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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

July 19: Why MAGA Republicans Don’t Bother Proving Election Fraud

Took me a while, but it finally hit me that the anti-democratic tone of contemporary Republican politics has deep and disturbing roots, so I wrote about it at New York:

One of the maddening things about Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was “stolen” is that no proof of election fraud seems required to sustain the lie. Among the former president’s supporters, election denial is practically an article of faith; it relies more on conspiracy theories and mistrust of Trump’s enemies than any demonstrable facts. That’s why Trump can blithely assert not only that he won the 2020 election but that it was a historic landslide. The underlying assumption is that elections in the United States are now illegitimate. So why bother engaging with democracy at all if it produces patently “wrong” results?

This question lurks behind the MAGA movement’s growing hostility to democracy, not just to Democrats. In his discussions with grassroots Republicans in the election-denial stronghold of Arizona, New York Times reporter Robert Draper found that the old John Birch Society battle cry that America is “a republic, not a democracy” is on many tongues:

“What is different now is the use of ‘democracy’ as a kind of shorthand and even a slur for Democrats themselves, for the left and all the positions espoused by the left, for hordes of would-be but surely unqualified or even illegal voters who are fundamentally anti-American and must be opposed and stopped at all costs. That anti-democracy and anti-‘democracy’ sentiment, repeatedly voiced over the course of my travels through Arizona, is distinct from anything I have encountered in over two decades of covering conservative politics.”

The identification of conservative political causes as synonymous with Americanism isn’t new, of course. But it’s turning from a rhetorical device to an actual creed whereby the enemies of right-wing political success are deemed enemies to the country itself. This line of reasoning lets MAGA politicians and activists justify any means of resistance, including the often-threatened “Second Amendment remedies.” Kari Lake, Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, minces no words in hurling anathemas at Democrats and those who collaborate with them, as Draper notes:

“They have cast the 2022 election as not just history-defining but potentially civilization-ending. As Lake told a large crowd in downtown Phoenix the night before the primary: ‘It is not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats. This is a battle between freedom and tyranny, between authoritarianism and liberty and between good and evil.’ A week later, in response to the F.B.I.’s executing a search warrant at Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Lake posted a statement on Twitter: ‘These tyrants will stop at nothing to silence the Patriots who are working hard to save America.” She added, ‘America — dark days lie ahead for us.'”

With the very existence of America at stake in every election, does it really matter whether you can prove the “evil” people broke the rules in each individual case? Probably not. And that helps explain why election denial is still flourishing in Arizona. When the state’s bizarre 2020 election audit dragged on for many months and proved nothing that simply led to more assertions that Democrats and RINOs were suppressing the truth. Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for secretary of State, has summed up the Arizona GOP’s illogic by arguing that the burden of proof should be borne by those who consider legitimate elections legitimate:

A former GOP operative told Draper the particular susceptibility of Arizona Republicans to this sort of madness (aside from a tradition of extremism dating back to Barry Goldwater) may be attributable to a huge retiree population prone to conspiracy theories:

“’These are all folks that have traded in their suit pants for sweatpants,’ he said. ‘They’re on the golf course, or they’re in hobby mode. They have more than enough time on their hands. They’re digesting six to 10 hours of Fox News a day. They’re reading on Facebook. They’re meeting with each other to talk about those headlines. And they’re outraged that, ‘Can you believe that the government is lying to us about this?’”

But there’s clearly something else going on in Arizona and the nation that is deeper than the spread of disinformation. Hostility not just to government but to our democratic system of elections has been growing on the right for quite some time. It was evident during the Supreme Court coup of Bush v. Gore and the contempt Republicans expressed for the 2000 Democratic popular-vote victory. It was more fully manifest in the nasty right-wing reaction to the election of Barack Obama, whose legitimacy as president was regularly challenged and whose social and economic policies were attacked for allegedly redistributing resources from “deserving” taxpayers to undeserving poor people. The feeling on the right that democracy had broken America was expressed perfectly by Obama’s 2012 challenger Mitt Romney in his infamous remarks deploring the ability of the “47 percent” of Americans who owe no net income tax to vote themselves government benefits.

The ideological vanguard of the anti-Obama tea-party movement were the politicians and opinion leaders who dubbed themselves “constitutional conservatives,” typified by Jim DeMint, Michele Bachmann, and Ted Cruz. They held that conservative policy prescriptions were embedded in the Founders’ design for America and were eternally binding, regardless of the contrary wishes of democratic majorities. And the absolutism of the constitutional conservative belief system was typically strengthened by Christian nationalist views. An increasing number of conservatives seemed to believe that small government, gun and property rights, and conservative cultural totems like homophobia and fetal rights were handed down by the Founders with the explicit blessing of Jesus Christ. In this scheme, democracy is a strictly circumscribed means for choosing stewards of these inflexible traditions, never to be traduced without dire consequences for the republic.

Donald Trump and his followers took constitutional conservatism to its next level: an aggressive creed mixing libertarian hostility to government with reactionary cultural views, all wrapped in the super-patriotic rhetoric of American greatness. Today’s MAGA-dominated GOP is a perfect playground for people like Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, the Arizona Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate whose campaign Thiel has bankrolled. Thiel proclaimed in 2009, as the tea-party movement began to rage against Obama’s election, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” A few years earlier, Masters said, “People who support what we euphemistically call ‘democracy’ or ‘representative government’ support stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit.”

This authoritarianism in the name of liberty and godliness certainly seems counterintuitive, but it’s extremely useful as a political weapon. Anyone utilizing the democratic process to promote alternative policy visions is deemed un-American, and their successes are dismissed as illegitimate. Or as Trump put it in August 2020: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” That could mean fraudulent ballots, or it could mean allowing immigrants who should have never been admitted to America to vote, or it could mean an election controlled by the 47 percent who expect something for nothing. Any democratic process that fails to affirm the righteous views of Trump and his supporters must be “rigged.”

August 17: Why Liz Cheney’s Overwhelming Defeat Marks the End of an Era

Pushing back a bit against the popular idea that Liz Cheney’s landslide loss in Wyoming was a pyrrhic defeat she will soon avenge, I argued at New York that it marked a point of no return for Republicans that Democrats must understand:

In the end, despite a sizable financial advantage and support from Democrats, and notwithstanding stern lectures to voters by her still-terrifying father, two-term congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming lost her seat in the U.S. House. While Cheney was recently seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, serving as the party’s third-ranking House leader, the race wasn’t close. The Associated Press called the race for Trump endorsee Harriet Hageman early in the evening; she now has a 37-point lead over the incumbent, with 95 percent of precincts reporting.

Even before primary voters delivered their verdict, there were voices far from Wyoming predicting that Liz Cheney would rise again, perhaps as a challenger to Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. In fact, it’s reasonably clear that anti-Trump Republicanism died its final noisy death with her defenestration from the House GOP leadership and then her ignominious defeat back home. She will continue to have a distinguished role in the fight against Trump by virtue of her vice-chairmanship of the House select committee on January 6. But those proceedings are being ignored, if not denounced, by virtually all GOP elected officials, and her abject defeat back home is a pretty clear sign that anti-Trump Republicanism has no future.

The alternatives to Trump 2024, if any actually emerge, will be from the ranks of those who have at least partially surrendered to him: toadies like Mike Pence, who defied the president for a single day; post-Trump Trumpists like Ron DeSantis, who promise to continue his extremist policies and his hateful rhetoric; former anti-Trumpists like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and Nikki Haley, who are determined never to cross him again; and anti-anti-Trumpists like Mitch McConnell and a big portion of the conservative commentariat, who clearly despise the 45th president but understand he is now the spirit animal of their party and what now passes for conservatism.

What is most poignant about Cheney’s fall isn’t so much its precipitous nature — though it’s now difficult to remember that Kevin McCarthy was defending her and her lofty leadership position for a while even after her impeachment vote. No, what makes her demise important is that she represented not just the “Republican Establishment,” but the hard-core conservative movement whose conquest of the party was consummated when George W. Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, took power in 2001. It’s amazing to see Republicans who imposed the triune orthodoxy of economic, national security, and cultural conservatism on a once-diverse GOP dismissed as RINOs. They never saw a tax cut too irresponsible to support, a defense budget too high to increase, or an abortion too innocent to prohibit, and when they went to sleep at night they dreamed of “entitlement reform” to take down Social Security and Medicare. That’s no longer enough to be considered conservative or Republican if it is not accompanied by personal submission to Trump, along with savage anti-democratic sentiments and hatred of the opposition, the media, the “deep state,” the Swamp, and once-bipartisan causes ranging from voting rights to immigration reform.

The ancien régime of conservative Republicanism as we knew it not so very long ago expired with Liz Cheney’s congressional career on August 16.  Perhaps someday the old faith will be revived. But for now the Republican elephant is wearing a red hat and none dare question its stampeding direction and ear-shattering Trump-eting.

July 12: Kamala Harris Finally Gets a Break

Aside from having major implications for individual rights and perhaps for the Democratic Party, the current abortion fight may also affect the future of individual politicians, one of whom I wrote about at New York:

Vice-presidents of the United States are captive to their boss’s interests and the assignments they are willing to delegate. This has been particularly true of the current vice-president, Kamala Harris. She’s in the shadow of a generally unpopular president who has at best a shaky grip on his own party (most Democrats hope those negative characterizations of Joe Biden will soon be out of date, but they remain accurate right now). And as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti recently explained, Harris has been unlucky with the thankless jobs Biden has given her:

“Her popularity started sinking when she first visited Central America and appeared dismissive of a suggestion that she visit the border. Behind the scenes, she was worried the assignment to take on the migrant crisis was a clear political loser … Her other top priority — voting rights — was no less publicly frustrating when the administration’s preferred legislation predictably failed in the split Senate. Some close to her wonder why she didn’t muscle her way into leading more popular projects: implementation of the COVID-relief-bill spending or, later, the infrastructure package.”

But now Harris’s luck may have finally turned: She is emerging as the Biden administration’s chief champion of abortion rights at a time when they are uniquely in danger and when Democrats everywhere are seizing on the issue as a potential game changer in 2022 and beyond. It’s an issue that fits her far better than it does the president, an old-school Irish Catholic politician who until mid-2019 opposed federal funding for abortions and could not bring himself even to say the word abortion. Harris is an entirely credible and consistent advocate for reproductive rights, as the Los Angeles Times noted:

“Taking command in the battle over abortion’s future, now largely being fought in the states and as an issue in the November election, comports neatly with Harris’ political résumé, touching on her experience as the first woman elected to the second-highest post in the nation and as a former California attorney general and U.S. senator with a longstanding interest in maternal health.”

It’s also worth noting that the women most immediately and harshly affected by the anti-abortion legislation racing toward enactment in red states are people of color, Black and Asian American women like Harris. And although many other federal and state Democrats will command a portion of the bright spotlight on this topic, Harris uniquely can call on the unparalleled megaphone of the White House, which reaches all states with highly diverse abortion landscapes. Per the Times:

“’We need a leader on this. No one knows who’s the head of Planned Parenthood,’ said Montana state Sen. Diane Sands, an abortion rights activist since the 1960s and one of many Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have met with Harris in recent weeks.”

Most of all, the abortion-rights battle offers Harris something her 2020 presidential campaign lacked: a passionate constituency with national reach, as the Washington Post observes: “She faces considerable pressure to show that her political skills have improved since that effort, which collapsed before a single primary vote was cast.” Yes, she has the famously combative “KHive” Twitter army ready to throw down on her behalf at a moment’s notice, but she could use a showing of excitement in the non-virtual world of left-of-center grassroots activists too. No issue is more starkly partisan than abortion post-Dobbs; within the Democratic Party, there is no real downside to pro-choice militancy.

What would really benefit Harris politically, of course, would be evidence that the abortion issue can stop or significantly mitigate the red wave so many Democrats fearfully glimpse on the horizon of the November elections. If abortion rights turn out to be not simply an energizer for the Democratic Party’s progressive base but a wedge issue that can bring back the suburban gains and heavy youth turnout of the 2018 midterms, it could help give Harris’s prospects a significant boost.

This development for Harris couldn’t arrive at a better time. Biden’s rapidly approaching 80th birthday is very likely to revive pressure on him to retire at the end of his first term. At this point, even though Harris is the heir apparent as vice-president, it’s unclear whether she has enough political juice to head off powerful rivals for the 2024 nomination. Nothing would make her more powerful as a presidential contender than to have not just Biden’s blessing but a reputation for fighting on an issue of crucial importance to progressive politics and the people it aims to represent.

August 10: Will the Congressional Legislative Blitz Help Democrats in November?

After a sudden period of long-stalled legislative activity, I took a look for New York at the possible midterm election payoff:

Not that very long ago, Joe Biden’s job-approval rating seemed chronically and endlessly depressed; the Democratic-controlled Congress couldn’t get anything done; and all the indicators for the 2022 midterm elections looked terrible for the party, in part because its own voters were deeply disappointed with the lack of legislative productivity and a perceived absence of presidential leadership.

Now, in a series of legislative victories highlighted by the Schumer-Manchin budget-reconciliation agreement (now known as the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA), Senate Democrats are suddenly walking tall, as Punchbowl News noted:

“Senate Democrats have put together an impressive resume this summer, most especially during the last two months. The CHIPS Plus Act, PACT Act, Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, gun control and reconciliation were all passed in this period, a number of them with big bipartisan majorities. All in a 50-50 Senate.”

Assuming the House finishes action on the IRA later this week, it’s quite the late-innings home run, complete with a rebranded title that shows Democrats at least trying to address what has been the dominant issue of the midterms: inflation. Along with the Kansas abortion-rights referendum on August 2 that shows that Democrats may have an issue of competing significance to both swing and base voters, the landscape is most definitely getting brighter for Democrats. And though Biden and his party probably had little to do with it, they will get credit for falling gasoline prices if they continue to drop.

In an interview with Politico, Biden’s pollster John Anzalone used a gambling analogy for the turnaround. “We put our last silver dollar in our slot machine and came up big,” he said. “And they were sitting there with a stack of chips and are down to just one. The turnaround is unbelievable.”

Spin aside, things are clearly looking better for Democrats, but the question (other than uncertainty over the future direction of crucial economic indicators) is whether midterm losses are already baked into the cake. After all, with the exception of George W. Bush in the immediate wake of 9/11, every president going back to the 1930s has lost ground in his first-term midterm election. Even very small House and Senate net losses would flip control to Republicans. And while a yearlong downward drift in Biden’s job-approval rating has now been replaced with small gains, it’s still dreadful at the moment: 39.6 percent in the averages at both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics. At this point in 2018, Donald Trump’s RCP job-approval average was 43.4 percent, and his party was on the way to losing 41 House seats. Then, too, the “direction of the country” right-track, wrong-track ratio was 41-51. Now it’s 20-73.

Sure, Democratic base voters unhappy with earlier legislative misfires may now have a sunnier outlook on the party’s congressional candidates. That, along with the growing anger at conservative Supreme Court justices and anti-abortion Republican state officials, could certainly improve Democratic turnout. But Republicans will likely retain an advantage of core swing-voter concerns that are unlikely to go away by November 8, as Senator Marco Rubio suggested in a taunting floor speech on the IRA over the weekend:

“There isn’t a single thing in this bill that helps working people lower the prices of groceries, or the price of gasoline, or the price of housing, or the price of clothing. There isn’t a single thing in this bill that’s gonna keep criminals in jail. There isn’t a single thing in this bill that’s going to secure our border. Those happen to be things that working people in this country care about.”

That too is spin, of course, but the point is that GOP talking points really don’t have to change in light of the IRA’s passage.

The best empirical news for Democrats is the trajectory of the congressional generic ballot, the midterm indicator that has had the most predictive value in the past. As recently as June 13, Republicans had a 3.5 percent advantage in the RCP averages for this measurement of congressional voting preferences, with the expectation that the margin would widen as voting grew near. Now the generic ballot is basically tied (Republicans: 44.7 percent, Democrats: 44.6 percent). Historically, the party controlling the White House loses steam late in the midterm cycle, but at the moment, Biden’s party does seem to have some momentum. And in the national contest where Democrats have most reason to be optimistic, the battle for control of the Senate, Republicans continue to suffer from candidate-quality problems that could lose them seats they probably should win in a midterm. John Fetterman keeps maintaining a solid lead over Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania; this race is for a seat currently held by the GOP. And in Georgia, Raphael Warnock continues to run comfortably ahead of Herschel Walker even before the frequently tongue-tied former football great reluctantly faces the highly eloquent incumbent Democrat in debates.

There is no way to know, much less factor in, late-breaking real-world developments that might affect the trajectory of these and other midterm contests, whether it’s unexpected economic news, a change of direction in the Russia-Ukraine war, or an official 2024 candidacy announcement by Trump that reminds Democrats that the wolf is still at the door. Typically, voting preferences form well before Election Day, and early voting will begin in September in some states. At present, FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans an 80 percent probability of controlling the House next year and Democrats a 59 percent chance of holding the Senate. These numbers are better for Democrats than those we saw in June and July, and that’s grounds for gratitude.

August 5: The Pro-Choice Religious Liberty Argument

Always on the lookout for a new wrinkle on ancient battles, I drew attention to a recent legal development at New York:

Though the constitutional law of “religious liberty” is a murky field, we are all accustomed to hearing anguished claims from conservative Christians that laws requiring them to provide or pay for reproductive-health services or treat LGBTQ employees and customers equally are an unacceptable violation of their beliefs. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the federal right to an abortion, it’s clearer than ever that the Christian right and its Republican allies are aiming to construct a system where they are free to live their values as they wish, regardless of the impact on others.

But as a new lawsuit in Florida shows, what’s good for the conservative goose may also be good for the progressive gander. A group of religious officials are arguing in state court that the new anti-abortion law enacted this year by Florida Republicans violates their right to religious expression. The Washington Post reports:

“Seven Florida clergy members — two Christians, three Jews, one Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist … argue in separate lawsuits filed Monday that their ability to live and practice their religious faith is being violated by the state’s new, post-Roe abortion law. The law, which is one of the strictest in the country, making no exceptions for rape or incest, was signed in April by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), in a Pentecostal church alongside antiabortion lawmakers such as the House speaker, who called life ‘a gift from God.’”

The plaintiffs in these suits most definitely want to rebut the idea that forced birth is the only authentically “religious” perspective on abortion services. After all, as United Church of Christ minister Laurie Hafner explains, the anti-abortion cause has little biblical sanction:

“Jesus says nothing about abortion. He talks about loving your neighbor and living abundantly and fully. He says: ‘I come that you might have full life.’ Does that mean for a 10-year-old to bear the child of her molester? That you cut your life short because you aren’t able to rid your body of a fetus?”

The legal theory in the lawsuits focuses specifically on the counseling of pregnant people and their families that clergy engage in routinely, and that under the new Florida law may be treated as the illegal aiding and abetting of criminal acts. Hafner’s suit alleges that this violates both federal and state constitutional rights, along with Florida’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a 1993 federal “religious liberty” law):

“The dramatic change in abortion rights in Florida has caused confusion and fear among clergy and pregnant girls and women particularly in light of the criminal penalties attached. Given her general duties and work as a Pastor, Plaintiff intends to engage in counseling regarding abortion beyond the narrow limits of HB 5 and, therefore, risks incarceration and financial penalties.”

It’s unclear how this argument will fare in the courts. Conservative judges may stipulate that anti-abortion laws impinge on religious-liberty rights that are nonetheless outweighed by the state’s “compelling interest” in fetal life. But at least, for once, the judiciary and the public will have to come to grips with the fact that many millions of pro-choice religious Americans passionately oppose what is happening to our country in the name of “life.” During the run-up to this week’s resounding “no” vote on a constitutional amendment removing any hint of abortion rights in the state’s constitution, a Presbyterian Church in Kansas displayed a sign that read, “Jesus trusted women. So do we.” This was likely an allusion to the “Trust Women” motto of the famous Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who in 2009 was assassinated in the foyer of the church in which he was serving as an usher. His legacy lives on in houses of worship and now in the courts.

August 3: Kansas Abortion Rights Victory Great News for Women — and for Democrats

Yes, it was one of the biggest developments of the midterm primary season, and I wrote about it at New York:

In the first election test on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the right to choose at the federal level, voters in deep-red Kansas soundly rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for a ban on abortion. The so-called “Value Them Both” amendment, backed heavily by Republican politicians and the Catholic Church, lost by 18 points with unusually heavy turnout for a midterm primary. That this happened in a state that Donald Trump carried by a 56-42 margin in 2020, and in a year when election dynamics have strongly favored Republicans, represents a big victory for the pro-choice cause and a hopeful sign for Democrats in November.

Voters in three conservative states (Tennessee in 2014, West Virginia in 2018, and Louisiana in 2020) have passed “no right to abortion” constitutional amendments, but that was at a time when Roe v. Wade was still in place and abortion rights were protected by the federal courts. That changed with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, but anti-abortion advocates in Kansas faced an additional hurdle: In 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court had established a right to abortion based on a state constitutional provision protecting bodily autonomy. Republican legislators attached the ballot measure ratifying the “Value Them Both” amendment to the primary instead of the general election in the hope that a small and Republican-skewing electorate on August 2 would make victory a near-certainty. But instead the gambit aroused the pro-choice majority.

The first clear sign that the Kansas anti-abortion measure might fail came in the form of very heavy early in-person and by-mail voting:

Strong turnout continued on primary day. Suburban Johnson County, the state’s largest, is expected to hit 65 percent turnout when it’s all said and done — more than double the usual midterm vote. And there’s not much doubt about which side was driving the high turnout. Johnson County gave 53 percent of its 2020 vote to Joe Biden. But “no” on the abortion amendment took 68 percent. Perhaps even more impressively, the state’s second largest county, Sedgewick, which was carried by Trump by 11 points in 2020, gave “no” 59 percent of its vote with most precincts reporting. What was expected to be a very close vote with better-than-average midterm turnout became a real blowout:

The implications of the Kansas vote are twofold. It shows that if given a direct role in determining abortion policy, voters even in states as conservative as Kansas will defend abortion rights. It calls into doubt the expected anti-abortion victory in November in Kentucky, which will vote on a very similar constitutional amendment; and in Montana, where Republicans are trying to do the same. Indeed, the results may encourage abortion-rights advocates to seek state voter-approved pro-choice state constitutional amendments; they are already in the works in Vermont and California and could happen as early as November in Michigan. And this trend could also create incentives for judges to interpret state constitutions favorably to abortion rights, just like those in Kansas did, with the assurance that voters have their backs.

Beyond the immediate issue, though, both the outcome and the enthusiasm exhibited by those who turned out to vote “no” to abortion bans in Kansas suggest that if Democrats make this a signature issue for the 2022 midterms, their currently bleak prospects in November — much of it based on the assumption that discouraged Democrats won’t vote — could turn around quickly. It’s clear the anti-abortion movement and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, may have miscalculated with an assault on a right deemed basic by a majority of Americans, who may sooner than expected wake up and fight back.

July 29: Electoral College Landscape Not Getting Any Easier for Democrats

Sometimes small changes in a factor affecting elections can have big consequences. I wrote about one that has and might at New York:

Since 2016 that the state-by-state landscape of the Electoral College system has made winning presidential contests harder than it should be for Democrats. It’s not just a coincidence that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 national popular vote by 2.1 percent but lost the election by 77 electoral votes, or that Joe Biden won the 2020 national popular vote by 4.4 percent yet came within 42,918 votes of losing the Electoral College. Part of the problem is that the Electoral College system reinforces the small-state bias of the U.S. Senate by giving each state three electoral votes before population is considered. But more subtly, the distribution of voting strength around the country makes the states that decide presidential election more Republican than the country as a whole.

The presidential election map as of 2021. Graphic: The Cook Political Report

This disadvantage for Democrats is getting worse, says Amy Walter, after presenting the Cook Political Report’s revised PVI (Presidential Voting Index) ratings for states (an analysis of the partisan “lean” of all 50 states based on the last two presidential elections):

“[W]hen looking exclusively at the Electoral College map, Republicans are enjoying a stronger advantage than at any point in the 25-year history of the Cook PVI. In 1997, the median Electoral College vote (located in Iowa) had a PVI score of D+1; meaning that the median Electoral College vote was one point more Democratic than the nation as a whole. By 2005, the median Electoral College state (Florida) had a PVI of R+1. In 2021, Wisconsin, with a PVI score of R+2, is the median Electoral College vote. So, if, for example, a Republican presidential candidate were to get 49 percent of the national popular vote, we should expect that Republican to get 51 percent of the vote in Wisconsin.”

And that would be enough for the national W, assuming a uniform distribution of voting support. But since most political junkies have fixed notions of “battleground states” they carry around in their minds, it’s important to notice which states are now the most competitive. It’s not what you might expect if your view of the states hasn’t been regularly updated. Cook has a list of “hypercompetitive” states dating back to 1997 based on those with PVIs between D+3 and R+3; it’s updated after each presidential election. Iowa and Ohio were regularly on that list until both finally fell off n 2021. That same year, Arizona and Georgia appeared for the first time. The number of such states has declined from 19 in 1997 to 13 in 2021. And the states clustered around Wisconsin as potential tipping points that are just a bit more Republican than the national average include Pennsylvania (R+2), Arizona (R+2), Michigan (R+1), and Nevada (R+1). Wisconsin went Democratic in seven straight presidential elections prior to 2016; Pennsylvania and Michigan did the same for six straight elections. And Arizona went Republican in 16 of 17 presidential elections from 1952 through 2016. It’s a new landscape, all right, and a tougher one for Democrats. Sure would be nice for them if the presidential candidate favored by a plurality of voters simply won.

July 27: Thanks to Inflation, Issues Like Abortion Are the Best Bet for Midterm Democrats

Sometimes a basic political truth takes a while to gain traction, so I wrote about an important one at New York:

Not long ago there was a robust debate among Democrats over whether they should enter a dangerous midterm cycle emphasizing economic or cultural appeals. There were a lot of voices arguing for various reasons (ranging from the simple poll analysis of “popularists” who wanted Democrats to stress their most popular positions, to those fearful that progressive cultural positions would repel key swing-voter blocs) that the Democratic Party should campaign on the “kitchen-table issues” that were central to the Biden administration’s legislative agenda, from child tax credits and child-care subsidies to minimum-wage increases, pro-unionization efforts, and clean-energy subsidies. It all made good practical sense, particularly if Democrats managed to make progress on enacting some of their favorite economic-policy proposals. And it reflected a very old tradition in which economic issues provided the glue that kept a culturally heterodox (albeit increasingly anachronistic) New Deal coalition together.

Then inflation arrived as the only economic issue that mattered to most voters.

The advent of the first really major wave of price inflation since the late 1970s didn’t make any Biden-Democratic economic-policy proposals less popular, except insofar as together they were presumed to be contributing to an overheated economy or overstimulated consumer demand. When Joe Manchin began gradually decimating the Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill citing inflation fears, he was appealing less to sophisticated economic opinion than to a crude public belief that too much government spending and/or deficits was the only intelligible explanation for this curse (never mind that later versions of BBB were often designed to reduce budget deficits and hold down prices).

Worse yet, even though most Americans under the age of 50 could not remember inflation as a major national problem, it has historically been a problem that left-of-center parties have little credibility to challenge, much like right-of-center parties have little credibility on reducing unemployment or maintaining the social safety net. The perceived evasiveness of Democrats and their “experts” on the subject most recently — apparently denying and then rationalizing inflation as temporary, while dismissing the threat of a real deterioration of the purchasing power of wages, savings, or pensions — has increased that credibility gap.

Unless inflation significantly abates well before November (and there’s certainly no guarantee of that), Democrats will face midterm voters, who are already disposed to smite the party controlling the White House, in a poor position to argue they are the party that can be trusted to help middle-class families make ends meet. That doesn’t mean that if they can wrest some popular domestic proposal out of Congress such as negotiated prescription drug prices for Medicare, it won’t help; they should fight for that and do everything in their power to demonstrate Republican loyalty to Big Pharma via this issue. But it’s likely to be a small life raft against a large wave of distress about inflation, the one economic problem that afflicts nearly everyone.

Democrats thus have little choice but to shift their attention to those “divisive” cultural issues where they at least can get the attention of voters and command majority support. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s radical Dobbs decision, that now includes abortion rights, an issue where Republicans are in a weak position. Abortion rights are also an issue that can be used to illustrate the GOP’s more general hostility to majoritarian values and more general reliance on anti-democratic institutions like the courts, the Electoral College, the filibuster-controlled U.S. Senate, and reactionary state legislatures. On this front it’s the GOP, not Joe Biden or his party, that is clearly responsible for a clear and present danger to swing-voter interests. Add in a renewed threat of a return to power by Donald Trump or some MAGA successor, and you have the ingredients for a fighting chance for Democrats.

To be sure, emphasizing cultural rather than economic issues is an emotional reach for some Democrats. The Democratic left has an ancient materialist tendency to consider economic concerns the only legitimate issues, while the Democratic center has long feared the negative impact of progressive cultural positions on various swing voters. (Both, in their own way, echo the Marxists of the 1960s who told proto-revolutionary hippies to cut their hair so as not to “alienate the workers.”) But while Democrats can and should obviously hold onto a firm commitment to economic equality as the party’s long-term goal — while understanding that some cultural issues like abortion are economic issues in their own right — at present, too many voters just don’t hear or trust Democrats when they gather, to use the old cliché, round the kitchen table to discuss their daily concerns. Meanwhile those who depend on the rights that Republicans and their judicial hirelings are threatening have no one else to defend them.

Political opportunity and moral responsibility are converging. This time, at least, Democrats need to make their strongest appeal a matter of values and rights that go deeper than the wallet.

July 22: Looking for a Republican Loser, Will Democrats Actually Promote Trump ’24?

Every time Democrats give a helping hand to an extremist Republican candidate on grounds of non-electability, I get nervous, and so I pointed out at New York where this logic might lead:

There are three big realities facing Democrats right now that might lead them to look fondly on an old enemy. First, Democrats need a major distraction to mitigate the damage they’re likely to suffer in November’s midterm elections. Second, in this primary season, Democrats have been perfecting the art of promoting wack-a-doodle Republican extremists that they think will make weak general-election opponents. And third, Donald Trump is thought to be the one Republican 2024 presidential aspirant whom Joe Biden might be able to beat.

Nobody is more distracting or erratic than Donald Trump, who is also the man Biden defeated in 2020. So it’s logical to ask this: Will Democrats start promoting him as the putative Republican presidential nominee in 2024?

The idea is a bit shocking, as the fundamental premise of Biden’s 2020 campaign was to end the Trump nightmare and help the country regain something like its past equilibrium. And the months since Biden won have been littered abundantly with evidence that the 45th president has nothing but contempt for democracy, the rule of law, and basic arithmetic. His postelection antics could yet land him in the hoosegow. But he’s the devil Democrats know: a politician so polarizing that he has a low ceiling on support and galvanizes the opposition and its voters like no one else. Honest Republicans admit that a Trump-free landscape is ideal for midterm gains. In the somewhat longer term, Republicans hope to pocket the electoral advantages of Trumpian “populism” without its dangerously volatile source. Democrats naturally want to thwart this effort to sanitize the MAGA movement.

So as Gabriel Debenedetti put it: “A formal reentry by Trump into the political arena could be very good news electorally for both the party and the president — arguably even the best realistic chance of a political turnaround right now.” And if that’s true right now, it will probably remain true after the midterms have ended and we enter the next presidential cycle.

Philip Bump of the Washington Post puts two and two together and gets yikes!

“Let’s assume that Biden easily locks up the Democratic nomination (which is not a sure thing). Let’s assume, too, that this year’s elevation of right-wing candidates doesn’t backfire on Biden’s party. Would Democrats actively work to ensure Trump gets past Republican primary opponents? Would we see ads sponsored by deep-pocketed Democrats disparaging [Ron] DeSantis as insufficiently MAGA in New Hampshire?”

Now to be clear, it’s unwise to extrapolate Democrats’ elevate-the-kooks midterms strategy too strictly for 2024. In several midterm primaries, Democrats have given a crucial lift to little-known and underfunded candidates with fringe views, like Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano and Illinois’s Darren Bailey. Donald Trump isn’t going to be underfunded in 2024, and it’s not like he will need paid ads by Democrats to get attention. But National Review’s Jim Geraghty has already speculated that the all-powerful liberal media might put a thumb on the scales in the 2024 primaries:

“In 2024, which Republican will be perceived by the media as the easiest rival for Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris, or some other Democrat to defeat? I suspect it will be Trump, who just lost a presidential election, will be getting into his late 70s, who won’t stop obsessively ranting about how he was the real winner in the 2020 election, and whose actions and words led to the January 6 Capitol Hill riot …

“The typical Republican may hate the mainstream media, but that doesn’t mean the mainstream media don’t have considerable influence over who Republicans nominate for president.”

Whether or not Democrats or their media allies really do have that kind of power over Republican voters, there’s obviously a moral hazard in even attempting to put Trump a general election away from occupying the Oval Office for a second time. Even if the polls say Trump is the weakest Republican available, the polls were sure wrong in 2016 (and to a considerable extent in 2020). And it’s hard to imagine how liberated the ex-president might feel if he’s lifted to power again after eight straight years of entirely unprecedented misconduct. Could we possibly be lucky enough to survive a second Trump administration with the Constitution (minus some basic rights Trump’s Supreme Court nominees have now denied us) more or less intact?

It’s not an easy thing to figure out. As New York’s Jonathan Chait points out in comparing Trump and DeSantis, there just aren’t any non-authoritarian options for Republican presidential nominations at the moment. Democrats should probably tend to their own problems and let Republicans pick the poison they wish to administer to America in 2024.

July 21: Like Republicans in 2017, Democrats Learn a Trifecta Ain’t All That

Mulling the angst among Democrats over the continuing shrinkage of their FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill, I wrote at New York the not-so-distant time the opposition was in the same sport:

Democrats are in a state of agony over the possibility that their hard-earned governing trifecta, which is very likely to expire after the November midterm elections, will produce far less in the way of legislation than they had envisioned. And while there are, as my colleague Jonathan Chait put it, “a thousand fathers” for the disappointing end to the saga of the once-robust Build Back Better package, much of the blame for Democrats’ steadily shrinking agenda is being cast toward a tiny group of self-styled “centrists” led by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Democrats famously have a tendency to regard themselves as a party in disarray and are uniquely prone to letting down their activist base by underachievement. But the truth is that narrow congressional majorities often produce devastating legislative setbacks. Ask the Republicans who watched their own domestic policy Great White Whale, a repeal of Obamacare, go down the tubes in the wee hours of July 28, 2017. The coup de grâce was administered by the late John McCain, whose famous “thumbs-down” gesture signaling his decisive vote against the last-gasp “skinny repeal” bill became the symbol of Republican frustration (much like Manchin’s pronouncements against this or that Democratic priority today) in the 115th Congress.

But then as now, the failure was not so simple. Obamacare repeal — like the Build Back Better package, an initiative utilizing the filibuster-skirting budget reconciliation process — was beset by a host of problems. These ranged from hostage taking by Republican dissidents in both Houses who used their leverage over the bill to reshape and sometimes delay it; the nonnegotiable demands of the Senate parliamentarian who used the power to block inclusion of provisions that didn’t meet the obscure germaneness requirements of the Byrd Rule; intra-party factional fights over the scope and audacity of the legislation (which in most versions included explosive add-ons like a Medicaid spending cap); and nervous glances at polling with the upcoming midterm elections in mind. This should all sound familiar to those watching the Democratic dance over BBB.

Republicans in 2017 had the additional handicap of dealing with the most unpredictable president in recent memory, whose support for long-agreed-upon plans could never be taken for granted. And while some may think Democrats are uniquely devastated today because of the enormous possibilities that appeared to open up when their party took over the White House and the Senate in 2021 (with much debate as to whether FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society blitz provided the best precedent), Republicans had their own sky-high expectations after winning a trifecta in 2016. As I wrote days after the 2016 election:

“With Trump in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress — the condition that will prevail in January, based on the results of Tuesday’s election — Republicans are now in a position to work a revolution in domestic policy. It will likely be at least as dramatic as anything we’ve seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, and perhaps since LBJ and congressional Democrats enacted the Great Society legislation that is now in peril …

“[A]s Paul Ryan told us all in early October, he has long planned to use the budget reconciliation process — where there is no filibuster available in the Senate — to enact his entire budget in one bill. Again, a bill that cannot be filibustered. He referred to it, appropriately, as a bazooka in his pocket. And while there are some things you cannot do in a reconciliation bill, there aren’t many of them: Congressional Republicans did a trial run last year (nobody paid much attention, because they knew Barack Obama would veto it), and it aimed at crippling Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, and disabling regulators, in addition to the nasty surprises for poor people mentioned above.”

Alarmist as this might sound in retrospect, it was realistic at the time … until Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump found out how hard it was to rush through a budget reconciliation bill with narrow majorities in both Houses.

The analogy between each party’s recent struggles with passing a reconciliation bill is hardly precise, of course. In late 2017, Republicans would bounce back from repeated failed efforts to repeal Obamacare and use reconciliation to enact the very tax cuts that most (though crucially, not all) Democrats want to revise or repeal now. Then they lost control of the House (and thus their trifecta) in November 2018. In the case of today’s Democrats, they got their successful reconciliation bill earlier, in March 2021, in the form of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that combined COVID relief and recovery measures with small bites of Biden’s economic agenda. Because so much of it was keyed to the pandemic, it was easier to enact than the various long-term measures contemplated in the second planned reconciliation bill (Build Back Better), but its luster as an accomplishment has been diminished by claims that it contributed to the current inflation crisis.

So what’s the lesson for Democrats? The trouble they’ve had isn’t simply about their alleged disunity, or the president’s alleged lack of leadership, or even about the pernicious use of leverage by Manchin or others to throw sand into the legislative machinery. It all comes back to the shakiness of small congressional majorities, and the power of the Senate filibuster, and the creaky imperfections of the budget process as one of the few ways around around the filibuster. Institutional reforms are ultimately the only solution — and yes, Manchin is a huge obstacle to those as well — rather than some surgery on the soul of the Democratic donkey and its various limbs and organs.