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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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June 11: Recall Fever in California Not Just About Gavin Newsom

There’s been a lot of coverage of the effort to recall Gavin Newsom, but not much analysis of other recall drives in the state, and why they are so numerous. I tried to remedy that at New York:

Like a slow-motion riot, the effort to force California governor Gavin Newsom into a special recall election has dominated political headlines in the Golden State for months. Facilitated by a conservative judge’s decision to give petition-gatherers a 120-day extension in the time allowed to reach the required 1,495,709 signatures needed to trigger a recall, the recall drive succeeded, though the date of the special election (probably in November) will be determined after a few more legal requirements in the process have been satisfied.

But as the Los Angeles Times reports, Newsom is hardly the only target of 2021 recall drives in California:

“During the first five months of 2021, active recall efforts — those in which an official step has been taken — have targeted at least 68 local officials in California, according to a Times analysis. The total has already surpassed the number of local recall attempts seen during four of the last five years in California.”

Most of the targets are Democrats, and COVID-19 restrictions are the most important motivator — however, this recall fever has struck both big cities and rural counties, and a wide range of discontents are at play. Of course, these factors are not unique to California. Here’s why recalls have become so popular in this particular state.

Recalling elected officials in California is relatively easy

Nineteen states provide for the recall of state elected officials, alongside 30 states that allow local jurisdictions to provide for their own recall elections. Rules vary widely, but California is distinctive in that it (a) does not require any particular rationale for demanding a recall, and (b) has among the lowest thresholds for triggering recall elections. The Newsom recall, for example, needed validated signatures from 12 percent of the number of voters in the last election for the office in question. In Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin, the threshold is 25 percent of voters in the last election. Some states link the threshold to the percentage of registered voters (e.g., Montana, which requires signatures of 10 percent of the number of registered voters in the last election for the office).

The thresholds for recall of local elected officials vary in California according to the size of the jurisdiction, but they are quite low (10 percent of registered voters) for the larger cities and counties, and some are provided for in local government charters that are not subject to state law.

Legal requirements aside, there is a political culture in California encouraging recall drives that assumed a whole new prominence after the successful effort to remove Governor Gray Davis from office in 2003. At any given movement, there are recall petitions circulating aimed at a large number of elected officials, even though most never succeed.

The backlash against COVID-19 restrictions in California was especially intense and not limited to conservatives

For various reasons, including often-clumsy state management of public-health policies and confusing local rules, the backlash against pandemic-related restrictions in California seems to have been unusually intense. One prominent recall target, Ventura County supervisor Linda Parks, has galvanized a lot of local frustrations, notes the Times:

“’People were sitting at home and feeling impotent,’ said longtime Thousand Oaks resident and retired high school receptionist Karen Meyer. Meyer now often spends weekends at a small folding table in the parking lot of a local Target or DMV, asking passersby if they’d like to sign petitions to recall Parks in Ventura County.

“The recall organizer faulted her county supervisor for hewing too closely to Newsom’s pandemic directives and not doing enough to save local businesses.”

Recall fever in California may have also been specifically fueled by Newsom’s terrible mistake in attending a maskless indoor party for a prominent donor and lobbyist at one of the state’s most exclusive restaurants (the Napa Valley’s French Laundry). This contributed to perceptions that elected officials administering pandemic restrictions were hypocrites who were cavalier about damaging the livelihoods of barbers and hairdressers and small businesses, and the freedom to worship of churchgoers — complaints not limited to members of any party or ideology. And the particularly strong and ideologically diffuse anti-vaxxer movement in California likely strengthened the backlash against the entire anti-COVID-19 effort.

But as in other parts of the country, anger at school boards for lengthy shutdowns of in-person instruction transcended party and ideological groupings, with the California teachers unions getting blamed for particularly inflexible state and local rules. The likely successful effort to force recall elections for three members of the local school board in ultraliberal San Francisco cannot be explained as a Republican or conservative gambit; even progressive voters and elected officials objected to the board’s focus on renaming schools to get rid of marginally objective names rather than reopening them when possible.

California’s GOP sees recalls as its best shot at fighting an overwhelming Democratic advantage

While all the recalls cannot be dismissed (as many Democrats have tried to do) as GOP or right-wing stunts, there is no question that California’s very weak Republican Party has relied on this type of ballot “protest” more than its counterparts in states that aren’t as dark blue. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in California since 2006. Democrats hold and show no signs of losing supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. And traditional Republican strongholds like Orange County are now intense battlegrounds (won by Democrats in 2018, and partially won back by Republicans in 2020, in very close elections).

How ballot-based issue protests and recalls work together for California Republicans was illustrated by the successful 2018 recall aimed at Orange County Democratic state senator Josh Newman for voting in favor of the same gas tax increase that Republicans were trying to repeal via a statewide ballot initiative. The recall succeeded while the initiative failed, and Newman won the seat back in 2020. But linking the pol to the grievance was probably a good idea.

Republicans in California are currently dramatizing their law-and-order messages by attacking allegedly weak-on-crime elected officials. In California, two particular objects of conservative ire, San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles district attorney George Gascon, are facing recall efforts. How else can Republicans spend their time in such overwhelmingly pro-Democratic jurisdictions?

In the suburban San Diego city of Carlsbad, an even more basic partisan and ideological fight is under way as right-wing talk-radio personality Carl DeMaio (who is also active in the Newsom recall effort) is leading a recall drive aimed at city councilwoman Cori Schumacher, a former professional surfing celebrity being targeted for a variety of ideological sins. She is also the object of ire for a particularly unhappy and influential group of restaurant owners. This particular campaign shows how COVID-19 grievances are merging with other, and sometimes unrelated, complaints to fuel a pretty clearly conservative purge effort aimed at a Democratic elected official in contested turf.

But will any of these recall efforts succeed?

Probably some will, though the big one, against Newsom, is likely to fail so long as public-health and economic conditions continue to improve and Democrats stay united in supporting him. Some Republican recall backers may yet regret putting so many eggs in the recall basket, and some voters angry about lockdowns and school closings may get over it. But in California, a recall drive is never more than a shout away.


June 9: Palin Quickly Faded From Sight. Will Trump Follow?

Ran across an article from ten years ago about the ubiquitous Sarah Palin, and it got me thinking, as I discussed at New York:

While mulling one of the great political media questions of 2021 — Will Donald Trump soon fade from sight, and what will we write about if he does? — I ran across this Joshua Green quote in The Atlantic published exactly ten years ago: “It’s hard to escape Sarah Palin. On Facebook and Twitter, cable news and reality television, she is a constant object of dispute, the target or instigator of some distressingly large proportion of the political discourse.” I remember now that it was at about this period that liberal journalists often taunted one another for writing lazily about Palin on slow news days, just as they did with Trump more recently.

After a lot of speculation that she would run for president in 2012 produced no news-sustaining sensation for St. Joan of the Tundra, she began to fade into the background. When she produced a late pre-Iowa endorsement for Trump, it didn’t keep Ted Cruz from winning the state. And for obscure reasons (possibly her poorly timed criticism of a tax-subsidy deal to bribe the Carrier air-conditioning company to keep a plant open in Indiana), she was one of the few early Trump validators who never got rewarded with anything. Soon she began to fade from sight with episodic reappearances that were almost shocking in reminding us what a big deal she had been (including, last year, her appearance as a dancing Mama Grizzly on The Masked Singer and a weird Instagram post hinting at a 2022 challenge to Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska).

“It’s already getting dark out there for Mister Trump. Without the presidency, he already commands much less of our mindshare than he did only a few weeks ago. Like Palin, Trump himself will recede over time, even if the damage he has inflicted on our political culture remains. The media has started to search for the next ambassador from Crazytown, the next ratings grab.”

While Hamby may ultimately be correct, it won’t happen right away, it seems. Arguably, the grip of the 45th president and his lies on the Republican Party is even stronger than it was when he finally left office, even though he has been widely “de-platformed” and is only now beginning to resume his signature rallies. And even those who think his staying power is limited generally no longer think the GOP will resume some sort of innocent pre-Trump trajectory; at best, we will be dealing with Trumpism, if not Trump, for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the best way to understand the Palin-Trump comparison is not as back-to-back comets doomed to flame out quickly but as one shocking figure in touch with some powerful grassroots dynamics being superseded by another with better skills and perfect timing. As I said when Palin endorsed Trump in 2016, “[I]n many respects, the Trump campaign is the presidential campaign Palin herself might have aspired to run if she had the money and energy to do so.” The people who cheered the amateur Palin didn’t need her much anymore when the professional huckster showed up in national politics.

As part of a new typology of America’s warring tribes (and warring narratives of the country’s past, present, and future), the journalist George Packer has a very clear understanding of the relationship between these two champions of “Real America.” Years before Trump perfected his pitch to an aroused and fearful base rooted in non-college-educated white residents of small towns and exurbs, Palin was on the 2008 campaign trail saying this: “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit … and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hardworking, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us.”

Palin channeled the authentic fury of the white working class toward allegedly freeloading minorities and the supercilious overeducated elites aligned with them, united in the person of Barack Obama, “a Black professional who had gone to the best schools, who knew so much more than Palin, and who was too cerebral to get in the mud pit with her.”

But Palin was flawed and, above all, premature. “John the Baptist to the coming of Trump,” says Packer, alluding to the New Testament prophet who prepared the way for Jesus. So she was soon to fade, not because the impetus to her fame had subsided but because she herself was no longer necessary or sufficient to the savage cause she represented:

“Palin crumbled during the [2008] campaign. Her miserable performance under basic questioning disqualified her in the eyes of Americans with open minds on the subject. Her Republican handlers tried to hide her and later disowned her. In 2008, the country was still too rational for a candidate like Palin. After losing, she quit being governor of Alaska, which no longer interested her, and started a new career as a reality-TV personality, tea-party star, and autographed-merchandise saleswoman. Palin kept looking for a second act that never arrived. She suffered the pathetic fate of being a celebrity ahead of her time.”

But the resentments that fed the careers of both Palin and Trump haven’t subsided at all. For a good while now, America hasn’t worked for “Real Americans,” and they blame educated elites and their minority clientele for ruining it. Restoring this often-imaginary white Eden won’t happen overnight, but in the meantime, the thrill of terrifying the class-race enemy with the hobgoblin of a crude, vengeful leader who “tells it like it is” can be a satisfying blood sport. Palin was good at it, Trump is better, and Lord help us if the true master of this brand of politics is still waiting in the wings.


June 3: Democrats Need a Backup Plan For Securing Voting Rights

Much as we all want to see congressional action on voting rights while Democrats control the White House and Congress, it’s time to consider a Plan B, as I noted at New York:

In all the projections of what Congress might accomplish this year, there’s no subject on which Republican obstruction is more powerful and fateful than voting rights. And amid widespread angst over state-level voter-suppression measures enacted at the behest of both threatened Establishment Republicans and delusional MAGA folk alleging massive if never-documented fraud, partisan gridlock may actually be hardening.

The two pieces of voting-rights legislation currently moving through Congress are certainly long overdue. The For the People Act (HR1 and S1), which has passed the House twice, would establish national standards for voting, elections, and representation across a wide range of issues, from rules for absentee ballots to gerrymandering to the financing of congressional campaigns. On a parallel track, the narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act aims to reverse the Supreme Court’s demolition of the pre-clearance provisions that prior to 2013 would have subjected voting and election-laws changes (like the ones Republican-controlled states are racing to enact) to advanced review and possible cancellation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The For the People Act is pending in the Senate, where it has 49 co-sponsors (every Democrat other than Joe Manchin). The John Lewis bill is still under development in both Houses, as Democratic lawmakers work on a formula for pre-clearance to replace the one the Supreme Court struck down as “outdated.” But all 50 Senate Democrats, plus Republican Lisa Murkowski, favor it (perhaps with modifications; Manchin wants to require pre-clearance in all 50 states).

Unfortunately, it will take every Democrat plus ten Republicans to get either bill through the Senate, and that seems 100 percent impossible for S.1 and maybe 95 percent impossible for the John Lewis Act. Many Republicans plausibly argue that S. 1 goes far beyond voting rights into areas like campaign-finance law that are wildly controversial. There’s no legitimate reason for GOP hostility to the most basic version of the John Lewis Act, which restores the VRA to what it was when it was unanimously extended by the Senate (with support from President George W. Bush) in 2006. But at a time when Donald Trump and his allies are lashing Republican legislators everywhere to restrict voting opportunities, few Senate Republicans are going to risk a primary challenge for valuing voting rights over “election integrity.”

Ron Brownstein has forcefully argued that defeating attacks on the franchise is a life-or-death matter for Democrats, meriting the extraordinary remedy of taking the filibuster off the table for voting-rights legislation (if not for everything):

“With the congressional calendar dominated by President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar spending proposals … activists are expressing concern that neither the administration nor Democratic congressional leaders are raising sufficient alarms about the threats to voting rights proliferating in red states, or developing a strategy to pass the national election standards that these groups consider the party’s best chance to counter those threats.”

In a closely divided country where Democrats are clinging to power in Washington, new voter-suppression laws (in tandem with present and future GOP control of state-election systems) could help Republicans gain a decisive advantage in the next couple of election cycles. But Joe Manchin’s outspoken opposition to any sort of filibuster reform — explicitly including a carve-out for voting rights — makes the urgency of this fight a little beside the point. No threats or blandishments aimed at Manchin can likely overcome the simple fact that he represents a state that gave Donald Trump 69 percent of its vote in both 2016 and 2020. And opposing filibuster reform is an easy and mandatory vote for Republican senators, even those who are open to heresy on other subjects.

So what are voting-rights advocates, including the president and most other Democrats in Congress, to do? Sure, they can scale back S. 1 to make it less obviously objectionable to Republicans, but at the risk of alienating Democratic constituencies, and without necessarily winning a single GOP Senate vote. Or they could (and probably should) launch a very noisy effort to shame Republicans for blocking the John Lewis bill — but even alleged GOP voting-rights supporters can always find some whataboutism excuse (ballot harvesting! Unsupervised drop-boxes!) for demanding a different kind of legislation.

In The Atlantic, David Frum looks down the likely road to defeat for voting-rights legislation in this Congress and finds a “Plan B” that is unsatisfying but perhaps all that’s left:

“Taking decisive action to fill the 80-odd federal judicial vacancies with pro-voting judges followed by turbocharging enforcement efforts at the Department of Justice may seem only second-best compared with new legislation. But if new legislation cannot be enacted, then second-best will have to do.”

Frum is alluding to the power of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to launch its own litigation against voter-suppression measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which is still intact. Under the leadership of the distinguished and newly confirmed Civil Rights Division chief Kristen Clarke, such litigation could indeed be “supercharged.” But while the Biden administration can strengthen pro-voting-rights elements of the federal judiciary to give its Justice Department some wins, Clarke and other voting-rights advocates will still being dealing with conservative-leaning courts, led by a Supreme Court that is more conservative than it was when it weakened the VRA eight years ago.

Indeed, the author of that Shelby County v. Holder decision, Chief Justice John Roberts, is now in many respects to the left of the Court’s center of gravity. And the Supreme Court will soon rule on a fresh challenge to Section 2 of the VRA that could make it harder for Clarke or any other litigant to successfully show the discriminatory effect of voting- or election-law changes.

If all else fails, of course, and state-level Republicans continue to violate voting rights, Democrats could use outrage over these developments to energize their own voters and simply overwhelm the barricades erected by legislators. Brownstein thinks that may be Team Biden’s Plan B already:

“Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, ‘I think our feeling is, show us what the rules are and we will figure out a way to educate our voters and make sure they understand how they can vote and we will get them out to vote,’ the official told me. Through on-the-ground organizing, ‘there are work-arounds to some of these provisions,’ said a senior Democrat familiar with White House thinking, who also spoke with me on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.”

It is entirely true that no one knows what the impact of voter-suppression laws will be on the ground, particularly with respect to provisions that make voting much more inconvenient without blocking it altogether. Some analysts are convinced that Republican legislators don’t know what they are doing, or are simply reacting to Trump’s demands for assaults on voting by mail (a voting method that Republicans utilized in the past at least as much as Democrats). But Democrats hoping to out-motivate Republicans in the 2022 elections are betting against the decided evidence of history, in which the White House party almost always loses ground in midterms. And it won’t take much in the way of losses for Republicans to regain control of the House if not the Senate, and shut down prospects for voting-rights legislation for the foreseeable future.


May 28: Trump Bringing Back Contract With America…and Its Author

This news I discussed at New York was mostly of interest to those of us who were politically active in the 1990s, though then again, some gimmicks never die.

We all understand that Donald Trump wants to maintain control over the Republican Party for the foreseeable future, which means he has to find some way to keep himself in the spotlight during the 2022 midterm elections.  For assistance with this effort, he is consulting the all-time reigning huckster of such symbolic endeavors, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose 1994 “Contract With America” earned all sorts of undeserved credit for the GOP conquest of the House that year. Politico has the eye-rolling story:

“With an eye toward winning back the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, former President Donald Trump has begun crafting a policy agenda outlining a MAGA doctrine for the party. His template is the 1994 ‘Contract with America,’ a legislative agenda released ahead of the midterm elections in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s first term. And, as a cherry on top, he’s teaming up with its main architect — Gingrich — to do it.”

Yes, the Contract With America included some specifics like Congress applying its laws to its own operations, a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, and congressional term limits. But it excluded plenty of top-tier Republican legislative proposals that weren’t terribly popular, and it batched loosely connected policy bites under catchy headlines like “The Take Back the Streets Act” (random provisions conveying a get-tough-on-crime attitude) and “The Senior Citizens Fairness Act” (really just eliminating taxes on Social Security benefits).

The alleged genius of the contract (and of Gingrich) was also refuted more than a bit by the travails of the GOP in power. Newt’s great nemesis Bill Clinton was easily reelected two years later, and four years later Republicans became the first non–White House party since 1934 to lose House seats in a midterm election, leading to Gingrich’s forced resignation as speaker (and as a House member).

But at this stage of their careers, neither Gingrich nor Trump is likely thinking long-term. Both men went off the rails into extremism during the past decade: Gingrich in preparation for a failed 2012 presidential bid and Trump more successfully in 2016 and 2020. You do wonder how savage and culture-war-centric the new contract, which will supposedly have America First thematics, could wind up being. Gingrich offered some thoughts:

“’It should be positive,’ Gingrich said. ‘School choice, teaching American history for real, abolishing the 1619 Project, eliminating critical race theory and what the Texas legislature is doing. We should say, ‘Bring it on.’”

“Gingrich said it shouldn’t be expected until closer to the midterm elections because ‘the world keeps changing and evolving.'”

Yeah, and so do polls. But hey, there’s nothing more substantive, is there, than “abolishing the 1619 project”? Unless it’s combating “voter fraud,” which I am sure Trump will insist upon.

Expect the worst when these two frauds get together.


May 27: Disturbing Evidence That Presidential Popularity Is All About Party

The more we look at Joe Biden’s job approval ratings, the more it looks like the continuation of a pattern, as I explained at New York:

One of the regular themes of poll watchers during the Trump presidency was the remarkable stability of this very unstable man’s job-approval ratings compared with every available precedent. Two days after he left office, an NBC News analysis put it all into perspective:

“Former President Donald Trump’s time in office is over. He’s been impeached twice and banned from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. But if his presidency was a roller coaster, his approval ratings were not.

“Trump left office with steadier approval ratings than his most recent predecessors, an analysis of NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling data from January 1993 to this January shows. Trump’s approval rating remained within the same 9-point range for his entire presidency: 47 percent at its highest in October 2018, and 38 percent at its lowest in October 2017.”

Barack Obama, by contrast, had a 21-point “band” of approval ratings, which in turn was vastly less volatile than George W. Bush’s 62-point variation between highest and lowest ratings. Trump’s numbers were so uncannily consistent that every time we all wondered if they were finally about to change for better or for worse, instead they lapsed back into moderately underwater territory. It adds to the weirdness that this politician — who was elected president in 2016 despite a terrible favorability ratio (significantly exceeding in disfavor his unpopular opponent) — came very close to winning a second term despite never posting a net-positive job-approval rating in the polling averages.

Now we are five months into the Biden presidency, and guess what? The new president’s job approval ratings, while higher than Trump’s, are also very — in fact, historically — stable, as Harry Enten observes:

“A lot has happened since Biden took office: We’ve seen a failed impeachment trial, a major economic and coronavirus relief package signed into law and the continuation of a mass vaccination campaign leading to more than 60% of adults with at least one a Covid-19 shot nationwide.

“All of this has happened — and the national political environment has remained stagnant. It’s almost as if no event seems to really change public opinion.”

Biden’s approval rating today is pretty much the same as it was a month ago (54%). It’s the exact same as it was at the beginning of his presidency (53%). Any movements can be ascribed to statistical noise.

Some of us (myself included) have wondered if the contrast between the fairly dramatic real-world developments that occurred early in Biden’s presidency and his virtually unchanging approval ratings reflected his deliberately low-profile approach to governing. But it was pretty hard to ignore the fact that partisan polarization best explained the actual numbers, as I noted last month:

“The most striking thing about Biden’s approval ratings is the degree of partisan polarization. It’s off the charts, according to Gallup data. When I wrote about this a couple of months ago, the partisan gap in Biden job approval was a record 87 percent (98 percent approval among Democrats, 11 percent among Republicans). The March Gallup numbers put the gap at 86 percent (94 percent approval among Democrats, and 8 percent among Republicans). These are more extreme splits than we saw under the exceptionally polarizing Trump, and they make the partisan atmosphere under George W. Bush and Barack Obama look like Edens of consensus.”

At some point, you wind up wondering with Enten if no event seems to really change public opinion. That would suggest that Americans have become so tribal in their partisan preferences that neither the turbulent Trump nor the placid Biden — nor anything either of them is doing or undoing — can shake people out of their allegiances. Indeed, I expressed a similar suspicion back in 2019 that wound up predicting the outcome of the 2020 race more than any of my election forecasting:

“My guess is that the narrow band of favorability and job approval numbers for Trump is just another testament to the partisan polarization that made it possible for him to win in 2016, despite his unpopularity. He cannot fall too far, even when he’s behaving in his signature beastly manner, because Republicans will sustain him …

“There are circumstances under which he can transcend his many handicaps by demonizing his opponent, revving up the MAGA people, and taking advantage of an Electoral College system which does not weigh popular votes equally.”

The events of January 6 finally created a bit of a drop in Trump’s popularity among Republicans, but he seems to have quickly recovered that ground and reestablished himself as the boss of his party at both the rank-and-file and elite levels. What matters most, in the long run, is not whether Republicans remain loyal to Trump personally, but whether the partisanship and extremism he represents remain politically cost-free to those emulating his example. There’s abundant evidence it is.

So the temptation for today’s and tomorrow’s Republicans is to let no demagogic opportunity to “energize the base” go unexploited in order to goose partisan turnout the way Trump clearly did. The natural anti–White House trend in midterm elections, reinforced by the Republican advantage in redistricting, is extremely likely to award the GOP with control of the U.S. House in 2022, and with more than its share of battleground state victories in gubernatorial, secretary of state, and legislative contests, leaving the party in good shape for a 2024 comeback with or without Trump as the vengeful candidate of a militant and happily extremist MAGA base.

There are still some swing voters out there to be captured. But as both the 2016 and 2020 Trump campaigns illustrated, a strategy of demonizing the opposition can simultaneously energize the base and sway the undecided with a lesser-of-two-evils appeal.

There are obviously reciprocal lessens for Democrats in this tale. Any fears that pursuit of a too-ambitious agenda by Biden and congressional Democrats will hurt the party in 2022 are probably misplaced; Democrats are likely to lose some ground in the midterms with either a timid or an audacious governing strategy, so they might as well get as much done as possible. And, ironically, the fact that Joe Biden the Fighting Liberal has the same exact level of popularity as Joe Biden the determined bipartisan centrist may show that a more progressive successor would do just fine, or perhaps better, if she or he could mobilize the Democratic base more effectively.

It appears more and more likely that America is in a perilous moment at which the zeal of our two warring tribes matters more in determining the nation’s fate than the identity of its leaders or even the consequences of their policies. That’s not the “new normal” of the Biden presidency most observers had in mind, but it explains a lot.


May 21: In Deep Denial

Press reports of an official 2020 post-mortem by Georgia Republicans show how subscription to Trump’s lies enables a full whitewashing of what happened, and I wrote about it at New York.

Want a succinct illustration of the delusional nature of the Republican Party’s Trumpian reaction to the 2020 election cycle that lost them control of the White House and both houses of Congress? Check out the Georgia GOP’s official “2020-2021 After Action Report,” released recently by David Shafer, the state party chairman. Here’s the key claim:

“We completely retooled the Georgia Republican Party in 2020. We raised record amounts of money, recruited record numbers of volunteers and knocked on record numbers of doors. We turned out 372,733 more Republican votes in 2020 than in 2016 when Donald Trump won Georgia and 483,429 more votes than in 2018 when Brian Kemp was elected governor.”

So where’s the snake in this Garden of Eden? That’s easy:

“[I]n the top races, even this massive increase in Republican turnout was unable to overcome an electoral system rendered defenseless by foolish legal settlements and feckless ’emergency’ rules. The Georgia Republican Party, on three separate occasions, sued the Secretary of State to force him to obey the law and do his job [emphasis in the original].”

That would be the elected Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who spurned the Trump campaign’s incoherent blustering about “foolish legal settlements” (a consent decree that simply confirmed existing signature-authentication procedures for mail ballots) and “feckless emergency rules” (the mailing of absentee-ballot applications to registered voters), and also declined to obey Trump’s personal instruction to “find” enough missing or erroneous ballots to overturn Biden’s certified victory in Georgia.

The attribution of every defeat to Raffensperger usefully (if “fecklessly”) allowed Shafer to take a victory lap over an election cycle in which the Georgia GOP (a) lost the presidential race for the first time in 28 years); (b) lost not one but two U.S. Senate seats — the first Senate losses in Georgia for Republicans since sorta-Democrat Zell Miller’s win in 2000 — thereby giving Democrats control of the Senate and a governing trifecta, a development with enormous consequences; and (c) the loss of a long-Republican U.S. House seat for the second consecutive election year. Even if you buy half of the ludicrous “fraud” allegations that every judge in the state contemptuously rejected, this was a bad election cycle for the Georgia Republican Party, leading to a panic-stricken effort to restrict voting opportunities in hopes of bringing back the Peach State electorate of yore. So it’s not very smart to paper over the setbacks and pretend that once Raffensperger is purged (a task Georgia Republicans with Trump’s encouragement are well on their way to executing) everything will be hunky-dory for the GOP, as Greg Bluestein suggested in his analysis of the After Action Report:

“Typically, political parties use setbacks as a chance to learn from their mistakes, try out new messaging and offer advice for a future generation of candidates on how to wage a winning campaign in the next election cycle. But there was no introspection or soul-searching in the Georgia GOP’s high-gloss ‘After Action Report,’ even in a year following Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the state in November’s presidential election and the Democratic sweep of U.S. Senate runoffs in January. The publication distributed by the state party at district meetings across the state over the weekend, and obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, read as a manifesto about what the party did right.”

On the other hand, a political party that is willing to treat every defeat as a purloined victory has no particular incentive to fix anything. If, say, Republicans lose the governorship to a likely Stacey Abrams candidacy in 2022, it will be the easiest thing in the world to blame it on the imaginary “voter fraud” they are already inclined to accuse Abrams in particular and Democrats in general of fomenting. After all, it won’t be their fault, and in 2024, Donald Trump will come to the rescue of the GOP and of the America he once made great. It’s a closed feedback loop of unassailable strength and shocking mendacity.


May 19: The Threat to Roe v. Wade

After the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided to deal with Mississippi’s sharply restrictive new abortion law, I wrote about the possible implications at New York:

After months of mysterious uncertainty, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade presented by a ban on abortions prior to 15 weeks of pregnancy, as enacted by the State of Mississippi. And the Court left no ambiguity about its willingness to get back to the basics of the constitutional law governing abortion by limiting its review to the question of “whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.” That’s the question that was answered affirmatively in 1973 in Roe and again in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Caseythe two Supreme Court precedents that have restrained eager Republican-controlled state legislatures and an increasingly conservative federal judiciary from eroding or abolishing reproductive rights.

Oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will occur in the next Court term this fall, which means a decision is likely in the spring or early summer of 2022. The early betting is that the six justices placed on the Court by the strongly anti-abortion presidents George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump will finally take the leap to seriously revise, if not reverse, a woman’s right to choose abortion prior to fetal viability. The chronically pessimistic progressive legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern may be right this time around:

“This action suggests that the conservative majority is no longer interested in gradually eroding abortion rights until they are, in reality, nonexistent. This strategy has guided the anti-abortion movement for decades. It has resulted in laws that shutter abortion clinics under a bogus pretext, compel doctors to read anti-abortion propaganda, force women to undergo ultrasounds and waiting periods, and forbid abortions for specific reasons, like fetal disability. After the confirmations of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, the conventional wisdom dictated that the Supreme Court would begin to uphold these laws, chipping away at Roe until it became a hollow promise. But the new conservative majority is not waiting for these half-measures to reach the court; with Dobbs, it has gone for the jugular. Roe itself is on the table.”

Under this reading, the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett flipped a Court that, as recently as 2020, was willing to invalidate a Louisiana law restricting access to abortion clinics on the grounds that it violated Casey’s standard prohibiting laws that placed an “undue burden” on women choosing pre-viability abortions. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch are almost certain votes to abandon Roe and Casey, while Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh have appeared to be more cautious about defying so long-standing a set of precedents.

But with only three justices (Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) being firmly committed to reproductive rights, and with virtually the entire Republican Party (not to mention its Federalist Society legal wing) opposing them, the time for a showdown may have now arrived. Indeed, among conservatives, the main difference of opinion is between those who favor a return to the pre-1973 status quo ante, in which the states (or, in theory, Congress) will determine abortion law, and those embracing the more radical doctrine of fetal “personhood” (which would have the effect of requiring a constitutional amendment to legalize abortion anywhere).

But before conceding defeat on the Court, reproductive-rights advocates should recall that we’ve been here before. In 1992, when SCOTUS accepted the Pennsylvania case that became Casey, it was widely expected that Roe was about to fall, in no small part because Thomas had just joined the Court. Indeed, we now know then–Chief Justice William Rehnquist circulated a draft opinion overturning Roe that was tentatively supported by five justices. But Justice Anthony Kennedy changed his mind and joined fellow Republican appointees Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter in affirming Roe’s viability standard, while replacing its trimester scheme with the “undue burden” test for pre-viability restrictions that is still in place.

Could that (i.e., a reframing rather than a reversal of the right to choose) happen again? It seems unlikely, but there is one straw in the wind that suggests it’s not necessarily a done deal. Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan did not choose to publish dissents to the order to hear Dobbs, which one might have expected if a conservative majority to reverse Roe is in place, given the unquestioned unconstitutionality of the Mississippi law under the existing precedents. It remains possible that Roberts and Kavanaugh, fearing an anti-Court outcry among women everywhere, could be persuaded to reaffirm the viability standard yet again, perhaps alongside some new leeway for less fundamental state restrictions. In other words, the 1992 saga could be replayed with a similar result. Short of a change of Court membership during the next year, that may be the abiding hope of reproductive-rights advocates. But they’d best focus most of their efforts on formulating a strategy for restoring the right to choose via intense political warfare in the states.


April 29: Republicans Can’t Get a Clear Focus on Biden

Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:

When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.

Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:

“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”

This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.

But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.

Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.

Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.

Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.


April 28: Democrats Should Use Power Fully While They Have It

There is a lot of neurotic fretting about past and future elections going on in Democratic circles right now. Introspection is fine, but there are limits, as I explained at New York:

Since Joe Biden took office, we’ve seen a striking contrast between the audacious legislative agenda that the new president and his congressional allies are implacably advancing and the anxiety that so many of them (but decidedly not Biden himself) are expressing about their narrow escape from defeat in 2020 and the probable rough electoral sledding ahead. Even as Congress accomplishes things unimaginable in the Obama administration, Democrats keep fretting about the lost opportunities that the expected 2020 landslide could have given them, the traction that many fear Republicans are obtaining with their anti-wokeness crusade, and the baleful history of midterm elections that have shattered the plans of new administrations.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Punchbowl he figures there is a direct connection between the political anxieties of congressional Democrats and their audacious legislative agenda:

“Majorities are not given, they are earned. This is not like 1994 and 2010 …

“[Y]ou had to win 40 seats in 2010 … I think everybody knows the majority is in play. So the reason why it’s different, the majority is in play. In ’94 and 2010, at the beginning of those years, they didn’t believe the majority was at play in the nation. I believe it is, and the Democrats, I think, believe it is too; that’s why they’re going so far left, knowing that they’re gonna lose it.”

So basically, McCarthy is charging that Democrats are shooting for the moon in 2021 because they understand that their governing trifecta is fragile and will likely end in 2022. It’s a hostile, self-serving hypothesis but nonetheless worth considering.

Any governing party implicitly has to balance, if not choose between, the goals of implementing its desired policies and of sustaining its power by positioning itself to win future elections. Ideally, of course, such parties hope their legislative priorities are popular enough to serve as a future campaign platform. Democrats who understand how ambitious their current legislative agenda is are particularly encouraged that it is polling well so far. And as New York’s Jonathan Chait has observed, Biden himself has adopted a presidential style that downplays the audacity of the legislation he is promoting, which helps get it enacted while giving the opposition fewer ripe targets.

But at some point very soon, Democrats may no longer be able to avoid a choice between accomplishments and political sustainability. Even if they are able to keep big policy proposals on issues like climate change, police reform, or housing supply from becoming politically fraught right away, they must take into account how they may play into Republican messaging on “socialism,” “wokeness,” or “class warfare.” Do they hold back on legislative audacity, then, in order to maximize the odds of hanging on to Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024? Or do they move ahead as quickly and ambitiously as they can and hope for the best? I’d offer four pretty compelling reasons for continuing to shoot for the moon.

Democrats’ power is too fragile to protect, so they may as well use it

Thanks to where 2020 left Democrats in Congress, a screeching halt to their legislative progress is no further away than an unexpected death or the resignation of a single senator, a decision by one senator that “going rogue” is in her or his self-interest, or an adverse ruling by the unelected Senate parliamentarian on the ability of Democrats to move a major item via the budget-reconciliation process (as has already happened on the $15 mimimum wage and will probably happen soon on immigration reform). Enacting as much legislation as possible before any of those setbacks occurs could be critical, justifying any and all political risks.

Similarly, the Democratic margin in the House is so small that it may be impossible to sustain against the overwhelming historical precedent of midterm losses by the party controlling the White House — especially since Republicans will have the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process, which is about to get under way.

If the Democratic trifecta is too weak to rely upon or is doomed anyway, why not get as much done as possible and hope for good luck in 2022 and 2024 and perhaps even better luck down the road?

Partisan polarization has made moderation meaningless

The idea that pulling legislative punches will improve future electoral outcomes may be a vestige of a bygone era of swing-voter hegemony and plausible bipartisanship. It’s not clear exactly who in the electorate will award Democrats for “moderation” in fully pursuing their policy goals. To put it another way, no matter what Biden and congressional Democrats do, McCarthy and the conservative-media machine are going to accuse them of “going so far left.” That was the great lesson of the Obama administration, in which every conciliatory gesture simply gave the GOP incentives to radicalize its demands and ramp up the volume of its protests against alleged Democratic extremism.

It also offers an alternative interpretation of the relative disappointment of Democratic underachievement in 2020. Instead of neurotically looking around to see which “woke” or “socialist” pol gave Republicans the opportunity to shriek about the terrible consequences of Democratic power, as many Democrats are doing now, it may make more sense to recognize that the Donkey Party can do nothing short of surrender that would undermine such messaging. The Republican base is clearly in a state of cultural panic that has little to do with the specter of the Green New Deal or the Iran nuclear pact or anything else Democrats say or do. Sure, Democrats can try to lower the temperature of political conflict as their chill president is doing, but they may as well use their current leverage as not. Joe Manchin will ensure that they don’t go hog wild.

America’s current condition demands, and will reward, bold policies — particularly after the Trump presidency

Intense partisan polarization isn’t the only feature of the contemporary political landscape that makes caution inadvisable for Democrats. Quite obviously, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic and social by-products built a highly conducive atmosphere for the Biden administration’s first bold and theoretically risky venture, the American Rescue Plan. And even if the sense of emergency fades and Biden-esque “normalcy” begins to reign, there could be a significant residual appetite within and beyond the Democratic Party for legislative activism after four years in which the GOP lost its already minimal interest in solving problems through public policy and submitted itself to the chaotic, often pointless rage-based leadership of Donald Trump.

There’s a lot to get done, and, among those who aren’t fantasizing about a vengeful comeback for the 45th president, there’s just one party offering much of anything. Scary as “socialism” seems to many Americans, nihilism is scarier yet.

Some legislative goals are conditions precedent for future political success

As Ron Brownstein has convincingly argued, some form of voting-rights legislation may no longer be optional for Democrats if they want to remain politically viable in the short-term and long-range future:

“If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats — and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws.”

Republicans understand that the power to limit ballot access for Democratic constituencies is something they need to exploit to the fullest right now. If Democrats demur from pursuing every avenue to preempt Republican voter suppression via federal legislation on grounds that it’s too “partisan,” the far more cynical GOP will have the last laugh, potentially for a long time. Loyalty to the young and minority voters most endangered by voter suppression should be enough to make voting rights job one in this Congress, even if that means risky tactics like filibuster reform. But it may also be a matter of political survival.

In general, this is no time for Democrats to be afraid of taking risks; like it or not, everything they do right now is risky business. The ancient arguments between progressives and centrists on the best way to appeal to swing voters are largely moot at this moment. They had best make hay while the sun shines.


April 23: After 2020, Whither the Latino Vote?

One of my favorite analysts, Ron Brownstein, tackled a critical question, and I wrote about it at New York adding some of my own thoughts:

Immediately on Election Night it was obvious Trump and most down-ballot Republicans were doing well in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, which had a lot to do with Trump’s relatively easy wins in the two large states of Texas and Florida. But as more data drifted in, it became apparent the fiery nativist president who had insulted Mexican, Central and South American immigrants repeatedly, improved on his 2016 performance among Latinos, which in turn was an improvement over Mitt Romney’s share of that vote in 2012.

The rapidly increasing size of the Latino vote has been central to Democratic hopes of a demographically driven semi-permanent majority coalition in the near future, so flagging strength with that group is scary to them. And Trump’s ability to win a decent and growing share of Latino votes cheers Republicans who now figure they can have their race-baiting cake and eat minority votes too. But as Ron Brownstein explains in a characteristically thorough assessment of various theories about the direction of the Latino vote, it’s not exactly clear what to expect next or what if anything either party can do about the trend-lines.

One problem is that there have long been myriad problems in defining and measuring the Latino vote which bedevil any analysis. But the trend lines are pretty clear through 2020:

“If Trump won about one-third of Latino voters nationally (the figure most analysts agree on), that’s roughly the same share won by several previous Republican nominees, including John McCain in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000, George H. W. Bush in 1988, and Ronald Reagan during his two races in the 1980s. (George W. Bush did better than that in 2004.)”

But it’s troubling to Democrats that the immigrant-baiting Trump did as well among Latinos as McCain, who famously favored comprehensive immigration reform, or Reagan, who won by national landslides twice. So an immediate question is whether 2020 was simply a reversion to the mean or if Republicans can do better going forward, particularly if the Latino-unfriendly aspects of Trump’s persona and message are discarded.

Unfortunately, there’s some evidence 2020 Republican Latino gains were partially attributable to, not simply in spite of, Trump. A number of analysts argue that Latino men liked what Brownstein calls “Trump’s swaggering and belligerent persona.” But the Latino gender gap wasn’t particularly large, so others believe Trump’s “law and order” message resonated with the sizable segment of the Latino population who feel little if any solidarity with Black social justice advocates. Trump’s mildly ludicrous attacks on Joe Biden as a “socialist” were not taken humorously by Caribbean and South American immigrants who had experienced leftist dictatorships. And the incumbent almost certainly benefitted from his prioritization of the economy over public health in the COVID-19 pandemic among Latinos highly vulnerable to job losses.

These last 2020 Trump assets (along with simple incumbency) could certainly accrue to Democrats in 2022 and 2024 if the pandemic subsides and the economy continues to boom. But partisan cleavages on “socialism” and “law and order” will not likely go away even if Trump is no longer his party’s leader. Nor will the clear differences on cultural issues like abortion and “religious liberty” that push Latino Evangelicals and Pentecostals, along with traditionalist Catholics, towards the GOP. In general, it’s pretty clear that the Democratic assumption that most Latino voters would steer clear of a Republican Party associated with immigration restrictions was not warranted, particularly in a political environment like that of 2020 in which there were so many urgent competing concerns. And what may be going on, as David Shor has suggested, is that the intensifying climate of partisan polarization is pushing Latino conservatives who used to vote Democratic towards their more natural ideological home.

Almost everybody agrees Republicans have recently done immensely better in Latino voter engagement. Indeed, one reason for Democratic optimism is that the self-imposed restrictions Democrats placed on direct personal contacts with all kinds of voters during the pandemic will give way to a more even playing field in the future. But the regular complaints of Latino activists about inadequate outreach by Democrats to their communities indicate one simple way Republican success can be limited: just by trying more. Perhaps the party as a whole should pay better attention to Bernie Sanders’s strong Latino base during the 2020 Democratic nominating contest, which is often written off as just a byproduct of Bernie-mania among young voters.

The stakes for both parties in getting this right grow more each election, Brownstein’s sources tell him:

“The nonpartisan States of Change project anticipates that Latinos will grow from about one in seven eligible voters today to nearly one in five by the middle of the next decade…. [I]f Democrats can maintain the roughly two-to-one advantage they have traditionally enjoyed among Latinos, most in the party would probably be satisfied. But…it’s a mistake to assume that no Republican could do better than Trump, particularly if they sanded down some of the roughest edges of his approach on immigration.”

It’s as good a time as any to remember that in the end a vote’s a vote, and that major national political parties can win by losing big demographic groups by less than before. Beyond winning and losing, though, Democrats should beware giving Republicans grounds to believe that racism and nativism have no negative electoral consequences. That way lies Trumpism for as far as the eye can see.