washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

December 27: Democrats Putting Senate in Play for 2020

With all the justifiable focus on the presidential contest, it’s easy to forget how important the battles for control of Congress in 2020 will be. I wrote about the Senate landscape this week for New York:

The general feeling going into this election cycle has been that flipping the Senate will be difficult for Democrats, even if they depose Trump. They have a three-seat majority, and in Alabama’s incongruous Democrat Doug Jones, a pretty easy mark. Only two Republican incumbents (Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine) up for reelection represent states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and aside from Jones, Michigan Democrat Gary Peters is in a Trump ’16 state.

But as the Cook Political Report’s veteran Senate guru Jennifer Duffy notes, Democrats are off to a very good start, particularly on the fundraising front, in their effort to place as many GOP Senate seats into play as possible:

“If there is anything that sticks out in Senate races this cycle, it’s the early spending on television advertising in the most competitive races. As of December 19, just over $32.5 million has been spent in eight key races. Democrats have outspent Republicans, $21.9 million to $10.6 million, according to data provided by Advertising Analytics. The Senate race in Maine has seen the highest level of spending at $8.2 million. To put this in some perspective, Collins spent $5.6 million on her 2014 reelection bid, and independent expenditures amounted to less than $2 million. Advertising Analytics estimates that $55 million will be spent on television advertising in Maine this cycle, an astonishing amount for a state with three relatively inexpensive media markets. Democrats have outspent Republicans almost two to one and nearly all that money has been on ads criticizing Collins.

“Democrats have also outspent Republicans in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, and Kentucky. Republicans have spent considerably more than Democrats in Alabama and North Carolina, but most of the money is being spent in GOP primaries.”

Duffy notes that a Senate impeachment trial could create some general-election problems for GOP incumbents Collins, Gardner, and Martha McSally — who dare not offend the Trumpian base with a vote to remove him from office. But there are signs Democrats also have a shot against North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and Iowa’s Joni Ernst — and perhaps the occupants (David Perdue and the top Republican in the 2020 special “jungle primary”) of the two Georgia Senate seats at risk. Even Kansas is a possible pickup so long as Kris Kobach is in the race.

“It appears that there will be at least five GOP-held seats in play, with a chance that Democrats could add one or two more. This puts Democrats in a position to win the majority, even if they lose Alabama and/or Michigan. This is not to suggest that Democrats will win the majority, only that their prospects are considerably better today than they were five months ago.”

If Mike Pence is reelected as vice president, of course, Democrats would need to post a net gain of four Senate seats to be in a position to block — Joe Manchin willing — Trump executive- and judicial-branch nominees, not to mention whatever nasty legislative treats he has in mind. Given the strong likelihood that we’ll see remarkable levels of straight-ticket voting in 2020, prospects for a Democratic Congress confronting a raging, reelected Trump are limited. More likely, Senate Democrats will be focused on giving a president of their own, if they get one, a fighting chance for success.


December 21: Impeachments Are Always Partisan

On the occasion of Donald Trump’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, I offered a quick history lesson at New York to counter all the angst about the partisanship of the process:

[Y]ou may have already heard handwringing comments about the exceptional partisanship that House members exhibited in the vote to impeach Donald TrumpIt wouldn’t have happened in the days when members of Congress socialized with each other and worked on legislation in a spirit of comity, etc., etc.

Perhaps there is some merit in that much-rehearsed paean to lost bipartisanship, so full of manufactured nostalgia that it ought to be made into a Hallmark Channel movie. But actually, the two previous examples of House votes on presidential impeachment were arguably just as partisan, differing only in degree.

The principal vote to impeach Andrew Johnson (in those days the House voted on a general resolution of impeachment before drafting individual articles), on February 24, 1868, was carried by a 126-47 margin, with 17 members not voting. Of those who did vote, all but two Republicans voted “aye” and all the Democrats voted “nay,” according to the official House history. The later votes on the 11 individual articles eventually sent over to the Senate are hard to find online, but the House history indicates that the margins were “similar.”

When the House voted on the impeachment of Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998 (Thursday is the 21st anniversary of that event), the two articles on which the president was later tried by the Senate passed, per the New York Times, on near-party-line votes. The first, impeaching him for perjury before a federal grand jury, passed by a 228-206 margin in the Republican-controlled chamber, with five Republicans and five Democrats defecting. The second, alleging obstruction of justice, passed by a narrower 221-212 vote. This time 12 Republicans and five Democrats broke ranks.

Yes, there was theoretically more bipartisanship in votes on two articles of impeachment the House rejected, mostly because some Republicans considered them redundant or too easily mockable. An article alleging perjury in the Paula Jones civil case lost 229-205, with 28 Republicans defecting and no Democrats breaking ranks. And a final article alleging “abuse of power” because Clinton apparently offended the dignity of Judiciary Committee Republicans by answering their written interrogatories evasively, didn’t resonate much outside that committee; it was defeated by a wide margin with 81 Republicans (and one Democrat) breaking ranks.

There were, of course, many differences between the three impeachments. Andrew Johnson was pretty much a lame duck, rejected by both major parties as a reelection prospect (though he did get some votes at the later Democratic Convention; he was later elected to the Senate as a Democrat, rejoining his pre-Civil War party), by the time he was impeached. Clinton was a popular second-term president. Johnson was very nearly convicted and removed from office by the Senate; there was never any real chance that would happen to Clinton.

But the most conspicuous thing distinguishing Trump’s impeachment from those of his predecessors has been the full-throated defense of his conduct by his own party. By the time he was impeached, Johnson was virtually a man without a party; southern Democrats, while voting against impeachment and removal, couldn’t be that thrilled about the man who demonized them during the Civil War as traitors who deserved death in battle or by hanging. And he was acquitted mostly because of the concerns some Republicans had that the Tenure of Office Act (banning removal of Cabinet members without congressional concurrence), the backbone of the impeachment articles after Johnson defied it, was unconstitutional (as it was eventually held to be by the Supreme Court). As for Clinton, many, many Democrats condemned his behavior during the Lewinsky scandal, and there was robust support in their ranks in Congress for a measuring censuring him.

So you could say that this third presidential impeachment was more partisan than the first two in that the two parties were not simply arguing over what should be done about a president’s misconduct, but whether it existed at all. And I suspect that his party will be found guilty for that misdemeanor at the bar of history, if not sooner in the 2020 elections.


December 20: Trump’s New Congressional Convert Breaks House GOP’s Anti-Abortion Unanimity

When U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew decided to switch parties after Democrats in his district did not take kindly to his refusal to back an impeachment inquiry, I noticed something about his record that will give his new friends heartburn, and wrote about it for New York:

New Jersey congressman Jeff Van Drew’s impending Democrat-to-Republican Party switch has gotten a lot of attention as another sign of partisan polarization over impeachment (his was one of just two Democratic votes against the formal launch of impeachment proceedings in October, and he had signaled his opposition to the articles of impeachment that will hit the House floor this week). This was punctuated over the weekend by a mass resignation of most of his staff.

The move was probably made inevitable when Democrats back home began to abandon Van Drew much as his staff did later. But Chris Cillizza thinks it’s a great trophy for Trump:

“The image of Van Drew, then, being driven from his party because of impeachment plays directly into Trump’s hands. The President has long argued that Democrats are blinded by their hatred for him and that this latest congressional reaction to his behavior with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is nothing more than a partisan hoax.”

I don’t know about that; I’d say having actual Democrats instead of former Democrats opposing impeachment is more valuable to his cause and to the “Democrats in disarray” narrative political media love so much. But there’s an aspect of Van Drew’s apostasy that could cause Trump and the GOP some heartburn, too. After the 2018 elections (when Rodney Frelinghuysen and Charlie Dent retired), the anti-abortion movement could boast it had finally hunted to extinction the once-vibrant herd of pro-choice House Republicans. Whatever else he is now, Van Drew is pro-choice, having received a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood in the New Jersey legislature, and then saying this during his 2018 congressional campaign:

I’m strongly and unequivocally pro-choice: I support Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose. Any efforts to weaken or undermine that right will face my fierce opposition.

It is most definitely going to annoy Trump’s extremely important conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Catholic allies that a friend of the baby-killers has snuck back into the tent. And they may not be happy that POTUS has publicly offered Van Drew fundraising help in his 2020 reelection bid.  want to know whether the president has promised Van Drew support in his 2020 reelection bid.

Before the party switch, Van Drew had three Republicans already in the field running against him, one of whom is a self-funding business executive who called the incumbent a “weasel.” I’d be shocked if his primary opponents don’t make a big deal out of his position on abortion, which in turn could cause problems for Trump if he defends the apostate, when he really needs anti-abortion activists whipping the faithful into a frenzy before November.


December 12: About That GOP “Coup” Claim

If, like me, you’ve been watching as much of the House Judiciary Committee deliberations on impeachment as you can stand, you have endlessly and interminably and redundantly heard Republicans argue that Democrats are engaged in a “coup” to overturn Trump’s election. This is how I responded at New York:

The House Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, Republican Doug Collins of Georgia, nicely articulated the central impeachment conspiracy theory Trump defenders are reinforcing during his opening statement prior to the testimony of constitutional experts on December 4, per the New York Post:

“’This is not an impeachment. This is just a simple railroad job. And today’s is a waste of time …

“’Do you know where this started? It started with tears in Brooklyn, in November 2016, when an election was lost …

“’Why? Because the chairman said it just a second ago. We’re scared of the elections that we’ll lose again,’ Collins said, referring to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the panel. ‘So we got to do this now.’”

There you have it: Democrats are simultaneously trying to overturn the 2016 election and nullify the 2020 election. Never mind that it’s Trump and his allies who endlessly fulminate against nonexistent voter fraud, claiming (with zero evidence) that he was robbed of a popular-vote win in 2016 by “millions of illegal votes,” or that Democrats won the House in 2018 through illegal “ballot harvesting” (the entirely legal and ethical practice of delivering signed and sealed mail ballots to election authorities). Forget about the chronic Republican efforts to dig potholes on the path to voting places and thwart anything like majority rule. It’s the Democrats who cannot be trusted to accept adverse election results.

Ben Shapiro’s latest column is a much fuller exposition of this claim, under the headline: “Will Democrats Accept the Results of the 2020 Elections?”

It begins with this extraordinary reconstruction of reality:

“Democrats blamed Clinton’s election loss on Russian interference, on voter suppression, on anything but Clinton’s campaign performance.”

Having almost surely read (and written) more left-of-center 2016 election analysis than Shapiro, I laughed aloud at this assertion. I’d say that, by and large, Democrats blamed Clinton’s election loss on the following causes far more than Russian interference: (1) the Comey letter; (2) media emphasis generally on the Clinton emails; (3) the Electoral College system; (4) Clinton campaign mistakes in messaging and mechanics, and especially the failure to see disaster brewing in Michigan and Wisconsin; (5) voter complacency in anticipation of an easy Clinton win; (6) voter reluctance to elect a woman as president; (7) Jill Stein; (8) Bernie Bros; (9) inadequate efforts to turn out minority voters; (10) unprincipled Trump-loathing Republicans who voted for him anyway.

Yes, some Democrats did properly note that Republican secretaries of State and campaign operatives spent a good part of the 2016 cycle, like they spend every cycle, trying to hold voting opportunities for those people (you know, the ones who want to vote themselves welfare benefits and get new Obama Phones) to a minimum. But neither Russian interference nor voter suppression was even mentioned in the elaborate postmortems of reasons most often cited by Clinton supporters and media types conducted by Nate Silver and Molly Ball. The notion that overseas election interference was an idée fixe leading from “tears in Brooklyn” to impeachment is just a crock.

Shapiro makes similar leaps across facts and logic in shifting to the future:

“Now in the run-up to 2020, Democrats are already suggesting that if President Trump wins, the election will have been illegitimate. This time, they’re pointing to Trump’s supposed attempt to gather information from the Ukrainian government on potential 2020 rival Joe Biden in return for release of much-needed military aid. In fact, Democrats state that if Trump is not impeached, the 2020 results will inevitably be deemed improper.”

Actually, House Democrats have consistently made the point that it’s the president’s attempt to secure foreign-government interference that is an impeachable offense, not any likelihood that it did or could have succeeded. And the point about the cost of letting him get away with it is that it might embolden him to do worse things, not that the 2020 election will “inevitably” be deemed improper. No one that I have heard — other than Republicans — is talking about a Democratic challenge to the legitimacy of Trump’s reelection, barring something unforeseen. There’s certainly nothing remotely as alarming as the president’s perpetual “jokes” about not leaving office if he loses or when his second term ends — a possibility for which his and his allies’ attacks on the integrity of the 2016 and 2018 elections have built a foundation among the MAGA folk. The notion of a preemptive partisan coup to keep voters from eagerly reelecting Trump, of course, makes no sense given Republican control of the U.S. Senate compounded by the supermajority requirement for removal of a president.

I’m going to be charitable and recognize there is naturally going to be confusion when efforts to tamper with elections are the basis for an impeachment effort that occurs not long before another election featuring the same president. Impeachment is not, as Shapiro calls it, an effort by Democrats to “run an end around with the electoral process.” It is and has been, since the Constitution was ratified, a part of the system in which elections are another part. Democrats can regard Donald J. Trump’s presidency as “illegitimate” for all sorts of reasons, ranging from his unprecedented mendacity to his megalomania to his contempt for the rule of law to the undisguised joy he takes in dividing people into warring tribes by appealing to his supporters’ most atavistic — and, I might add, irreligious — instincts. And yes, many Democrats think presidents elected by popular minorities — like Trump and George W. Bush in his first term — lack moral authority. But nobody’s talking about disregarding and nullifying elections, unless it’s those “this is a republic, not a democracy” conservatives who believe their mandate to rule came from God or nature, not from the people.

All this “coup” talk may just reflect the Rovian principle Team Trump has adopted of accusing its accusers of harboring one’s own vulnerabilities and dark thoughts.


December 11: Falling Between Two Stools on Impeachment?

As the Kabuki Theater of impeachment rolls along in the U.S. House, there are legitimate fears about how it will all play out for Democrats, as I explained this week at New York:

 It’s important to internalize a couple of basic facts about the big picture with respect to the impeachment process: (1) Trump is not going to be removed from office by the Senate, and (2) whatever impact impeachment has on future presidents or on historical judgments of this Congress — both factors often cited by Democrats favoring impeachment — we won’t know it for a good while. So the only thing relevant to analyze is the effect that this process and its trajectory may have on the 2020 elections.

We just don’t know at this point how the voting public will adjudge the impeachment inquiry, the House impeachment, or the Senate acquittal. Public support for impeachment spiked a bit just before and just after the formal process was initiated, but it has stabilized amid evidence that it’s not very popular in the Rust Belt battleground states where Trump pulled his upset in 2016. Attitudes toward impeachment, not surprisingly, are beginning to pretty closely match attitudes toward Trump and his reelection bid. So the best early evidence is that the impact of impeachment may be on the margins of the election, where enthusiasm and turnout patterns are legitimately important and not just the subject of spin.

That should concern Democrats. The decision by Nancy Pelosi to quickly enact narrow articles of impeachment before the 2020 election year formally begins may well indicate that she views it as a distraction at best and as a potential problem for Democrats at worst. These attitudes should be unsurprising given her steady resistance to going down that road until the Ukraine scandal broke and the Democratic rank and file shifted massively into the pro-impeachment camp. As I noted when the articles were announced, pro-impeachment Democrats — including those who favored taking this step before the Ukraine scandal appeared and Pelosi climbed aboard — may soon feel cheated out of a deep, broad investigation that would accompany the 2020 campaign:

“It’s certainly not hard to suspect that Pelosi is really just cutting losses by focusing on one incident of Trump’s misgovernment and racing to impeach him by year’s end so that House Democrats can move on to their previously scheduled election-year agenda. And the impression that she’s ready to ‘move on’ is certainly reinforced by the fact that she is holding another presser today to announce support for the administration’s renegotiated U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.”

At the same time, though, impeachment has gone far enough to unite Republicans behind Trump and give them the relentless talking point they have already agreed upon and will repeat like a meditative chant at any moment Republican partisans need a fresh burst of energy: Impeachment is a coup designed to rob American voters of their right to elect — or reelect — the president of their choice. A variation on this theme that we will briefly hear before the Senate trial concludes is that panic-stricken Democrats know the only way they can keep Trump from a second term is to secure his removal from office. But he and the GOP will thwart these traitors, and the preordained acquittal will be celebrated as total exoneration wherever MAGA folk gather.

So in one party, you will have excited, triumphant fans of the president, who once again eluded and outsmarted his elitist enemies, snake-dancing to the polls to secure another four years for their hero. In the other, you will have some people who want to forget about impeachment altogether and talk about health care whenever the party’s presidential candidates aren’t bickering about it, plus some people who are in a state of simmering resentment that their congressional leaders just went through the motions and didn’t expose Trump’s broader crimes and misdemeanors.

This isn’t an equation that works out very well for Democrats in 2020. Yes, of course, they can still beat Trump, and unless his job-approval rating finally rises, they probably will if their presidential nominee is decent and competent and acceptable to all party factions. But it may well be that Pelosi’s effort to thread the needle on impeachment will instead show her to have fallen between two stools, disappointing Democrats yet giving Republicans the hate-rage jet fuel on which they thrive.


December 5: Kamala Harris’ Presidential Bid: What Went Wrong?

I don’t routinely post items here on the demise of presidential candidacies, but Kamala Harris’ involved strategic issues to an unusual degree, so I’m sharing what I wrote up for New York.

When Steve Bullock and Joe Sestak withdrew from the 2020 presidential race at the beginning of this week, it represented the inevitable, arguably overdue winnowing of a might-have-been and a never-was contender. Kamala Harris’ surprise withdrawal today was more significant, representing the demise of a candidacy that made a lot of strategic sense and that for a brief moment last summer looked very formidable.

It’s unclear at this early juncture whether the withdrawal was the product of the “disarray in the campaign” that has been written about abundantly in recent weeks, most pungently at Politico:

“Kamala Harris’ campaign is careening toward a crackup.

“As the California senator crisscrosses the country trying to revive her sputtering presidential bid, aides at her fast-shrinking headquarters are deep into the finger-pointing stages …

“[One] person described the current state of the campaign in blunt terms: ‘No discipline. No plan. No strategy.’”

Most accounts of Harris campaign troubles focused on overspending and on confusion at the top of the organization where campaign manager Juan Rodriguez and campaign chair (and the candidate’s sister) Maya Harris were twin authorities.

But beneath the day-to-day problems was a campaign whose plausible strategic objectives simply weren’t being met. The original Harris plan was modeled to a considerable extent on Barack Obama’s in 2008, as I observed last fall:

“[I]t’s the strategy successfully pursued by another freshman senator with a multiracial background in 2008: establish your political chops by winning in nearly-all-white Iowa and then consolidate minority support in the South and in urban states with large African-American populations. Indeed, Harris has an advantage that Barack Obama did not enjoy: her own home state of California has moved its primary up until March 3, just after the initial quartet of events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

“In the sports language often used (along with combat and gambling lingo) by political operatives, one of Harris’s people called this strategy: ‘the SEC primary meets the West Coast offense.’ And it makes sense, on paper, particularly if Harris can go into South Carolina with a head of steam and win there.”

Aside from the challenge of trying to get traction in a crowded field in Iowa, Harris had to do to Joe Biden what Obama did to Hillary Clinton in 2008: shake loose a strong attachment to a white front-runner among African-American voters, particularly in South Carolina. For a moment, after she seized the spotlight in the June candidate debate with a strong criticism of Joe Biden’s understanding of racial issues, it looked like she was well on her way to doing just that, as I noted at the time:

“Totally aside from the substantive impact of Harris’s challenge to Biden’s record on school busing and racial justice generally, it’s not good for the former veep that two of the strongest performers in the first round of debates have been Harris and Cory Booker, who represent a generational and a racial contrast to him. They are both gunning for Biden in South Carolina, and if one or both begins to carve into his African-American support, he’s in serious trouble.”

And in part because she was the clear star of this debate, it was Harris, not Booker, who caught fire. A Quinnipiac poll immediately afterwards showed her leaping into second place, just two points behind Biden, and well ahead of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps even more importantly, a CNN survey showed Harris cutting Biden’s advantage over her among nonwhite voters from 26 percent to six percent.

But even before her underwhelming performance in the second round of debates in July, there were signs Harris’ boom was subsiding. By August her national polling numbers were back down into the single digits, and it became obvious she was significantly trailing Obama’s trajectory at the same stage of the 2008 campaign, particularly in terms of African-American support and positioning in Iowa. The rise of Elizabeth Warren during this same period took a lot of the spotlight away from the Californian as well.

By September Harris recognized that without a better showing in Iowa she was unlikely to enjoy a South Carolina breakthrough. So she emulated another successful campaign of the past, John Kerry’s in 2004, in putting all her resources into the first-in-the-nation-caucus state, famously telling Senate colleagues she was “f___ing moving to Iowa.” But she never got traction there. In a September Iowa Poll from Ann Selzer, she was at six percent, and then in Selzer’s November poll, she had dropped to three percent. And that’s about the time when the “disarray” that got so much attention became impossible to ignore.

Contributing to Harris’ strategic failures were some messaging missteps. In the crucial July debate when she began to lose steam, she got mired in a confusing explanation of her differences with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on Medicare For All, and walked right into a savage attack on her criminal justice reform record by Tulsi Gabbard. And while she issued well-regarded proposals on teachers’ pay and tax reforms, she never really achieved a signature policy proposal, which enhanced the impression that she was mostly focused on her positioning in the field rather than making a compelling case for her nomination or her ability to beat Trump. And her debate stumbles quickly diminished thoughts of this ex-prosecutor dismantling Trump in a general election tilt.

Perhaps the coup de grace in terms of Harris’ trajectory in the race occurred earlier this week when two national polls showed her even or actually behind Michael Bloomberg, who very recently entered the race. She was continuing to go nowhere fast, and there was even talk in California that if she didn’t get out of the race and mend fences back home, she might court a 2022 Senate primary opponent.

It’s unclear exactly how Harris’ withdrawal will affect the race. The potential beneficiary who needs help the most is the one remaining African-American candidate, Cory Booker, who has been laboring in Harris’ shadow in both Iowa and South Carolina, the two key states for him as well. And it creates a real battle royal in California, where Harris retained some significant support despite slipping behind the leading national candidates there. Arguably Joe Biden, who was for a while vulnerable to Harris’ strategy, will be relieved to see the back of her. And to the extent that Harris at her best was a potential unity candidate for the party, her absence could create a fresh competition for that mantle.

All in all, Harris had a lot of potential but failed to capitalize on it, which has led some observers to compare her to 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

At 55, Harris isn’t quite as young as the 48-year-old Rubio, but like him, she is young enough to contemplate a national political comeback–perhaps even by becoming someone’s running-mate next year.


December 4: Beware “Check and Balances” Voters in 2020

Given how close the 2020 election is likely to be, Democrats need to pay attention to some relatively small swing-voter groups, and I wrote about one of them at New York:

[A] lot of self-identified political independents are quite proud of themselves for, well, their “independence.” A majority of them, as many political scientists have explained, are functionally partisan in their voting habits, but since they are theoretically open to going the other way, they aren’t like those knee-jerk D’s and R’s, or so they imagine. It is true that some indies have a mix of positions on issues that don’t nicely comport with either major party’s — or any minor party’s — views (notably economic liberals who are also social conservatives; those with the opposite configuration can always vote Libertarian). It’s a free country, and it’s fine with me if they want to let their freak flag fly.

There is one species of nonpartisan, however, who might be considered different from others and even pernicious: those who oscillate from party to party not based on issue adherence, or even the attractiveness or repulsiveness of individual candidates, but because they want to keep all parties and all factions in some sort of equipoise where they don’t get to have their way. These “checks and balances” voters are often very proud of themselves for the civic virtue they display in limiting the power of the overwhelming majority of citizens who are partisan. And when the two major parties are equally strong, they can even determine outcomes, as Nate Cohn and Claire Cain Miller explain in examining some Siena College polling data from battleground states concerning voters who supported Trump in 2016 and 2018 but voted Democratic in the 2018 midterms:

“Many of the voters who said they voted Democratic but now intended to vote for Mr. Trump offered explanations that reflect longstanding theories about why the party out of power tends to excel in midterms.

“Michelle Bassaro, 61, is a Trump supporter, but in the midterm election, she voted for the Democrat in her district to balance the administration’s power. She said she had voted for Republicans when Democrats were in the White House for the same reason, consistent with research that shows that some people intentionally vote for divided government.”

The research these writers referred to is a bit dated but still relevant; one study showed that an estimated 16 percent of voters, as of 2008, preferred divided government. A lot of them don’t act on this sentiment — or don’t really have the practical option to do so in a particular election — but there are enough to be dangerous in a close contest. And dangerous they are, I believe.

Perpetually divided government (which we have had more often than not at the federal level in the post–World War II era) is an invitation to gridlock, dysfunction, and citizen dissatisfaction. It’s even more damaging now that the ideological polarization of the two major parties has made bipartisan coalitions vastly less likely than in the days when liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats walked the Earth. Yet some of the same voters who consider themselves shrewd and civic-minded for keeping the two parties in balance tend to complain about stuff not getting done:

“Danny Destival, 56, who runs a greenhouse supply business in Panama City, Fla., said he’s ‘been a Southern Democrat all my life.’ But in 2016, he cast his first Republican vote because he liked that Mr. Trump was a businessman, not a politician — and he disliked Hillary Clinton.

“His main priority is voting for ‘the person who’s going to get more done’ — that’s why he stuck with the Democrats in the midterms — but at the national level, he said, the Democrats have disappointed him on that front.

“’If you’re going to Washington, you need to do something,’ he said. ‘If the only thing you’re going to do the whole time you’re there is try to get rid of the president, that’s a problem. I mean, Trump is not a great person, but you’ve got to get some work done.'”

This “swing voter” does not seem to be aware that he is part of the problem he is complaining about. And his preferred candidate for president is a symptom of how haywire things can go if the normal processes of policymaking and legislation are frustrated by divided government and the consequent gridlock. You get voters throwing up their hands and then supporting a demagogue who claims he will “drain the swamp,” only to run one of the most corrupt administrations in history with legislative accomplishments — even when his party did have unified control of the government — that would fit in a thimble. Trump is also emblematic of the recklessness a president can exhibit when thinking of himself as empowered to overpower and dominate other institutions or the rule of law itself.

Complain as we might about the folly of using one’s vote to alternate perpetually between the parties, it’s enough of a reality to sober any Democrats who believe their midterm victory in 2018 gives them an automatic upper hand in 2020. You might imagine logically that the phenomenon of a party winning a second consecutive presidential election while losing the intervening midterm would be relatively rare. It has actually happened (just going back to the end of World War II) in 1956, 1972, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2012. Some of it has to do with differential turnout patterns in presidential and midterm elections, but the regularity with which the president’s party loses ground in the midterms suggests that voter oscillation, whether or not it consciously reflects a desire for divided government, is likely a factor. Democrats need to include in their 2020 messaging some recognition of this fact, and they to make it clear that any of their voters from the 2018 midterm who think voting for Trump will keep things under control in Washington will risk ushering in the most uncontrolled presidential term since Andrew Johnson decided to try to veto the results of the Civil War.


December 1: Demonizing Trump’s Critics

Yes, America is polarized about Donald J. Trump. But elements of his base of support are more polarized than anyone else, as I discussed at New York.

In my piece on Rick Perry telling the president he was the “chosen one,” I noted this was pretty standard fare among Christian right opinion leaders and politicians. But at roughly the same time, we got an indication from two other prominent Trump fans that it’s not enough to endow this strange and heathenish figure of manifold wicked ways with the cloak of divine sanction; his critics must be cast in the same apocalyptic drama as instruments of demonic forces. Seriously. Veteran adviser to Republican presidents on matters moral and spiritual, Peter Wehner, scathingly writes it up for The Atlantic:

“During his November 21 interview with [Franklin] Graham, [Eric] Metaxas, a Salem Radio Network talk-show host, asked the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, ‘What do you think of what is happening now? I mean, it’s a very bizarre situation to be living in a country where some people seem to exist to undermine the president of the United States. It’s just a bizarre time for most Americans.’

“Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, responded, ‘Well, I believe it’s almost a demonic power that is trying—’

“At which point Metaxas interjected, ‘I would disagree. It’s not almost demonic. You know and I know, at the heart, it’s a spiritual battle.'”

In Evangelical-speak, “spiritual battle” or “spiritual warfare” means a test of power between God and Satan (or his demonic minions), with human souls and the fate of all Creation in the balance. Describing one’s opponents as on the wrong side of a “spiritual battle” is simultaneously an expression of the most extreme hatred available to a Christian, and a rationalization for it on grounds that the object of demonic possession is not entirely responsible for becoming the devil’s workshop (it’s a variation on the old conservative Christian dodge of “hating the sin but not the sinner” when it comes to, say, being gay). In the context of politics, Graham, who has been busily ruining his father’s good name since he took over Billy’s ministries in 2000, and Metaxas, a veteran culture warrior, are suggesting that the moral and spiritual superiority — nay, necessity — of Trump and his party are so resplendently obvious that only a turn to the darkest side imaginable can explain it, as Wehner writes:

“They didn’t make the case that Trump critics are sincere but wrong, or even that they are insincere and unpatriotic. Instead, they felt compelled to portray those with whom they disagree politically as under demonic influences, which for a Christian is about as serious an accusation as there is. It means their opponents are the embodiment of evil, the “enemy,” anti-God, a kind of anti-Christ.

“There is no biblical or theological case to support the claim that critics of Donald Trump are under the spell of Satan. It is invented out of thin air, a shallow, wild, and reckless charge meant to be a conversation stopper.”

The rationalizations these people go through to treat Trump as God’s champions requires an incredible, almost comic, amount of huffing and puffing. Here’s Metaxas being quoted after Trump’s outrageous comments on the white-nationalist rioters of Charlottesville in the infamous “spiritual biography” of the president that David Brody and Scott Lamb published in 2018:

“We’re going to stand up for Trump a hundred times more. It’s been unbelievably despicable the way he’s been treated. And I think there’s some kind of demonic deception. I mean I’ve never seen anything like it begin to compare it to in my lifetime.”

Actually, yes, he has: in the attacks Christian right leaders incessantly made on Bill Clinton when his moral failings went public — moral failings that now seem tepid compared to those of his current successor in the White House. Wehner delivers an impressive jeremiad about what Graham and Metaxas are overlooking by way of mocking the latter’s claim that Trump’s Christian critics are splitting hairs over theological differences:

“Trump’s Christian critics don’t really care whether he leans more in the direction of predestination or free will; what troubles them is that he’s a pathological liar engaged in an effort to annihilate truth as a concept; a conspiracy-monger; and a misogynist and bully who dehumanizes his critics and mocks former prisoners of war, the parents of fallen soldiers, and people with disabilities. What upsets them is Trump’s open admiration for brutal dictators, including Kim Jung Un, who ranks among the worst persecutors of Christians in the world; his easy betrayal of everyone from his wives to allies like the Kurds; and his history of engaging in predatory sexual behavior. What alarms them is that we have a president who fans the flames of ethnic and racial hate, who is willing to pressure foreign nations to dig up dirt on his political opponents, and who was the subject of a nearly 500-page report by a special counsel offering a portrait that was damning and went unrefuted.”

Presumably, Graham and Metaxas would sadly shake their heads at this indictment, and conclude that their former Republican ally has been captured by Satan just like everyone else who doesn’t understand the 45th president’s very special kind of holiness.


November 22: JFK’s Complicated Legacy

Like most older Baby Boomers, I vividly remember John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. So on the 56th anniversary of that tragedy, I wrote about his legacy at New York.

JFK’s truncated presidential tenure and youth (he was 46 when he died) has complicated his legacy through a combination of what-ifs and revisionist arguments, not to mention the many political figures, including multiple representatives of his large family, who claimed to be carrying the banner he dropped when he was felled in Dallas. A cautious and sometimes conservative politician who was a zealous cold warrior, Kennedy became for many — particularly the African-Americans who benefited from the civil-rights legislation his successor Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress as a memorial to him — a symbol of 20-century liberalism. In no small part that was because his brothers Bobby and Teddy embraced the full-throated progressivism that many thought Jack was evolving toward when his life was cut short.

He was more properly a transitional figure. In his famous inaugural speech he pointed to himself as the representative of “a new generation of Americans — born in this century.” His political career and presidency triggered the beginning of a major realignment of the two major political parties, even as, in his own election in 1960, he hung onto just enough of the old southern segregationist wing of his party to narrowly beat Richard Nixon, benefiting from an expanded urban ethnic constituency (he won an estimated 80 percent of the Catholic vote, as the first Catholic major-party nominee since Al Smith) and an enhanced Democratic advantage among the African-Americans who would soon gain growing electoral clout as Jim Crow came to an end.

Civil rights wasn’t the only area in which JFK represented a cautious leftward turn in his party. In 1960 he campaigned avidly for what became the Medicare program after his death, as Julian Zelizer recalls:
“Labor leaders cheered when Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy announced his support for Medicare during his 1960 Presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. Kennedy was no radical, but he believed that health care was one area where the government needed to have an expanded role. Kennedy saw the revised health-care bill as attractive in principle, as well as fiscally responsible, because workers would pay for the benefits that they would eventually receive. On August 14, 1960, Kennedy visited Hyde Park to celebrate, with Eleanor Roosevelt, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Social Security, and he used the occasion to promote Medicare. The program was desperately needed in ‘every city and town, every hospital and clinic, every neighborhood and rest home in America—wherever our older citizens live out their lives in want and despair under the shadow of illness,’ the candidate said.”

As president, JFK was also planning an anti-poverty initiative that later blossomed as LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” An endless amount of speculation has surrounded the question of Kennedy’s responsibility for the Vietnam War, and what would have happened to the U.S. anti-communist effort in southeast Asia had he lived out his term (and perhaps won a second term). Probably the best guess is that he would have escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the short term, but would not have exhibited the personal stubbornness that led Johnson to keep expanding the war even when it was becoming obvious it couldn’t be “won.” Remembered so often as an “idealist,” Kennedy was nothing if not pragmatic.

It’s probably best not to credit or blame JFK for the political dynasty his family created after his death; that was more the work of his father, who pushed all his sons toward high political office. After two subsequent Kennedy presidential campaigns (one ended by RFK’s assassination in 1968, the other by Ted Kennedy’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1980), the dynasty gradually wound down, and at this point JFK’s grand-nephew Joseph P. Kennedy III, a U.S. House member from Massachusetts, is its chief scion. This latest Kennedy pol is now challenging incumbent Democrat senator Ed Markey next year, seeking to renew a tradition whereby the Bay State was represented in the Senate by a Kennedy from 1952 until Ted’s death in 2009. In an interesting echo of JFK’s inaugural address 58 years ago, the 38-year-old Joe Kennedy is running as the candidate of generational change against the 73-year-old Markey: “This is the fight of our lives, the fight of my generation — and I’m all in.”

And thus the family business continues.


November 21: About That So-Called “Democratic Litmus Test” on Abortion

There was a brouhaha over a funding decision by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, and I commented on it at New York:

A major part of the vast ideological “sorting out” of the two major parties that’s been underway since the 1960s has been about abortion. Democrats have become the party of abortion rights while Republicans have become the party that wants to re-criminalize abortion (or at least let states do so). There has always been a rump faction of anti-abortion Democratic and pro-choice Republican politicians, supported by a significant percentage of the rank and file, but both numbers have been shrinking for decades.

While there is occasional agonizing in both parties over steps taken, or not taken, to accommodate the abortion policy minority, Republicans seem to worry less about it less than Democrats, who are constantly being accused, or are accusing themselves, of betraying “big tent” principles by being intolerant toward those who would deny women reproductive rights. There’s been a new explosion of fretting this week as a fundraising committee for Democratic attorney general candidates has announced it will only contribute to those who commit to a pro-choice position. The New York Times wrote this up as yet another sign of Democratic “extremism”:

“An association of Democratic state attorneys general will become the first national party committee to impose an explicit abortion litmus test on its candidates, announcing on Monday that it will refuse to endorse anyone who does not support reproductive rights and expanding access to abortion services.

“To win financial and strategic backing from the group, candidates will be required to make a public statement declaring their support of abortion rights. The group, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, recruits candidates and helps their campaigns with financial support, data analysis, messaging and policy positions …

“[O]fficials believe it could have a ripple effect through the Democratic ecosystem, reflecting the changing mores of a national party that has moved sharply to the left in the Trump era and embraced a set of purity tests on divisive social issues.”

That characterization, which pairs the heavily loaded term “purity test” with a claim that the party has shifted in the “Trump era” is at best very misleading. The National Democratic Party has been committed to reproductive rights for at least a quarter-century, and if there’s been any “move,” it would be the deletion of the old Clintonian formula of making abortion “safe, legal and rare” from the party platform. That happened in 2012, well before anyone on the planet imagined Donald Trump might become president. And even that change in messaging had no real impact on Democratic policy.

So why is the Democratic Attorneys General Association making this move? Perhaps they expect that taking a more forthright position will help them raise money from abortion-rights advocates, as it should. But there are two changes in context that indicated a change in positioning.

The huge wave of Republican-generated state legislation restricting access to abortion that has been building since the 2010 GOP landslide, and that has accelerated since Trump’s election and his efforts to reshape the federal courts, has placed state attorneys general on the front lines of the fight for reproductive rights. And while states vary in how much leeway AGs have to resist or at least refuse to defend legislative abortion restrictions, having sympathetic figures in these positions can make a big difference on the margins, as the DAGA indicated:

“The group’s communications director, Lizzie Ulmer, said that the policy change had been in the works for some time, but had become a more serious focus since May, when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the state’s six-week abortion ban.

“’It ended up being that this was the right timing,’ she told CNN. ‘The AGs really wanted this to happen, and they were really excited that this was something the committee would be able to do.’”

The other thing that happened very recently is that the only sitting Democratic AG who would flunk the litmus test, Mississippi’s Jim Hood, is leaving office. He ran for governor this year, and lost. So the Times and others can talk about purity tests all they want, but it’s not likely the new position will lead to any “purges,” to use the usual terminology. And any Democratic candidate for one of the 12 attorney general gigs up in 2020 who wants to compete on a “principled” platform of denying women control over their bodies is perfectly free to do so without DAGA’s money.

One reason for all the anxiety about litmus tests is coincidental: One of the rare statewide Democratic anti-abortion pols in captivity, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, was just reelected, giving his party some much-needed southern comfort and frustrating Trump’s many efforts on behalf of Republican Eddie Rispone. Aside from being deep-red, Louisiana is one of those states with a critical mass of both conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. It is unsurprisingly an anti-abortion hotbed. In contrast to DAGA’s position, the Democratic Governors’ Association strongly backed Edwards’s campaign, though you have to wonder if DGA might have been pickier had this not been one of just three contested gubernatorial races in the country this year. It’s not likely that any 2020 Democratic gubernatorial nominees will have a similar position.

Looking at the bigger picture, the idea that Democrats are mostly responsible for abortion-policy polarization is just wrong; it’s been an entirely two-way phenomenon. According to a 2017 Pew survey of partisans, there are significantly more pro-choice Republicans (34 percent saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases) than anti-abortion Democrats (22 percent saying abortion should be illegal in most or all cases). Yet in 2019, the last of the pro-choice Republican House members went the way of the dodo bird. The anti-abortion Democrats for Life of America endorsed two winning House members (Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota), and three winning Democratic Senate candidates (Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia). Just two Senate Republicans (Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) self-identify as pro-choice, and Collins’s bona fides on the topic took a big hit when she put Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS confirmation over the finish line last year.

So Democrats have no special responsibility for the sorting-out of the two parties into one that favors reproductive rights and one that doesn’t. And despite all the “big tent” talk of those who oppose Democrats taking a stand, any opportunity costs for alienating the small group of swing voters who themselves make opposition to legal abortion a personal litmus test are surely offset by the college-educated women and younger voters with whom Democrats have been making their biggest recent gains.