mentioned this incident, of course, but found it less than game-changing. You’d have to guess they were written before the post-debate confrontation between Warren and Sanders (they had unhappy-looking words and then Warren seems to have refused to shake Bernie’s proffered hand) that seemed to place an exclamation point on the whole evening. An example of how that moment changed things for many observers was evident at FiveThirtyEight, whose liveblog of the debate concluded with the same sort of not-much-to-see-here observations others were making. Their podcast, recorded a bit later in the wee hours, began with participants describing the debate with terms like “anti-climatic,” “snoozeville” and “nothingburger.” But midway through the recording, they became aware of the post-debate incident, and the conversation pivoted hard in the direction of the dispute and what its fallout would be. As he watched the video for the first time, Nate Silver mused that it “might affect how this thing is covered by the press.” Clare Malone wondered, “Does this entire incident look good for either the Warren or Sanders campaign?”

Some media outlets offered competing takes — one of a debate defined by comity, another of one defined by a moment of drama. The Des Moines Register, a debate co-sponsor, had one that focused on the Warren-Sanders dynamics and another that didn’t at all. Another co-sponsor, CNN, whose reporting and debate moderation caused the entire brouhaha, didn’t focus on it that much initially, either. And at Politico, conventional, broad-scope takes from Lizza and from John Harris (who called the debate “painfully dull”) competed with Tim Alberta’s report from a Des Moines bar frequented by young progressives, who were agonizing over the Warren-Sanders “feud.”

Determining which of these two very different versions of last night prevails in the public imagination will depend, of course, on how the situation plays out in the days ahead. FiveThirtyEight’s pre- and post-debate surveys with Ipsos showed Warren gaining the most in net favorability, and Sanders losing a bit, but it’s not clear why. And at this point, national perceptions of the debate may matter a lot less than those in Iowa, where viewership of this local event was probably very high.

The big risk for Sanders and Warren is that their confrontation, if it ends up dominating how Iowans think of the debate, will run afoul of Iowa Nice sensibilities and hurt both of them. But if the campaigns find a way to de-escalate, and the furor subsides, then the blander interpretations of the debate could turn out to be true after all. At best, though, it’s quite a distraction for the two progressive favorites at a moment when the Iowa race looks to be a close four-way tangle among Sanders, Warren, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, with Amy Klobuchar desperately trying to join them.

January 10: House Republicans Want to Bring the Crazy to the Senate Impeachment Trial

There’s been a lot of maneuvering going on with respect to plans for a Senate impeachment trial of Trump. But this particular angle tickled my fancy at New York this week.

Mitch McConnell’s struggles to bring the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump to a quick and relatively drama-free end are almost comically inspiring. First he had to talk his client down from an early determination to hold no trial at all, which would be, well, kinda unconstitutional. Then after the House impeachment proceedings, McConnell had to convince Trump it would be a bad idea to turn the Senate trial into a show trial in which all the lurid conspiracy theories House Republicans had borrowed from crazy-town right-wing media would be given their full delusional airing.

But the idea of hearing fresh witness testimony in the Senate was taken over by Senate Democrats demanding subpoenas for the Trump officials and records their House counterparts had been denied, which subsequently led to Nancy Pelosi’s decision to hit the pause button on transmitting the House-passed articles of impeachment in an effort to force Senate Republicans to allow witnesses. It now appears that McConnell has beaten back that latest threat by securing 51 Republican votes for trial procedures that delay any decisions on witnesses until well into the proceedings.

Unfortunately for ol’ Mitch, a new complication has emerged for his plans to give the Trump trial the dignified air of a canned mortuary funeral ceremony, as the Washington Post reports:

“A turf war over who should defend President Trump in a Senate impeachment trial is raging behind the scenes in Congress, as House Republicans push to join Trump’s legal team — an idea that piques the president’s interest — over the objections of Senate Republicans.

“House GOP leaders in recent weeks have advocated for Trump’s most aggressive defenders — Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), John Ratcliffe (Tex.) and Douglas A. Collins (Ga.) — to cross the Rotunda and help White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone rebut the two charges that the president abused his power and obstructed Congress.

“Trump, partial to bare-knuckles tactics and top-rated TV performances, loves the idea, according to four administration and congressional officials familiar with his thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.”

Senate Republicans do not like the idea, to put it mildly. You have to appreciate that for all the perfectly justified talk of partisan and ideological polarization dominating every feature of life in Washington, there remains a cultural gulf between House and Senate that hasn’t gone away. Senators of both parties generally regard representatives of both parties the way older siblings regard particularly unruly and immature younger siblings: necessary nuisances but hardly equals in any sense. One way Ted Cruz earned pariah status in the Senate was by consorting with House Republicans openly and frequently. Senators aren’t supposed to do that.

Even though Republicans in both chambers are valiantly seeking to protect their warrior-king POTUS from the effort to remove him from office, the last thing senators want is a bunch of snot-nosed House members cutting wild capers and embarrassing their party with risible tales of almighty Ukraine seeking to install Hillary Clinton in the White House over the objections of the American people, who see through this Democrat socialist coup.

So McConnell has gone back to his central task of megalomaniac wrangling:

“McConnell, who discussed the trial with the president at the White House on Wednesday, has been advising Trump and his legal team not to think of the trial as a ‘made-for-TV-type House setting,’ said one individual familiar with the leader’s thinking, ‘but rather one where ultimately your audience is senators in the middle on both sides, who are actually listening to the arguments here …’

“’One thing I’m not eager to do is re-create the circuslike atmosphere of the House — that’s not what we’re going to do here, if we can avoid it,’ said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a McConnell ally. ‘So I think it seems obvious to me that if the president picks a team that does not include House members, that we’d be more likely to have the dignified process that the Constitution calls for.'”

As you can imagine, House Republican impeachment veterans are jockeying for a spot on Trump’s defense team:

“’There are a lot of rabbits running around claiming to be the very best bunny, but the president hasn’t yet decided which set of fuzzy tails he’ll use,’ said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.”

And in the end, Trump can pick whatever counsel he chooses for the trial. McConnell’s job is to convince him to stick with White House counsel and maybe a distinguished private attorney or two and leave the fuzzy tails out of it.

Decorum aside, you can only imagine the horror of freshly appointed Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler at the prospect of ranking House Judiciary Committee Republican Doug Collins becoming part of Trump’s Senate defense team. Collins, you may recall, was Trump’s favorite to get the Senate seat vacated at the end of the year by Johnny Isakson, and he has not ruled out challenging Loeffler next November in a jungle primary special election to formally fill out the remainder of Isakson’s term. A recent poll showed Collins trouncing the little-known Loeffler in a hypothetical matchup. A week or so of Collins being allowed to rant and snarl on Trump’s behalf with the entire MAGA Nation thrilling to every word would not give Loeffler much job security.

There’s not much question which way Trump himself leans in this matter. One reason Pelosi may be putting off the inevitable transmittal of the impeachment articles is that she enjoys watching McConnell trying to keep the preordained acquittal of Trump relatively dignified. Much of his party, including its leader, craves some crazy.