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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

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.


January 8: Strategies for Democratic Unity

As the New Year began, I mulled a perennial topic of Democratic strategy in a piece for New York:

As the voting phase of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary gets underway next month, fears about conflicts between candidates (and their supporters) weakening the party will begin to multiply. So aside from perpetual (and, in some respects, futile) efforts to assess each candidate’s “electability,” it makes sense to begin examining the most viable candidates in terms of their ability to unite Democratic voters for the mega-intense drive to November. Here are some strategies to consider.

Determine Which Groups Need to Come Together

The first step for any candidate hoping to unify the party is determining which factions are most essential for a 2020 win. Is it average voters? Certain demographic groups? Some combination of activists, opinion leaders, donors, and elected officials?

At this point, most Democratic primary voters don’t seem terribly inclined toward internecine conflict. An Economist-YouGov survey taken at the end of 2019 asks registered voters who say they plan to participate in Democratic primaries or caucuses: “Are there any presidential candidates that you would be disappointed if they became the Democratic nominee?” Multiple answers are allowed. Ex-Republican Mike Bloomberg attracted the most “disappointment,” at 34 percent, with Joe Biden coming in at 23 percent, Bernie Sanders at 20 percent, Andrew Yang at 18 percent, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar at 17 percent, and Elizabeth Warren at 14 percent. Some findings don’t exactly match what you’d expect. Buttigieg is thought by some to have fatally alienated African-American voters. Yet in this survey, only 14 percent of black voters say they’d be disappointed if Mayor Pete is the nominee, less than the 17 percent who said the same of Sanders, whose African-American support levels (mostly among young black voters) are notably stronger this year than in 2016.

Among party elites, you’d get a different picture. Big donors are famously hostile to both Sanders and, perhaps even more particularly, to the Wall Street–focused Warren, despite her generally high ratings among rank-and-file Democrats. Elected officials are more prone to support Biden, and to fear Sanders, so far. The “Twitter Left” of typically young, typically ideological activists is hostile to Biden, as you might expect, but also arguably even more hostile to Buttigieg, whose combination of youth and centrism seems to annoy millennial progressives in a particularly intense way.

In a piece presenting the argument for Sanders’s nomination, Matthew Yglesias suggests that lefty elites are potentially more troublesome in a general election than their less ideological counterparts, and thus need placating:

“Lots of moderate Democrats … find it annoying that Sanders and some of his followers are so committed to painting mainstream Democrats in such dark hues. And it is annoying! But annoying people won’t stop being annoying if he loses the nomination. If anything, they will be more annoying than ever as some refuse to get enthusiastic about the prospect of beating Trump. But if Sanders wins, partisan Democrats who just want to beat Trump will magically stop finding Bernie superfans annoying — the causes will be aligned, and the vast majority of people who want Trump out of the White House can collaborate in peace.”

If you are focused on the small factors that might make a difference in Democratic esprit de corps in a general election, eliminating the fights between Bernie-or-Bust folk and regular Democrats on social media that persisted in 2016 would make sense. But there is also the possibility that a Sanders (or Warren) nomination could give impetus to some sort of “centrist” third-party campaign like the one Howard Schultz threatened to wage earlier in the cycle, which for all its lack of natural voter appeal could serve as a lightning rod for Democratic-donor unhappiness. In other words, the target of each candidate’s unity effort will depend on identifying which voters are most put off by them.

Find Candidates With the Most “Unity” Potential

There are at least two traditional ways of assessing a candidate’s capacity to unify a potentially divided party that we can apply to the 2020 field: ideological positioning and second-choice support.

On the former point, being perceived as at the center of the party with respect to ideology can be a real asset. A new CBS-YouGov poll of Iowa asks if the various candidates are “too progressive,” “not progressive enough,” or “about right.” The rankings for “about right” are as follows: Buttigieg (65 percent); Biden (63 percent); Klobuchar (54 percent); Warren (44 percent); and Sanders (42 percent). Two candidates are far above average in the “too progressive” column: Sanders (50 percent) and Warren (41 percent). Two others stand out as “not progressive enough”: Klobuchar (35 percent) and Biden (31 percent).

But there are other respects in which candidates may or may not have the kind of broad appeal you’d want heading into a general election. Per the Morning Consult tracking poll, for example, Sanders is vastly more popular among younger voters and struggles toward the higher end of the age spectrum; to a less extreme extent, that is true of Yang as well. Biden and Buttigieg have the opposite problem. Warren displays fairly even levels of support by age. Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Yang have support spread reasonably well among white as well as nonwhite voters, while Buttigieg famously struggles with nonwhite voters.

Morning Consult regularly asks its large tracking-poll sample about second-choice candidates. In the latest poll, Sanders is the top second choice of Biden supporters (at 29 percent), followed by Warren (19 percent), Buttigieg (12 percent), and Bloomberg (11 percent). For Sanders supporters, the second choice is Warren (at 32 percent), followed by Biden (28 percent). Among Warren voters, the second preference is Sanders (33 percent) and Biden (24 percent). The runners-up for Buttigieg backers are Biden (27 percent) and Warren (20 percent).

More than anything else, these findings suggest that Biden and Sanders are both stronger unity figures than you might think. But candidates like Buttigieg, who are perceived as ideologically near the party’s center, have some strengths to build on as well.

Endorsements and Running Mates Can Help

As the nomination contest winds down, candidates will have other opportunities to broaden their appeal. First, they can seek endorsements from defeated candidates. Julián Castro’s endorsement of Warren shortly after he withdrew from the race may not bring her that much tangible help, given his own poor standing in the polls, but if others join him, that could burnish her reputation as a unity candidate. Conversely, in 2016, Sanders’s reluctance to endorse Hillary Clinton as soon as he might have (he waited until mid-July) contributed to a persistent sense of a divided party, even though Sanders energetically campaigned for the nominee later on.

Once a candidate has secured the nomination, they can reach out to disappointed party factions of identity groups via their choice of running mate. It is generally expected that any male nominee in 2020 will seek a woman as a running mate, and vice versa; the days of two white men forming a ticket are probably over for the time being among Democrats. But trans-ideological and multigenerational ticket-making could be a factor as well, if the nomination contest is close and tensions have developed.

The late-septuagenarians Biden and Sanders could have a particularly rich opportunity to promote unity in their veep selection, as either might be limited to a single term. Running with a younger, perhaps ideologically distinctive veep could essentially signal to Democrats jittery about them that their nomination wouldn’t necessarily represent some sort of definitive settlement on the party’s direction.

One unity tool that has never been tried by a Democrat (though Ronald Reagan briefly and unsuccessfully attempted it in 1976) is the choice of a coalition-building running mate before the nomination is secured. Hints were dropped by Biden’s campaign that he might try that gambit in 2020, with former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams being the putative veep whose name was most mentioned. Abrams ruled it out for the time being, but not for good, and Biden (or some other candidate) could come back around to the idea between now and the convention.

Surviving Contested Conventions and Other Late Threats to Solidarity

The need for party unity could skyrocket if certain events threaten to further divide Democrats. A contested convention is unlikely but possible, and would certainly make unity gestures very important in restoring normalcy before the sprint to November began. Or if the primaries produce a nominee (Sanders? Biden? Buttigieg?) who provokes threats of defections to a third-party candidate or to the living-room couch on Election Day, then deploying opinion leaders with credibility among disaffected voters would be important. In general, the closer the ultimate contest looks, the more essential it will be to convey the impression that all hands must be on deck.

There Could Be Several “Unity Candidates”

A unified Democratic Party is within the grasp of any nominee, mostly thanks to the Great Unifier in the Oval Office, whose sins make those of any competitor pale by comparison, and whose second term could represent a veritable hellscape for the party and the country. But the need for unity should cross the minds of eager Democrats every time they speak to a reporter or post on Twitter about the unacceptable characteristics of candidates other than their own. It’s not just that the infernal forces of MAGA will repeat, amplify, and exaggerate any such negative talk no matter how hypocritical it may be to do so; it’s also that it may not take much to convince low-information voters that “they’re all just lying politicians” — so why not stay home, or vote for the devil that you know?


January 3: No Telling Where Trump Will Go If Iran Chooses War

Trump’s sudden announcement that the U.S. has “taken out’ a revered Iranian military commander led me to this observation for New York:

The president who has endlessly and redundantly attacked open-ended military commitments and expensive and extended conventional warfare has taken an action that many experts think will push Iran to launch a full-on regional war, perhaps even involving interested bystanders like Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could be the mother of all quagmires. So how did this happen and what will Trump do if the sudden strike he authorized sparks significant retaliatory measures from Iran?

We may not know for years, if ever, exactly what transpired in the White House, but the two relevant things to remember about the commander-in-chief are (a) he is by nature a bully, whose creed has always been winning by intimidation with superior force (or in business, via ruinous lawsuits) and (b) to the extent he thinks about war and peace he’s a total throwback to Andrew Jackson and represents Old Hickory’s peculiar combination of non-interventionism and violent militarism. I explained this latter characteristic when he launched an attack on Syria back in 2017:

“Trump [is] a self-consciously ‘Jacksonian’ president who simultaneously reveres military force while despising the ‘globalist’ ideologies that have both justified and restrained its use so often in U.S. history. ‘Jacksonians’ typically oppose entangling alliances and international nation-building exercises, but not only accept but welcome massive violence when America is ‘crossed.’ For Trump in particular, intimidation of enemies is as important to international affairs as it is to business life. That is why Trump constantly attacked Barack Obama for failing to back up his ‘red line’ threats against Syria’s use of chemical weapons (an attack he repeated before launching the cruise missiles last night) even as Trump himself denied any interest in ‘taking sides’ in that country’s messy civil war …

“Trump’s decision to act without consulting, much less asking authorization from, Congress makes perfect sense. For one thing, the ‘strategy’ or ‘comprehensive plan’ that so many senators asked for in their own initial reactions to the attacks on Syria last night may very well not exist. If the missiles were simply intended to put things right after Obama’s ‘cowardice’ and send a message to the world, then there is not and will never be a ‘strategy’ or ‘plan’ with respect to Syria; the violence was an end in itself.”

It’s very likely that is the case today, too. And projecting his own taste for high-stakes gamesmanship onto the Iranians, he may well believe one show of righteous and lethal American power will make them back down.

You don’t reason with these people, he seems to believe: You just have to show ‘em Uncle Sam is the boss.

But what if Trump has miscalculated by assassinating a figure so central to Iran’s national and religious sensibilities that their own sense of honor demands they do not back down? Or what if they believe they can bully the bully thanks to his well-known distaste for getting tied down into an extended military conflict?

Clearly Trump hopes this is a one-off game that he’s already won. In his brief remarks today from Mar-a-Lago, he treated the assassination of Soleimani as a preventive act that interrupted “sinister attacks” on U.S. personnel. And he pointedly said: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” But it might not be entirely up to him.

It’s at this juncture that things could get really scary. Even if Trump somehow erroneously thinks a conventional war with Iran would ensure his reelection, he is unlikely to want to burden his second term with the kind of endless no-win commitment that sank the despised George W. Bush, in Trump’s own contemptuous estimation. So in the Jacksonian tradition, the most appropriate response to any serious Iranian escalation toward all-out war would be a counter-escalation of great ferocity, which would deliberately ignore any sense of proportion or calibration and display America’s might at its fullest. And if that is Trump’s inclination, it’s unclear whether any of the people around him — or his Republican allies in Congress — who have mostly been frothing for war with Iran for years, would restrain him. It’s certainly doubtful that two of Trump’s favorite allies this side of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel, would object to the U.S. getting medieval on their ancient enemy.

Given Trump’s combined taste for violence and distaste for messy conventional warfare, and his limited concern for the lives of non-Americans, you have to assume the worst is possible. Remember this comment (per Alex Ward) he made last summer about Afghanistan?

“Ahead of a Monday meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump told reporters at the White House that he could win the war in Afghanistan in just one week if he really, really wanted to. But Trump says he won’t do that because he doesn’t want millions to die.

“’I don’t want to kill 10 million people,’ he said. ‘I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over in literally 10 days.’”

If Trump has plans to nuke Afghanistan, he most definitely has plans to nuke Iran, particularly given global worries about Tehran’s own nuclear program. I’m not predicting he’d do anything quite that insane, but the Jacksonian logic of sudden and terrifying force as a first and last resort means nothing lethal is going to be off the table. Lord have mercy on us all.


January 2: Remembering the Scott Brown Disaster

Amidst all the retrospectives of the last decade, I had to note at New York the upcoming decennial anniversary of a bad moment for Democrats:

I’ve only seen one take on the 2010s, from USA Today’s Jill Lawrence, that gives proper weight to the shocking event that showed in the world of politics, the “teens” would not reflect a continuation of the strong Democratic trends of 2006 (which made Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House) and 2008 (when Obama won the presidency in a near-landslide).

That would be Republican Scott Brown’s January 2010 conquest of the Massachusetts Senate seat held since 1962 by the “liberal lion” of that chamber, Ted Kennedy. At the time there were some Democratic hopes that the special election was an aberration based on irregular turnout and a feckless campaign by Democrat Martha Coakley. But as Lawrence pointed out, it was the ultimate omen:

“To call Brown’s win a trauma for Democrats would be an understatement. And yet, although it was a DefCon 1 warning about the midterm to come, they went into those 2010 November elections unprepared for the debacle. Wipeouts in the state legislatures that would draw up new and in some cases egregiously gerrymandered election maps based on the 2010 Census. Wipeouts in races for the governors who would have been able to temper or veto those maps. Wipeouts in the House, installing a GOP majority hellbent on thwarting Obama.

“The trend continued through 2014, from state legislaturesgovernors and the House to a 2014 Republican Senate takeover that offered a glide path for conservative judges and justices when the next jolt arrived two years later in the form of Trump.”

Yes, Obama was reelected in between those two strong Republican years, though by a significantly reduced margin (dropping from 7.2 percent to 3.9 percent in the popular vote). And of course, Brown lost his Senate seat to Elizabeth Warren in 2012. At the time, many observers (myself included) deduced that the demographic disparity between midterm and presidential electorates explained a lot of the apparent oscillation of results, which augured well for Democratic prospects in 2016. And then you-know-what happened.

Now, three weeks before the tenth anniversary of the Brown shocker, there is no easily discernible pattern in American party politics going forward. Democrats did better in 2018 than Republicans did in 2014, by any standard other than net Senate seat gained (Republicans picked up nine net seats in 2014 and actually gained two more in 2018 thanks to a heavily skewed landscape). But that wasn’t unusual for a president’s first midterm, particularly a president as unpopular as Donald Trump. The 2020 election is widely expected to be a barn-burner, and while Democrats should continue to benefit gradually but steadily from demographic changes in their favor, Republicans have proven quite good at maximizing their power via a combination of voter suppression, gerrymandering, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate and the Electoral College, and ruthless demagoguery. If Trump hangs onto the White House next year and his party hangs onto the Senate, the GOP could establish a hold on the federal judiciary lasting for decades, while continuing to punch above their popular weight in other arenas thanks to the structural advantages they maintain.

Brown’s victory and the ensuing struggle to enact Obamacare (and other, less successful, elements of the president’s agenda) without a Democratic Senate supermajority also offered a tutorial on the obstruction a disciplined Republican majority could mount, and the price Democrats would have to pay in policy compromises to govern even with a strong position in Congress (which they were soon to lose).

Without question, Democrats will be ebullient if they manage to defenestrate Trump, particularly if that win is accompanied by the first Democratic trifecta (control of the White House and both Houses of Congress) since 2008. But as 2010 quickly showed, political fortune can change almost instantly, and the work of building a governing majority never ends.


December 27: Democrats Putting Senate in Play for 2020

With all the justifiable focus on the presidential contest, it’s easy to forget how important the battles for control of Congress in 2020 will be. I wrote about the Senate landscape this week for New York:

The general feeling going into this election cycle has been that flipping the Senate will be difficult for Democrats, even if they depose Trump. They have a three-seat majority, and in Alabama’s incongruous Democrat Doug Jones, a pretty easy mark. Only two Republican incumbents (Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine) up for reelection represent states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and aside from Jones, Michigan Democrat Gary Peters is in a Trump ’16 state.

But as the Cook Political Report’s veteran Senate guru Jennifer Duffy notes, Democrats are off to a very good start, particularly on the fundraising front, in their effort to place as many GOP Senate seats into play as possible:

“If there is anything that sticks out in Senate races this cycle, it’s the early spending on television advertising in the most competitive races. As of December 19, just over $32.5 million has been spent in eight key races. Democrats have outspent Republicans, $21.9 million to $10.6 million, according to data provided by Advertising Analytics. The Senate race in Maine has seen the highest level of spending at $8.2 million. To put this in some perspective, Collins spent $5.6 million on her 2014 reelection bid, and independent expenditures amounted to less than $2 million. Advertising Analytics estimates that $55 million will be spent on television advertising in Maine this cycle, an astonishing amount for a state with three relatively inexpensive media markets. Democrats have outspent Republicans almost two to one and nearly all that money has been on ads criticizing Collins.

“Democrats have also outspent Republicans in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, and Kentucky. Republicans have spent considerably more than Democrats in Alabama and North Carolina, but most of the money is being spent in GOP primaries.”

Duffy notes that a Senate impeachment trial could create some general-election problems for GOP incumbents Collins, Gardner, and Martha McSally — who dare not offend the Trumpian base with a vote to remove him from office. But there are signs Democrats also have a shot against North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and Iowa’s Joni Ernst — and perhaps the occupants (David Perdue and the top Republican in the 2020 special “jungle primary”) of the two Georgia Senate seats at risk. Even Kansas is a possible pickup so long as Kris Kobach is in the race.

“It appears that there will be at least five GOP-held seats in play, with a chance that Democrats could add one or two more. This puts Democrats in a position to win the majority, even if they lose Alabama and/or Michigan. This is not to suggest that Democrats will win the majority, only that their prospects are considerably better today than they were five months ago.”

If Mike Pence is reelected as vice president, of course, Democrats would need to post a net gain of four Senate seats to be in a position to block — Joe Manchin willing — Trump executive- and judicial-branch nominees, not to mention whatever nasty legislative treats he has in mind. Given the strong likelihood that we’ll see remarkable levels of straight-ticket voting in 2020, prospects for a Democratic Congress confronting a raging, reelected Trump are limited. More likely, Senate Democrats will be focused on giving a president of their own, if they get one, a fighting chance for success.


December 21: Impeachments Are Always Partisan

On the occasion of Donald Trump’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, I offered a quick history lesson at New York to counter all the angst about the partisanship of the process:

[Y]ou may have already heard handwringing comments about the exceptional partisanship that House members exhibited in the vote to impeach Donald TrumpIt wouldn’t have happened in the days when members of Congress socialized with each other and worked on legislation in a spirit of comity, etc., etc.

Perhaps there is some merit in that much-rehearsed paean to lost bipartisanship, so full of manufactured nostalgia that it ought to be made into a Hallmark Channel movie. But actually, the two previous examples of House votes on presidential impeachment were arguably just as partisan, differing only in degree.

The principal vote to impeach Andrew Johnson (in those days the House voted on a general resolution of impeachment before drafting individual articles), on February 24, 1868, was carried by a 126-47 margin, with 17 members not voting. Of those who did vote, all but two Republicans voted “aye” and all the Democrats voted “nay,” according to the official House history. The later votes on the 11 individual articles eventually sent over to the Senate are hard to find online, but the House history indicates that the margins were “similar.”

When the House voted on the impeachment of Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998 (Thursday is the 21st anniversary of that event), the two articles on which the president was later tried by the Senate passed, per the New York Times, on near-party-line votes. The first, impeaching him for perjury before a federal grand jury, passed by a 228-206 margin in the Republican-controlled chamber, with five Republicans and five Democrats defecting. The second, alleging obstruction of justice, passed by a narrower 221-212 vote. This time 12 Republicans and five Democrats broke ranks.

Yes, there was theoretically more bipartisanship in votes on two articles of impeachment the House rejected, mostly because some Republicans considered them redundant or too easily mockable. An article alleging perjury in the Paula Jones civil case lost 229-205, with 28 Republicans defecting and no Democrats breaking ranks. And a final article alleging “abuse of power” because Clinton apparently offended the dignity of Judiciary Committee Republicans by answering their written interrogatories evasively, didn’t resonate much outside that committee; it was defeated by a wide margin with 81 Republicans (and one Democrat) breaking ranks.

There were, of course, many differences between the three impeachments. Andrew Johnson was pretty much a lame duck, rejected by both major parties as a reelection prospect (though he did get some votes at the later Democratic Convention; he was later elected to the Senate as a Democrat, rejoining his pre-Civil War party), by the time he was impeached. Clinton was a popular second-term president. Johnson was very nearly convicted and removed from office by the Senate; there was never any real chance that would happen to Clinton.

But the most conspicuous thing distinguishing Trump’s impeachment from those of his predecessors has been the full-throated defense of his conduct by his own party. By the time he was impeached, Johnson was virtually a man without a party; southern Democrats, while voting against impeachment and removal, couldn’t be that thrilled about the man who demonized them during the Civil War as traitors who deserved death in battle or by hanging. And he was acquitted mostly because of the concerns some Republicans had that the Tenure of Office Act (banning removal of Cabinet members without congressional concurrence), the backbone of the impeachment articles after Johnson defied it, was unconstitutional (as it was eventually held to be by the Supreme Court). As for Clinton, many, many Democrats condemned his behavior during the Lewinsky scandal, and there was robust support in their ranks in Congress for a measuring censuring him.

So you could say that this third presidential impeachment was more partisan than the first two in that the two parties were not simply arguing over what should be done about a president’s misconduct, but whether it existed at all. And I suspect that his party will be found guilty for that misdemeanor at the bar of history, if not sooner in the 2020 elections.


December 20: Trump’s New Congressional Convert Breaks House GOP’s Anti-Abortion Unanimity

When U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew decided to switch parties after Democrats in his district did not take kindly to his refusal to back an impeachment inquiry, I noticed something about his record that will give his new friends heartburn, and wrote about it for New York:

New Jersey congressman Jeff Van Drew’s impending Democrat-to-Republican Party switch has gotten a lot of attention as another sign of partisan polarization over impeachment (his was one of just two Democratic votes against the formal launch of impeachment proceedings in October, and he had signaled his opposition to the articles of impeachment that will hit the House floor this week). This was punctuated over the weekend by a mass resignation of most of his staff.

The move was probably made inevitable when Democrats back home began to abandon Van Drew much as his staff did later. But Chris Cillizza thinks it’s a great trophy for Trump:

“The image of Van Drew, then, being driven from his party because of impeachment plays directly into Trump’s hands. The President has long argued that Democrats are blinded by their hatred for him and that this latest congressional reaction to his behavior with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is nothing more than a partisan hoax.”

I don’t know about that; I’d say having actual Democrats instead of former Democrats opposing impeachment is more valuable to his cause and to the “Democrats in disarray” narrative political media love so much. But there’s an aspect of Van Drew’s apostasy that could cause Trump and the GOP some heartburn, too. After the 2018 elections (when Rodney Frelinghuysen and Charlie Dent retired), the anti-abortion movement could boast it had finally hunted to extinction the once-vibrant herd of pro-choice House Republicans. Whatever else he is now, Van Drew is pro-choice, having received a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood in the New Jersey legislature, and then saying this during his 2018 congressional campaign:

I’m strongly and unequivocally pro-choice: I support Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose. Any efforts to weaken or undermine that right will face my fierce opposition.

It is most definitely going to annoy Trump’s extremely important conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Catholic allies that a friend of the baby-killers has snuck back into the tent. And they may not be happy that POTUS has publicly offered Van Drew fundraising help in his 2020 reelection bid.  want to know whether the president has promised Van Drew support in his 2020 reelection bid.

Before the party switch, Van Drew had three Republicans already in the field running against him, one of whom is a self-funding business executive who called the incumbent a “weasel.” I’d be shocked if his primary opponents don’t make a big deal out of his position on abortion, which in turn could cause problems for Trump if he defends the apostate, when he really needs anti-abortion activists whipping the faithful into a frenzy before November.


December 12: About That GOP “Coup” Claim

If, like me, you’ve been watching as much of the House Judiciary Committee deliberations on impeachment as you can stand, you have endlessly and interminably and redundantly heard Republicans argue that Democrats are engaged in a “coup” to overturn Trump’s election. This is how I responded at New York:

The House Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, Republican Doug Collins of Georgia, nicely articulated the central impeachment conspiracy theory Trump defenders are reinforcing during his opening statement prior to the testimony of constitutional experts on December 4, per the New York Post:

“’This is not an impeachment. This is just a simple railroad job. And today’s is a waste of time …

“’Do you know where this started? It started with tears in Brooklyn, in November 2016, when an election was lost …

“’Why? Because the chairman said it just a second ago. We’re scared of the elections that we’ll lose again,’ Collins said, referring to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the panel. ‘So we got to do this now.’”

There you have it: Democrats are simultaneously trying to overturn the 2016 election and nullify the 2020 election. Never mind that it’s Trump and his allies who endlessly fulminate against nonexistent voter fraud, claiming (with zero evidence) that he was robbed of a popular-vote win in 2016 by “millions of illegal votes,” or that Democrats won the House in 2018 through illegal “ballot harvesting” (the entirely legal and ethical practice of delivering signed and sealed mail ballots to election authorities). Forget about the chronic Republican efforts to dig potholes on the path to voting places and thwart anything like majority rule. It’s the Democrats who cannot be trusted to accept adverse election results.

Ben Shapiro’s latest column is a much fuller exposition of this claim, under the headline: “Will Democrats Accept the Results of the 2020 Elections?”

It begins with this extraordinary reconstruction of reality:

“Democrats blamed Clinton’s election loss on Russian interference, on voter suppression, on anything but Clinton’s campaign performance.”

Having almost surely read (and written) more left-of-center 2016 election analysis than Shapiro, I laughed aloud at this assertion. I’d say that, by and large, Democrats blamed Clinton’s election loss on the following causes far more than Russian interference: (1) the Comey letter; (2) media emphasis generally on the Clinton emails; (3) the Electoral College system; (4) Clinton campaign mistakes in messaging and mechanics, and especially the failure to see disaster brewing in Michigan and Wisconsin; (5) voter complacency in anticipation of an easy Clinton win; (6) voter reluctance to elect a woman as president; (7) Jill Stein; (8) Bernie Bros; (9) inadequate efforts to turn out minority voters; (10) unprincipled Trump-loathing Republicans who voted for him anyway.

Yes, some Democrats did properly note that Republican secretaries of State and campaign operatives spent a good part of the 2016 cycle, like they spend every cycle, trying to hold voting opportunities for those people (you know, the ones who want to vote themselves welfare benefits and get new Obama Phones) to a minimum. But neither Russian interference nor voter suppression was even mentioned in the elaborate postmortems of reasons most often cited by Clinton supporters and media types conducted by Nate Silver and Molly Ball. The notion that overseas election interference was an idée fixe leading from “tears in Brooklyn” to impeachment is just a crock.

Shapiro makes similar leaps across facts and logic in shifting to the future:

“Now in the run-up to 2020, Democrats are already suggesting that if President Trump wins, the election will have been illegitimate. This time, they’re pointing to Trump’s supposed attempt to gather information from the Ukrainian government on potential 2020 rival Joe Biden in return for release of much-needed military aid. In fact, Democrats state that if Trump is not impeached, the 2020 results will inevitably be deemed improper.”

Actually, House Democrats have consistently made the point that it’s the president’s attempt to secure foreign-government interference that is an impeachable offense, not any likelihood that it did or could have succeeded. And the point about the cost of letting him get away with it is that it might embolden him to do worse things, not that the 2020 election will “inevitably” be deemed improper. No one that I have heard — other than Republicans — is talking about a Democratic challenge to the legitimacy of Trump’s reelection, barring something unforeseen. There’s certainly nothing remotely as alarming as the president’s perpetual “jokes” about not leaving office if he loses or when his second term ends — a possibility for which his and his allies’ attacks on the integrity of the 2016 and 2018 elections have built a foundation among the MAGA folk. The notion of a preemptive partisan coup to keep voters from eagerly reelecting Trump, of course, makes no sense given Republican control of the U.S. Senate compounded by the supermajority requirement for removal of a president.

I’m going to be charitable and recognize there is naturally going to be confusion when efforts to tamper with elections are the basis for an impeachment effort that occurs not long before another election featuring the same president. Impeachment is not, as Shapiro calls it, an effort by Democrats to “run an end around with the electoral process.” It is and has been, since the Constitution was ratified, a part of the system in which elections are another part. Democrats can regard Donald J. Trump’s presidency as “illegitimate” for all sorts of reasons, ranging from his unprecedented mendacity to his megalomania to his contempt for the rule of law to the undisguised joy he takes in dividing people into warring tribes by appealing to his supporters’ most atavistic — and, I might add, irreligious — instincts. And yes, many Democrats think presidents elected by popular minorities — like Trump and George W. Bush in his first term — lack moral authority. But nobody’s talking about disregarding and nullifying elections, unless it’s those “this is a republic, not a democracy” conservatives who believe their mandate to rule came from God or nature, not from the people.

All this “coup” talk may just reflect the Rovian principle Team Trump has adopted of accusing its accusers of harboring one’s own vulnerabilities and dark thoughts.