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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

May 11: A National Abortion Ban Could Arrive As Soon As 2025

If the leaked Alito draft in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization turns out to be the actual majority opinion, the threat to abortion rights won’t simply be in red states. If and when they are in the position to do so, Republicans can be expected to pursue a national abortion ban by federal statute, as I explained at New York:

Democrats tried and failed this week to codify the abortion rights the Supreme Court is apparently on the brink of abandoning. Republicans could later try to turn the tables and codify national abortion restrictions. It won’t be immediate: If Republicans take control of the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterms, President Biden’s veto pen will prevent them from acting on abortion through the end of his term in January 2025.

But what happens then? The path is treacherous for those hoping to preserve reproductive rights in at least some parts of the United States. It’s entirely possible that Republicans will emerge from the 2024 election with control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. And under those circumstances, the GOP will be under intense pressure from its base to enact federal laws that outlaw abortion even in “blue” states. Mitch McConnell even acknowledged on Sunday that once Roe is overturned a national abortion ban is “possible.”

Republicans are very likely to flip the House in 2022, and that means it’s likely to stay flipped in 2024. As Cook Political Report recently noted, the last time control of the House flipped in consecutive elections was 1954. Meanwhile, the Senate landscape in 2024 is truly horrible for Democrats. They’ll be defending 23 Senate seats, including six in states Trump carried in 2016 or 2020. Republicans, on the other hand, will only be defending ten Senate seats, all in states Trump carried twice.

So the 2024 presidential election will likely be the ball game when it comes to power in Washington. And while both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came back from midterm “shellackings” to win reelection, it’s hardly a solid betting proposition for Joe Biden (or whoever the Democratic nominee is if he decides to retire).

Even if Donald Trump or some other Republican is inaugurated in January 2025, and the party controls Congress, the size of the GOP Senate majority could limit their options for curtailing reproductive rights at the federal level. Republicans would have to get really lucky to emerge from the 2024 election with a 60-vote Senate supermajority. But Republicans could plausibly gain a Senate majority so comfortable that abolishing the filibuster would be more feasible than it is for Democrats today.

Today Republicans passionately defend the filibuster whenever Democrats complain that it’s arcane and obstructionist. So in this 2025 scenario, could they actually flip and nuke it themselves? Absolutely. Mitch McConnell’s term as Senate Republican leader runs through 2027, and he’s shown time and again that he is shameless when it comes to the pursuit and exercise of power. And if he’s retired by then, his successor will likely be even more ideologically attuned to the GOP’s activist base, which is intensely opposed to legalized abortion.

To be sure, giving up the filibuster would be difficult for a party that has relied heavily on anti-majoritarian mechanisms to thwart the popular will on so many occasions. But it was a Republican Senate that nuked the filibuster for Supreme Court confirmations in 2017, and the drive to reverse Roe v. Wade — now apparently at its omega point — was the single most powerful reason that happened. If Republicans find themselves with an opportunity to sweep away blue-state “abortion sanctuaries,” the pressure to end what many GOP activists call an “American Holocaust” would be hard to overestimate. Don’t let talk about Republicans caring more about tax cuts or destroying environmental or labor regulations than about “divisive” cultural issues fool you. The anti-abortion movement, which supplies much of the party’s grassroots energy and small-dollar contributions, has held a mortgage on the soul of the GOP for many years; it’s perfectly capable of calling it in.

Perhaps the most difficult question for Republicans on the brink of enacting federal abortion restrictions would be where to draw the line. In the past they have promoted a national ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the specious theory that this is the point at which a fetus can feel pain. If the Supreme Court opens the door to any restrictions lawmakers choose to impose, there’s no reason to think that they will continue to advocate for a standard under which most abortions would remain legal. But do they move to 15 weeks? Six weeks? A total abortion ban? And do they recognize exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, or situations where the health of the mother is at risk? There are no obvious answers to any of these questions, other than to observe that those who think of zygotes as babies will not be satisfied by half-measures.

Senate action on abortion could also be beside the point before too long. By 2025, the anti-abortion movement may have moved on to what will almost certainly be its ultimate goal: convincing the Supreme Court to recognize a constitutional “right to life” for the “unborn” that no state and no Congress could violate.

In other words, all of today’s Republican rhetoric about “letting the states” or “letting the people” decide abortion policy isn’t going to last very long. And those blue-state residents who are consoling themselves with the thought that only red-state governments will force every pregnancy to term may not be safe for long.


May 4: We Don’t Know For Sure What the Supreme Court Is Doing On Abortion Rights

Amidst all the understandable uproar over the leaked Alito opinion in the Dobbs case, I offered a small note of caution at New York:

The stunning leak of a draft majority Supreme Court opinion from Justice Samuel Alito entirely reversing Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey has suddenly confronted Americans with the immediate prospect of life without constitutionally protected reproductive rights. Yes, many observers predicted that would be the outcome of this case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, particularly after the Court’s oral arguments last December. It’s also what Donald Trump, who appointed three of the justices in the purported majority, promised would happen back in 2016. And it’s the goal the anti-abortion movement and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, have been working toward for decades. But it’s still shocking that normally tradition-bound and precedent-venerating justices are taking this fateful step despite widespread public opposition, at a time when a backlash could roil politics in unpredictable ways.

Or are they, for sure?

The Supreme Court said in a statement released the morning after the leak, “Although the document described in yesterday’s reports is authentic, it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.” The draft is dated February 10, 2022, when it was circulated to other justices for comment. It is also far from polished; there are redundancies in the text, just as there are in “first drafts” of a lot of important documents. It was presumably prepared because Alito was chosen to write an opinion reflecting the will of at least five justices, as expressed in a conference just after oral arguments. But we do not actually know if the final decision will be substantially the same as this draft, or might differ in significant respects — just as we do not know at this point who leaked it to Politico and with what intent.

What we do know is that post-conference changes in the position of justices once draft opinions start circulating do happen, if not that often. And in fact, one of the most famous shifts in the Court happened on this very issue 30 years ago. Planned Parenthood v. Casey was widely expected to produce a reversal of Roe and then it didn’t, as I explained recently:

“As Justice John Paul Stevens (a Ford appointee and Roe defender) later revealed in his 2019 memoir, a preliminary-draft opinion circulated by [Chief Justice William] Rehnquist that overturned Roe got five votes. But during the long period of time before the decision was formulated and announced, Reagan appointee [Justice Anthony] Kennedy flipped, succumbing to a plea from [Justices Sandra Day] O’Connor and [David] Souter to help them find a solution that would make state restrictions like Pennsylvania’s constitutionally acceptable without the disruptive counterrevolution that reversing Roe would represent. This development surprised the suddenly displaced anti-Roe majority, and then the country.”

According to Stevens, Rehnquist’s draft was circulated on May 27, 1992. The ultimate 5-4 decision maintaining the essential holding of Roe with a new standard designed to accommodate more state restrictions on abortions was announced on June 29, 1992. It appears that Rehnquist’s majority evaporated right under his nose.

Although we have no particular reason to imagine this kind of switch might have happened in Dobbs, we do know from abundant reporting and from his conduct during oral arguments that Chief Justice John Roberts seemed uneasy with overturning Roe and Casey in one fell swoop, clearly preferring to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban without opening the door to any and all abortion bans. Just a week ago, the Wall Street Journal speculated that Roberts wanted to flip one of the other conservatives to a more limited ruling:

“Chief Justice John Roberts tried during the oral argument to find a middle way. He appeared to want to sustain the Mississippi law on grounds that it doesn’t violate Casey’s test of whether there is an ‘undue burden’ on the ability to obtain an abortion. If he pulls another Justice to his side, he could write the plurality opinion that controls in a 6-3 decision. If he can’t, then Justice Thomas would assign the opinion and the vote could be 5-4. Our guess is that Justice Alito would then get the assignment.”

That appears to be exactly the course of events that produced the Alito draft. But what we don’t know is whether Roberts has continued his efforts towards a “middle way” during the nearly three months since then, and if so whether they have borne fruit. And for that matter, we also don’t know if any of the four justices originally on Team Alito have issues with the scope and breadth of his draft opinion.

It can be argued that the difference between what Alito wrote and what Roberts wants is a distinction without a difference. Both men want ultimately to abolish reproductive rights, and differ only over the pace of the constitutional counter-revolution that would be required. And indeed, it’s not clear how any “middle way” would work. How do you get rid of the constitutional protection of pre-viability abortions without allowing the states to enact more ruthless ban’s than Mississippi’s? I surely don’t know, but would observe that nobody anticipated Casey’s “undue burden” standard until it was announced. Justices and their clerks can be quite innovative when they are putting together coalitions on the Court.

The fate of reproductive rights certainly looks bad right now, but we’ve been here before. So it would be prudent not to be overly confident of what the Court will ultimately do in Dobbs, exactly how it will affect people in need of abortion services, and what the political fallout will be. There’s a slim chance that the right’s long crusade to abolish Roe entirely will be frustrated at the 11th hour once again — in which case, the fury among pro-choice Americans over the Alito draft will be matched in intensity by the outrage of the anti-abortion minority.

 


April 29: Republicans Have Screwed Up Senate Opportunities Before

Thinking about recent history, it occurred to me that Republicans had blown some easy Senate wins. and might do so again. I wrote about it at New York:

The dynamics of this year’s battle for control of the U.S. Senate were nicely captured recently by Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: “There is a push and pull in the race for control of the U.S. Senate between the big-picture electoral environment, which clearly benefits Republicans, and the day-to-day developments on the campaign trail, which do not always clearly benefit Republicans.”

In other words, the overriding factor in competitive Senate races is the size of the likely pro-Republican midterms “wave,” which should lift all red-painted boats. But an undertow is entirely possible in individual races, as Mitch McConnell remembers.

“From an atmospheric point of view, it’s a perfect storm of problems for the Democrats,” the Republican leader said last month. “How could you screw this up? It’s actually possible. And we’ve had some experience with that in the past.”

Indeed they have. As a bit of a tonic for Democrats who are sinking into a slough of despond about the midterms, and the possibility of a Republican Senate that can thwart Joe Biden’s appointments and legislation, here’s a reminder of the three ways recent Republican Senate candidates have managed to blow races they should have won.

Being too wacky

While Republicans generally performed extremely well in the 2010 midterms, they fumbled two Senate races they were initially expected to win, in Delaware and in Nevada.

In Delaware, Republicans had a star Senate candidate in five-term congressman, three-term governor, and one-term lieutenant governor Mike Castle, a moderate who had been in statewide office for an incredible 30 straight years. He was heavily favored to flip the Senate seat held by Democratic place-holder Ted Kaufman, appointed to the seat when its long-time occupant Joe Biden became vice-president. But then in a huge shocker, Castle lost the GOP primary to veteran right-wing crank and Tea Party celebrity Christine O’Donnell, who had lost to Biden in a landslide two years earlier. After a disastrous general election campaign best remembered for the efforts she had to undertake to deny that she was a witch (a possibility she had herself raised in a 1999 appearance on Bill Maher’s show Politically Incorrect), she lost badly to underdog local elected official Chris Coons, who holds the seat to this day.

That same year Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid was in deep trouble in Nevada. His job approval ratings were terrible, he was losing in polling matchups against every named Republican opponent. But when the most formidable of those opponents had a campaign meltdown (see below), he drew a general election fight with far-right former legislator Sharron Angle. The Republican nominee proceeded to alienate voters with out-there statements opposing the regulation of health insurers even as Reid used his lavish campaign treasure to remind voters of her past remarks favoring the privatization or even the abolition of Social Security — a deadly position in senior-heavy Nevada. Reid came back from near-political death to beat Angle by five points.

The ultimate example of a Republican Senate candidate being too nutty even for deep-red-state voters came in Alabama in 2017, in a special election to fill the vacancy created when veteran senator Jeff Sessions resigned to (briefly) become Donald Trump’s attorney general.

The eventual Republican Senate nominee, Judge Roy Moore, was a perennial candidate and a globally notorious theocrat (at one point he drove around Alabama hauling a huge stone edifice of the Ten Commandments he had tried to place in the state Supreme Court chambers). Roy had been removed twice from a state judicial post for defiance of federal courts. That he managed to snag a Senate nomination was a testament to the weakness of his rivals. The appointed incumbent and beneficiary of a Donald Trump endorsement, Luther Strange, was fatally tainted by association with the man who put him in the Senate, disgraced Governor Robert Bentley (who was forced to resign shortly after he filled the Sessions seat). Another Moore opponent was congressman Mo Brooks, whose habit of running bad campaigns was reinforced when he lost a Trump Senate endorsement in 2022. By the time Moore won the GOP nomination to face underdog Democrat Doug Jones, the judge’s extremist record and platform was being overshadowed by a drumbeat of allegations that he had engaged in creepy and even illegal misconduct toward underaged women.

It took a whole lot of crazy and creepy for a Republican to lose a Senate race in Alabama, but Roy Moore got it done; he lost to Jones in December of 2017.

Committing fatal gaffes

Even in this era of straight-ticket voting and partisan polarization, candidates can occasionally make mistakes so large that they cancel out any prior advantages. In the aforementioned 2010 Nevada Senate contest, Republicans wound up nominating Sharron Angle because front-runner Sue Lowden blew up her own campaign in one terrible moment when she endorsed the idea of patients bartering for health care services.

“You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor,” she said on a local TV show. “They would say I’ll paint your house … In the old days that’s what people would do to get health care with their doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.”

Soon “chickens for checkups” became Lowden’s unfortunate signature, and her candidacy sank like a stone.

Even more unfortunately for Republicans, in 2012 not one but two Senate nominees who seemed to be cruising towards a general election victory were felled by variations on the same exceptionally stupid gaffe: remarks defending abortions bans even in cases of a pregnancy caused by rape.

In Missouri, Congressman Todd Akin was favored to defeat incumbent Democratic senator Claire McCaskill before he answered a question about rape exceptions for abortion in this manner:

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

The ignorant scientific assertion made immeasurably worse by the suggestion that victims are lying about rape was disastrous for Akin, leading to calls by both members of the Republican presidential ticket (Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan) for Akin to quit the Senate race and let the party choose someone less offensively bone-headed. Back-peddling and whining all the way, Akin stayed in the race and cost Republicans a Senate seat they expected to win easily.

A while after Akin’s fatal gaffe, Indiana treasurer and Senate nominee Richard Mourdock got caught in his own rape-abortion snare when he said:

“The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Tea Party favorite Mourdock was already in a tight race against Democrat Joe Donnelly after upsetting veteran Republican Senator Dick Lugar in a primary. His suggestion that God wanted women to be raped offended people across the political spectrum, and had a lot to do with his eventual loss to Donnelly.

The twin defeats in Indiana and Missouri produced a whole cottage industry of Republican consultants hired to train conservative men on how to talk about women.

Running bad campaigns and having bad luck

Almost by definition losing Senate campaigns are not ideally competent. And good candidates are often the victims of bad landscapes for their party in a given election cycle. But sometimes campaigns that should succeed are met with a perfect storm of candidate fecklessness and external crosswinds.

That arguably happened to Republicans in the two most fateful recent Senate contests: the twin general election runoffs defeats in Georgia in January of 2021 that gave Democrats control of the Senate and a governing trifecta in Washington.

Now that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are in the Senate representing a state carried by Joe Biden, it may not be fully appreciated how heavily David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were favored when the runoff campaign began. But they were the betting favorites until late in the race, as Fortune reported:

“According to the bets placed on the race — which often predict outcomes more accurately than polls — Republican candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were both cruising to relatively easy wins. ‘Until just before the election, people betting their own money reckoned that Republicans had this in the bag,’ says Thomas Miller, a Northwestern University data scientist who calculated the chances of victory in each race based on prices from the PredictIt.org political betting site.”

How did Republicans blow it? It was a team effort.

Appointed senator Kelly Loeffler, who was running in an all-party special election for the right to finish Johnny Isakson’s term after the veteran senator resigned for health reasons, spent much of the cycle frantically trying to head off a challenge from conservative Trump ally Doug Collins. Indeed, a big part of her strategy for making the runoff against Democrat Raphael Warnock was to keep Trump from endorsing Collins by becoming more MAGA than any Senate candidate in the country. She pursued and received an endorsement from the already-notorious Marjorie Taylor Greene. And she ran ads calling herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun.”

Loeffler beat Collins for a runoff spot, all right, but only after alienating the swing voters she was originally appointed to attract, while giving Warnock a free ride until after November.

Meanwhile, incumbent David Perdue was running a reelection campaign that paled in self-discipline, aggressiveness, and grassroots organization compared to Democrat Jon Ossoff’s. At a crucial moment in late October, when Perdue was trying to reach 50 percent and avoid a runoff, Ossoff called him a “crook” in a debate, leaving the incumbent spluttering and then refusing to participate in further debates through the runoff. This enabled the Democrat to debate an empty podium in December.

Perdue also got unlucky, contracting COVID-19 and having to go into quarantine five crucial days before the runoff.

But both Georgia Republicans got unlucky (albeit justly) down the stretch when their professed political lord and savior Donald Trump undermined their campaigns by coming into the state to campaign for them and then spending much of his time complaining about the state’s “rigged” election machinery. By near-universal assent, Trump’s rhetoric dampened GOP base turnout and in combination with the smart, tough and well-organized Democratic campaigns, cost Perdue and Loeffler their seats and Republicans their Senate control.

None of these examples, of course, mean that Republicans will misplay enough 2022 Senate races to cost them a victory they might otherwise win. But you cannot blame Mitch McConnell for wondering if history might repeat itself in an unfortunate way.


April 22: What Republicans Mean By “Rigged Elections”

I ran across an important distinction between two meanings of a term we hear a lot, and wrote about it at New York:

In an examination of the many, many statements Republican politicians are making these days about allegedly improper election procedures or voter conduct, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump made a crucial distinction that often gets lost in all the rhetoric:

“Maybe there was rampant fraud, maybe there wasn’t. But everyone could agree that the election was rigged against Trump by the very elites he was trying to disempower.

“One of the earliest articulations of this approach came from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). He argued that the law expanding voting access in Pennsylvania was unconstitutional, implying that this gave Biden an unfair advantage. The law, passed by Republicans, had gotten to the state’s Supreme Court, with the chief justice saying that even if the law was invalid, the votes weren’t — a preview of how many similar allegations about ‘rigging’ would play out.”

In other words, you didn’t have to believe illegal conduct had occurred to claim that an election was “rigged.” Some Trump backers were using the term pretty much the same way Bernie Sanders supporters deployed it against Hillary Clinton and the Establishment Democrats behind her during the 2016 primaries: an unfair advantage baked into election laws and procedures, not a violation of them. A big difference, of course, is that Sanders supporters were alleging the system discouraged maximum voter participation, while MAGA folks allege the opposite: that pro-Democratic “elites” made it too easy for people to vote legally.

Trump’s inner circle, of course, has used “rigged” in an ambiguous way. Sometimes he and his 2020 campaign staff alleged (but never substantiated) actual lawbreaking, as in the wild November 19, 2020, presser when Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell promoted all sorts of sinister, even global, conspiracy theories. But other times Team Trump simply complained about the rules themselves rather than their violation. That was the idea behind all the litigation over extended deadlines for casting ballots by mail. There was too much legal voting by the wrong people.

“Curbside voting is ‘corrupt’ because … why? Because of fraud? Or because it’s an expansion of access in more Democratic areas? That it could be perceived as either, of course, is the point. If expanding the vote in general is treated as dishonest or illegal, as above, then you can simply wave your hand at any tool for making voting easier as something to be avoided at all costs.”

Expanded voting opportunities, of course, are open to Republicans as well as Democrats. And until Trump came along and began demonizing voting by mail, Republicans were as likely, and in some places more likely, to avail themselves of that and other “convenience voting” methods as Democrats.

What Trump understood, however, is that in nearly every state in-person votes are counted before votes cast by mail. And that meant if he could convince a disproportionate number of his own supporters to avoid voting by mail, he’d very likely have an early lead on Election Night and could declare himself the victor, deeming later-counted votes illegitimate. This was the “red mirage” scenario some of us predicted, which is exactly what happened.

But so ingrained have Trump’s dubious claims about voting by mail become in the Republican imagination that even those who don’t run around touting conspiracy theories still fight to make voting harder. Mike Pence, for example, is generally though to represent the more sober and law-abiding wing of the MAGA movement. But the “Freedom Agenda” he recently released highlights the following “election integrity” proposals:

“Make in-person voting the primary method of voting, encouraged and supported by all levels of government and election administration. Mail-in voting should be rare and only for a very limited set of circumstances, with clear guidelines and procedures for requesting, receiving, casting, validating, and auditing mail-in ballots.

“Prohibit early in-person voting — when allowed at all — more than ten days before election day.”

Is that about ending fraud? Or is it just about treating any system that isn’t rigged for Republicans as rigged for Democrats? Perhaps the fairest thing to say is that an awful lot of Republicans want to have it both ways, telling the MAGA ultras that those people are breaking every election law in sight, while telling each other with a wink that what’s bad for the donkey is good for the elephant.


April 21: Presidential Unpopularity Hardly Exclusive to Joe Biden

As is often the case, I noticed a public opinion data point and riffed on it at New York:

In the midst of a meditation on “Bidenism,” Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. offered this provocative thought: “Ultimately, I wonder whether we have simply entered an era in which presidents are always going to be unpopular.”

It really is worth thinking about. Joe Biden had a brief period of relative popularity for the first few months of his presidency, but his job-approval rating went underwater last summer and seems to have stabilized in the low 40s. Donald Trump never reached 46 percent in his job-approval ratings, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and for the most part stayed about where Biden is today. Barack Obama struggled to stay popular even though he took office in 2008 with what looked like a strong popular mandate. According to Gallup (the best source for comparing presidential approval ratings over time), from March 2010 until March 2016, Obama’s approval rating was regularly below 50 percent, except for a brief season of relative popularity felicitously centered on the 2012 elections. His average Gallup approval rating was 47.9 percent, the lowest since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. George W. Bush’s average rating was just a bit higher at 49.7 percent, though that’s misleading; the insane spike in approval he got immediately after 9/11 (reaching 90 percent) skewed his numbers.

 In the 21st century, then, presidents have indeed not been very popular compared with their late-20th-century predecessors. Gallup averages show Bill Clinton at 55.1 percent, George H.W. Bush at 60.9 percent, and Ronald Reagan at 52.8 percent.

Why are presidents becoming more unpopular? Polarization is one obvious factor; partisans increasingly dislike opposing-party presidents regardless of who they are or what they actually do in office. But as Bacon points out, presidents like Biden (and Trump and, arguably, Obama and George W. Bush) also suffered from intraparty rifts:

“The parties are increasingly divided internally. So the wing of the party that lost the primary — for the Democrats today, that’s younger and more progressive voters — might never be fully satisfied with a president from the same party but opposite wing.”

There is a silver lining to that particular problem. Partisans who aren’t happy with their party’s president may still vote for their team in a midterm:

“Biden’s support has plunged among all demographic groups, including Democrats, Black voters and voters under 40. But those three groups in particular don’t include a lot of conservatives. It is possible that many voters who are lukewarm about Biden will ultimately still vote Democratic.”

And, for that matter, they may vote for Biden in 2024 if he runs again, especially if his opponent is Trump or some other MAGA demagogue like Ron DeSantis. Trump punched above his favorability numbers against the marginally less unpopular Hillary Clinton in 2016 and modestly overperformed his approval ratings in 2020.

But there’s another anchor dragging down presidential popularity: Self-identified independents have regularly disliked both Trump and Biden more than the public at large has. As long as they are (relatively speaking) disengaged from politics and mistrustful toward politicians, independents may rarely if ever find a president they can wholeheartedly favor, even if conditions in the country are sunny.

And if conditions are perceived as cloudy to stormy, as they are right now (despite low unemployment, high economic growth, and a world in which American troops are not — thus far — deeply entangled in a foreign war), no president is going to be surfing a wave of high approval. There may be, as Bacon notes, specific things about Biden that have disappointed some Democrats and a lot of independents while enraging Republicans. But in general, being unpopular could now just be a part of the job.

 


April 15: Why Are Republicans Insisting on Culture-War Messaging for the Midterms?

In thinking about the wild thematics coming out of the Republican Party right now, I offered some thoughts at New York about possible explanations:

The conventional wisdom on how to run a midterm campaign if your opponent controls the White House is pretty simple: ride the wave, stay focused on your most popular talking points, and don’t do anything to give the opposing party the chance to turn the election into something other than a referendum on the president, especially if said president is unpopular. The textbook target in a midterm election is the so-called median voter, typically a centrist who isn’t necessarily that focused on politics and definitely doesn’t belong to either party’s base. If there is any issue of great concern to said median voter that won’t lead to conflicted reactions, then talk about it again and again, emphatically.

Translated into the context of the 2022 midterms, Republicans have all the ingredients for a simple midterm message: an unpopular president, a discouraged Democratic base, and a simple economic issue that gives Democrats a lot of problems they cannot solve (inflation). History suggests they are on their way to victory, at least in terms of winning back the U.S. House (a really big deal since it kills a rare Democratic governing trifecta in Washington) and making gains at the state level as well. It’s kind of a no-brainer.

But are Republicans campaigning that way? So far, by and large, no. Instead, to a remarkable extent, Republican candidates and elected officials are going whole hog into culture-war topics. They’re pushing near-total bans on abortion, making law-and-order demands for a crackdown on crime, and railing against the alleged “woke indoctrination” of public-school students on matters of gender, sexuality, and race. This is happening more at the state level than in Washington. But anyone who watched the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson or pays attention to the antics of Marjorie Taylor Greene knows that congressional Republicans are as capable of wild culture-war gyrations as your average conservative occupying a safe state-legislative seat in the rural South.

What’s going on? Are Republicans incapable of message discipline or out of touch with an electorate that’s relatively progressive on cultural issues? Are they consumed with “base mobilization”? Or maybe they’re just mirroring Donald Trump’s self-destructive tendencies?

Here are some possible explanations for a midterm strategy gone wild.

The conservative Christian base is demanding culture war

The most obvious reason Republican politicians are serving up culture-war fare is that their party base is dominated by conservative Christians who are more concerned about the supposed deterioration of traditional values than just about any other political topic. Indeed, there is some evidence that such voters are in a counterrevolutionary state of mind, anxious to use a Republican resurgence to roll back recent progressive gains on a wide range of issues, and free of any inhibitions about displaying their religious motivations. As the New York Times recently reported, there’s a new mood firing up the Christian right’s marriage of convenience with the Republican Party thanks to the MAGA movement’s radicalism:

“The infusion of explicitly religious fervor — much of it rooted in the charismatic tradition, which emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit — into the right-wing movement is changing the atmosphere of events and rallies, many of which feature Christian symbols and rituals, especially praise music.

“With spiritual mission driving political ideals, the stakes of any conflict, whether over masks or school curriculums, can feel that much larger, and compromise can be even more difficult to achieve. Political ambitions come to be about defending God, pointing to a desire to build a nation that actively promotes a particular set of Christian beliefs.”

These are not people willing to accept LGBTQ+ rights and same-sex marriage as just part of the contemporary landscape. Emboldened by a right-wing trend in judicial circles that may end or sharply curtail abortion rights in a matter of weeks, and finding new allies among parents and wage earners infuriated by COVID-19 restrictions, key elements of the GOP base are not inclined to hide their light under a bushel at present, even if conventional political thinkers in their party wish they’d keep a lower profile. And because of the importance of turnout in non-presidential elections, Republicans by and large don’t want to do anything to dampen base enthusiasm, even if it flows from theocratic yearnings that will be difficult to satisfy down the road.

New and more popular culture-war issues are emerging

Even if the central motivation of many conservative-base voters is still traditional Evangelical or Catholic religious views and a rejection of progressive cultural accomplishments, there are new wrinkles in the old fabric of right-wing cultural politics. The emergence of transgender rights as the new frontier of gender and sexual inclusiveness is discomfiting to a lot of people who typically consider themselves enlightened and accepting of others. And an ancient, religion-based hostility to public education (a.k.a. “government schools”) has found new energy in concerns about COVID-19 lockdowns and the power of teachers unions, which bleeds over into “parental rights” agendas long set by homeschoolers and others wanting public subsidies for private education.

For that matter, “wokeness” itself as a political curse word has given new impetus to old-school racist and sexist impulses, beyond the ranks of conservative ideologues. And recent crime trends — or, arguably, a crime panic based on the inevitable reversal of decades-long reductions in most crimes — have made quasi-authoritarian attitudes toward urban areas as dystopian sinkholes of disorder and social pathology more common, even among swing-voter elements of the electorate.

In other words, a variety of circumstances have made right-wing culture-war politics something of a flavor of the month beyond the fever swamps in which it typically festers.

Conservatives want to change the culture now

It’s important to understand that a lot of the current culture-war energy on the right is emanating from places where conservatives already enjoy power, notably state legislatures in both red and purple jurisdictions. For many of these people, the 2022 midterms are not an opportunity to deny Democrats power or even seize more power for themselves; they’re an opportunity to aggressively govern in a culturally conservative manner without much fear of voter backlash. With the wind at their backs, Republicans are doing what they and their voters want, which is to redirect a culture perceived as godless and disordered back into its customary channels. Perhaps Republicans would be more careful about cultural counterrevolution in a less favorable political environment. But for now the historic pattern of midterm losses for the White House party, intensified by the first serious inflation scare since the 1970s, and an unpopular presidency makes it possible for conservatives to let their non-freak flag fly.

Is this just an unusual, dangerous moment that will fade if Republicans fail to meet their sky-high expectations in November? Perhaps. But keep in mind that the enduring popularity of Donald Trump in today’s conservative politics owes a lot to the 45th president’s habit of always remaining on the offensive and using divisive polarization to build a coalition of the radically aggrieved and just enough swing voters to win elections. Trumpism means never having to moderate and never retreating. Worse yet for the country, when Republicans fail electorally, Trumpism tells them they should double down on base-exciting extremism. It won’t get better.


April 7: Trump’s Georgia Purge Not Going Exactly as Planned

As a long-time resident of Georgia, I still follow politics there closely, and was amused at some of what I was seeing in the Peach State this year; I wrote it up at New York:

When Donald Trump got former U.S. senator David Perdue to launch a primary challenge to Georgia governor Brian Kemp last December, it initially looked like a master-stroke for the ex-president’s campaign of vengeance against those who opposed his efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

Perdue, after all, had broad support in his party throughout his one-term Senate career. He would have probably beaten Jon Ossoff, winning a second term in a January 2021 general election runoff, had Trump himself not spoiled it all with wild claims of a rigged Georgia election system, convincing many of his core supporters to stay home. That Perdue might not only forgive Trump but serve as his cat’s-paw against Kemp was surprising, and it saved Team MAGA from having to rely on a damaged-goods challenger like former Democrat Vernon Jones to take on the incumbent governor.

snap poll from Fox5–Insider Advantage right after Perdue’s announcement showed him running even with Kemp among likely primary voters. But it’s been a long, slow downhill ride for Perdue ever since. He’s now regularly trailing the incumbent in polls (most recently, a March Fox News survey showing Kemp up 50-39), and despite his own wealth and financial connections, he’s trailing Kemp badly in fundraising as well.

Having intervened so conspicuously in Georgia (he’s endorsed nine candidates so far), Trump decided to give his candidates, and particularly Perdue, a boost with one of his patented rallies last week. But it may have shown his fecklessness instead. Aside from reports of poor attendance (and you know how that bugs Trump!), the event made it painfully obvious that “his” ticket of candidates weren’t all on the same page. In particular, most of them are giving their supposed headliner, David Perdue, a wide berth, as CNN reports:

“None of Trump’s preferred candidates in three of the highest-profile statewide races in Georgia – Herschel Walker for US Senate, Burt Jones for lieutenant governor and Jody Hice for secretary of state – have endorsed Perdue. And in their remarks at a Trump rally in Georgia on Saturday, none of them mentioned the gubernatorial primary.”

Walker has said for a while that he will be neutral in the gubernatorial race, complaining that he’s “mad” at both candidates for spoiling party unity. Hice’s position is more curious: Like Perdue, he is Trump’s handpicked instrument of vengeance; he abandoned a safe congressional seat to purge Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in Trump’s eyes even more culpable than Kemp in frustrating his 2020 plans. The only Trump endorsee eager to support Perdue over Kemp appears to be Vernon Jones, who at the former president’s urging dropped out of the governor’s race and is running for Hice’s open House seat.

Originally Perdue was campaigning on a “unity” message, claiming an ability to bring together both Trump and Kemp loyalists in order to parry the existential threat posed by Stacey Abrams, who is running again with a united state and national Democratic Party behind her. Now it looks more like Republicans are regarding Perdue’s campaign as a distraction getting in the way of Kemp’s long-anticipated rematch with Abrams. That’s how Kemp is regarding it.

You have to figure there’s a bit of an anticipatory smell of death around Perdue’s campaign mixed with a scent of fear about displeasing Kemp. Incumbent governors in Georgia and elsewhere have a lot of power and a lot of favors to call in. Kemp certainly showed he was willing to play hardball back in 2018 when he aggressively used his powers as secretary of State to do everything possible to mess with Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams and her supporters’ ability to cast votes. In Greg Bluestein’s authoritative new account of the 2020 elections in Georgia, Kemp comes across as intensely self-disciplined, resisting every temptation to respond publicly to Trump’s constant insults, while Perdue was temperamental, thin-skinned, and sometimes checked out in his race against Ossoff. In retrospect, deploying Perdue to take down Kemp may have been like (to borrow a phrase from the late Hunter Thompson) “sending out a three-toed sloth to seize turf from a wolverine.” The former senator himself could be having second thoughts.

Perdue still has time to turn things around before the May 24 primary (there’s a minor candidate still in the field, so it’s theoretically possible Perdue and Kemp will face off again in a June 21 runoff if neither wins a majority). But the distance fellow MAGA candidates are keeping from him is not a good sign. At this point, Georgia is looking like a major stumbling block to the 45th president’s plans to show his clout in the primaries, demonstrate his continued grip on the GOP, and perhaps lay the foundation for a 2024 presidential comeback. He’s already abandoned “his” candidate for the U.S. Senate, Mo Brooks, in next-door Alabama. He probably can’t do that in Georgia. But he may be regretting his strategy.


April 2: Reaction to Likely SCOTUS Abortion Decision Depends on the Details

Like a lot of political and legal observers, I will be watching the U.S. Supreme Court closely in June or early July when it is expected to hand down a landmark decision on abortion. I wrote about how hard it is to anticipate the political fallout at New York:

As we await the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, generally regarded as the most serious threat to reproductive rights in 30 years, one big question is how the public will react to an outcome that significantly changes the legal status of abortion. With the two major political parties almost completely polarized on this issue, the reaction could have an immediate effect on the November midterm elections. Many Democrats think a decision overturning or significantly eroding Roe v. Wade might mobilize otherwise unenthusiastic pro-choice voters to show up at the polls (particularly the younger voters who often skip non-presidential elections). But many Republicans believe their own anti-abortion base might become eager to implement such a decision at the state level, boosting their midterm turnout as well.

A lot, of course, will depend on exactly what the Court majority does; a sweeping reversal of Roe would produce a different reaction than a more modest decision that makes it easier for states to enact abortion restrictions without completely eliminating a constitutional right to choose. But since the Mississippi law before the Supreme Court bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the Wall Street Journal has done some fresh polling on that kind of across-the-board restriction. It found that by a 48-43 margin, voters support a “15-week ban with exceptions for the health of the mother.”

So what exactly does this tell us? “Exceptions for the health of the mother” are extremely controversial among anti-abortion activists. They argue that doctors will exploit such a “loophole” to write a “permission slip” for virtually anyone seeking an abortion on “mental health” grounds, if nothing else. The distinctions between exceptions for the health of the mother versus exceptions only to save the mother’s life got a lot of attention during a 2008 presidential-candidate debate between Barack Obama and John McCain:

“McCain, in response to Obama’s stated support for health exceptions [to a late-term abortion ban], said that such exceptions have ‘been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything’ and made air quotes in reference to the ‘health’ of the woman when describing Obama’s ‘extreme pro-abortion position.’”

But health exceptions are very popular. According to Gallup, in 2011, 82 percent of poll respondents favored “physical health” exceptions to hypothetical abortion bans, and 61 percent favored specific “mental health” exceptions. That’s relevant since neither the Mississippi nor the Texas laws have “health of the mother,” or for that matter, “rape and incest” exceptions (those have strong popular support as well; an AP-NORC poll in June of 2021 found that 84 percent of adults, and even 74 percent of Republicans, favored rape-incest exceptions to any abortion ban). If the Supreme Court upholds the Mississippi law (much less the wildly more restrictive Texas law), you can assume opponents will emphasize the lack of exceptions while happy supporters will downplay them.

If the Court find a way to validate Mississippi’s law (or other 15-week bans) without going further, it’s unlikely that activists on either side of the abortion debate will draw much attention to the fact that 93 percent of abortions occur within the first 13 weeks of pregnancy by the CDC’s estimate. For reproductive-rights activists, that statistic might induce a bit of complacency about the immediate impact of a change in constitutional law. For anti-abortion activists, it would dramatize how far they have to go to reach their goal of eliminating all abortions.

It’s commonly said that Americans are “conflicted” or “confused” about their opinions on laws affecting legal abortion. One public-opinion expert, FiveThirtyEight’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, recently concluded that “many Americans just don’t like talking or thinking about abortion … They also don’t know a lot about the procedure or restrictions around it.” That may be the case for some people, but it’s also true, as Vox’s Sarah Kliff noted a number of years ago, that many people have deeply nuanced views that “[take] in all sorts of personal and circumstantial factors.” It’s not uncommon for people to oppose abortions on grounds of individual motivation (e.g., “convenience” or “recklessness about sex” that laws aren’t very good at addressing). At the same time, as public-opinion researcher Tresa Undem has reported, some abortion opponents want people seeking an abortion be treated with respect and given safe and affordable care:

“When it comes to ‘real life’ views on the issue — how people actually experience abortion — the numbers get even more intriguing. Among people who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases, 71 percent said they would give support to a close friend or family member who had an abortion, 69 percent said they want the experience of having an abortion to be nonjudgmental, 66 percent said they want the experience to be supportive, 64 percent want the experience to be affordable, and 59 percent want the experience to be without added burdens.”

“Yes, but —” could be a surprisingly common feeling about new abortion restrictions even among people who identify as “pro-life.”

The bottom line is that it is hard to predict how the public will react to the Dobbs decision. It will obviously depend on what exactly the Court does, along with what the majority signals could be coming in future decisions and the degree of alarm expressed in the inevitable dissents. But what may matter even more is how non-activists process the new landscape of abortion law and practice. They could surprise us all.

 


April 1: Reversing Youth Vote Falloff Critical in 2022

Ron Brownstein and others have offered important thoughts on potential 2022 turnout patterns, so I wrote about one of them at New York.

The 2008 presidential election introduced the idea of an “Obama Coalition” of young and non-white voters that would allegedly make Democrats increasingly unbeatable as demographics shifted in the U.S. It has not, of course, worked out that way. While Democrats have indeed won the popular vote in every subsequent presidential election since 2008, they haven’t approached Obama’s 7.2 percent popular-vote margin, and they came close to losing the Electoral College in 2012 and 2020, along with actually losing it in 2016. Meanwhile, Democrats have lost two of the three midterms since 2008. And things aren’t exactly looking sunny for 2022.

There are several reasons why predictions about Democrats’ increasing demographic invincibility haven’t panned out. One key problem, which became clear after the Democrats’ catastrophic 2010 midterms loss, is that they’ve aligned themselves with elements of the electorate least likely to turn out to vote in non-presidential elections. This “midterm falloff” problem with respect to young and non-white voters abated significantly in 2018, which helped to make it the rare good midterm for Democrats.

Then in 2020, a different problem for Democrats began to emerge: flagging performance among non-white voters, particularly the fast-growing Latino category. This trend has made Democrats more dependent than ever on young voters, who also are disproportionately people of color and/or multiracial.

Millennials and Gen-Zers together went for Biden by about 20 points in 2020 and were carried by Democrats about two-to-one in 2018. Though they aren’t identical, the two younger generational groups are more like each other than any of the older cohorts, as Ron Brownstein notes at CNN:

“Nearly half of Generation Z (currently defined as young people born between 1997 and 2012are kids of colormore than one-third identify as secular without affiliation to any organized religion and a striking one-fifth in a recent Gallup survey identified as LGBTQ. Millennials (generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) don’t tilt quite so far toward change but are still far more diverse on each metric than older generations.”

Both groups are also much more likely than their predecessors to believe in a strong problem-solving government and in the urgency of challenges like climate change. They seem poised to eventually come to the rescue of Democrats as they replace the older, whiter, and more conservative cohorts that are literally beginning to die out, as Brownstein explains:

“The nonpartisan States of Change project … calculated that in 2016, millennials and their younger Generation Z counterparts accounted for a little less than one-third of eligible voters, far less than the nearly 45% represented by the baby boomers and older generations. By 2024, those numbers will more than flip: The group projects that millennials and Generation Z will account for nearly 45% of eligible voters, while baby boomers and older generations will shrink to about one-fourth. (Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, stay constant at about one-fourth of the electorate throughout that period.)”

But these younger people will only save Democrats if they turn out to vote. And that seems unlikely in 2022, for two reasons. First, the strong across-the-board voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election appears to be an outlier; the election was basically a referendum on Donald Trump, whom younger voters really disliked. Second, while under-30 voters are not a ripe target for the Trump-era GOP, they aren’t very fond of Joe Biden, either. The president’s approval rating among 18- to 34-year-old voters according to CNN is currently 40 percent, quite low for such a pro-Democratic group. This makes robust youth turnout even more unlikely than it would have already been.

As Brownstein reports, under-30 turnout leapt from 13 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2018. And a study from Tufts University found that under-30 turnout also rose from 39 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2020. Without these surges, accompanied by a steady increase in the under-30 portion of the electorate, Republicans would almost certainly control Congress and Donald Trump would still be president.

Something closer to 2014 than to 2018 turnout among young voters is more likely in 2022, particularly given the restrictions on “convenience voting” (e.g., early voting by mail or in person) so many Republican-controlled state governments are enacting, which probably affect inexperienced voters more than others.

There are, however, some rays of midterm hope for Democrats. High levels of youth voting in 2018 and 2020 could help ensure that 2022 turnout won’t drop all the way back to 2014 levels, since past voting is correlated somewhat to future voting even in midterms. And one factor that boosted all sorts of Democratic turnout in 2018 — the bad policies, unsavory racism and sexism, and authoritarian contempt for democracy represented by Trump — isn’t entirely absent in 2022. This is one thing that the ex-president and his bitterest partisan opponents entirely agree on: the enormous desirability of a Trump-o-centric midterm election. Many Republicans, even those who love the man, privately wish he’d take a long vacation until mid-November. But he is almost biologically incapable of keeping a low profile.

Generational change in the electorate is more likely than ever to help Democrats, but not until 2024. What happens in the 2022 midterms is much iffier. Biden’s party needs some good real-world news between now and November, and if at all possible, an ever more reckless Trump restlessly preparing for 2024 with his usual mix of threats and self-aggrandizing lies.


March 25: RINO Label Now All About Trump

The escalating use of the term “Republicans In Name Only” epithet and its evolving meaning has struck me for a while, so I wrote about it at New York.

Political party members accusing each other of insufficient fidelity to party goals or creeds is a very old tradition. But amid the ideological sorting out of the two major U.S. parties during the 20th century, the accusations of party heresy sharpened considerably.

This has been true for both parties. During the debates over the Iraq War and President George W. Bush’s policies, you often heard progressive Democrats complain about “DINOs” (Democrats in Name Only), “Vichy Democrats,” or “ConservaDems.” While ideological tensions remain in the Donkey Party, it’s now rare to see the kind of desire for excommunication that “DINO” implies. Yet it’s strong as ever in the Republican Party, where “RINO” has become an extraordinarily common epithet on conservative media and in GOP primaries.

But something very different seems to be happening right now: Instead of being a slur aimed at ideologically heterodox Republicans (who have already been hunted to near extinction), RINO increasingly means “disloyal to Donald Trump,” as Politico notes.

“While the RINO term has been employed in some form for more than 100 years, its meaning has shifted over time. In previous decades, a Republican risked getting tagged as a RINO for supporting tax increases, gun control or abortion rights. Today, in a reflection of the GOP’s murkier ideological grounding in the Trump era, it’s a term reserved almost exclusively for lack of fealty to Trump.”

The ideology of the GOP has quickly migrated from traditional Goldwater-Reagan-Bush conservatism to the peculiar right-wing populism of the MAGA cause, in which Trump’s cult of personality is a crucial ingredient. And Trump himself is perhaps the most promiscuous purveyor of the RINO smear: He generally deploys it toward Republicans who have rejected or even failed to adopt his 2020 “stolen election” mythology. Sometimes the term is deployed against people with stronger conservative credentials than the 45th president himself.

Consider Georgia governor Brian Kemp, whom Trump referred to just last week as “a horrendous RINO who has betrayed the people of Georgia, and betrayed Republican voters [while] repeatedly [surrendering] to Stacey Abrams and the Radical Left.” In fact, the only substantive issue on which Kemp has differed from Trump was on the preferred speed of his state’s emergence from COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, when Kemp wanted to move faster than the federal government. As for election laws, Kemp was once known as a master vote suppressor, so his RINO-dom is solely a matter of refusing to follow Trump’s orders to purloin the 2020 election in Georgia.

Many members of Congress who have been labeled RINOs by Trump and his surrogates have also supported him on non-election-heist matters. According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of congressional support for Trump, the alleged queen of RINOs herself, Liz Cheney, voted with her tormentor 92.9 percent of the time during his presidency. Tom Rice of South Carolina, whom Trump called an “atrocious RINO” at a rally on March 12, voted with Trump 94.1 percent of the time. That hardly makes them latter-day Nelson Rockefellers. What Cheney and Rice have in common, of course, is a vote for Trump’s second impeachment after the January 6 insurrection.

Even Trump’s friends and close advisers haven’t been able to avoid the label. Last month, the former president called Senator Lindsey Graham, his on-again, off-again golfing buddy, a RINO for mildly criticizing Trump’s expressed willingness to pardon the January 6 insurrectionists if he regains the White House in 2024. Trump has even dismissed his former attorney general Bill Barr — one of the most thoroughgoing reactionaries around — as a RINO. Again, it’s due to Barr’s refusal to credit his 2020 conspiracy theories.

A new batch of suspected RINOs is identified every time a Republican primary candidate secures Trump’s endorsement against an intraparty opponent. What this really means is that being a “true Republican” now means being a Trump Republican, particularly on tough issues like the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as president. And “conservative” increasingly just means conserving Trump’s control over the GOP and restoring him to power. It’s been a startling change in perspective that I can’t imagine the movement conservatives of the not-so-distant past would accept.