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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

February 1: RNC Scolds Republican Pols For Cowardice on Abortion

The backlash to the Supreme Court’s abolition of federal constitutional abortion rights is having some interesting new consequences, as I explained this week at New York:

For decades, the Republican National Committee has staked out a hard-core anti-abortion position. So now that a Republican-controlled Supreme Court has abolished the federal constitutional right to an abortion, you’d figure the RNC would take a moment to relish its victory. But you’d be wrong.

Instead, the RNC is lashing out at apostates. In response to 2022 Republican candidates avoiding the topic of abortion and to signs of strife in the party’s alliance with the anti-abortion movement, the RNC has passed a resolution scolding its members and urging them to keep the faith. It concludes with marching orders:

“WHEREAS, The Democratic Party and its allies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the issue of abortion during the 2022 midterms, concealing their extremism while mischaracterizing and vilifying pro-life Republican candidates; and

“WHEREAS, Instead of fighting back and exposing Democratic extremism on abortion, many Republican candidates failed to remind Americans of our proud heritage of challenging slavery, segregation, and the forces eroding the family and the sanctity of human life, thereby allowing Democrats to define our longtime position; therefore, be it

“RESOLVED, The Republican National Committee urges all Republican pro-life candidates, consultants, and other national Republican Political Action Committees to remember this proud heritage, go on offense in the 2024 election cycle, and expose the Democrats’ extreme position of supporting abortion on-demand up until the moment of birth, paid for by the taxpayers, even supporting discriminatory abortions such as gender selection or when the child has been diagnosed with Down syndrome.”

In states where Republicans have the power to set abortion policy, the RNC doesn’t want any namby-pamby compromises allowing the majority of abortions to proceed (despite its characterization of Democrats as the real “extremists”):

“RESOLVED, The Republican National Committee urges Republican lawmakers in state legislatures and in Congress to pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible — such as laws that acknowledge the beating hearts and experiences of pain in the unborn — underscoring the new relics of barbarism the Democratic Party represents as we approach the 2024 cycle.”

If you aren’t familiar with the rhetorical stylings of the anti-abortion movement, the “relics of barbarism” business is an effort to tie legalized abortion to the slavery and polygamy condemned by the original Republicans of the 19th century (who would probably view today’s race-baiting GOP with a jaundiced eye). The “beating heart” reference is an endorsement of “heartbeat” bills banning abortion once fetal cardiac activity is detectable, roughly at six weeks of pregnancy or before many women even know they’re pregnant.

The resolution is really the announcement of a new hunt for RINOs on the topic of abortion. Some in the RNC worry that their politicians will become squishy on reproductive rights because their constituents (and many swing voters) don’t favor abortion bans and regret the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, as shown by 2022’s pro-choice winning streak on ballot measures and general Republican underperformance. This pushback by the RNC parallels the anti-abortion movement’s efforts to make extreme abortion positions (such as a national abortion ban) a litmus test in the 2024 Republican primaries, especially at the presidential level.

Will this counterattack stem the panicky retreat of Republican politicians who care more about winning elections and cutting taxes than “saving the babies,” as the anti-abortion activists would put it? I don’t know. But at this point, it’s another sign that the Dobbs decision wasn’t quite the clear-cut victory for the forced-birth lobby that it initially appeared to be.


January 27: 2024 California Senate Race Gets More Interesting With Schiff’s Entry

Like most California political junkies, I’m already looking forward to a vibrant 2024 Senate race. I wrote up the latest development at New York:

In the conservative imagination, California is sort of an evil empire of leftism. It’s where white people have been relegated to a minority for decades; where tree-hugging hippies still frolic; where Hollywood and Big Tech work 24/7 to undermine sturdy American-folk virtues; where rampaging unions and arrogant bureaucrats make it too expensive for regular people to live.

But in truth California’s dominant Democratic Party has as many mild-mannered moderates as it does fiery progressives. One of them, Dianne Feinstein, has held a Senate seat for over 30 years. As the 89-year-old political icon moves toward an almost certain retirement in 2024 (though she now says she won’t announce her intention until next year), another ideological moderate has just announced a bid to succeed her. Los Angeles congressman Adam Schiff, though, has an asset most centrist Democrats (those not named Clinton or Biden, anyway) can’t claim: the rabid hatred of Donald Trump–loving Republicans, giving him the sort of partisan street cred even the most rigorous progressives might envy.

It’s why Schiff begins his 2024 Senate race with something of a strategic advantage. The first-announced candidate in the contest, Congresswoman Katie Porter (also from greater L.A.), is a progressive favorite and more or less Elizabeth Warren’s protégé as a vocal enemy of corporate malfeasance. Another of Schiff’s House colleagues, Oakland-based Barbara Lee, has told people she plans a Senate run as well; Lee is a lefty icon dating back to her lonely vote against the initial War on Terror authorization following September 11. And waiting in the wings is still another member of California’s House delegation, Silicon Valley–based Ro Khanna, who is closely associated with Bernie Sanders and his two presidential campaigns.

Obviously, in a Senate race featuring multiple progressives, the national-security-minded Schiff (who voted for the Iraq war authorization and the Patriot Act early in his House career) might have a distinct “lane,” particularly if he draws an endorsement from Feinstein. (Schiff is already suggesting his campaign has her “blessing.”) But he may poach some progressive votes as well by emphasizing the enemies he’s made. Indeed, his campaign’s first video is mostly a cavalcade of conservatives (especially Donald J. Trump) attacking him.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Schiff is announcing his Senate bid immediately following his expulsion from the House Intelligence Committee by Speaker Kevin McCarthy for his alleged misconduct in investigating Russia’s links with Trump and his campaign (and in making the case for Trump’s impeachment). Schiff was also a steady prosecutorial presence on the January 6 committee that McCarthy and most Republicans boycotted).

Complicating the contest immeasurably is California’s Top Two primary election system. Schiff and his Democratic rivals will not be battling for a party primary win but for a spot in the 2024 general election, given to the top two primary finishers regardless of party affiliation. The Golden State’s Republican Party is so weak that it might not be able to find a candidate able to make the top two in a Senate primary; two Democrats competed in two recent competitive Senate general elections in California (in 2016, when Kamala Harris defeated Loretta Sanchez, and in 2018, when Feinstein trounced Kevin DeLeon). If that’s the case, though, it’s unclear which Democrat might have the edge in attracting Republicans. Porter’s campaign is circulating a poll showing she’d beat Schiff in a hypothetical general election because Republicans really hate Schiff despite his more moderate voting record.

For all the uncertainties about the 2024 Senate field, it is clear that the two announced Democratic candidates will wage a close battle in one arena: campaign dollars. Both Schiff and Porter are legendary fundraisers, though Porter had to dip deeply into her stash of resources to fend off a tougher-than-expected Republican challenge last November. Big remaining questions are whether Lee can finance a viable race in this insanely expensive state with its many media markets, and whether Khanna, with his national Sanders connections and local Silicon Valley donor base, enters the contest. There are racial, gender, and geographical variables too: Until Harris became vice-president, California had long been represented by two Democratic woman from the Bay Area. With Los Angeles–based Alex Padilla now occupying Harris’s old seat, 2024 could produce a big power shift to the south and two male senators.

In any event, nobody is waiting around for Feinstein to make her retirement official before angling for her seat, which means a Senate race that won’t affect the partisan balance of the chamber at all (barring some wild Republican upset) will soak up a lot of attention and money for a long time. At this early point, Schiff’s positioning as the moderate that Republicans fear and despise looks sure to keep him in the spotlight.

January 26: Republicans Can’t Specify a Debt-limit Ransom

It’s one of the more comical aspects of the deadly serious game of chicken that House Republicans are playing on the debt limit, but it’s worth pointing out, as I did at New York:

As the United States lurches toward a possible debt default thanks to House Republican hostage-taking on legislation needed to extend or suspend the debt limit, it’s increasingly evident that (as my colleague Jonathan Chait observed) the hostage-taker is strangely reluctant to name a ransom. Indeed, the initial Democratic strategy in this complicated chess game was simply to force House Republicans to say exactly what kind of spending cuts they propose to make in exchange for allowing a debt-limit measure to wobble its way to Joe Biden’s desk.

It’s easy to mock GOP lawmakers for the brainlessness, or maybe cowardice, of their effort to make Democrats identify the spending cuts their opponents want. The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell tans the elephant’s hide with considerable panache:

“Republicans have Very Serious budget demands. Unfortunately, they can’t identify what any of those demands are.

“They say they want to reduce deficits — but meanwhile have ruled out virtually every path for doing so (cuts to defense, cuts to entitlements, wiping out nondefense discretionary spending, or raising taxes). …

“Republicans say they want lower deficits — in fact, they have pledged to balance the budget (that is, no deficit at all) within seven or 10 years. But they have not laid out any plausible mathematical path for arriving at that destination. They promise to cut ‘wasteful spending’ … but can’t agree on what counts as ‘waste.’”

In so quickly reaching this predictable dead end in answering the world’s easiest math problem, Republicans have one plausible line of defense: It’s how much of the public feels about fiscal matters as well. They really don’t like deficits and (especially) debt. But they really don’t like the kind of spending cuts that Republicans are talking about either (tax increases, of course, are categorically off the table for the GOP and have been since the George H.W. Bush “Read my lips: No new taxes” debacle).

September 2022 poll from the deficit scolds of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation found that Americans are up in arms about all the borrowing:

“A 31-month high of 83% of voters are urging the president and Congress to spend more time addressing the national debt, with the biggest jump among those under age 35 (8 points to 85%).

“More than eight-in-ten voters (81%) also said that their concern about the national debt has increased. Nearly three-in-four voters (74%) feel the national debt should be a top-three priority for the president and Congress, including 65% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and 86% of Republicans.”

From 40,000 feet, all that red ink looks pretty alarming, it seems. More recently, this very week, the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal found a majority of Americans stamping their feet about it:

“Most Americans oppose raising the federal debt ceiling without accompanying cuts to federal spending, a new RMG Research poll finds.

“Sixty-one percent of 1,000 registered voters in the survey said Congress should either raise the debt ceiling with spending cuts (45%) or refuse to raise the ceiling at all (16%). Only about a quarter (24%) said Congress should raise the ceiling without accompanying spending cuts.”

To House Republicans, the great symbol of runaway spending is the “monstrous” $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in December. Many of them claimed during the fight over Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership bid that “the American people” were outraged by the measure despite the fact that it cleared the Senate, House, and White House. Perhaps they were thinking of a Twitter poll conducted by Elon Musk that showed that 75 percent of respondents opposed the omnibus bill.

The sad truth is, however, that the more specific you are in identifying items in one of those “monstrous” bills, the more support they command from the public. In 2021, Gallup published a summary of public-opinion research on what was then a $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Democratic budget-reconciliation proposal (soon whittled way down to $2.2 trillion and then to a net-negative figure in the ultimately enacted Inflation Reduction Act) and found that its provisions were very popular despite the debt they required:

“[S]everal recent polls … ask about the bill in a broad, umbrella fashion, and all find majority support. A Quinnipiac poll conducted July 27-Aug. 2 asked, ‘Do you support or oppose a $3.5 trillion spending bill on social programs such as child care, education, family tax breaks and expanding Medicare for seniors?’ and found 62% support, 32% opposition. A Monmouth University poll conducted July 21-26 asked about both the initial infrastructure bill and the new $3.5 trillion bill, describing the latter this way: ‘A plan to expand access to healthcare and child care, and provide paid leave and college tuition support.’ The results were similar to the Quinnipiac poll, with 63% in favor and 35% opposed …

“A progressive think tank, Data for Progress, conducted an online poll among likely voters July 30-Aug. 2, with a much more detailed 130-word description of the bill, including in the question wording a bulleted list of six specific proposals in the plan, the $3.5 trillion price tag and even a description of the ‘reconciliation’ procedure necessary to pass it. All of this (and the online mode, and the sample of likely voters as opposed to national adults) also didn’t seem to make much difference; 66% of likely voters in their sample supported the plan as described, while 26% opposed it — similar to the Quinnipiac and Monmouth results.”

So the minute you get into the particulars of Democratic-proposed spending bills, public concerns about debts and deficits tend to fade. And oh — there’s another problem for Republicans on the fiscal front: voters like the idea of higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations to pay for popular spending measures.

The lesson for Republicans is clear: Their crusade for fiscal discipline is popular, so long as it is very general and you exclude higher taxes on the rich as a possible solution. No wonder politicians like McCarthy want Democrats to be the ones who name the GOP’s price for letting the U.S. economy get through the year without calamity.

January 20: Why Biden’s Easy Road to Renomination Is Good for Democrats

With all the attention being focused on the potential GOP presidential field for 2024, it’s looking like Joe Biden may run unopposed on the Democratic side, and at New York I compiled reasons why that’s a good thing.

The most dramatic development in 2024 presidential politics since the midterms hasn’t been Donald Trump’s official entry into the race or his loosening grip on the Republican Party (he’s still the GOP’s 2024 front-runner). It’s actually Joe Biden’s path to renomination suddenly clearing.

For much of the first half of 2021, there was anticipatory unhappiness with Biden among Democrats who figured his poor job-approval ratings would feed a huge Republican midterms wave. It did not, of course, turn out that way. Biden saw immediate benefits following Democrats’ better-than-expected midterms performance. Rather than triggering cries for his retirement, his 80th birthday on November 20 passed virtually without notice. And now any muttering about renominating Biden is muted. A few left-of-center commentators are massively overreacting to the developing scandal over classified documents turning up in the president’s Delaware garage. And, of course, there are still concerns about Biden’s age. But sources close to the president say he’s still planning to announce he’ll seek a second term “not long after” the State of the Union address on February 7. And unless a Democrat mounts a serious challenge very soon, which doesn’t seem very likely, he will quickly lock down the 2024 nomination while Republicans are still squabbling.

Although Biden isn’t universally beloved even among Democrats, his quiet renomination will be a good thing for the party in general, not just the president himself. Here’s why.

Incumbent presidents usually win reelection.

Trump lost his reelection bid, though by a much narrower margin than most objective observers expected. But the 44th, 43rd, 42nd, 40th, 37th, 36th, 34th, 33nd and 32nd presidents all won second terms. Since World War II began, only George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Trump served just one term — and Ford came very close to winning. Presidential incumbency doesn’t guarantee victory, but it’s undoubtedly a powerful asset.

There’s no consensus heir to Biden.

If Biden were to decide against pursuing a second term, his heir apparent would be Vice-President Kamala Harris. Her current level of popularity is low enough (a 40/53 job approval ratio) to encourage intraparty opposition, yet high enough to give her a decent chance. That means a contested nomination fight at a time when a head start against the GOP would be very helpful.

There is not, moreover, any consensus alternative to Harris, but there are some very ambitious Democrats who may jump at an opportunity to go for the big prize. These include 2020 retreads Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg; key-state governors Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois; and an assortment of dark horses. Progressives might insist on their own alternative to Harris, and they could look at long-time champion Bernie Sanders (who has not ruled out a third straight presidential campaign) and younger candidates like California Congressman Ro Khanna.

Whoever challenges Harris in a post-Biden scenario should be acutely aware of the risks of pushing aside the first Black woman — not to mention the first Asian American — to appear on a presidential ticket. If nothing else, the inevitable debate over that development will be a major, and perhaps turnout-depressing, distraction.

Without Biden, his party could fly apart.

As president, Biden has done a better-than-expected job of keeping Democrats (aside from the senatorial arch-heretics Manchin and Sinema) united. They remained united during the 2022 midterms, and House Democrats made a real impression staying unified behind Hakeem Jeffries during the 15-ballot Speaker’s election that displayed so much Republican ugliness.

Highly competitive 2024 presidential primaries could strain this hard-earned defiance of the “Democrats in disarray” meme. For starters, the fight over the very order of Democratic primaries could grow toxic if candidates perceive advantages in certain states going first. And without an incumbent president to paper over them, ideological disagreements on the future of the Democratic Party could quickly emerge.

With a divided federal government, Democrats don’t need a trendsetter.

It’s unlikely that Democrats will regain a governing trifecta anytime soon, so most of their presidential candidate’s 2024 agenda probably won’t be enacted. The Senate landscape in 2024 is terrible for Democrats. Winning back the House won’t be easy, either; 1954 was the last time House control flipped in consecutive elections, and 1952 was the last presidential election when House control changed.

In a period of divided government, having a president who can pay lip service to bipartisanship while using the limited powers he has to govern without Congress is probably the right combination.

Uncle Joe is a known commodity in another high-stakes election.

Ultimately, renominating Biden makes sense for the same reasons nominating him made sense in 2020. Taking a flier on a different candidate would be dangerous for Democrats, and for the country. While Democrats are very unlikely to win a trifecta in 2024, Republicans could do so quite easily with a presidential win, making their efforts to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; institute a national abortion ban; and install even more conservative judges much more feasible.

If and when Biden formally announces his candidacy for reelection, he should offer concrete evidence of his physical and mental fitness to endure four more years on the job, and express willingness to step aside if that’s no longer the case. That would reinforce his reputation as a regular Joe who loves his country more than he loves himself, unlike his predecessor and possible 2024 opponent. Democrats might imagine they could do better than offering voters a second Biden administration. But it’s a risky business.

January 19: Can DeSantis Take Away Trump’s Christian Right Base?

As someone endlessly fascinated by the intersection of politics and religion, I’ve been watching the recent dynamics in the Republican Party with great interest, as I explained at New York:

Donald Trump may be generally amoral, but there is one value he holds fiercely: loyalty. So it’s not surprising that he’s angry at conservative Evangelical leaders who have, for the most part, refrained from immediately endorsing his 2024 comeback bid.

This week, Trump complained bitterly about this betrayal, using the loudest megaphone he could find: a podcast interview with David Brody. The veteran Christian Broadcasting Network journalist is the co-author of The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography, the classic Christian Right apologia for its alliance with the mogul. Reflecting his highly transactional view of his relationship with religious leaders, Trump expressed amazement that they weren’t falling over themselves to re-endorse him after he delivered the goods on abortion policy via his Supreme Court appointments.

So does Trump have a point? Are the conservative Christians who went to such amazing lengths to sanctify his conduct and motives in the past now behaving like a bunch of ingrates?

Not really. Trump seems unable to understand how much religious leaders compromised their principles to support him in the first place. The most telling argument used to exculpate Trump among conservative Evangelicals is the comparison to the biblical King Cyrus, the Persian pagan warlord who unwittingly did God’s will by ending the Babylonian captivity of the Jews and enabling the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. According to conservative Christian doctrine, Cyrus may have played a key role in the salvation story of the human race, but he, and for that matter the Jews, were destined to an eternity of pain and hopelessness because they lived and died without faith in Jesus Christ. So for all the flattery they offered Trump, they held him at arm’s length like any other infidel destined for a fiery hell and longed for a real Christian warrior to come to their rescue.

Now that Trump can’t do a thing for them, Christian right leaders are understandably weighing their options and treating Trump as yesterday’s news. Iowa’s veteran cultural warrior and Republican ward-heeler Bob Vander Plaats advised Trump even before his 2024 announcement to pack it in and “walk off the stage with class.” Treating the Evangelical love affair with Trump in the past tense has become pretty common; big-time Texas pastor Robert Jeffress continues to say Trump “was a great president,” but he won’t support his effort to become the “great president” of the future.

Like a lot of Republicans, many conservative Evangelical leaders have lost their fear of Trump after the perceived damage he did to the GOP cause in the 2022 midterms. Now they’re looking for a champion who actually believes what they believe, or at least who is less distracted by narcissistic grievances. In the former category, most obviously, is Mike Pence, who was for years a Christian right warhorse before Trump lifted him to the vice-presidency. Pence has happily gone right back to the Bible-thumping he compromised for four years by worshiping Trump alongside God Almighty (his post-vice-presidential book is appropriately titled So Help Me God). It must have thrilled him recently to have the opportunity to defend anti-abortion activists from Trump’s criticism that they were too inflexible post-Dobbs.

But Trump is facing a far greater threat than the veep who betrayed him by following the Constitution on January 6: Ron DeSantis, who is very clearly trying to convince politically active conservative Evangelicals that he is (unlike the heathenish Trump) a true believer prepared, in a more disciplined way, to wage and win the holy war so many of them crave. If there was any doubt about DeSantis’s strategy for outflanking Trump and Pence, it was dissipated by the tack he took in a now-famous September 2022 speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan, the school that has emerged as the West Point for the shock troops of Christian conservatism, as the Miami Herald’s Ana Ceballos explained:

“While visiting a private Christian college in southern Michigan that wields influence in national politics, Gov. Ron DeSantis rephrased a biblical passage to deliver a message to conservatives.

“’Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here,’ DeSantis told the audience at Hillsdale College in February. ‘And I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.’”

“The Republican governor, a strategic politician who is up for reelection in November, is increasingly using biblical references in speeches that cater to those who see policy fights through a morality lens and flirting with those who embrace nationalist ideas that see the true identity of the nation as Christian.”

Not coincidentally, DeSantis is now trying to remake a public university in Florida, Sarasota’s New College, in the image of Hillsdale through appointments to its board. (“It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the south,” Florida’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz, said in a statement.) This is far beyond anything Trump (or even Pence) ever attempted to do in the way of reconquering the public sector for a private religious worldview. And as Baptist journalist Rodney Kennedy observed this week, DeSantis’s crusade to stamp out wokeness in every Florida institution, public or private, is hymnlike music to the ears of conservative Christian militants everywhere:

“DeSantis is an ambitious politician, but he fights like an Evangelical culture war preacher. This is not really political; it’s religious.

“Doing his best impression of a fiery Evangelical preacher, DeSantis thunders, ‘This wokeness, it’s a religion of the left, and it’s infecting a lot of institutions: Big Corporate America, Big Tech, the bureaucracy, of course academia. It is wokeness, a form of cultural Marxism.’”

DeSantis is also beginning to outflank Trump as an Evangelical favorite in their common stomping grounds, where the Florida governor is especially strong in the very politically active ranks of Hispanic Evangelicals and Pentecostals. And there DeSantis has a talking point that Trump cannot quite match: his staunch opposition to COVID-19 precautions that conservative religious leaders viewed as a government-sponsored conspiracy to close the doors of houses of worship. In the above-mentioned Brody interview, the journalist all but begged Trump to join in attacks on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, but the ex-president, his chest still puffed out by the idea that his vaccine-development program “saved a hundred million lives worldwide,” as he put it, couldn’t follow where DeSantis has led.

None of this means that Trump doesn’t retain a sizable fan base in conservative Evangelical circles (one of his most prominent backers in that community, Florida prosperity-gospel preacher Paula White, is still onboard the Trump Train). And after all, it was the people in the pews who dragged their leaders, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the Trump camp in 2016, not the other way around. It could happen again, particularly if the ex-president regains a magic touch in making his very crudeness and hatefulness an asset to believers who don’t much want to follow Christ’s injunction to love their enemies.

January 13: House Republicans Moving Toward Abandonment of Ukraine

This week at New York I wrote about an important trend that is becoming more apparent every day:

When Russia first launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, most Americans and their political representatives immediately identified with and sought to assist the beleaguered victims of Vladimir Putin’s aggression, while condemning the crude neo-tsarist imperialism it represented.

But from the get-go in the dark heart of MAGA-land, there was dissent and considerable grumbling. Some of if took the form of America First whataboutism, best expressed by Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance; on the brink of the invasion he said, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine” because he was too absorbed with fentanyl coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. But others were really struggling to abandon their affection for Putin, who had, with Donald Trump, Victor Orbán, and Jair Bolsonaro, represented a sort of right-wing authoritarian network. Then-Congressman Madison Cawthorn parroted Russian propaganda by saying “the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies,” and his colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene called the Ukrainians “neo-Nazis.” Fox News’ Tucker Carlson was a constant font of bitter hostility toward U.S. aid for Ukraine.

Now, nearly a year later, it’s harder to find Republicans expressing a crush on Putin, but neo-isolationist disdain for any U.S. role in aiding Ukraine has been steadily rising in the GOP and may have reached a tipping point where it has real-life consequences. When putative House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached a handshake agreement with his right-wing critics to roll back appropriations for the current fiscal year, defense hawks in his party were appalled. It quickly became apparent that the “defense cuts” many House Republicans had in mind involved the new tranche of military aid to Ukraine that had been included in the omnibus spending bill Congress approved in December. It’s no accident that a majority of House Republicans skipped Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to Congress on December 21, even as opinion leaders on the right were attacking him (e.g., Donald Trump Jr.’s dismissal of Zelenskyy as an “ungrateful international welfare queen”).

This sort of attitude isn’t as common among Senate Republicans (whose leader, Mitch McConnell, said in support of the omnibus bill, “providing assistance for Ukrainians to defeat the Russians is the No. 1 priority for the United States right now”). But the idea of abandoning Ukraine is now an acceptable point of view among GOP elected officials. And it’s spreading to rank-and-file Republicans. FiveThirtyEight’s latest polling overview found “a growing partisan divide on the issue:”

“In [a] YouGov/CBS News poll, a narrow majority of Republicans (52 percent) wanted their representative in Congress to oppose aid [to Ukraine], whereas 81 percent of Democrats wanted theirs to support it. A mid-December poll from CivicScience also showed a wide partisan gap, with 83 percent of Democrats supporting military aid to Ukraine versus 53 percent of Republicans. At the beginning of the war, though, support among Republicans was almost as high as it was among Democrats: In March, another YouGov/CBS News poll showed that 75 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats supported sending weapons and supplies to Ukraine.”

There’s nothing terribly novel about voters (and politicians) from one political party growing cool toward a U.S. military engagement or alliance associated with a president from the opposing party. Many once-staunch Vietnam war hawks in the Democratic Party changed their minds once it became “Nixon’s War.” And many hyperhawkish Republicans began sounding like cooing doves when Bill Clinton pushed NATO into military action against Serbia. That may be what’s going on now with respect to Ukraine.

The darker possibility of an underlying MAGA longing for solidarity with authoritarians near and far shouldn’t be entirely ruled out. Maybe Putin — once the object of particular idolatry on the U.S. Christian right for his homophobia and Islamophobia — is beyond the pale for the time being. But people who see the world as characterized by a global battle to the death between conservative patriarchal Christianity and a global conspiracy of “woke” elitists aren’t going to abandon that vision just because of some Russian war atrocities.

January 12: Biden’s Underwater Approval Ratings Rising to the Surface

Sometimes polling numbers change so slowly that it takes a while to notice an important trend, but Joe Biden’s job approval ratings are still gradually creeping upward, as I noted at New York:

Democrats managed to break pretty close to even in the 2022 midterms despite Joe Biden’s chronically underwater job-approval ratings. But now there’s even better news for Democrats and for Biden’s prospects of winning a second term: His job-approval numbers have been gradually improving since Election Day. And if you look at his approval ratio (the gap between those approving and disapproving of his performance as president), the trends are even better.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Biden’s current job-approval ratio is minus 7.6 percent (44.1 percent approval, 51.7 percent disapproval). The gap was 12.4 percent on November 8, 2022, and 20.7 percent last July 20 (36.8 percent approval, 57.5 percent disapproval). In the FiveThirtyEight averages, Biden is even closer to being above water in terms of popularity. His ratio is now minus 6.8 percent (44.1 percent approval, 50.9 percent disapproval). Last time he was in positive territory was on August 29, 2021, at FiveThirtyEight and on August 21, 2021, at RCP. There are some outlier polls already showing Biden above water (e.g., a new Economist/YouGov poll that gives him 50 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval among registered voters). More may soon follow.

What does Biden need in the way of popularity to become a good bet for reelection in 2024? Using Gallup data (our best source for comparing presidents over time), recent presidents who won reelection had job-approval ratings between 48 percent (George W. Bush in 2004) and 58 percent (Ronald Reagan in 1984). Obama was at 52 percent, and Bill Clinton was at 54 percent. Losers included Jimmy Carter at a terrible 37 percent and Donald Trump at a meh 45 percent (Trump, of course, came pretty close to pulling off the electoral-vote upset despite losing the popular vote by 4.5 percent).

Biden might note that Obama (whose party did not do remotely as well in the 2010 midterms as it did in 2022) gained six points in job-approval ratings between June and November of 2012. That kind of progress for Biden from now through Election Day 2024 would put him in relatively good standing. And that’s aside from the fact that he could win reelection even with unimpressive job-approval numbers if his opponent has popularity issues of his or her own. Presumably, these are matters that Biden will mull before he makes his 2024 intentions definitively known.


January 6: Two Years After Trying to Overturn an Election, MAGA Republicans Still Disrespecting Democracy

Listening as I did to the House Speaker’s election saga, I heard a lot of rhetoric that brought back very bad memories, and I wrote about them at New York:

One of the more interesting things about the weeklong right-wing revolt against Kevin McCarthy’s ascent to the Speakership that has paralyzed the U.S. House has been the rebels’ conceit that they, rather than the other 414 members of the chamber, exclusively represent the “will of the American people.” They have passionately and redundantly appealed to this self-designed mandate during their remarks on the floor. A good example was Thursday’s speech by Virginia congressman Bob Good in nominating his obscure Oklahoma colleague Kevin Hern for the Speakership:

“The greatest reflection of where the people of this country are is the House of Representatives. The people spoke back on November 8 and gave the majority by some 3 or 4 million votes to the Republican Party. It’s not the White House; it’s not the Senate. It’s the People’s House that reflects where the American people are, and they trusted us on this side of the aisle with the leadership of this House. And we have a window of opportunity to validate that trust, to do whatever we can to save this Republic.”

That salvation, Good continues at some length to assert, requires “transformational change” in the Republican Party and in the Congress, meaning above all no more cooperation with the White House, with House Democrats, or with either party’s leadership in the Senate, as they all represent the despised “swamp” in the MAGA imagination.

When you deconstruct this train of thought, its arrogance is pretty breathtaking. The notion that the House majority holds an exclusive popular mandate is not one that Good or any of the rebels would have embraced during the eight years that Nancy Pelosi was Speaker. As for 2022, the more than 54 million Americans who voted for House Democratic candidates are given no voice at all. And the idea that Republicans carried the House out of some frantic cry from the electorate for “transformational change” is less compelling than the entirely commonplace metronomic trend against the party controlling the White House — a trend that was, in fact, weaker than any we have seen since 2002 and among the weakest ever. And the anti-McCarthy rebels had little or nothing to do with preventing a completely catastrophic midterms outcome for Republicans. As FiveThirtyEight notes, most of them barely had to run in the 2022 general election:

“Unlike the Democrats who voted against former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2019 — who hailed exclusively from competitive districts — McCarthy’s foes tend to come from solidly red turf. Only three of the 20 were elected in districts with FiveThirtyEight partisan leans bluer than R+15 [districts 15 points more Republican than the country as a whole].”

Yes, arch-rebel Lauren Boebert won the closest House race in the country. But that’s because she very nearly lost reelection in an R+7 district, not because she was identified with “the swamp” or with Kevin McCarthy. Conversely, it’s hard to blame GOP underperformance on RINO squishes. Republicans lost the Senate thanks to unimpressive results posted by MAGA stalwarts like Blake Masters, Don Bolduc, Herschel Walker, and Adam Laxalt. If Mitch McConnell (the object of nearly as much rebel spleen as McCarthy this week) still stands athwart the Senate Republican conference like an ancient colossus, it’s because candidates who share the worldview of Bob Good and Matt Gaetz and Andy Biggs bombed at the ballot box. Closer to home, notable House flops included right-wing insurgents Joe Kent of Washington, J.R. Majewski of Ohio, and John Gibbs of Michigan.

Listening to the anti-McCarthy hardliners, you get the sense that they believe themselves to represent the popular will independently of mere elections. And that makes sense when you plumb the depths of their conspiracy-theory-laden points of view. Most of them are 2020 election deniers who are willing to discount a sizable number of votes as putatively fraudulent. Many believe leaders in both parties (along with the news media and social-media platforms) are complicit in preventing many millions of voters from making informed candidate choices. And at a time when they and other Republicans routinely accuse Democrats of socialist extremism, conservative hardliners counterintuitively continue to assert (as they have done during the Speakership fight) that there is too little difference between the two parties.

In this, the fringe characters of the political right resemble their counterparts on the left; both tend to assume there is a hidden majority for their points of view that somehow never breaks through in actual elections thanks to the perfidy of the Establishment. But let’s be clear: There’s zero equivalence in conduct. The fringe elements of the left, to the extent they exist in Congress, aren’t holding the chamber hostage; they have joined their Establishment colleagues in supporting Hakeem Jeffries for Speaker, though many consider him too “centrist.” And it’s not the left that spawned an assault on the Capitol just two years ago or whose votes to overturn the 2020 election results represented an endorsement of the rioters’ motives, if not their violent excesses. (All of the anti-McCarthy rebels then in Congress, along with McCarthy himself and a majority of House Republicans, voted against counting state-certified Biden electors.) In a very real sense, the men and women who have prevented the swearing in of the 118th Congress for so long represent not “the American people” but an anti-democratic faction that recognizes no authority but its own will to power.

December 22: National Abortion Ban Will Be a Litmus Test for Republican Presidential Candidates

Well, there’s certainly once element of the Republican coalition that’s excited about a competitive 2024 presidential nominating contest. I wrote about it at New York:

For the anti-abortion movement, 2022 was an epochal year, with its longtime goals, the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the abolition of federal constitutional abortion rights, accomplished in one fell swoop in the Dobbs Supreme Court decision. And the rush of Republican-controlled state legislators to enact newly available abortion restrictions was very exciting to those who spent decades struggling to find small cracks in the legal edifice created by Roe and by Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

But the grassroots political backlash to these developments should have been alarming to anti-abortion activists as they watched their long-time vassals in the Republican Party dance away from the aggressive steps to ban abortions everywhere that they had implicitly and explicitly promised to pursue once Roe went down. When Lindsey Graham tried to force a vote on a national 15-week abortion ban in the Senate in September, midterm-conscious Republican politicians all but shouted him down. By November, abortion-rights advocates had won ballot tests over laws in six states (Kansas, Kentucky, Vermont, California, Michigan, and Montana). And without question, the abortion backlash was a significant — maybe the most significant — factor in the underperformance of Republicans in the midterms.

Now divided government in Washington will paralyze policy-making on abortion and nearly every other issue for the next two years. So all eyes are on 2024, and worried anti-abortion activists are making it clear they will use all the leverage they can to reimpose their views on the GOP via litmus tests on Republican presidential candidates. As Politico reports, demand No. 1 will likely be the kind of national abortion ban Graham proposed to the horror of most of his colleagues:

“Anti-abortion advocates are insisting on more in a post-Roe era — namely, a hard commitment to back a federal abortion ban — and they’re holding out until they get it.

“That means potential Republican presidential hopefuls — such as Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state’s 15-week abortion ban would have been at the leading edge of the anti-abortion movement a year ago — enter the 2024 cycle under pressure to go farther. There’s already a range of policy positions across the potential GOP field, from former Vice President Mike Pence’s support for a national abortion ban to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent remarks that abortion should remain a state issue, and most have not yet detailed the exact anti-abortion policies they would push if elected.”

That will change assuming there really is a big, brawling competition for the 2024 GOP nomination full of candidate forums and dominated in some key states by activists who eat, breathe, and sleep abortion politics above all (such as Iowa, which among Republicans will remain the first contest of 2024 no matter what Democrats do). And despite the deep appreciation the forced-birth crowd has for what Donald Trump did to help bring down Roe and the powerful head of steam Ron DeSantis has built up if he decides to challenge the 45th president, no candidate will get to skip a tough abortion litmus test, or ignore demands to talk about the subject early and often.

“’Look, I’m appreciative of everything [Trump] put in place,’ Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, told POLITICO. ‘Evangelical voters and conservative voters have great admiration and appreciation for him, but they still want a vision cast for the future and they don’t want to go through four years of relitigating 2020.’

“Trump didn’t once mention abortion or the fall of Roe in his grievance-laden speech announcing his 2024 campaign, sparking conservative concerns that he won’t prioritize the issue in a third White House bid.”

DeSantis has been a bit dodgy, pushing through his legislature a 15-week ban with no exceptions but (so far) resisting demands to go farther now that he stands athwart Florida like a political colossus. But he and other potential presidential candidates will definitely have to take a stand on a national ban, which is not a theoretical matter since a very good Republican year in 2024 could give the GOP trifecta control in Washington. Certainly the topic will come up in the early and pivotal 2024 primary in South Carolina, Lindsey Graham’s state, where a potential presidential candidate, former governor Nikki Haley, has taken the position that abortion is exclusively a state issue. Here’s what Graham told Politico about that:

“’Each person running for the White House will have to come up with an answer to the question, post-Dobbs: “Should we consider this a states rights issue or a human rights issue?”‘ Graham said in an interview. ‘The pro-life community is still a strong component of the Republican Party and if you’re running for president, I think in certain states, like South Carolina, the position that the unborn have no voice in our nation’s capital will be a tough sell for the pro-life community.’”

At present the only potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate who is golden with the anti-abortion lobby is former vice-president Mike Pence, the conservative evangelical stalwart who has long favored a very tight national ban on abortions. Assuming he runs (which he’s giving every indication of doing) Pence will significantly ramp up the pressure on his rivals to commit to a federal ban on the strictest possible terms.

Will any potential GOP president look at some general-election polls and dare to push back on these demands? It’s an interesting question. The pro-choice wing of the Republican Party has been moribund for decades. But 2022 votes in Kansas and elsewhere have shown there are Republican voters who haven’t bought into anti-abortion extremism once it actually matters in terms of the law of the land. In any event, the national GOP’s position on the fraught subject will be tested as never before in 2024.

December 21: Don’t Overthink the Midterms In Search of a Single Narrative

The more I stare at 2022 election results, the more it is becoming clear that they resist an easy explanation, and I wrote about that at New York:

After the dust has settled on any election cycle, there’s a natural interest in deriving future lessons for the two major political parties. Democrats are interested in bottling and then mass-producing whatever formula enabled them to avoid an apparent oncoming Republican freight train of a midterm and instead gain a U.S. Senate seat while holding the GOP to House gains that are almost (I said almost) more trouble than they are worth.

Data points are still being collected and assessed at this point, but a very strong effort by FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley to examine four big Senate races that Democrats won but were at various points in doubt (in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania) shows us that the search for some simple, overriding explanation may not be terribly fruitful.

Using county-level and in some cases precinct-level results, Skelley explains that the winning formula for Mark KellyRaphael WarnockCatherine Cortez Masto, and John Fetterman varied significantly. To oversimplify it, Kelly beat Blake Masters mostly thanks to overperformance among Latino voters; Warnock beat Herschel Walker via impressive margins in Atlanta’s urban core and suburbs; Cortez Masto (the one Democrat in these states to run a bit behind Joe Biden’s 2020 performance) held on against Adam Laxalt by a slightly inflated vote among white college-educated voters; and Fetterman dispatched Mehmet Oz pretty clearly by cutting into the recent Republican margins among white working-class voters.

Now it’s also true that all four of these winners more or less held on to the vast majority of Biden 2020 voters as well. But in an apparent era of very close partisan balance, gains and losses beyond rigid partisan bases are probably what matter most. It’s also true that all four candidates, and the Democratic Party as a whole, benefitted from certain unique developments that helped make the usual midterm referendum on the president more of a “choice” election, namely the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court and high-profile meddling in the election by Donald Trump. And, finally, Kelly, Warnock, and Fetterman — and arguably Cortez Masto as well — got lucky by drawing relatively weak Republican opponents.

So what does all this add up to as a lesson for Democrats going forward? Probably nothing in particular. They certainly cannot count on an epochal development in the judicial system at the very moment an election cycle is heating up to occur on schedule. And there’s only so much you can do to dial up bad opponents. It’s noteworthy that none of the four Senate races in question were among those in which Democrats played the dangerous but occasionally successful game of running ads attacking the most extremist Republican candidates to boost their prospects of winning GOP primaries. Two of the “bad” Republican Senate nominees in the states Skelley analyzed (Laxalt and Walker) were runaway favorites among GOP primary voters. The most prominent alternative to Masters in Arizona (Jim Lamont) was as out there ideologically as Masters himself. And the characteristics that made Oz a stone loser were not nearly as apparent in the primary season as they were when he suddenly started talking about the price of crudités.

It probably is noteworthy that three of the four Democratic Senate candidates in question (all incumbents) were unopposed in their own primaries, and the fourth, Fetterman, won his primary easily. And all of them raised money at a very good clip. But those are always positive candidate qualities in any election. That’s true as well of the successful microstrategies including Warnock’s early-voting blitz prior to the December 6 primary in Georgia, which we will likely learn more about as the story of 2022 becomes more fully available.

At this point, the closest you can come to a general lesson for Democrats in 2022 is that it’s a good idea to stay united, raise money feverishly, prepare for whatever opportunities the campaign offers, and choose candidates with the strength to endure the rolling nightmare that contemporary high-profile contests often produce. You cannot simply dial up candidates with the incredible stamina of Warnock or the amazing courage of Fetterman. But without question, in a period of electoral gridlock, 2022 did establish that, on the crucial margins, candidates and campaigns still matter. And in politics as in football, sometimes the key to victory is to set aside any predetermined grand strategy and simply take what each opponent gives you.