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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 13: If Biden Runs for Reelection, Is He the Democratic Nominee?

In the wake of renewed speculation about Democratic unhappiness with President Biden, I tried to offer a reality check at New York:

Joe Biden is at present an unpopular president whose performance has discouraged his party’s base. That’s a bad combination for Democrats, who are facing a 2022 midterm election with fragile control of both houses of Congress.

Just 12 days after November’s election, President Biden will turn 80, an occasion which will produce massive discussion about his age just as a new presidential-election cycle begins. If things go as badly as expected for Democrats on November 8, many in the party will quietly and not so quietly urge the 46th president to retire at the end of his term. But if he stubbornly refuses to pack it in, what then?

Such questions are being raised right now thanks to a New York Times–Siena poll showing that an imposing 64 percent of self-identified Democrats would prefer a different presidential nominee in 2024. Democrats saying Joe should go range from 47 percent among Black voters (who were so crucial to Biden in 2020) to an incredible 94 percent of voters under age 30 (who were cool to Biden in the primaries but supported him strongly in the general election).

This is just one poll, but you have to go back to Jimmy Carter to find anything like this level of intraparty disaffection with a Democratic president. One source of that discontent, Biden’s age, isn’t going to get any better; 33 percent of Democratic respondents who prefer someone else cited Biden’s age as the most important reason for wanting a new 2024 candidate — higher than any other single factor.

Other factors could actually reduce the pressure on Biden to bow out before the next election. Despite the apparent “red wave” building for November, Democrats are still even money to hang onto the Senate. Thanks to the shrinking number of competitive House seats, estimates of likely Democratic House losses are in the 20–35 range, far lower than what Democrats experienced in 2010. Concerns about the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the continued threat of a Donald Trump comeback could boost Democratic turnout and further insulate the party from disaster.

As for 2024, it’s worth remembering that the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, bounced back from horrible midterms to get themselves reelected. And even in this terrible Times-Siena poll, Biden would be narrowly favored (44-41) over Donald Trump in a 2024 rematch. But Clinton was 50 years old and Obama 51 when they were reelected. Joe Biden was 50 in 1992, the year Clinton was first elected; if reelected in 2024, Biden would be 86 at the end of his second term. This cannot be wished away as anything less than problematic. As my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti concluded in May: “There is no substantial precedent for the volume of questions about Biden’s future.”

Let’s say that on Biden’s 80th birthday, there is powerful Democratic sentiment for sending him to the rest home. If he doesn’t go away quietly, can he be pushed aside?

The only Biden heir apparent, of course, is his vice-president. Kamala Harris is not going to turn on the man who placed her a heartbeat from the presidency. Even if she did, she’s currently less popular than Biden, and in fact, fears about Harris’s electability could lead some Biden disparagers to reconsider putting him on an ice floe. Meanwhile, Harris’s positioning as a future nominee could freeze some primary voters (particularly the Black voters among whom Biden already has a relative advantage) in his camp. More important, none of the many politicians being discussed as potential Biden successors (Gavin Newsom, J. B. Pritzker, Gretchen Whitmer, Chris Murphy, Roy Cooper, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg) have the combination of name ID and broad-based support to topple an incumbent president.

Since Biden circa 2022 is often compared to 1970s Jimmy Carter due to a combination of sluggish job approval ratings, unhappy progressive activists, and big-time economic problems (especially inflation), it is germane to observe that Carter managed to soundly defeat Ted Kennedy — the liberal lion of the 1970s and subsequent decades — in the 1980 nomination contest.

Are there any Ted Kennedys around right now to mobilize progressive anti-administration grievances into a successful insurgent candidacy? Someday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have that stature — but not now. Indeed, the only potential rival from any wing of the party who is in that position is Bernie Sanders, who is older than Biden. And even if there were some Kennedy-like figure available, would the fight disable the Democratic Party (as it arguably did in 1980) more than slogging ahead with the incumbent?

The most plausible precedents for pushing Biden out are those that occurred in 1952 and 1968, when unpopular incumbent presidents performed poorly against nuisance candidates in early primaries and took a hint. But this scenario still leaves the decision to fold the tent to a wounded but not defeated president. Biden doesn’t really resemble the Harry Truman of 1952 or the Lyndon Johnson of 1968 — presidents with great landmark achievements behind them. He’s where he’s fought to be for many decades and may still consider himself a good bet — perhaps the best bet — against a vengeful Trump in 2024. It’s unclear if even an early primary defeat would deter him; after all, he lost the first three contests in 2020 (the first two very badly) and was repeatedly left for dead.

All in all, the ball remains in the 46th president’s court. If he can get through the midterms without catastrophe and past his 80th birthday with some spring in his step, he could talk himself into one more campaign. And if his inner voice continues to tell him to defy the critics one more time, he may not listen to anyone else.

July 8: What Do the Polls Tell Us About a 2022 Dobbs Effect?

It’s kind of important for Democrats to think clearly, not wishfully, about the political implications of the Dobbs decision, which aren’t as important, to be clear, as the immediate consequences for those needing abortion services. I wrote up what we know at New York:

Soon after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade back in May 2021, speculation began that a radical decision abolishing constitutional abortion rights not long before the midterms could affect the trajectory and outcome of those elections. “It could become a major campaign issue for supporters of both parties and rare groups of swing voters in both federal and state elections,” I said in September of that year.

And here is why, I argued, a decision reversing Roe would likely produce a net benefit for Democrats:

“Since Roe at least, anti-abortion activists and their aligned voters have been thought to be more focused on elections and motivated to turn out for them than their pro-choice counterparts. The reason is obvious if you think about it: The status quo has been largely pro-choice thanks to Roe, so all the energy associated with any movement for change has been associated with the anti-abortion cause. Pro-choice folk could rely (or so they thought) on the Supreme Court to protect their rights …

“If SCOTUS goes the whole hog and kills or seriously wounds federal abortion rights next year, the topic could become a central focus of national Democratic messaging … because the perceived status quo would switch sides.”

Well, the Court did its worst two weeks ago, and in the meantime, midterm prospects for Democrats have steadily grown darker. So while the impact of the ruling in Dobbs on short-term Democratic electoral goals is hardly among the more important consequences of the decision, it does matter in terms of a 2022 election with serious implications for all sorts of policy issues, including abortion. So, understandably, Democrats are anxiously looking at polls to determine if the road to perdition in November might take an unexpected and favorable turn.

There are two major polling questions drawing particular attention: The first is whether Dobbs may have affected the balance of opinion favoring a relatively liberal regime on abortion. And there, at least initially, it seems Dobbs has increased an already sizable pro-choice majority. One would normally wait a while before reaching such a conclusion, but what makes Dobbs unique is that the eventual decision was leaked on May 2, giving us a longer period of pro-choice anxiety to measure. And as early as May 15, NBC News was finding record-high levels of support for abortion rights, with “nearly two-thirds of Americans” opposing overturning Roe. Perhaps more importantly, there is polling evidence that both the leaked and actual Dobbs opinions have raised the salience of abortion as an issue, particularly among pro-choice voters. A Monmouth survey taken between June 23 and June 27 showed abortion going from nowhere to 5 percent (9 percent among self-identified Democrats) in a question about the “biggest concern facing your family,” far below the 33 percent registered for inflation, but still impressive before and just after Dobbs came down on June 24. And a spanking new Pew survey confirms that opponents of Dobbs feel more strongly about the matter than supporters: Of the 57 percent disapproving of Dobbs, 43 do so strongly (25 percent of the 41 percent approving of Dobbs do so strongly).

But where the rubber meets the road is whether Dobbs and the backlash to the decision can materially help Democrats in November. Analysts peering at the congressional generic ballot (typically “Which party do you want to control the U.S. House of Representatives next year?”) have discerned an apparent immediate effect.  Actually, the polls are mixed on that topic, and the durability of any Dobbs “bounce” is unclear.

As I noted recently, the non–White House party usually gains ground on the generic ballot in midterm elections as actual voting grows nigh. So the big question is whether there is anything that can change the normal dynamics, whether it’s a potentially game-changing real-world development like Dobbs, or, say, Donald Trump announcing a 2024 presidential candidacy, as some believe he will soon do.

And to be clear, there are two distinct ways in which a “Dobbs effect,” if it exists, could help Democrats. The first and most obvious is that it could keep in the Democratic ranks a significant number of suburban swing voters who voted for the Donkey Party in 2018 and 2020 but who might swing back to the GOP without Trump totally dominating the landscape and with economic issues in the forefront. The second possible effect is to boost the turnout rates of certain pro-Democratic groups of voters who often skip non-presidential elections. It could be significant, for example, that under-30 voters most intensely support abortion rights: A recent Emerson poll showed 76 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 favor congressional action to shore up reproductive rights in the wake of DobbsReturning youth turnout to anything like the levels of 2020 or even 2018 could be a very big deal for Democrats, particularly given young voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden.

But campaigns themselves will provide the real test of whether a
Dobbs effect” is on the horizon to the benefit of Democrats. Some Democrats believe they glimpsed it in a June 28 special congressional election in Nebraska that a Republican won by a notably smaller margin than expected. But the real telltale sign will be if Democratic candidates put their money where their mouths are in talking frequently about abortion rights between now and November. Not that long ago, of course, the prevailing belief of the Democratic smart set was that the party should avoid “divisive” cultural issues like abortion and instead focus on tasty poll-tested proposals to place money in the pockets of voters. Thanks to the loss of Democratic credibility on pocketbook issues, and to the Supreme Court, that could all change. But we don’t know that just yet.

July 5: Abortion Fight Will Change Perceptions of “Good” Republicans

As part of my continuing effort to identify the less obvious implications of Dobbs, I considered at New York the change in perceptions of Republicans supporting abortion bans might soon experience:

Until June 24, you heard occasional talk of former vice-president Mike Pence being awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Joe Biden for his courage in rejecting Donald Trump’s pleas and demands that he overturn the 2020 election results on January 6, 2021. Obviously, the hearings of the House Select Committee investigating the events of January 6 reinforced a sense of gratitude toward Trump’s once-sycophantic veep, and the committee itself treated the Pence staffers who testified almost reverently.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abolishing a federal constitutional right to abortion, and even before the words of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion stopped echoing, Pence was telling Breitbart News how thrilled he was that women had lost the right to choose:

“Today, Life Won. By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court of the United States has given the American people a new beginning for life, and I commend the justices in the majority for having the courage of their convictions,” Pence said in response to the 5-4 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case.”

Pence treated this as just the starting point for the forced-birth cause:

“’Having been given this second chance for Life, we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land.’”

And the former vice-president also wanted to make sure Breitbart readers didn’t view him as a Johnny-come-lately to the anti-abortion cause:

“Pence also released a video through his organization Advancing American Freedom, which he also provided to Breitbart News exclusively ahead of its public release. In the slightly-over-three-minutes-long video, a narrator shows Pence’s history fighting for life beginning long before he was even elected to Congress. It then details how Pence offered the first-ever bill to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress—and then later as Vice President of the United States cast the tie-breaking vote to make sure a plan that gave that right to states passed Congress.”

Does that take the shine off his January 6 heroism? Maybe just a little?

Now Pence was famously the very favorite politician of the Christian Right before he stumbled over anti-LGBTQ measures in Indiana and was then lifted into the highest levels of national politics by Trump in 2016. But consider another Republican who has gained a fanbase among liberals and the center left: House Select Committee vice-chair Liz Cheney. Last year, after she defied Trump over his election lies, she soon became more popular among Democrats than Republicans. And even before the January 6 hearings that have won her further admiration from Dems, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was encouraging Joe Biden to consider dumping Kamala Harris and running for reelection on a ticket with Cheney or someone like her. But in light of the thunderbolt that has struck American politics in the form of Dobbs, it is probably relevant that in the current Congress, Liz Cheney is a co-sponsor of legislation (HR 1011) endorsing an idea that even the conservative bloc on SCOTUS hasn’t endorsed: fetal personhood.

“Life at Conception Act

“This bill declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual comes into being.”

No, don’t think she’s going to be on any Democratic presidential ticket soon.

My point is not to minimize the good things some Republicans have done in some areas of public life. Standing up to Donald Trump is indeed important to the future of democracy, and for that matter, it’s important to the deeply endangered future of reproductive rights, since Trump is the president who produced Dobbs as part of a cynical deal he made with conservative Christians obsessed with outlawing abortion. But at the same time,
Dobbs should remind everyone there are nonnegotiable subjects in politics other than the events of January 6, and sadly, Republican officeholders are even more united in being wrong on abortion policy than they are in defending and revering the 45th president. It’s a matter of perspective and of priorities.

One realization in particular that must now come to the fore post-Dobbs involves the bad media habit of treating some Republicans as “moderate” on abortion policy because they are willing to show some compassion (or maybe just shame) on behalf the very small percentage of people needing abortion services because they are the victims of rape or incest. Now that it’s clear they have no problem with banning the other 98 percent of previously legal abortions, these “moderates” look like the anti-abortion zealots they’ve always really been.

You may object that in a dangerously polarized political environment, but the last thing we need is to shine a spotlight on one of those issues where D’s and R’s (at least among those holding or running for office) are on different planets. We should instead, I suppose, focus on celebrating every symbolic moment where even a shred of bipartisanship can be found, whether it’s a big infrastructure bill, a small tweak in federal gun policies, or the willingness of a few Republicans to own up to Trump’s crimes. But it’s far past time to understand that polarization is not always some sort of artificial phenomenon foisted on an a peace-loving electorate by politicians and other “elites.” It’s sometimes the product of deep differences of opinion on matters that affect the lives of real people. That’s definitely true of abortion policy. And now that lawmakers are in the position to respect or oppress the reproductive autonomy of women in ways that have consequences, it’s actively offensive to shrug and look the other way.

July 1: Abortion Extremism From Republicans Won’t Stop Now

As part of the continuing discussion about the impact of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, I warned at New York that the pressure to ban abortion will only intensify:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was the culmination of the Republican Party’s long and powerful partnership with the anti-abortion movement. This is key to understanding the potential impact of the Court’s ruling; now, that alliance will likely drive even more extreme efforts to eliminate abortion access across the country. For the anti-abortion movement, overturning Roe v. Wade was a starter’s gun, not the finish line.

Prior to 1973, Republicans were about as likely as Democrats to support the decriminalization of abortion. But within three years of the Roe v. Wade decision, both leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination favored a constitutional amendment overturning Roe. There were a lot of reasons for this sudden change of direction, including the GOP’s effort to win over previously Democratic southern conservatives and Catholic voters, and the emergence of abortion bans as a top priority of conservative evangelical leaders. After 1980, the die was cast; while pro-choice politicians and voters lingered in the GOP for some time, the Republican Party as a whole never wavered from its anti-abortion stance.

Yet for decades, the GOP couldn’t deliver. By the time the profoundly irreligious and previously pro-choice Donald Trump won the GOP presidential nomination, simmering resentment toward Republicans for failing to produce a reversal of Roe was close to boiling over; the marriage between party and movement had become loveless. So in a great irony, the unprincipled Trump made a straight transactional offer to get ’er done if the anti-abortion movement supported his candidacy. They took the deal.

As Trump’s Supreme Court appointments cleared the path for the reversal of Roe, GOP governors and state legislators went into an anticipatory frenzy. Twenty-six states passed abortion bans with provisions violating Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ranging from laws hassling providers to pre-viability abortion bans, like the 15-week Mississippi standard that led to Dobbs. When the ruling came down on Friday, 13 states had “trigger” laws designed to take effect the minute Roe died.

For decades, Republican politics have been about working with anti-abortion constituencies to set the table for the end of abortion rights in America, but now GOP politicians face a very different situation. As far as what they’ll do next, here are three things to keep in mind.

Republicans leaders will now face even more pressure to enact extreme abortion bans.

You might think that having won this huge victory in the Supreme Court, Republican anti-abortion activists would give it a rest for a bit. But that isn’t happening.

Having been invited by the Supreme Court to set abortion policy without any inhibitions, the true goal of the anti-abortion movement — a ban on all abortions from the moment of conception, with few if any exceptions — will become an immediate priority for Republican lawmakers. Where there are 15-week bans like Mississippi’s, six-week bans like Georgia’s will likely emerge. Where there are six-week bans, total bans from conception like Louisiana’s and Oklahoma’s will be pursued and likely enacted. Rape and incest exceptions will be challenged. The pressure on GOP lawmakers to grow more radical will go up, not down. This isn’t a political game anymore. Republican lawmakers have been handed the power to force every pregnancy to full term, and their most powerful religious constituencies expect them to use it.

GOP tactics will become more radical.

For most anti-abortion activists and their Republican vassals, overturning Roe was never anything more than an interim step toward a total abortion ban. Now they can publicly advance more audacious goals and impose new litmus tests on GOP politicians.

The states-rights and pro-democracy rhetoric that anti-abortion activists routinely deployed to challenge what they deemed federal judicial tyranny over abortion policy will instantly vanish. Republican elected officials and candidates will begin calling for a national abortion ban by congressional statute. It won’t happen so long as there is either a Democratic president or a Senate filibuster, but Republicans with aspirations for high office will line up to pledge to make it happen someday. Mike Pence took the vow minutes after Dobbs was announced:

“Now that Roe v. Wade has been consigned to the ash heap of history, a new arena in the cause of life has emerged, and it is incumbent on all who cherish the sanctity of life to resolve that we will take the defense of the unborn and the support for women in crisis pregnancy centers to every state in America,” Pence told Breitbart News. “Having been given this second chance for Life, we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land.”

Meanwhile, at the state level, Republicans will do whatever they can to interfere with actions by citizens in blue states to aid people in red states. Even though Justice Brett Kavanaugh warned in his Dobbs concurrence that bans on travel to secure an abortion would represent an unconstitutional restriction on interstate commerce, that won’t keep those determined to “save all the babies” from trying to do so by hook or crook.

Most of all, you will hear more and more talk about the goal the GOP first formally embraced in its 1980 platform: an effort to convince the Supreme Court to recognize fetal personhood as a constitutional right, or to pass a fetal personhood constitutional amendment in Congress.

Anti-abortion fervor could shift the GOP’s election strategy.

Ice-cold Republican tacticians looking no further than the 2022 midterm elections or the next presidential contest will welcome the new climate as a base-energizing tonic for the troops. After all, the GOP kept its promises to its culture-war wing, and there will be much MAGA/Christian right excitement about acting on the new freedom to impose forced birth. State legislative and gubernatorial elections in November and beyond are going to be lit.

But as it happens, Republicans were already cruising toward major midterm gains thanks to economic worries, Democratic discouragement, the GOP turnout advantage in non-presidential elections, and the historical pattern of midterm losses by the party controlling the White House. All things considered, they want voters to go to the polls thinking about inflation, not abortion; about their grievances with Joe Biden, not their grievances with Samuel Alito.

Democrats have been thinking that Roe’s demise could change the dynamics of the midterms by encouraging high turnout from young voters and suburban women and giving Democratic voters something to feel more passionate about than a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Many Republicans may fear that outcome too, but they are in no position to tell their own base to stop thinking about abortion policy, which in turn means GOP candidates won’t stop talking about it. And that could complicate the anticipated GOP midterm victory, while also changing the landscape going into 2024. Potential Republican presidential candidates could go into a competitive frenzy of anti-abortion extremism, and that’s exactly what Democrats need to hang onto swing voters.

June 25: John Roberts’ Path Not Taken on Abortion

In looking at Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization from many angles at New York, one I noted was the lonely position of Chief Justice John Roberts, who failed to hold back his conservative colleagues from anti-abortion radicalism:

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will go down in history as a 6-3 decision with only the three Democrat-appointed justices dissenting, Chief Justice John Roberts actually did not support a full reversal of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. His concurring opinion, which argued that the Court should uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy without entirely abolishing a constitutional right to abortion, represented a path not taken by the other five conservative members of the Court.

When the Court held oral arguments on the Mississippi law last December, the conservative majority’s determination to redeem Donald Trump’s promise to reverse Roe v. Wade was quite clear. The only ray of hope was the clear discomfort of Chief Justice John Roberts, as New York’s Irin Carmon noted at the time:

“It seemed obvious that only Roberts, who vainly tried to focus on the 15-week line even when everyone else made clear it was all or nothing, cares for such appearances. There had been some pre-argument rumblings that Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh might defect, perhaps forming a bloc with Roberts to find some middle ground as happened the last time the Court considered overturning Roe in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. On Wednesday, neither Barrett nor Kavanaugh seemed inclined to disappoint the movement that put them on the Court.”

Still, the Casey precedent offered a shred of hope, since in that 1992 case some hard and imaginative work by Republican-appointed justices determined not to overturn Roe eventually flipped Justice Anthony Kennedy and dealt a devastating blow to the anti-abortion movement. Just prior to the May leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion (which was very similar in every important respect to the final product), the Wall Street Journal nervously speculated that Roberts might be undermining conservative resolve on the Court, or change sides as he famously did in the Obamacare case.

In the wake of the leak there was some reporting that Roberts was indeed determined not to go whole hog in Dobbs; one theory about the leak was that it had been engineered to freeze the other conservatives (especially Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who during his confirmation hearings had said many things incompatible with a decision to reverse Roe entirely) before the chief justice could lure them to his side.

Now it appears Roberts tried and failed. His concurrence was a not terribly compelling plea for “judicial restraint” that left him alone on the polarized Court he allegedly leads:

“I would take a more measured course. I agree with the Court that the viability line established by Roe and Casey should be discarded under a straightforward stare decisis analysis. That line never made any sense. Our abortion precedents describe the right at issue as a woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy. That right should therefore extend far enough to ensure a reasonable opportunity to choose, but need not extend any further certainly not all the way to viability.”

Roberts’s proposed “reasonable opportunity” standard is apparently of his own invention, and is obviously vague enough to allow him to green-light any abortion ban short of one that outlaws abortion from the moment of fertilization, though he does seem to think arbitrarily drawing a new line at the beginning of the second trimester of pregnancy might work. Roberts’s real motivation appears to be upholding the Court’s reputation for judiciousness, which is indeed about to take a beating:

“The Court’s decision to overrule Roe and Casey is a serious jolt to the legal system — regardless of how you view those cases. A narrower decision rejecting the misguided viability line would be markedly less unsettling, and nothing more is needed to decide this case.”

In his majority opinion (joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett, along with Kavanaugh) Alito seems to relish in mocking the unprincipled nature of the chief justice’s temporizing position:

“There are serious problems with this approach, and it is revealing that nothing like it was recommended by either party …

“The concurrence would do exactly what it criticizes Roe for doing: pulling “out of thin air” a test that “[n]o party or amicus asked the Court to adopt …

“The concurrence asserts that the viability line is separable from the constitutional right they recognized, and can therefore be “discarded” without disturbing any past precedent … That is simply incorrect.”

One has to wonder that if Merrick Garland had been allowed to join the Court in 2016, or if Amy Coney Barrett had not been rushed onto the Court in 2020, Robert’s split-the-differences approach eroding but not entirely abolishing the constitutional right to abortion might have carried the day in Dobbs. But that’s like speculating about where we would be had Donald Trump not become president in 2017 after promising conservatives the moon — and an end to Roe.

June 23: Election Night Pronouncements Are Dangerous

As a California voter, I am acutely aware of the state’s very deliberate process for counting votes, and wrote about the latest lesson from June 7 at New York:

Anyone engaged in politics in a state with heavy voting by mail knows that making pronouncements based on early returns is perilous. The danger of rushes to judgment is especially dire in California, which allows mail ballots postmarked by Election Day but received in the next week to count, permits Election Day registration, and goes the extra mile to help voters cure minor errors on their mail ballot. As CalMatters put it in 2020, “the state opts to make it very easy for Californians to vote” and prioritizes voter convenience over the speed or efficiency of vote-counting. There have been many recent elections in the Golden State where the winners on Election Night have turned into losers before very long.

This was all well known prior to the 2022 California top-two primary on June 7. Yet early returns fed a narrative of a conservative law-and-order revolt against the Golden State’s dominant progressives. Newsweek’s take was typical:

“Democratic voters in California took their frustrations to the ballot box on Tuesday, boosting a former Republican in Los Angeles’ mayoral race and removing one of the nation’s most progressive district attorneys from office in an urban revolt …

“What’s happening in the L.A. mayor’s race and in the San Fransisco district attorney race is ‘consistent with the trend we are seeing nationally: that voters feel that the Democratic Party has moved too far left and want elected officials to shift back towards the center,’ Democratic pollster Carly Cooperman told Newsweek.”

Rick Caruso’s early lead in the L.A. mayoral race and what appeared initially to be a three-to-two victory for the effort to recall San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin were wildly overinterpreted, as I pointed out at the time:

“The idea that the primary showed a state convulsed with reactionary tough-on-crime sentiment is an overreaction to what actually happened on June 7. Boudin was happily tossed over the side by much of San Francisco’s Democratic political establishment — who regarded him as an embarrassing and not terribly competent outlier, not a national symbol of criminal-justice reform (as some have treated him). And while Caruso’s emergence as a freshly minted Democrat running a viable race for mayor of L.A. was startling, it took a ten-to-one spending advantage over Karen Bass to make the general election. His best shot at winning may have passed in this low-turnout primary; Bass should be favored to win in November.”

Now, late-arriving results in the primary have made the law-and-order takes not just premature but possibly wrong, as the Los Angeles Times explained:

“[I]n the two weeks since California’s primary, some key races across the state have reshuffled or tightened — turning upside-down some of the early punditry about the message Golden State voters are sending this cycle …

“In L.A.’s mayoral race, Caruso, a billionaire developer who ran on a platform of expanding the city’s police force and clearing homeless encampments, celebrated with confetti on election night as he held a five-percentage-point lead over U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), whom he will face in the November runoff.

“But two weeks later, he finds himself trailing Bass by seven points.”

I’d say Caruso is a distinct underdog for November.

Boudin was indeed recalled, but the margin of yea-over-nay votes has dropped from 20 percent to 10 percent, and may drop further. And meanwhile, other contests already contradicted the swing-to-the-right narrative on Election Night, as I noted:

“Appointed incumbent attorney general Rob Bonta should have been a prime target for tough-on-crime agitation. As The Appeal noted: ‘Bonta’s record on criminal justice reform, and his ties to groups doing the frontline work to transform prisons and policing, are stronger than either [Xavier] Becerra or [Kamala] Harris,’ his two predecessors. (The former is Joe Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary; the latter is his vice-president.) As a novice statewide candidate, Bonta could have been especially vulnerable, but in a primary against four opponents, he has received almost 55 percent of counted votes — a higher percentage than U.S. senator Alex Padilla and a bit below that of Governor Gavin Newsom.”

Bonta’s lead is exactly where it was on the evening of June 7.

The moral of the story is to resist the temptation to make broad generalizations about California election results until enough of them are in to justify such conclusions. Let’s hope the lesson sinks in by November.

June 17: Democrats Should Beware the Help-the-Republican-Kooks Tactic in 2022

I am not generally a fan of too-clever-by-half, much less deceptive, political tactics, so having seen one gain ground, I offered a warning at New York.

What was once a rare and controversial tactic — meddling in the other party’s primaries to boost extremist candidates that seem most beatable in a general election — is in 2022 becoming almost routine, particularly for Democrats. It happened in Pennsylvania, where prior to the May primary Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro spent more money on ads about ultra-MAGA Republican Doug Mastriano than Mastriano spent on ads about himself. The ads called him “too conservative for Pennsylvania,” which was cleverly intended to convince conservative Republican primary voters that he was just right for them. The gambit likely helped Trump’s endorsee win the GOP nomination.

In the June 7 California primary, Democrats pulled the same sort of stunts in order to help two right-wing rivals to Republican incumbent congressmen David Valadao and Young Kim. One, from Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority PAC, just blatantly promoted Valadao opponent Chris Mathys. Another, from Democratic candidate Asif Mahmood, raised the visibility of Kim opponent Greg Raths. The idea in both cases was to knock the incumbents out of the general election via a third-place finish in the nonpartisan top-two primary. Kim moved on to November anyway, and Valadao is leading Mathys with a lot of votes still out.

The help-the-kooks strategy is also in full swing in Colorado. In the June 28 GOP primary to select an opponent for potentially vulnerable Democratic senator Michael Bennet, the big ad spender is a group called Democratic Colorado, which is telling voters that election-conspiracy champion Ron Hanks is “too conservative for Colorado,” carefully laying out his issue positions in a way that lines up with Republican rank-and-file sentiment. Similarly, in the primary aimed at choosing a nominee to face Democratic governor Jared Polis, Democrats are spending serious dough to help another ultra-MAGA Republican, Greg Lopez, as Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor explains:

“The Colorado Information Network, funded partly by the Democratic Governors Association, has spent or reserved more than $1.5 million on broadcast and cable. One recent ad from the liberal group points out Lopez’s support for Trump and his election lies, opposition to gay marriage and abortion. ‘Greg Lopez is too conservative for Colorado,’ the ad ends — a clear effort to appeal to base conservative voters, which both parties have done before in primaries to boost a weaker potential nominee.”

Republicans cannot really duplicate this strategy at present, in part because there are fewer ideologically polarized Democratic primaries this year, and in part because Democratic voters won’t necessarily rise to the bait. Precisely because the Democratic rank and file are not extremist, attacking a weak Democrat as “too socialist” for this or that jurisdiction won’t necessarily lift them to victory; it might have the opposite effect.

But Democrats trying to nominate Republican extremists really need to ask themselves if they’re helping elect extremists in ways that may be enduringly bad for the country. For one thing, calculations about the electability of this or that opposite-party candidate could turn out to be fatally wrong. In 2016, as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti explained, Hillary Clinton’s campaign did everything it could to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy early on, when he mostly looked like an irritant to the more electable Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Team Clinton couldn’t really fix on a strategy for beating Trump until it was too late. You have to wonder if Democrats looking at polls showing Doug Mastriano running ahead of Senate nominee Mehmet Oz on the Republican ticket in Pennsylvania are having some second thoughts about helping Mastriano win his primary.

Aside from the possibility that 2022 could be a good year for crypto-fascism, there’s another big moral hazard in any Democratic strategy to lift Republican extremists onto the general election ballot: This could be a big-wave election in which anyone bearing the elephant label in a remotely competitive contest will win, kookiness be damned. In that event the net result of Democratic tampering in Republican primaries would be a kookier group of people running America.

Wave elections can be like a large net thrown into the sea, collecting fish of every kind. I learned that a half-century ago as a Democratic precinct chairman in suburban DeKalb County, Georgia, then trending hard Republican in a year when Richard Nixon was routing George McGovern nearly everywhere. Nixon carried DeKalb by a 77-23 margin, and pulled into local office a whole zoo of outlandish and unqualified candidates for judgeships and other positions requiring a bit of brains and experience. It took DeKalb years to get rid of some of those people. And that was back when people split tickets. That’s not much of a thing anymore.

So maybe helping ultra-MAGA extremists win Republican nominations marginally increases the odds Democrats can minimize GOP gains this November. But it also significantly increases the odds that if everything goes wrong the Republicans placed in power will be bad people with bad ideas. It’s not worth the risk.