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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

July 14: Trump Aides Spin Revisionist Tale of Election Night 2020

When I read the Election Night excerpt of a major new book on Trump, I nearly fell out of my chair, and wrote a challenge to it at New York:

Donald J. Trump’s victory claim in the wee hours of November 4, 2020, was a pretty big moment in American political history. It launched a challenge of the election results that hasn’t ended even eight months later, and shows signs of becoming a “bloody shirt” that could dominate Republican rhetoric for years to come.

So like many political observers, I read the Election Night account given by Trump White House insiders to Washington Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker for their book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year with interest, and then with astonishment. To hear these sources tell it, everyone in the White House other than a possibly inebriated Rudy Giuliani was tensely awaiting the full returns — understanding they would take days or weeks to come in — when Trump shocked everyone by taking Giuliani’s advice and saying he had already won, and would go all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary to stop the voting he claimed was still underway. According to this account, Trump’s speechwriters had prepared remarks cautioning patience in assessing the results, but instead the 45th president, smarting from the “betrayal” he experienced when Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden, tossed it away and began the “stop the steal” crusade that culminated in an attempted coup the following January and convinced many millions of Republican voters they had indeed been robbed.

This tale of a sudden lurch into Election Night madness is as implausible as Trump’s attempt to preemptively declare victory that same night was unsurprising — and horrifying.

Since the spring of 2020, I and many other journalists had been predicting that Trump’s near-hourly attacks on voting by mail were intended to produce exactly this sort of scenario: The in-person votes first counted would tilt red, enabling him and his supporters to claim victory and then challenge the validity of the blue-leaning mail ballots that would be counted later. There was even a name for this scenario, the “Red Mirage,” based on which votes would be tabulated and reported first. It produced widespread discussion in early September. But Trump’s apparent plans were clear much earlier.

So is it really likely that the thought of doing exactly that only occurred to Trump just before he walked out to inform the nation of his thoughts? That’s what Trump’s insiders clearly want us to believe via the Post reporters’ book:

“After a while, Rudy Giuliani started to cause a commotion. He was telling other guests that he had come up with a strategy for Trump and was trying to get into the president’s private quarters to tell him about it. Some people thought Giuliani may have been drinking too much and suggested to Stepien that he go talk to the former New York mayor. Stepien, Meadows and Jason Miller took Giuliani down to a room just off the Map Room to hear him out … Giuliani’s grand plan was to just say Trump won, state after state, based on nothing. Stepien, Miller and Meadows thought his argument was both incoherent and irresponsible.

“’We can’t do that,’ Meadows said, raising his voice. ‘We can’t.’”

Hmmm. Rudy has this brilliant idea that the chattering classes had been discussing for months and months and Trump’s staffers were shocked to hear of it, off the top of Giuliani’s possibly fogged head?

Now, it’s possible that Trump and his advisers were hesitating in implementing a victory-claim plan because there was a better chance that anyone expected he could win without skulduggery. But was the claim spontaneous?

It seems more likely that Trump’s staff is doing a little retroactive gaslighting and ass-covering to cleanse themselves of responsibility for the nightmare that later ensued. It’s absolutely true that Trump himself bears responsibility for the attempted election coup, whenever it was that the election-victory-claim scheme began to become strategy. It’s why he was ultimately impeached a second time. But it did not come as a bolt from the blue; it wasn’t just a coincidence that what we all thought Trump might do he just happened to do, on a whim. And if, as one should fear, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat becomes permanent for his supporters, everyone in on the plot should accept their share of the blame.

July 10: Democrats Should Not Sneer At Plan B For Voting Rights

When Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights at Howard University this week, there was some negative reaction among Democrats that needs rethinking, as I argued at New York:

Reading this NBC News account of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s voting rights speech today, you get the sense she was offering up largely symbolic dollars to ward off criticism of the Biden administration for its failure to enact voting rights legislation:

“Vice President Kamala Harris will announce Thursday a $25 million investment by the Democratic National Committee to support efforts to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“The announcement comes as Republican-controlled states around the country have passed a wave of restrictive voting rights laws fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the results of the 2020 election.

“President Joe Biden has been criticized by some Democrats and civil rights advocates for not taking a more aggressive approach to fighting those new laws after Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation last month.”

It’s true Democrats have failed to overcome Republican resistance to voting-rights legislation, either by securing GOP support or by convincing Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to restrict or abolish the competing right of Senate minorities to kill legislation via the filibuster. But it’s hard to blame Biden or Harris for this brick wall built over many decades, and it’s not clear to me what the critics would have them do other than threatening a nuclear strike on West Virginia. So instead of some sort of face-saving gesture, we should interpret Harris’s announcement as representing part of a fallback strategy for voting rights that is the only responsible course to take. Another prong of this strategy was announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland last month: deployment of an expanded cadre of attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to challenge state voter-suppression and election-subversion measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To put it simply, if the Justice Department or voting rights advocates fail to stop such legislation at the state level or in the courts, the prudent thing is to devote resources to educate voters on how to navigate the roadblocks Republicans are erecting, and to mobilize them to exercise their rights. That’s what Harris has in mind, as CBS News reports:

“According to the vice president the funds would help with voter registration, help educate voters on some of the state laws being brought up by Republican led state legislations as well as mobilize voters in the upcoming 2022 elections. Harris also said the DNC would assemble the ‘largest voter protection team we have ever had.’”

“Voter protection” means staff on the ground to make sure voters (particularly the younger and minority voters most likely to support Democratic candidates) are not intimidated or misled by vote-suppressing election officials or partisan “volunteers” who “watch” polls with malice. These are the kinds of things you have to do to short-circuit voter suppression and rewire a flawed system to get people to the polls despite laws and politicians that try to keep them at home. What Harris announced should be treated as a serious and important contribution to the cause of voting rights, not dismissed as an excuse for failure to do the impossible in Congress.

July 7: Conservatives Keep Adding Litmus Tests That Make Expanding the GOP Difficult

There’s an idea floating around that Trump has liberated his party from the conservative strictures that made it hard for Republicans to build a majority coalition. I pushed back on that notion at New York:

Heading toward the 2022 midterm elections, Republican-watchers are fascinated by the aggressive role Donald Trump intends to play in GOP primaries. Aside from his plans of vengeance toward those who egregiously crossed him at some point over the past half-century, he is selectively backing candidates whom he can claim as his very own. Indeed, the former president has already endorsed ten Senate candidates, two House candidates, and five candidates for state offices (one for a 2021 election). More important, his potential endorsements have Republican candidates and proto-candidates scrambling to prove their MAGA credentials so as to head off, or at least partially neutralize, the possibility that the Boss will give the magic nod to an opponent. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is in the Ohio U.S. Senate race, during which candidates had an Apprentice-style audition with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March, with one aspirant, J.D. Vance, subsequently launching his candidacy by apologizing for criticisms of the 45th president back in 2016.

“’I have never heard Herschel Walker’s position on pro-life. I haven’t,’ Collins said. ‘I’ve never heard his position on gun control. I’ve never heard his position on a lot of these issues that are conservative issues.’”

Collins himself is a MAGA stalwart, having served as Trump’s chief defender on the House Judiciary Committee during the former president’s first impeachment. But he won’t take Trump’s word for it that Walker is ideologically kosher: The current Republican front-runner for the 2022 Senate nomination needs to publicly pledge his allegiance to culture-war causes like banning abortion and outlawing any outlawing of a single gun.

Certainly, abortion and guns represent two major issues on which any sort of heterodoxy is disqualifying for nearly all Republican candidates. The once-robust pro-choice Republican caucus in Congress is now down to two veteran senators: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. A good indication of how obligatory anti-abortion views have become was provided by recent party-switcher Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. He had a strongly pro-choice voting record as a Democrat, but one of his first House votes as a Republican was on behalf of a failed effort to force a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy onto the floor. Similarly, one of the vanishingly few congressional Republicans open to any kind of gun regulation, Senator Pat Toomey, is retiring next year. On both of these cultural issues, Republican opinion seems to be hardening. The ascendant conservative view on reproductive rights is now fetal personhood as a matter of federal constitutional law, rather than simply a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and a return of abortion regulation to the states. And on guns, the big conservative trend is “constitutional carry,” a rejection of any firearms licensing provisions, which is closely associated with the even more dangerous idea that the Second Amendment was designed to give teeth to a “right to revolution” against a “tyrannical” government.

But these are hardly the only litmus tests of “true conservatism” that survived or even flourished in the Trump era. Tax increases remain verboten, as evidenced by their absence from the recent bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate. Anti-government rhetoric, an inheritance from the Goldwater-to-Reagan conservative movement that was intensified by the tea-party phenomenon of the Obama era, now has even greater power thanks to the Trumpian doctrines of a traitorous deep state and a corrupt Swamp dominating Washington. Hostility to organized labor is now universal in a party that used to more than occasionally secure union endorsements for its candidates (unless you take seriously the eccentric endorsement by Marco Rubio of an effort to organize Amazon workers or the more general revolt against “woke” corporations).

There are obviously some tenets of traditional conservatism that Trump has called into doubt as orthodoxy. Several are really restorations of Old Right thinking: the abandonment of free-trade principles for a return to the protectionist creed that animated Republicans from the Civil War to World War II, an America First repudiation of neoconservative commitments to alliances and interventionism, and a return to the nativism that has always been just under the surface in Republican politics. While Trump’s sometimes incoherent views on these topics haven’t become totally obligatory for Republicans just yet, gestures in his direction probably are required. It’s hard to imagine, for example, more than a smattering of Republicans vocally opposing a border wall, or calling for closer trade relations with China, or saying something nice about NATO, much less the United Nations. In international relations, Trump’s determination to throw money at the Pentagon and his unremitting bellicosity have made his isolationist tendencies more acceptable to the Cold War set.

There’s one very loud new habit of Republicans that Trump has elevated from a fringe extremist preoccupation into a near-universal habit in the GOP: the attacks on “political correctness,” “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and now “critical race theory” that present a violent antipathy to cultural changes deemed threatening to white patriarchal hegemony (or, stated more neutrally, to the “Great” America Trump has promised to bring back). All these phantom menaces are nicely designed to make old-school racism and sexism respectable.

All in all, it’s a complicated landscape that ambitious Republicans must navigate to safely rise within the Trumpified GOP. The safest are hard-core conservatives of the old school who downplay Reaganite views that are now out of fashion — and who add in conspicuous personal loyalty to Trump and whatever he wants at any given moment. Examples of this formula are Ted Cruz, the members of the House Freedom Caucus, and, above all, Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who is still doing penance for endorsing Cruz in 2016, in part by personally participating in Trump’s January 6 insurrectionary rally. Trump is close to the once-unlikely accomplishment of making “true conservatism” and Trumpism identical. The big question is whether his personal presence as a presidential candidate or a hurricane-force disrupter is necessary to seal the deal.

July 1: Refocusing on 2020

So many words have been spilled about the 2020 presidential election that it’s easy to put it in the rear-view mirror. But only now are we getting the kind of reliable data that makes understanding it easier, as I noted at New York:

One of the many weird things about the 2020 presidential election is that there was never a moment of big-picture clarity immediately after the count came in. Trump and his Team of Disrupters jumped into wild conspiracy theories based on insanely detailed (if largely made-up) claims involving the closest states. Meanwhile, the usual source for a quick understanding of national elections, the network-sponsored exit polls, were generally ignored. In part that was because of greater awareness of their documented shortcomings in the recent past, and in part because the very high level of voting by mail subverted the basic function of exit polls as a scientific after-the-fact tabulation of how people had already voted (“exit poll” data for by-mail voters was actually derived from a standard phone poll, in a relatively bad year for pollsters).

Since politics abhors a vacuum, particularly in close elections, the absence of authoritative data slicing and dicing the electorate along the usual demographic categories led to the development — via various studies of county-level data and some sheer hunches — of various takes on what happened, and even a bit of a conventional wisdom. As information is released from voter files and census reports, we are now getting a better picture of the actual 2020 election results, and an important new analysis of them has just been released by Pew. It’s of voters validated by voter files, and it provides a fresh and more accurate look at the 2020 fault lines.

Things we knew (but now know more precisely)

One of the big narratives of the election was that Biden won by making gains among suburban voters, and in the overlapping category of white voters with college degrees. The Pew numbers show that even more strongly, with Biden winning suburbanites 54-43 (the exits showed a narrower 50-48 margin), as compared to a Trump advantage of 47-45 in 2016; and white college-educated voters 57-42 (again, the exits show a narrower 51-48 Biden win). Notably, Pew had Biden improving on his party’s 2018 midterm congressional performance in the suburbs, which was the dominant story of that election.

It was widely reported that Trump repeated his boffo 2016 performance among white non-college voters in 2020. But Pew confirms Biden reduced the Republican margin in that demographic from 36 to 32 points.

Perhaps the biggest storyline from 2020 among Republican spinmeisters was that Trump cut into expected Democratic margins among Latinos, despite his long and recently intensified nativist rhetoric and occasional anti-Latino racism. The exits showed him winning a third of Latinos. But Pew showed Biden winning them 59-38, a margin of only 21 points, as compared with Clinton’s 38-point margin in 2016, and the Democratic congressional margin of 47 points in 2018.

Things we didn’t know but now know

The initial analysis of the results suggested the kind of gender gap we have seen in so many recent elections. The exits showed a 23-point gap (Trump winning men 53-45 and Biden winning women 57-42) close to the 26 point gap in 2016. But Pew’s numbers show the gender gap being cut in half since 2016, with Trump winning men 50-48 and Biden winning women 55-44.

There was at least one under-discussed surprise on the age front as well, though the exits did capture this one: Biden’s margin among under-30 voters (59-35) was six points lower than Clinton’s in 2016 (58-28), and a shocking 25 points lower than the margins won by congressional Democrats in 2018 (72-23). Similarly, both Pew and the exits showed a modest Trump win among seniors (down from his nine-point margin among them in 2016), but it was impressive when you consider Biden’s regular leads among over-65 voters in nearly all the polls for months.

There were two small surprises in terms of religious affiliation. Joe Biden cut Trump’s margin among white Catholics (57-42) by more than half from 2016 (64-31), and nearly tied Trump among Catholics generally. Yes, Joe Biden is a white Catholic, but in today’s polarized ideological and partisan climate, that might not have made much difference. Meanwhile, there was a lot of speculation during the campaign that Trump was losing altitude with white Evangelicals, his strongest large constituency. In the end he won them 84-15, an improvement over his 77-16 margin in 2016.

Things we thought we knew but didn’t

One apparent “surprise” that was hyped to high heaven by Team Trump was his alleged “breakthrough” among Black voters. The exits showed him doubling his support in this demographic, albeit from an anemic 6 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020. That was still an impressive improvement for the candidate of neo-Confederates everywhere, running on the thinly veiled racism of attacks on “rioters” and other threats to suburban neighborhoods. The 19 percent the exits gave to Trump among Black men was even more eyebrow-raising.

Pew’s validated numbers show Trump getting 8 percent of the Black vote, a much smaller boost, with Biden actually increasing Clinton’s share of that vote. Biden’s 60-point margin among Black men in the exits grew to 75 points in the Pew data. Not quite a Republican breakthrough.

Just as you can’t take the politics out of politics, you can’t take the spin out of post-election analysis, particularly if informative breakdowns of the results are slow to arrive. But we now know enough to have an educated guess at the trends we are likely to see in 2022 and 2024, particularly if Biden and Trump are the candidates.

June 25: No Time to “Move On” From Voting Rights

As the For the People Act crashed on the rocks of Republican obstruction, I sought to look at the bigger picture at New York:

As expected, Republicans filibustered a motion to proceed to Senate consideration of the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting-rights and election-reform bill that cleared the House in March. Tuesday’s motion produced a pure partisan split, with its famous Democratic opponent, Joe Manchin, voting with his party to open debate on the bill — presumably in hopes of getting a vote on his recently unveiled compromise proposal, though key GOP senators quickly denounced it.

In theory the Manchin proposal could get a fresh look, and a narrow component of it — a revival of the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provisions — is still alive in the separate John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But all in all, prospects look grim for any voting-rights legislation in the Senate, with Republicans attacking any Democratic proposals as “power grabs” designed to block restrictive state-level Republican legislation, and this GOP hostility failing to shake Manchin and several other Senate Democrats in their opposition to filibuster reform.

“[I]t’s clear that the White House is operating at a more tempered level of concern than other Democrats about the threats to small-d democracy emerging in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election. Based on my conversations with them, officials there seem to take a more nuanced and restrained view of what’s happening. They do not believe that more assertive public denunciation from Biden would dissuade any of the Republican governors or legislators who have moved to restrict voting rights. And although White House officials consider the laws offensive from a civil-rights perspective, they do not think most of those laws will advantage Republicans in the 2022 and 2024 elections as much as many liberal activists fear.”

This sort of limited commitment to voting-rights legislation is, of course, music to the ears of those Democrats who believe anything that smacks of special attention for Black and other minority Americans is a midterm-election killer among white voters who might otherwise warm to Biden’s jobs, infrastructure, and family support initiatives. And the fact that voting-rights proponents cannot presently identify any viable path to legislative success only increases the impatience of those in the party ranks who want to stop looking “woke” and resume tossing money around.

This attitude is both short-sighted and unprincipled. Every bit of time spent on voting rights agitation and legislative activity is a sound investment that will pay off richly for Democrats. Here’s why:

This debate on national voting standards is urgent and long overdue

Until Democrats took control of the Senate this year, Congress had been under either divided or Republican control since 2011, short-circuiting any real debate or legislative progress on maintaining minimal national standards for voting and elections. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court gutted protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as even as Republican-controlled states launched successive waves of increasingly partisan attacks on access to the ballot.

The Trump campaign’s efforts to convince state-level Republicans to overturn adverse election results in 2020 was neither the beginning nor the end of this sinister trend, which is advancing under the false flag of election integrity. Even if one believes Democrats can counter such developments with voter education and base mobilization efforts, the message that Republicans are traducing basic democratic norms that should prevail in all 50 states is essential to the task. Promoting federal legislation and — if it fails — aggressive Justice Department enforcement efforts and litigation is the simplest way to draw this line in the sand.

State-level Democrats are playing defense, and need high-profile allies

Whether or not new federal voting-rights legislation can be enacted before the 2022 midterms, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration — from the president and vice-president on down — owe their counterparts in Republican-controlled states loud and active support when voting rights are compromised or election administration is subverted. The idea that such matters are entirely up the states contradicts every bit of voting rights legislation and litigation pursued since the high tide of the civil-rights movement.

Aside from state legislative fights and litigation ongoing right now, voting rights and related issues such as partisan gerrymandering and neutral election administration are going to be red-hot midterm issues in many parts of the country, with fateful consequences. A coordinated Democratic message from the president down to state legislative candidates is the most effective way to wage this very national fight.

Voting rights is the best issue on which to fight the recent assault on democratic norms

Without much question, the abandonment of democratic norms by Donald Trump’s Republican followers is best illustrated by their attacks on voting rights and fair administration of elections in 2020. And if Democrats are serious about institutional reforms that prevent authoritarian and ant-majoritarian abuses of power by the GOP, whether it’s filibuster reform, admission of new states, or even judicial reform, the need to restore representative democracy remains the strongest context for remedial action.

Yes, the inability to get 50 Senate Democrats to support filibuster reform is precisely why the For the People Act and probably even the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are doomed in this Congress. But if filibuster reform is ever to succeed, he best foot forward is likely an effort to vindicate voting rights for all U.S. citizens, appealing to what was very recently a bipartisan tradition.

Democrats have a moral obligation to defend the rights of their most loyal and vulnerable constituents

While voting rights is a universal cause transcending race, gender, class, or national origin, there is no question the current GOP-led assault on the franchise is squarely aimed at predominantly Democratic constituencies, including those Black, Latino, Asian American, and under-30 voters who have traditionally been the object of discrimination in this area. If Democratic elected officials in Washington are indifferent to their plight or treat voting rights as an unsexy “process issue,” why should young and minority voters feel any reciprocal loyalty?

Yes, Democrats need to be smart in choosing their priorities in this precious moment of party power in Washington. But voting rights are too fundamental to all rights, and too central to Democratic electoral prospects, to be subordinated to other issues the minute it becomes expedient.

And for that matter, the party can keep the focus on voting and election fairness in 2021 without sacrificing other legislation. The current infrastructure negotiations will either succeed or fail by July. Then President Biden’s remaining budget-germane initiatives — whatever is left of his infrastructure proposals, plus his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan — will be rolled into a budget reconciliation bill that is expected to take shape by mid-summer and reach fruition this fall. There’s even a possibility that Democrats could include in this legislation election administration or voter education spending, making defense of democracy filibuster-proof.

Perhaps at some point it will become politically, legislatively, and morally imperative to “move on” from voting rights as a Democratic priority. But that moment has not yet arrived, and may never.

June 24: Is the Democratic Plague of Midterm Fall-Off Ending?

A very old topic (to me) has arisen in connection with 2022 previews, and I wrote about it at New York:

As political observers know, the party not in control of the White House usually does well in midterm U.S. House and state elections. (The Senate is a bit iffier because the landscape can vary enormously based on which “class” of one-third of the chamber is up for reelection in any one year.) There have, however, been two aberrations in the recent past, in 1998 and 2002, wherein the White House party gained House seats. As I discussed in a recent post, Democrats hope 2022 could be an aberration as well, thanks to positive feelings about the subsiding pandemic and a strong economy, and perhaps the continued presence in the public eye of Donald J. Trump — the man nearly all Democratic and many swing voters love to hate.

But there’s another midterm variable that should be considered: a traditional “midterm fall-off” in voting by demographic groups that have recently become Democratic bastions. This was exhibited most forcefully in the very bad (for Democrats) midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.

Even after Trump’s election in 2016 gave Democratic-leaning demographic groups plenty of reasons to turn out disproportionately, there were fears the falloff would reduce or even wipe out Democratic gains in 2018. That didn’t happen, of course, as Ron Brownstein recalls:

“In 2018, more than 118 million Americans voted, exactly half of the eligible population, according to [Michael] McDonald’s calculations. That was the highest midterm turnout, as a share of eligible voters, since 1914, before women won the right to vote.

“And while the 2018 electorate was still somewhat older than in 2016, the gray shift wasn’t nearly as powerful as in the past, because young adults turned out at twice the level they did in the last midterm, of 2014. Turnout among Blacks and Hispanics also declined much less than in previous midterms, with the result that the White share of the vote actually fell from 2016 to 2018, according to McDonald’s calculations, an unprecedented pattern in recent years … The turnout wave continued into 2020, with nearly 160 million people voting and turnout among young people and people of color again rising dramatically.”

One key question for 2022 is whether the fall-off will resemble what we saw in 2010 or 2014 or instead the smaller version that appeared in 2018. The experts Brownstein consulted expect something in between, which, if combined with the kind of gains Democrats made in 2018 and 2020 among college-educated white suburbanites and older voters, could make a midterm upset possible under the right circumstances.

Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to get new or marginal voters to turn out again in 2022: Trump managed to turn out a surprising number of them in 2020 himself. Keeping them energized is job one for the GOP in 2022, and Republicans may have the advantage of the kind of enraged opposition to a “socialist” president that was so visible in the tea-party movement of 2010 — though thus far, Biden is not inspiring the same levels of hostility.

That leads to the 2022 variable that no one can entirely foresee: How visible will Donald Trump be in the midterm campaign? The threat of a Trump comeback is the easiest way for Democrats to mobilize their new 2018 and 2020 voters and for Republicans to mobilize their own. Trump could help Democrats turn the midterm from a referendum on the incumbent president (a referendum incumbent presidents typically lose) to at least partially a referendum on the once and possibly future President Trump.

All of this seems far in the future to those who are focused on Democratic efforts to deliver popular legislation in a closely divided Congress. But if we know anything about the current political environment, it’s that partisan polarization will make big swings in public opinion difficult or even impossible barring equally big changes in the quality of real life. So it may well be the small underlying currents in electoral politics, including the demographics of midterm turnout, that will determine whether Biden has at least four years or just two to implement his agenda.

With or without some help from Trump, though, Democrats really need to find ways to keep young and minority voters engaged.

June 17: The False Equivalence of Omar and Greene

After a week of efforts to equate the controversial remarks of two particular members of Congress, I pushed back a bit at New York:

It looks like House Republicans are going to deal with outrage over their perennial problem child Marjorie Taylor Greene by finding a Democrat to punish. That would be Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, according to Politico’s Huddle:

“’I think that Ilan should receive the same type of punishment as Marjorie because if it’s good for one, it is good for another,’ Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.), who voted to remove Greene from her committees, told me. ‘Anti-semitism is the same thing as anti-semitism. It’s just that Nancy is afraid …'”

There are others who want to push for Omar’s removal as well as those looking to censure her over her war crimes remarks — and a few Dems may join them.

The idea of equating Omar’s complaints about unequal treatment of countries in investigating military misconduct with Greene’s comparisons of mask and vaccine requirements to the Holocaust is deeply satisfying to a lot of people. Republicans can continue their now-ancient habit of waving away extremism in their ranks by claiming it’s more prevalent on the other side of the aisle. Nervous centrist Democrats can document their nervous centrism by firing thunderbolts left and right. And most of all, accusing both parties of harboring those prone to “false equivalence” appeals to the false equivalence many Beltway media folks want to draw between Democrats and Republicans, who are engaged in the mutually assured destruction of partisan polarization.

There’s only one problem: Treating what MTG and Omar have said as equal expressions of false equivalence actually is false, as any honest evaluation of their words quickly shows. Greene bluntly compared COVID-19 precautions to the Holocaust, analogized vaccine documentation mandates to the Nazi practice of making Jews wear yellow stars, and, for good measure, said Democrats are like Nazis because they are “socialists.” Omar said this in the midst of a virtual exchange with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over investigations of the brief but intense war between Israel and Hamas:

“’We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,’ she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.’”

Her point wasn’t to say the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban were equally culpable in their commission of atrocities, but that all should be equally subject to international investigation. I suppose there are superpatriots who would dispute the idea that America has ever committed “unthinkable atrocities,” though the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks, and of countless genocidal assaults on Native Americans, among many examples, suggest otherwise. But in any event, when challenged by Republicans and Democrats alike to make it clear she was not imputing equivalent culpability to these various nations and coalitions of fighters, Omar complied instantly:

“U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said Thursday that she was ‘in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems … ‘

“’To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding [International Criminal Court] cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel.’”

MTG, meanwhile, kept doubling down on her comparisons of public-health measures with the slaughter of many millions by Nazi Germany, and finally, after more than three weeks and a tour of the Holocaust Museum, she issued an apology that betrayed little understanding of the full scope of the Holocaust, and then refused to apologize for the Democrat-Nazi analogy.

Looking more broadly at the two women and their records of controversial utterances, Ilhan made an unfortunate and erroneous reference to “the Benjamins,” in a gratuitous comment about support for Israel in the United States, for which she “unequivocally” apologized:

“Anti-semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be able to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”

Greene lost her committee assignments earlier this year after media focus on an almost incredible blizzard of incendiary statements she made on social media before coming to Congress (barely anyone even noticed her practice of brandishing an AR-15 when discussing her enemies in campaign ads). In February, she apologized for claiming that school shootings were fake and for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories. She never apologized for happily contemplating violence against congressional Democrats (including, very specifically, Ilhan Omar) and the Speaker of the House, or for her unusually aggressive support of Trump’s electoral big lie and the effort in January to overturn the presidential election results, or for her own subscription to very weird anti-Semitic claims.

If you cannot discern a qualitative difference between Omar’s “outrages” and Greene’s, and between the speed and coherence of their clarifications and apologies, it may be time for some remedial work in logic and rhetoric. These two members of Congress aren’t alike at all, and as much as I sometimes disagree with Ilhan Omar, treating her as a left-wing MTG is lazy and just plain wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recalling elected officials in California is relatively easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will any of these recall efforts succeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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