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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

April 19: Will Chaos of Chicago ’68 Return This Year?

A lot of people who weren’t alive to witness the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago are wondering if it’s legendary chaos. I evaluated that possibility at New York:

When the Democratic National Committee chose Chicago as the site of the party’s 2024 national convention a year ago, no one knew incumbent presidential nominee Joe Biden would become the target of major antiwar demonstrations. The fateful events of October 7 were nearly six months away, and Biden had yet to formally announce his candidacy for reelection. So there was no reason to anticipate comparisons to the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention, when images of police clashing with anti–Vietnam War protesters in the Windy City were broadcast into millions of homes. Indeed, a year ago, a more likely analog to 2024 might have been the last Democratic convention in Chicago in 1996; that event was an upbeat vehicle for Bill Clinton’s successful reelection campaign.

Instead, thanks to intense controversy over Israel’s lethal operations in Gaza and widespread global protests aimed partly at Israel’s allies and sponsors in Washington, plans are well underway for demonstrations in Chicago during the August 19 to 22 confab. Organizers say they expect as many as 30,000 protesters to gather outside Chicago’s United Center during the convention. As in the past, a key issue is how close the protests get to the actual convention. Obviously, demonstrators want delegates to hear their voices and the media to amplify their message. And police, Chicago officials, and Democratic Party leaders want protests to occur as far away from the convention as possible. How well these divergent interests are met will determine whether there is anything like the kind of clashes that dominated Chicago ’68.

There are, however, some big differences in the context surrounding the two conventions. Here’s why the odds of a 2024 convention showdown rivaling 1968 are actually fairly low.

Gaza isn’t Vietnam.

Horrific as the ongoing events in Gaza undoubtedly are, and with all due consideration of the U.S. role in backing and supplying Israel now and in the past, the Vietnam War was a more viscerally immediate crisis for both the protesters who descended on Chicago that summer and the Americans watching the spectacle on TV. There were over a half-million American troops deployed in Vietnam in 1968, and nearly 300,000 young men were drafted into the Army and Marines that year. Many of the protesters at the convention were protesting their own or family members’ future personal involvement in the war, or an escape overseas beyond the Selective Service System’s reach (an estimated 125,000 Americans fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, and how to deal with them upon repatriation became a major political issue for years).

Even from a purely humanitarian and altruistic point of view, Vietnamese military and civilian casualties ran into the millions during the period of U.S. involvement. It wasn’t common to call what was happening “genocide,” but there’s no question the images emanating from the war (which spilled over catastrophically into Laos and especially Cambodia) were deeply disturbing to the consciences of vast numbers of Americans.

Perhaps a better analogy for the Gaza protests than those of the Vietnam era might be the extensive protests during the late 1970s and 1980s over apartheid in South Africa (a regime that enjoyed explicit and implicit backing from multiple U.S. administrations) and in favor of a freeze in development and deployment of nuclear weapons. These were significant protest movements, but still paled next to the organized opposition to the Vietnam War.

Political conventions are different today.

One reason the 1968 Chicago protests created such an indelible image is that the conflict outside on the streets was reflected in conflict inside the convention venue. For one thing, 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey had not quelled formal opposition to his selection when the convention opened. He never entered or won a single primary. One opponent who did, Eugene McCarthy, was still battling for the nomination in Chicago. Another, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated two months earlier (1972 presidential nominee George McGovern was the caretaker for Kennedy delegates at the 1968 convention). There was a highly emotional platform fight over Vietnam policy during the convention itself; when a “peace plank” was defeated, New York delegates led protesters singing “We Shall Overcome.” Once violence broke out on the streets, it did not pass notice among the delegates, some of whom had been attacked by police trying to enter the hall. At one point, police actually accosted and removed a TV reporter from the convention for some alleged breach in decorum.

By contrast, no matter what is going on outside the United Center, the 2024 Democratic convention is going to be totally wired for Joe Biden, with nearly all the delegates attending pledged to him and chosen by his campaign. Even aside from the lack of formal opposition to Biden, conventions since 1968 have become progressively less spontaneous and more controlled by the nominee and the party that nominee directs (indeed, the chaos in Chicago in 1968 encouraged that trend, along with near-universal use of primaries to award delegates, making conventions vastly less deliberative). While there may be some internal conflict on the platform language related to Gaza, it will very definitely be resolved long before the convention and far away from cameras.

Another significant difference between then and now is that convention delegates and Democratic elected officials generally will enter the convention acutely concerned about giving aid and comfort to the Republican nominee, the much-hated, much-feared Donald Trump. Yes, many Democrats hated and feared Richard Nixon in 1968, but Democrats were just separated by four years from a massive presidential landslide and mostly did not reckon how much Nixon would be able to straddle the Vietnam issue and benefit from Democratic divisions. That’s unlikely to be the case in August of 2024.

Brandon Johnson isn’t Richard Daley.

Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was a major figure in the 1968 explosion in his city. He championed and defended his police department’s confrontational tactics during the convention. At one point, when Senator Abraham Ribicoff referred from the podium to “gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” Daley leaped up and shouted at him with cameras trained on his furious face as he clearly repeated an obscene and antisemitic response to the Jewish politician from Connecticut. Beyond his conduct on that occasion, “Boss” Daley was the epitome of the old-school Irish American machine politician and from a different planet culturally than the protesters at the convention.

Current Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson, who was born the year of Daley’s death, is a Black progressive and labor activist who is still fresh from his narrow 2023 mayoral runoff victory over the candidate backed by both the Democratic Establishment and police unions. While he is surely wary of the damage anti-Israel and anti-Biden protests can do to the city’s image if they turn violent, Johnson is not without ties to protesters. He broke a tie in the Chicago City Council to ensure passage of a Gaza cease-fire resolution earlier this year. His negotiating skills will be tested by the maneuvering already underway with protest groups and the Democratic Party, but he’s not going to be the sort of implacable foe the 1968 protesters encountered.

The whole world (probably) won’t be watching.

The 1968 Democratic convention was from a bygone era of gavel-to-gavel coverage by the three broadcast-television networks that then dominated the media landscape and the living rooms of the country. When they were being bludgeoned by the Chicago police, protesters began chanting, “The whole world is watching,” which wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Today’s media coverage of major-party political conventions is extremely limited and (like coverage of other events) fragmented. If violence breaks out this time in Chicago, it will get a lot of attention, albeit much of it bent to the optics of the various media outlets covering it. But the sense in 1968 that the whole nation was watching in horror as an unprecedented event rolled out in real time will likely never be recovered.


April 17: A Closer Look at the “Uniparty” Fable

RFK Jr. and MTG are using the same dismissive term for major-party differences. I took at look at this phenomenon at New York:

Partisan polarization has been steadily growing in the U.S. since roughly the 1960s. Ironically, during this time, the complaint that the two parties are actually too alike has become increasingly prevalent. For years, right-wing Republicans have called people in the GOP who don’t share their exact degree of ideological extremism RINOs, or “Republicans in name only,” suggesting they’re basically Democrats. Left-wing Democrats occasionally echo these epithets by calling (relative) moderates “DINOs,” “ConservaDems,” or — back when maximum resistance to George W. Bush was de rigueur — “Vichy Democrats.”

Today the term “Uniparty” has come to denote the idea that Democrats and Republicans are actually working for the same evil Establishment enterprise, their loudly proclaimed differences being a mere sham. This contention was the culmination of a five-page letter Marjorie Taylor Greene recently sent her Republican colleagues calling for House Speaker Mike Johnson’s removal, unless he changes his ways instantly. She wrote:

“With so much at stake for our future and the future of our children, I will not tolerate this type of ‘leadership.’ This has been a complete and total surrender to, if not complete and total lockstep with, the Democrats’ agenda that has angered our Republican base so much and given them very little reason to vote for a Republican House majority …

“If these actions by the leaders of our conference continue, then we are not a Republican party – we are a Uniparty that is hell-bent on remaining on the path of self-inflicted destruction.”

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also leaned heavily into the Uniparty idea in his recent speech introducing running-mate Nicole Shanahan:

“Our independent run for the presidency is finally going to bring down the Democrat and Republican duopoly that gave us ruinous debt, chronic disease, endless wars, lockdowns, mandates, agency capture, and censorship. This is the same Trump/Biden Uniparty that has captured and appropriated our democracy and turned it over to Blackrock, State Street, Vanguard, and their other corporate donors. Nicole Shanahan will help me rally support for our revolution against Uniparty rule from both ends of the traditional Right vs. Left political spectrum.”

The Uniparty claim is ridiculous, of course, as FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley demonstrates:

“[O]ur current political moment is arguably farther away from having anything resembling a uniparty than at any other time in modern U.S. history. Based on their voting records, Democratic and Republican members of Congress have become increasingly polarized, and both the more moderate and more conservative wings of the congressional GOP have moved to the right at similar rates. Meanwhile, polling suggests that Americans now are more likely to view the parties as distinct from one another than in the past, an indication that the public broadly doesn’t see a uniparty in Washington. Although there are areas where the parties are less divided, the broader uniparty claim is at odds with our highly polarized and divided political era.”

Kennedy’s subscription to the Uniparty notion is understandable on two points. The first is that his candidacy is vastly more likely to tilt the 2024 presidential campaign in the direction of one of the two major-party candidates (likely Donald Trump, according to most of the polling) than to actually succeed in winning the presidency. Maintaining that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Biden or Trump running the country is essential to maintaining RFK’s appeal as November approaches and the futility of his bid becomes clearer. Second, Kennedy’s pervasive conspiracy-theory approach to contemporary life lends itself to the argument that the apparent gulf between the two major parties is a ruse disguising a sinister common purpose.

MTG’s Uniparty contention also reflects dual motives. In part she is simply echoing Trump’s weird but useful contention that he’s an “outsider” battling a Deep-State Establishment that secretly controls both parties, which is pretty rich since he dominates the GOP like Genghis Khan dominated the Golden Horde. But there is a marginally more legitimate sense in which key elements of the two parties really are in line with each other on isolated issues that happen to obsess Greene, such as aid to Ukraine. If you are a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail.

The same is true of other implicit Uniparty claims, particularly those made by progressive pro-Palestinian protesters who adamantly argue that the need to smite “Genocide Joe” Biden for his pro-Israel policies outweighs all the reasons it might be a bad idea to help Trump return to the White House (including the fact that Trump is palpably indifferent to Palestinian suffering). If the two parties do not appear to differ on your overriding issue, then the fundamental reality of polarization can fade into irrelevance.

So we’re likely to hear more Uniparty talk even as Democrats and Republicans head toward another highly fractious election with very high stakes attributable to their differences.


April 11: Presidential Race is Back to Square One

As part of my regular poll-gazing, I took a look at the presidential trends at New York:

Joe Biden is continuing his snail-like progress toward a dead heat with Donald Trump in polling this week. The RealClearPolitics polling averages for a national head-to-head contest between the two presidents now show Trump up by a mere 0.2 percent (45.5 to 45.3 percent), his smallest lead in these averages dating back to last October. If you took a very outlierish Rasmussen Poll giving Trump an eight-point lead out of the equation, Biden would actually be ahead. As it is, he leads Trump in the most recent surveys by Reuters-IpsosI&I-TIPPData for ProgressNPR-PBS-Marist, and Quinnipiac, a pretty impressive collection of pollsters (all but I&I-TIPP are in the top-25 outfits, according to FiveThirtyEight’s ratings).

Trump is maintaining a slightly larger lead (1.9 percent) in the national five-way polls that include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and Jill Stein, per RCP’s averages. RFK Jr. holds 10 percent of the 13.2 percent going to non-major-party candidates. So the larger field continues to help Trump and hurt Biden, albeit marginally.

Battleground-state polling has been sparse in recent weeks; the last public polls in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin were from a March 24 Wall Street Journal survey. So Trump maintains his relatively robust leads in all those states. New polling in North Carolina (from High Point University and Quinnipiac) shows Trump’s lead in that state shrinking slightly to 4 percent. And fresh data from Pennsylvania via Franklin & Marshall has given Biden a slight (0.1 percent) lead in that state in the RCP averages. The trends for Biden overall are positive, albeit very slightly and slowly so.

In terms of where the numbers might go as we approach November, there are some even more positive sights for the incumbent. A fascinating new national survey from NORC published by FiveThirtyEight looked at how demonstrated propensity to vote affected presidential-candidate preferences, and the findings are potentially significant:

“When we broke out respondents by their voting history, we found dramatic differences in whom they support for president in 2024. President Joe Biden performed much better among frequent voters, while Trump had a large lead among people who haven’t voted recently. Specifically, among respondents who voted in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 general elections, Biden outpaced Trump 50 percent to 39 percent. But among respondents who were old enough to vote but voted in none of those three elections, Trump crushed Biden 44 percent to 26 percent.”

This survey reinforces evidence elsewhere that the traditional Democratic reliance on “marginal voters” has ended, and that now it’s Republicans who need an unusually high-turnout election to get Trump’s supporters to the polls. In the short term, this could mean that when pollsters begin to shift from registered-voter to likely-voter samples, Biden will probably get a boost (the sort of boost Republican candidates used to count on) in the comparative numbers. Whether that carries over to the actual results in November may depend on overall turnout levels, with Democrats holding an unusual advantage among the voters most likely to show up at the polls.

There are, of course, many other factors that will influence the direction of this contest, including the strength, wealth, and wisdom of the campaigns and of the national and state parties supporting them. But one thing to watch is whether the Kennedy candidacy, which is marginally hurting Biden right now, gets onto the ballot in all or most of the battleground states. At present, Kennedy’s campaign claims it has enough signatures to gain ballot access in Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan, and it’s in a dispute with Nevada over an early deadline for identifying a vice-presidential candidate that it missed, which may land in court. If Kennedy does gain the ballot access he needs, the big question will be whether his conspiracy-theory-drenched appeal has the sort of staying power that non-major-party candidates usually lack. If he fades, it will likely benefit Biden.

Real-world developments outside the campaign trail could matter as well. Team Biden has to worry about signs of renewed inflation. And all of Trump’s efforts to avoid a preelection criminal trial appear to have failed, at least in New York.

For now, this contest seems to be back to square one: very close and subject to a lot of cross-currents and events we can’t really predict.


April 10: For Biden, Two Paths to Victory Are Better Than One

A perennial strategic topic has popped up a lot recently, so I addressed it at New York:

In 2020, Joe Biden won four states by a margin of less than 2 percent of the vote: Georgia (0.23 percent), Arizona (0.30 percent), Wisconsin (0.63 percent), and Pennsylvania (1.33 percent). Donald Trump won one state, North Carolina, by 1.34 percent. Biden carried two other key states by margins under three points: Nevada (2.39 percent) and Michigan (2.78 percent). These seven states represent what most strategists in both parties consider to be the Biden-Trump battlegrounds for 2024, though obviously some will argue that others should be targeted (many Republicans think they have a chance in Minnesota, which Biden carried by just over 7 percent, and an abortion referendum makes Florida, which Trump carried by 4.36 percent, tempting for Democrats). Polling tends to confirm these seven as highly competitive this year.

2024 polls also, however, show a distinct regional pattern whereby Trump is leading Biden by robust margins in the Sun Belt states of Arizona (4.5 percent in the RCP polling averages), Nevada (3.2 percent), Georgia (3.8 percent), and North Carolina (4.6 percent), while Biden is doing relatively well in the Rust Belt states of Michigan (Trump leads by 2.8 percent, per RCP), Pennsylvania (Biden leads by 0.1 percent), and Wisconsin (Trump leads by 0.6 percent). His campaign may be tempted to narrowly focus on a Rust Belt strategy for victory but would be well advised to keep his options open.

There are some underlying dynamics that reinforce the regional pattern, as Ron Brownstein explains:

“President Joe Biden’s breakthrough 2020 wins in Arizona and Georgia seemed to confirm that the party’s future was increasingly reliant on Sun Belt states rapidly growing more racially diverse.

“But seven months before his rematch with presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, Biden’s most promising path may run directly through the three Rust Belt states that he recaptured in 2020 after Trump dislodged them from the ‘blue wall’ in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That’s the conclusion of a broad array of Democratic strategists.

“The shift in expectations reflects the upside-down racial dynamics of the 2024 race, with most national and state polls showing Biden largely holding his 2020 support among White voters, while facing, at this point, unprecedented erosion among Black and Latino voters. Biden, as I wrote last year, is likewise maintaining his 2020 support better among older than younger voters. These surprising patterns have made the relatively older and Whiter three industrial blue wall states appear a better bet for Biden.”

If everything else stays the same as in 2020, Biden could lose Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, along with North Carolina, and still win the presidency by the smallest possible margin in the Electoral College: 270 electoral votes to 268.

As Brownstein notes, the issue landscape in November could also make a Rust Belt strategy focused on white swing voters profitable:

“Biden is heavily stressing his support for legal abortion, and while polls show broad support for that position across racial lines, many pollsters believe it resonates most powerfully as a voting issue among college-educated White voters, especially women. Conversely, economic issues loom largest for most non-white voters; that’s a difficult dynamic for Biden across the Sun Belt because polls consistently show widespread discontent with his management of the economy, including among many Black and Latino voters.”

Another factor pushing Team Biden toward a Rust Belt strategy is the apparent strength of indie candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. among the Latino voters who are so prevalent in Arizona and Nevada, as Politico recently reported:

“[A] previously unreported poll in mid-February by Democratic group Equis Research … showed Kennedy performing surprisingly well among Latino voters in a dozen battleground states, effectively splintering Biden’s Hispanic coalition from 2020, when he garnered 59 percent Hispanic support …

“The poll of 2,010 registered Latino voters found Kennedy winning one in five young Latino voters, and also reported him capturing a sizable 17 percent Latino support in Arizona and an even more robust 21 percent in Nevada — the highest number among the battleground states polled.”

More generally, RFK Jr. seems to be taking votes away from Biden disproportionately in the Sun Belt. In the RCP averages, polls that include Kennedy and other minor candidates show Trump increasing his lead over Biden to 5.8 percent in Arizona5.5 percent in Nevada5.6 percent in Georgia, and 7 percent in North Carolina. These margins are pretty formidable.

Still, staking everything on sweeping Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would be perilous for Biden. Michigan still looks a bit shaky for the president thanks to Democratic base voters there who are unhappy with his position on the Israel-Hamas war. And you can argue that as November approaches, the Kennedy threat will fade as minor-party/indie candidacies typically do and that the Black and Latino voters so crucial in the Sun Belt are likely to return to the Democratic fold. In addition, Arizona and Nevada may have abortion-policy measures on the ballot in November that could help boost Democratic turnout. On Tuesday, Arizona’s high court reinstated a total abortion ban from 1864.

Fortunately for Biden, his campaign doesn’t have to commit to one region or the other just yet, and it has the resources to keep all the battleground states in play. But some Democrats may have a residual hangover from 2016, when Hillary Clinton vainly pursued Sun Belt votes while failing to shore up what was then called the “blue wall” of Rust Belt states that swung to Trump. The numbers indicate that Biden should indeed nail down Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin if he can. But it would be prudent to make a big play for one of the larger Sun Belt states as well (e.g., Arizona, Georgia, or North Carolina) in case things go wrong. Having just one narrow path to 270 electoral votes is never a good idea.


April 5: Will Abortion Vote Make Florida Competitive in November?

A complicated series of judicial decisions in Florida could have changed the state’s dynamics in 2024, and I wrote it all up at New York:

Not long ago, Florida was considered the ultimate presidential battleground state. It determined the outcome of the 2000 election, and as recently as 2012 it was carried by a Democrat, Barack Obama. But after being won twice by Donald Trump, as Republicans swept every statewide elected office and increased their grip on the state legislature and congressional delegation, Florida is now perceived as decidedly red-tinged. Nevertheless, as Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign ponders a path to 270 electoral votes complicated by poor polling in key 2020 states like Arizona and Georgia, Florida’s 30 electoral votes remain tempting. That’s particularly true after the Florida Supreme Court simultaneously let a six-week abortion ban take effect while clearing the way for a November ballot initiative aimed at overturning it. The very next day, the same court cleared a November ballot initiative to legalize recreational cannabis use as well.

Florida could theoretically become ground zero for a national Democratic strategy of making popular anger over abortion restrictions the big game-changer for 2024, offsetting economic unhappiness, border-security worries, and concerns about Biden’s age. As my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti has pointed out, ballot measures have become a turnout-booster for Florida Democrats: “In three of the last four election cycles, the party’s turnout appeared to be helped by ballot initiatives — on broadening medical marijuana laws in 2016, on restoring voting rights for felons in 2018, and on raising the minimum wage in 2020.”

But is Florida likely to be close enough in 2024 to make this issue-driven reach for a win feasible? That’s not entirely clear. Perceptions of Florida’s trajectory are being heavily affected by the 2022 midterm blowout that gave Ron DeSantis a landslide 19-point reelection win. But at the presidential level, the red tide in the Sunshine State has been less dramatic, if still highly significant. Obama carried the state by a mere 0.9 percent in 2012 and then Hillary Clinton lost it by 1.2 percent four years later. Trump’s margin then increased to 3.3 percent in 2020, though the Biden campaign did not really target Florida. Demographically Florida has been a haven for tax-leery white retirees, including the blue-collar folk who have been trending Republican, and it’s also Exhibit A in the much-discussed Latino voter surge toward the GOP (much of it driven by conservative Cuban American and South American immigrants, with some drift among Puerto Ricans as well).

Public polling of the 2024 general election in Florida has been sparse, but two polls taken in March both show Trump with a solid if not overwhelming lead (six points per St. Pete Polls and seven points according to Redfield & Wilton Strategies).

There’s no question the twin abortion and cannabis ballot initiatives should be appealing to Democratic constituencies in Florida (especially the crucial youth vote). And the state’s 60 percent requirement for approval of state constitutional amendments means those votes will be tantalizingly close and heavily publicized. It’s also likely that the abortion policy fight will attract serious national money, with some perhaps coming from ultrawealthy Democratic Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who is already donating heavily to abortion ballot initiatives in Arizona and Nevada.

On the other hand, past ballot-measure fights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in 2022 have had a debatable effect on partisan-turnout patterns. Pro-choice forces have won them all, but often by attracting pro-choice Republican voters who still support their party’s candidates despite its anti-abortion positioning. The relatively late timing of Florida’s imposition of a near-total abortion ban (it was enacted last year but held up in the courts until this week’s judicial decision) could make the ballot fight in the state especially intense and accordingly dangerous for the Republicans responsible for this denial of basic rights.

Perhaps the best way to characterize Florida’s status in the presidential race right now is that it’s on the Biden campaign’s watch list and could move near the top if (a) subsequent polling looks promising and (b) other states counted on to win the president an Electoral College majority appear problematic. Even if it’s a reach, Team Biden would enjoy making a relatively cash-strapped Trump campaign devote precious resources to defending the 45th president’s home turf.

 


April 4: No Labels No Longer a Threat to Biden ’24

I’ve been watching a particular threat to Democrats in 2024 for a good while, and was able to report at New York that it has receded.

In one of the less surprising developments of the political year, the nonpartisan No Labels organization is abandoning its plans to run a presidential “unity ticket” in November. The group confirmed the news via a statement emailed out on April 4:

“Today, No Labels is ending our effort to put forth a Unity ticket in the 2024 presidential election.

“Americans remain more open to an independent presidential run, and hungrier for unifying national leadership, than ever before. But No Labels has always said we would only offer our ballot line to a ticket if we could identify candidates with a credible path to winning the White House. No such candidates emerged, so the responsible course of action is for us to stand down.”

The statement was probably triggered by a report from The Wall Street Journal:

“Nancy Jacobson, No Labels’ founder and CEO, told allies this week that the group would announce Monday that it won’t pursue a presidential campaign this year because it hasn’t been able to recruit a credible ticket that could win the election, the people said.

“Jacobson told supporters that the organization had reached out to 30 potential candidates during its process.”

The precise number of rejections No Labels encountered is both newsy and embarrassing. The procession of high-to-medium-profile politicians publicly expressing a lack of interest in joining the “unity ticket” had become a regular drumbeat in recent weeks. My own running list of announced No Labels no-thank-yous included Larry HoganJoe ManchinLiz CheneyNikki HaleyDeval PatrickBrian KempChris SununuChris ChristieGeoff DuncanMitt Romney, and Jon Huntsman. I may have missed a few; NBC News indicated recently that the organization had fruitlessly gone well off-road in the search for a presidential candidate:

“Well-known non-politicians like businessman Mark Cuban and retired Navy Adm. William McRaven did not reciprocate interest from No Labels, either. No Labels’ search has gone far and wide — it even tried to make overtures to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.”

It’s easy to mock No Labels for its fecklessness, but the group did make good on its promise to bag the whole thing if it could not identify a ticket positioned to actually win 270 electoral votes. Polls consistently showed that the idea of a “unity ticket” was more popular than an actual “unity ticket,” so it made sense that as the group proceeded down its wish list of candidates, the weak case for the whole enterprise would begin to vanish. In the end, the intense pressure the group’s leadership was under to avoid a “spoiler” scenario that could help Donald Trump get back into the White House despite a weak popular-vote performance was a crucial factor in the No Labels No Go decision. The late No Labels leader Joe Lieberman consistently said that “the last thing I’d ever want to be part of is bringing Donald Trump back to the Oval Office.” He can now rest in peace in the certainty that won’t happen, and Joe Biden’s team also has one less major problem to address.

The centrist Democratic organization Third Way, which has been the Paul Revere of the effort to discourage a No Labels candidacy, had this to say in a statement:

“A year and a half ago, we were the first to warn that No Labels’ presidential bid was doomed, dangerous, and would divide the anti-Trump coalition. Joined by a wide array of allies, we waged a campaign to dissuade any serious candidate from joining their ticket. We are deeply relieved that everyone rejected their offer, forcing them to stand down. While the threat of third-party spoilers remains, this uniquely damaging attack on President Biden and Democrats from the center has at last ended.”

No Labels retires from the 2024 field having achieved ballot access in 19 states. That accomplishment will be looked on enviously by remaining non-major-party candidates Robert F. Kennedy Jr.Cornel West, and Jill Stein. It remains to be seen if the perennial fantasy of a centrist third party — or as No Labels insisted it represented, a centrist bipartisan effort to force the major parties to work together — will live on.


March 29: Trump Will Need Some New Tricks If He Wants to Steal the 2024 Election

As someone who warned for months that Trump would try to steal the presidency in 2020 if he lost, I’m worried about the possibility of it happening again, and took a close look at New York at what has changed since then:

Hanging over the 2024 presidential rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is the possibility of another contested result. Aside from a handful of liberal pundits who have fantasized about Congress refusing to certify a Trump victory on grounds that the 14th Amendment bans high federal office for past “insurrectionists,” the major reason for worry emanates from the horrible example set by Trump in 2020 and by his ever-more-adamant if still unsubstantiated claims that the race was “rigged.” There’s no reason to assume he’ll accept defeat in 2024, particularly now that he’s beginning to repeat some of his 2020 hogwash about voting by mail being inherently fraudulent and his even older fabrications about Democrats relying on illegal votes from noncitizens.

Even more basically, the central message of Trump’s 2024 campaign is that he represents an overwhelming majority of Americans who long for his brand of American greatness, against the self-perpetuating power of corrupt elites who illegally denied them a second Trump term. A graceful acceptance of defeat seems extremely unlikely. Rolling Stone is reporting that the Biden campaign is examining a “comically long” list of “nightmare scenarios” that might develop.

But while Trump remains entirely capable of trying to steal the presidency, his options have narrowed. Several of the tactics he used four years ago are now more or less off the table.

Most obviously, Trump will not have the office of the presidency or its powers at his disposal, and he’ll be trying to conquer, not retain, the White House. That’s a handicap that should not be underestimated. When he claimed a grossly premature victory on Election Night in 2020, it was from the East Room of the White House, which may have enhanced the authenticity of this banana-republic move. More importantly, throughout his effort to overturn his defeat, he had access to the resources of the U.S. Justice Department (although its operatives cooperated with him to widely varying extents). All that will be lost to him in 2024. Also beyond his reach is an option he considered but was reportedly talked out of taking in 2020: ordering the U.S. military to seize voting machines in the search for phantom voter fraud. So too is the more drastic step some feared of Trump invoking the Insurrection Act and deploying military units to suppress protests against his election thievery.

More generally, if some sort of institutional paralysis grips Congress or the U.S. government in implementing a 2024 election defeat for Trump, inertia will favor the incumbent. It’s easier to hold power than to seize it.

One particular byproduct of not being in power makes Trump’s planned maneuver in Congress on January 6 a nonstarter: The vice-president who will count electoral votes is Kamala Harris, not Mike Pence. So there will be no gavel-wielding president of the Senate “sending it back to the states” for an unconstitutional redo of election certification. Pence wouldn’t do Trump this favor; Harris won’t either, of course.

Other options available to Trump in 2020 have been removed or at least limited by the Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022, enacted by Congress with significant bipartisan support to address the events of January 6 and some of the confusion that preceded it. That new law makes it clear the vice-president who presides over the electoral vote count is acting simply as a clerk, not a judge. But more importantly, the ECRA provides clear direction on who has the power to certify electors at the state level, heading off the “fake electors” gambit the Trump campaign attempted via friendly legislators in 2020. It also provides for expedited federal judicial review of disputes over certification of electors so that they are resolved long before Congress confirms the results. And it strengthens the presumption that each state will only certify electors pledged to the candidate who wins its popular vote.

Overall, it appears the joint session of Congress to confirm the presidential results will be a less fruitful avenue for MAGA mischief in 2025, though we don’t know which party will control Congress at that time (Democrats controlled both chambers in 2021).

An even bigger legal change since 2020 has been the relatively more restrictive attitude of the states toward voting by mail now that the COVID-19 pandemic has more or less ended. The 2020 Trump campaign constantly claimed that the institution of temporary no-excuse absentee ballots or unsolicited distribution of mail ballots to all registered voters either constituted or encouraged voter fraud; their challenges typically failed as federal and state courts deferred to determinations by state and local election officials on public-safety needs. Now, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states that temporarily relaxed excuse requirements for voting by mail have reinstated them. That means fewer mail ballots and fewer grounds for lawsuits alleging ballot fraud. Similarly, most states that sent unsolicited mail ballots to all registered voters in 2020 have stopped doing that; the only battleground-state exception is Nevada.

One mail-ballot issue that bears watching in 2024 is the practice in 17 states of allowing mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted. While in 2020 the federal courts generally dismissed complaints against this procedure on grounds of COVID-related delays in mail-delivery service, there hasn’t been a definitive ruling on the argument that allowing late receipt of mail ballots represents an unconstitutional extension of Election Day. There are only, however, two battleground states (Nevada and North Carolina) that have a post–Election Day cutoff for mail ballots.

It’s worth noting that due to Democrats’ remarkably good performance in 2022, election deniers had less opportunity to monkey with election laws in the last two years. As New York’s Eric Levitz noted after the midterms:

“Democrats … gained four new trifectas, won bitterly contested governors’ races (in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and deep-red Kansas), fought off Republican supermajorities in the North Carolina House and the Badger State’s assembly, defeated every single election denier campaigning for secretary of State in an Electoral College battleground, and did not lose control of a single state legislative chamber. That last feat is especially noteworthy: In every midterm election since 1934, the president’s party has forfeited at least one statehouse to the opposition.”

So what new election-coup tactics could Trump pursue in 2024? There is one terrifying possibility: the deployment of MAGA shock troops to disrupt the casting or counting of Election Day votes in order to justify nondemocratic methods of determining the presidency. To put it another way, the more legislators and judges close off nefarious legal methods of subverting an adverse election result, the more Trump and his supporters may be tempted to resort to good old-fashioned ballot-box-stuffing violence. It would be immensely helpful to secure as many pledges against this lurch into open authoritarianism as possible among Republican elected officials and party leaders. And as an added safeguard, Joe Biden might want to win by a landslide.


March 28: RIP Joe Lieberman, a Democrat Who Lost His Way

I was sorry to learn of the sudden death of 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman. But his long and stormy career did offer some important lessons about party loyalty, which I wrote about at New York:

Joe Lieberman was active in politics right up to the end. The former senator was the founding co-chair of the nonpartisan group No Labels, which is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign on behalf of a yet-to-be-identified bipartisan “unity ticket.” Lieberman did not live to see whether No Labels will run a candidate. He died on Wednesday at 82 due to complications from a fall. But this last political venture was entirely in keeping with his long career as a self-styled politician of the pragmatic center, which often took him across party boundaries.

Lieberman’s first years in Connecticut Democratic politics as a state legislator and then state attorney general were reasonably conventional. He was known for a particular interest in civil rights and environmental protection, and his identity as an observant Orthodox Jew also drew attention. But in 1988, the Democrat used unconventional tactics in his challenge to Republican U.S. senator Lowell Weicker. Lieberman positioned himself to the incumbent’s right on selected issues, like Ronald Reagan’s military operations against Libya and Grenada. He also capitalized on longtime conservative resentment of his moderate opponent, winning prized endorsements from William F. and James Buckley, icons of the right. Lieberman won the race narrowly in an upset.

Almost immediately, Senator Lieberman became closely associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. The group of mostly moderate elected officials focused on restoring the national political viability of a party that had lost five of the six previous presidential elections; it soon produced a president in Bill Clinton. Lieberman became probably the most systematically pro-Clinton (or in the parlance of the time, “New Democrat”) member of Congress. This gave his 1998 Senate speech condemning the then-president’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal as “immoral” and “harmful” a special bite. He probably did Clinton a favor by setting the table for a reprimand that fell short of impeachment and removal, but without question, the narrative was born of Lieberman being disloyal to his party.

Perhaps it was his public scolding of Clinton that convinced Al Gore, who was struggling to separate himself from his boss’s misconduct, to lift Lieberman to the summit of his career. Gore tapped the senator to be his running mate in the 2000 election, making him the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate of a major party. He was by all accounts a disciplined and loyal running mate, at least until that moment during the Florida recount saga when he publicly disclaimed interest in challenging late-arriving overseas military ballots against the advice of the Gore campaign. You could argue plausibly that the ticket would have never been in a position to potentially win the state without Lieberman’s appeal in South Florida to Jewish voters thrilled by his nomination to become vice-president. But many Democrats bitter about the loss blamed Lieberman.

As one of the leaders of the “Clintonian” wing of his party, Lieberman was an early front-runner for the 2004 presidential nomination. A longtime supporter of efforts to topple Saddam Hussein, Lieberman had voted to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq, like his campaign rivals John Kerry and John Edwards and other notable senators including Hillary Clinton. Unlike most other Democrats, though, Lieberman did not back off this position when the Iraq War became a deadly quagmire. Ill-aligned with his party to an extent he did not seem to perceive, his presidential campaign quickly flamed out, but not before he gained enduring mockery for claiming “Joe-mentum” from a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.

Returning to the Senate, Lieberman continued his increasingly lonely support for the Iraq War (alongside other heresies to liberalism, such as his support for private-school education vouchers in the District of Columbia). In 2006, Lieberman drew a wealthy primary challenger, Ned Lamont, who soon had a large antiwar following in Connecticut and nationally. As the campaign grew heated, President George W. Bush gave his Democratic war ally a deadly gift by embracing him and kissing his cheek after the State of the Union Address. This moment, memorialized as “The Kiss,” became central to the Lamont campaign’s claim that Lieberman had left his party behind, and the challenger narrowly won the primary. However, Lieberman ran against him in the general election as an independent, with significant back-channel encouragement from the Bush White House (which helped prevent any strong Republican candidacy). Lieberman won a fourth and final term in the Senate with mostly GOP and independent votes. He was publicly endorsed by Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, among others from what had been the enemy camp.

The 2006 repudiation by his party appeared to break something in Lieberman. This once-happiest of happy political warriors, incapable of holding a grudge, seemed bitter, or at the very least gravely offended, even as he remained in the Senate Democratic Caucus (albeit as formally independent). When his old friend and Iraq War ally John McCain ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, Lieberman committed a partisan sin by endorsing him. His positioning between the two parties, however, still cost him dearly: McCain wanted to choose him as his running mate, before the Arizonan’s staff convinced him that Lieberman’s longtime pro-choice views and support for LGBTQ rights would lead to a convention revolt. The GOP nominee instead went with a different “high-risk, high-reward” choice: Sarah Palin.

After Barack Obama’s victory over Lieberman’s candidate, the new Democratic president needed every Democratic senator to enact the centerpiece of his agenda, the Affordable Care Act. He got Lieberman’s vote — but only after the senator, who represented many of the country’s major private-insurance companies, forced the elimination of the “public option” in the new system. It was a bitter pill for many progressives, who favored a more robust government role in health insurance than Obama had proposed.

By the time Lieberman chose to retire from the Senate in 2012, he was very near to being a man without a party, and he reflected that status by refusing to endorse either Obama or Mitt Romney that year. By then, he was already involved in the last great project of his political career, No Labels. He did, with some hesitation, endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. But his long odyssey away from the yoke of the Democratic Party had largely landed him in a nonpartisan limbo. Right up until his death, he was often the public face of No Labels, particularly after the group’s decision to sponsor a presidential ticket alienated many early supporters of its more quotidian efforts to encourage bipartisan “problem-solving” in Congress.

Some will view Lieberman as a victim of partisan polarization, and others as an anachronistic member of a pro-corporate, pro-war bipartisan elite who made polarization necessary. Personally, I will remember him as a politician who followed — sometimes courageously, sometimes foolishly — a path that made him blind to the singular extremism that one party has exhibited throughout the 21st century, a development he tried to ignore to his eventual marginalization. But for all his flaws, I have no doubt Joe Lieberman remained until his last breath committed to the task he often cited via the Hebrew term tikkun olam: repairing a broken world.


March 22: Ex-Democrat Tulsi Gabbard Can’t Decide Which Bad Ticket She Wants to Join

One of the odder phenomena of the 2024 presidential election is a certain 2020 Democratic candidate who has strayed very far since then. I took a look at her options at New York:

A month ago, when ex-Democratic congresswoman and 2020 presidential wannabe Tulsi Gabbard showed up at a Mar-a-Lago event, I wrote about the logic that could make her a highly unconventional but not entirely implausible 2024 running mate for Donald Trump. Once a major backer of Bernie Sanders, Gabbard’s trajectory toward MAGA-land has been steady since she left the Democratic Party in the fall of 2022, a main course she served up with a side dish of jarring candidate endorsements (e.g., of J.D. Vance). Even when she was still a Democrat running for president, though, her orientation was more MAGA-adjacent than you might expect, as Geoffrey Skelley explained in 2019:

“Gabbard’s supporters … are more likely to have backed President Trump in 2016, hold conservative views or identify as Republican compared to voters backing the other candidates. …

“In fact, Gabbard has become a bit of a conservative media darling in the primary, with conservative commentators like Ann Coulter and pro-Trump social media personalities like Mike Cernovich complimenting her for her foreign policy views. In a primary in which some 2020 Democratic contenders have boycotted Fox NewsGabbard has regularly appeared on the network. Just last week, Gabbard even did an exclusive interview with Breitbart News, a far-right political outlet. She’s also made appeals outside the political mainstream by going on The Joe Rogan Experience — one of the most popular podcasts in the country and a favored outlet for members of the Intellectual Dark Web, whose purveyors don’t fit neatly into political camps but generally criticize concepts such as political correctness and identity politics.”

So her parting blast at Democrats as controlled by an “elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness” didn’t come out of nowhere.

But much as Gabbard might be an outside-the-box running mate for the 45th president, it does seem there is another 2024 presidential candidate whose extreme hostility to mainstream institutions and difficult-to-categorize views might make him a better match for her: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And sure enough, according to NBC News, the wiggy anti-vaxxer is interested in Gabbard:

“The four-term former member of Congress from Hawaii is now getting consideration for both former President Donald Trump’s and independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s tickets, two sources familiar with the candidates’ deliberations told NBC News.”

The prospect of choosing between these two politicians appears to have left Gabbard feeling she’s in the catbird seat:

“As one source said, Gabbard would be more likely to seriously consider running as Kennedy’s vice presidential nominee had she not been swept up by the possibility of serving with Trump. This person said Gabbard ‘was enticed’ by the chance of serving on Kennedy’s ticket but is now focused on the possibility that Trump will select her.

“’My understanding is that Tulsi is convinced that Trump is going to pick her,’ this person said. ‘Had that not been the case, she probably would have gone with Kennedy.’”

Since Kennedy has scheduled a running-mate reveal for March 26 in Oakland, we’ll know soon enough whether he chose Gabbard and Gabbard chose him. Others rumored to be on his short list include New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, and California entrepreneur and major RFK Jr. donor Nicole Shanahan.

As NBC notes, it’s more than a bit unusual for people to be considered for multiple presidential tickets:

“[I]t’s exceedingly rare for a politician to attract interest from more than one presidential ticket or party. (Ahead of the 1952 election, Democrats and Republicans led dueling efforts to draft another politically ambiguous veteran, Dwight Eisenhower, the former supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II, for the presidential race.)”

It’s hard to say what Tulsi Gabbard would think of this comparison. After all, Ike was a bit of a warmonger.


March 20: Democrats Should Make It Clear America IS Better Off Than It Was Four Years Ago

We started hearing a familiar question from Republicans recently, and figured I’d answer it at New York:

What was the worst year of your life?

The answer will obviously vary, but it’s a good bet the year 2020 will rank pretty high in any list of wretched years. After all, it’s when COVID-19 arrived. The pandemic eventually took over a million lives just in America. Our economy collapsed. Schools and businesses closed, unemployment sky-rocketed, most people were isolated and terrified. As scientists struggled to figure out how the virus spread, how to keep from contracting it, and how to treat it, most Americans were hoarding hand sanitizer, paper towels, and toilet paper; avoiding door knobs, hand rails, and other shared surfaces; and obsessively cleaning their groceries and their mail.

It was indeed a time most of us would prefer to forget. And it seems the Republican Party is counting on that. As Noah Berlatsky of Public Notice points out, Republicans are now regularly trotting out Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 debate question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?,” as though it’s a slam-dunk winner for them:

“’Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’ Rep. Elise Stefanik asked during a news conference last week. She answered her own question by saying ‘the answer is a resounding no.’ Lara Trump, the new co-chair of the Republican National Committee, said virtually the same thing to Sean Hannity on Tuesday. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott echoed that sentiment on Fox News as well, saying, ‘We have to go back to that future, 2017-2020. We want those four years one more time.’”

Seriously? All of the Trump years?

Despite the many problems with her weird, mendacious response to the State of the Union Address, Republican senator Katie Britt was smart enough not to claim 2020 as the joyous climax of four great years. Instead she asked viewers if they were “better off than they were three years ago,” dating back to Joe Biden’s first address to Congress in 2021. Ah, but that comparison, while it lends itself to the negative case against Biden, does not make the comparative case for Donald Trump’s alleged superiority. So throwing caution to the wind, Republicans will grit their teeth and ask persuadable voters to misremember 2020 as a monument to an American greatness that we have sadly lost once again.

Now it’s true that everything bad about 2020 was not attributable to Trump, and that voters may not necessarily put responsibility on him for the failure to manage a pandemic that baffled us all (though his tardiness in taking it seriously definitely cost lives and should never be forgotten). But nor is Biden responsible for all the ills of the world right now (including some maladies left to him by the Trump administration, like economic volatility and supply-chain problems). Rightly or wrongly, presidents are held responsible for nearly everything that happens on their watch; that’s the big downside to the job of being “leader of the free world,” with all its cool perks like Air Force One and Camp David. If Republicans are going to attack Biden over discontents ranging from gasoline prices to the horrors of war in Ukraine and Gaza, they’ll have to accept that the final year of that magical Trump presidency was quite the bummer. As a matter of fact, 2017 through 2019 weren’t exactly a golden era of good government, but for most Americans conditions of life were better than they became four years ago.

The GOP really needs to rethink its talking points. It takes a special kind of amnesia or insensitivity to look back at 2020 with great fondness. For most of us, the answer to the question “Are you better off than you were four years ago” is “Hell yes.”