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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

March 4: Despite the Criticism, Biden’s Doing Well

After reading a few days worth of carping about Joe Biden’s performance, I decided enough’s enough and responded at New York:

Joe Biden has been president of the United States for 43 days. He inherited power from a predecessor who was trying to overturn the 2020 election results via insurrection just two weeks before Inaugural Day, and whose appointees refused the kind of routine transition cooperation other administrations took for granted. His party has a four-vote margin of control in the House, and only controls the Senate via the vice presidential tie-breaking vote (along with a power-sharing arrangement with Republicans). Democratic control of the Senate was not assured until the wee hours of January 6 when the results of the Georgia runoff were clear. Biden took office in the midst of a COVID-19 winter surge, a national crisis over vaccine distribution, and flagging economic indicators.

Biden named all his major appointees well before taking office, and as recommended by every expert, pushed for early confirmation of his national security team, which he quickly secured. After some preliminary discussions with Republicans that demonstrated no real possibility of GOP support for anything like the emergency $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus package he had promised, and noting the votes weren’t there in the Senate for significant filibuster reform, Biden took the only avenue open to him. He instructed his congressional allies to pursue the budget reconciliation vehicle to enact his COVID package, with the goal of enacting it by mid-March, when federal supplemental unemployment insurance would run out. Going the reconciliation route meant exposing the package to scrutiny by the Senate parliamentarian, It also virtually guaranteed total opposition from congressional Republicans, which in turn meant Senate Democratic unanimity would be essential.

The House passed the massive and complex reconciliation bill on February 27, right on schedule, with just two Democratic defections, around the same time as the Senate parliamentarian, to no one’s great surprise, deemed a $15 minimum wage provision (already opposed by two Senate Democrats) out of bounds for reconciliation. The Senate is moving ahead with a modified reconciliation bill, and the confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet is chugging ahead slowly but steadily. Like every recent president, he’s had to withdraw at least one nominee – in his case Neera Tanden for the Office of Management and Budget, though the administration’s pick for deputy OMB director is winning bipartisan praise and may be substituted smoothly for Tanden.

Add in his efforts to goose vaccine distribution — which has more than doubled since he took office — and any fair assessment of Biden’s first 43 days should be very positive. But the man is currently being beset by criticism from multiple directions. Republicans, of course, have united in denouncing Biden’s refusal to surrender his agenda in order to secure bipartisan “unity” as a sign that he’s indeed the radical socialist – or perhaps the stooge of radical socialists – that Donald Trump always said he was. Progressives are incensed by what happened on the minimum wage, though it was very predictable. And media critics are treating his confirmation record as a rolling disaster rather than a mild annoyance, given the context of a federal executive branch that was all but running itself for much of the last four years.

To be clear, I found fault with Biden’s presidential candidacy early and often. I didn’t vote for him in California’s 2020 primary. I worried a lot about Biden’s fetish for bipartisanship. I support a $15 minimum wage, and as a former Senate employee, have minimal respect for the upper chamber’s self-important traditions. But c’mon: what, specifically, is the alternative path he could have pursued the last 43 days? Republican criticism is not worthy of any serious attention: the GOP is playing the same old tapes it recorded in 2009 when Barack Obama (and his sidekick Biden) spent far too much time chasing Republican senators around Washington in search of compromises they never intended to make. While they are entitled to oppose Biden’s agenda, they are not entitled to kill it.

Progressive criticism of Biden feels formulaic. Years and years of investment in the rhetoric of the eternal “fight” and the belief that outrage shapes outcomes in politics and government have led to the habit of seeing anything other than total subscription to the left’s views as a sell-out. Yes, Kamala Harris could theoretically overrule the Senate parliamentarian on the minimum wage issue, but to what end? So long as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema oppose the $15 minimum wage, any Harris power play could easily be countered by a successful Republican amendment to strike the language in question, and perhaps other items as well. And if the idea is to play chicken with dissident Democrats over the fate of the entire reconciliation bill, is a $15 minimum wage really worth risking a $1.9 trillion package absolutely stuffed with subsidies for struggling low-income Americans? Are Fight for 15 hardliners perhaps conflating ends and means here?

Media carping about Biden’s legislative record so far is frankly just ridiculous. Presumably writing about the obscure and complicated details of reconciliation bills is hard and unexciting work that readers may find uninteresting, while treating Tanden’s travails as an existential crisis for the Biden administration provides drama, but isn’t at all true. The reality is that Biden’s Cabinet nominees are rolling through the Senate with strong confirmation votes (all but one received at least 64 votes), despite a steadily more partisan atmosphere for confirmations in recent presidencies. The COVID-19 bill is actually getting through Congress at a breakneck pace despite its unprecedented size and complexity. Trump’s first reconciliation bill (which was principally aimed at repealing Obamacare) didn’t pass the House until May 4, 2017, and never got through the Senate. Yes, Obama got a stimulus bill through Congress in February 2009, but it was less than half the size, much simpler, and more to the point, there were 59 Senate Democrats in office when it passed, which meant he didn’t even have to use reconciliation.

There’s really no exact precedent for Biden’s situation, particularly given the atmosphere of partisanship in Washington and the whole country right now, and the narrow window he and his party possess – in terms of political capital and time – to get important things done. He should not be judged on any one legislative provision or any one Cabinet nomination. So far the wins far outweigh the losses and omissions. Give the 46th president a break.

March 3: Trump’s GOP Has No Agenda Other Than Purges and Voter Suppression

After watching Donald Trump’s wildly applauded address to this year’s CPAC conference, I wrote an assessment at New York:

In his rapturously received 88-minute address to the 2021 CPAC conference on Sunday, former president Donald Trump didn’t give his listeners what so many of them wanted: a pledge to run for president again in 2024 (though he teased the crowd with his obvious availability). But he vented his outsized spleen fully, and left no doubt that the future of Trumpism will be its past, revived and vindicated.

Much of the speech was rehashed from the brag sessions of the 2020 campaign, treating his administration as one long parade of unprecedented triumphs on every single front. Accordingly, Joe Biden’s extremely brief presidency was condemned as the worst in history already thanks to the 46th president’s reversal of the policies of the 45th (especially on immigration policy), which were one long parade of unprecedented triumphs on every single front. Viewers were left with the distinct impression that a near-utopian future for the country would be as simple as the replacement of Biden with — well, if not Trump — then someone with exactly the same policies and sterling leadership qualities.

The one exception was his bloody-shirt demands for “election integrity” legislation in every state, which included a universal revocation of no-excuse absentee balloting (and all in-person early voting, since he called for a “single election day”) and universal voter ID requirements. It’s an audacious proposal, considering that 13 states (including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin) carried by Biden already have voter ID requirements, and fully 34 (including 12 states carried by Trump) had no-excuse voting by mail before the COVID-19 pandemic and the marginal liberalization of deadlines and procedures that Trump blames for his defeat.

Apparently Trump’s “landslide” victory required tighter voting rules than the country has had for many years. It’s unlikely a return to the spirit of the days of poll taxes and literacy tests is going to pass muster with federal and state courts (Trump, of course, blasted the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court that included three of his nominees, for lacking the “courage” to overturn Biden’s victory). But Republican subscription to this terrible assault on voting rights is another way that GOP elected officials can bend the knee to Trump.

Other than voter suppression, the future of Trumpism as outlined by its founder seemed to revolve around vengeance against RINOs, the ancient conservative epithet that now seems to be defined strictly by a lack of loyalty to Donald Trump. To feral roars from the crowd, he named every single congressional Republican who voted for his impeachment or conviction, suggesting that all must go before the GOP would be able to match the communist-bent Democrats in viciousness and self-discipline.

It appears, then, that Trump has determined to ensure that Republicans go into 2022 and 2024 as a political force dedicated to the restoration of his legacy with or without his personal leadership. For the most part, the dominant ideological movement in the party and the hallowed conservative movement is his. Indeed, one of the more unmistakeable phenomena of CPAC 2021 is the extent to which Republican activists now treat the conservative and MAGA movements as identical. And if he chooses to keep control of both movements, who can challenge him? The obvious successor to Trumpism is ever more Trumpism, and the obvious successor to Trump is still Trump.

February 26: Tanden Confirmation Fight Not an Existential Threat for Biden Administration

This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.

Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.

Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.

But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.

February 25: Republicans Again Fighting In-Person Early Voting

Amidst all the Republican attacks on voting by mail, something else was going on, which I wrote about at New York:

Republican state legislatures across the country recently launched efforts to restricting voting by mail in myriad ways. It’s generally understood that they are reacting to Donald Trump’s bizarre but incessant claims that massive fraud associated with expanded mail ballots in 2020 robbed him of a “landslide” victory. That’s not, however, the only voter-suppression measures the GOP is pursuing in states where they control both the executive and legislative branches of government. They are also returning to their pre-2020 agenda of restricting in-person voting in ways that disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning constituencies.

That’s most evident in Georgia, where GOP legislators are considering crackdowns on early in-person voting, restricting weekend voting opportunities, banning mobile polling places, and invalidating provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. But it’s popped up also in Iowa, where Republicans have sent their GOP governor a bill cutting back on early voting and even closing the polls earlier on Election Day (Democrats traditionally vote later in the day than Republicans).

In both states, of course, these attacks on in-person voting are being combined with restrictions on voting by mail; one of the bills in Georgia would eliminate no-excuse absentee ballots — in effect since Republicans introduced it in 2005 — altogether. But there’s clearly a bait and switch going on, in which general-purpose attacks on the franchise, and particularly voting practices thought to benefit Democrats, are being hustled through even though they have nothing to do with the widespread Trumpian claims that liberalized voting by mail is a threat to election integrity.

This reality creates a bit of a strategic problem for Democrats. Should they expend their energy defending expanded (or even universal) voting-by-mail opportunities to the last ditch just because Trump chose to demonize the practice in one election cycle? In the past, after all, voting by mail was actually thought to favor Republicans in many states. Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz has just published an analysis concluding that expanded voting by mail didn’t have much to do with Joe Biden’s victory, even in the pandemic-distorted atmosphere of 2020.

Certainly in many parts of the country — including Georgia — early in-person voting has been the favorite balloting method for Democratic-leaning minority voters. It was no accident that an early version of one of the Georgia bills banned in-person voting on Sundays altogether, which was a direct attack on “Souls to the Polls” — post-worship-service voter-mobilization drives undertaken by many Black churches (the provision was struck, as it sounds both racist and anti-religious, though it was replaced with restrictions on how many weekend days were available for early in-person voting).

We’ll never know why Trump spent so much time attacking voting by mail in 2020, absent any clear evidence it would benefit his opponent. My own guess is that all along he contemplated the “red mirage” strategy of claiming victory based on early returns and either stopping or delegitimizing mail ballots counted later — a strategy that depended on convincing his own supporters to vote in person, which they obediently did, relatively speaking. That he failed to competently pull it off is no evidence that this was not the plan. But in any event, absent an extended or future pandemic, unrestricted or positively encouraged voting by mail may not be as fundamentally essential to voting rights as it appeared to be when Trump and his allies were assailing it every day. At a minimum, voting-rights advocates should be vigilant about a return to systemic voter suppression aimed at other — or all — methods of balloting.

February 19: Republicans Predictably Over-React to Surge in Voting By Mail

As someone who closely monitored Donald Trump’s campaign against voting by mail in 2020, I am discouraged but not surprised to report that Republican state legislators are now reversing the kinds of access to mail ballots they use to support, as I explained at New York:

Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on voting by mail throughout the 2020 presidential-election cycle were clearly designed to set up a bogus election contest by creating a partisan gap in voting methods, an early Republican lead on Election Night, and a host of empty but redundant claims of voter fraud. But while his effort to reverse the election results failed, his determination to restrict the franchise live on wherever Republicans control the state legislature. According to the Brennan Center for Justice,

“Thirty-three states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 bills to restrict voting access. These proposals primarily seek to: (1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) slash voter registration opportunities; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges. These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election.”

While voter-ID requirements, tougher voter-registration procedures, and aggressive voter-roll purges are perennial Republican “ideas” in this era of adverse demographic trends for the GOP, the attack on voting by mail is actually rather new. The big bipartisan trend prior to 2020 was toward liberalized voting by mail, a convenience measure favored in some states by Republicans in particular (most notably in the all-mail-voting jurisdiction of Utah but also in states, such as Florida, with histories of heavy no-excuse absentee voting). All in all, 34 states entered 2020 allowing any registered voter to cast a mail ballot without an excuse, including the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Notably, Republicans controlled the legislatures in all of these states other than Maine.

While Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature approved no-excuse voting by mail in 2019, as Michigan voters had before them in a 2018 ballot initiative, some of the states now looking at mail-ballot restrictions haven’t had them in a long time. Florida’s GOP governor and legislature introduced no-excuse absentee ballots in 2002, as did Georgia’s in 2005. In Arizona, such ballots were first permitted in 1991. Thanks to Trump, there are now strong Republican efforts under way to restrict eligibility in all these states.

The most blatant of them may be in Georgia, where Trump-generated hostility toward voting by mail has been augmented by a flank-covering maneuver from Trump nemesis Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, who refused to “find” the 45th president enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s Georgia victory. Raffensperger, who had already annoyed the White House by proactively sending mail ballots to voters qualified for the 2020 primaries, now backs new excuse requirements and redundant voter-ID rules. Legislation is currently moving in both chambers of the Georgia legislature to accomplish these and other “reforms.” The chief state-senate bill would restrict voting by mail to people who (a) are over 75, (b) have a disability, or (c) are physically absent from the voting jurisdiction on Election Day.

Republicans are promoting a subtler effort to undermine access to mail ballots in Florida. Until now, Florida, like a number of other states, allowed people to register in advance to vote by mail for multiple elections (under current law, someone registering to vote by mail in 202a could continue to do so through 2024). Republican-sponsored legislation would require reregistration for every election cycle.

Particulars aside, these developments show a depressing retreat by Republicans from “convenience voting” measures that, before Trump started attacking them, were considered at least as friendly to Republican voters as to Democrats. The countertrend parallels and reinforces the more general GOP retreat from the very concept of voting as a right rather than a privilege, with the privileged having a thumb on the scales. And it underlines the urgency of federal voting-rights legislation to create a level playing field.

February 18: Three Generations of Right-Wing Extremists

Looking through the latest news about the January 6 insurrectionists, I spotted a very familiar name, and wrote about it at New York:

Some of those involved in the January 6 Capitol Riot were to most observers anonymous schmoes called to Washington by Donald Trump, while others were familiar to intrepid analysts of the far, far right. But as rioters were called to account for their conduct, one name leaped right off the page, as this HuffPost report explained:

“Leo Brent Bozell IV, the son of conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III, was captured on video inside the Senate chamber during the attack on the U.S. Capitol and has been charged with three federal offenses, according to a federal criminal complaint unsealed on Tuesday.

“Bozell is charged with obstructing an official proceeding, entering a restricted building, and disorderly conduct. The complaint features several images of him on the floor of the Senate, where he was wearing a sweatshirt featuring the name of a Christian school where he formerly served as a girls’ basketball coach. Online sleuths focused in on him because of that sweatshirt and posted videos of his activity online.”

Many will recognize Bozell IV as the son and namesake of Brent Bozell III, founder of the Media Research Center and a relentless critic of alleged liberal bias in the mainstream media. Bozell III probably had more to do than any other single person in laying the groundwork for Donald Trump’s assaults on “fake media,” which is ironic since he was initially a very vocal conservative critic of Trump. Like his hero Ted Cruz, though, Bozell came around, and now occupies a pan-Republican position of great influence. He’s never been far from the conservative fringes, however; he was finance chairman for Pat Buchanan’s insurgent presidential campaign in 1992 and was involved in the right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference until he split with the event’s organizer in 2012 over its acceptance of a gay Republican group as a participant in the annual conference.

But Bozell IV’s grandfather, Brent Bozell Jr., was arguably a more influential and definitely more radical forebear. The son of an ad executive, Bozell Jr. was William F. Buckley’s best friend and debating partner at Yale, and soon his brother-in-law (he married WFB’s sister Patricia Buckley). Together the two fiery young conservatives wrote the definitive defense of Joseph McCarthy, called McCarthy and His Enemies. Bozell would later ghostwrite Barry Goldwater’s manifesto The Conscience of a Conservative. But it was his conversion to Catholicism in high school that really changed his life and ultimately his political views. As the founder of a journal of “political Catholicism,” Triumph, Bozell became more and more estranged from the more ecumenical conservatism of Buckley, and eventually, from America itself. He even moved for a while to Franco’s Spain to enjoy a society rigidly organized on conservative Catholic lines, and later had his own collision with authority (as Ben Sixsmith explained years later):

“Passive dialogue was not enough for Bozell. He became, as far as I know, the only National Review contributor to be arrested for participating in a disorderly protest when with a group of like-minded Catholics named ‘Sons of Thunder’ – clad, misguidedly, in khakis and red berets – he broke into an abortion clinic with the intention of disrupting its procedures. A journalist for The [Fredericksburg] Free Lance-Star was baffled by the thought of a supposed conservative defying law and order. ‘If disorder is necessary to stop this murder of babies,’ Bozell replied pugnaciously, ‘I’m in favor of disorder.’”

Bozell Jr. suffered from a variety of physical and mental ailments, and spent a good part of his declining years doing charity work among Hispanic immigrants. But he is arguably the ideological father of the culturally authoritarian wing of conservatism that has flourished in the wake of Donald Trump (a sort of Catholic version of Josh Hawley). And for all we know, his willingness to support disorder in the name of his cause could have inspired his grandson.


February 12: The Genesis of “Constitutional Cancel Culture”

While watching Trump’s second impeachment trial, I heard his lawyers use a strategically clever term that I dissected and denounced at New York:

Donald Trump’s impeachment trial lawyers, amid their effort to recast Trump as a victim of Congress — rather than the president who sent his militant followers to storm the U.S. Capitol and stop the routine confirmation of an election he himself had tried to steal — deployed an evocative new term: “constitutional cancel culture.” Attorney Michael van der Veen introduced it as part of his angry diatribe against the alleged Democrat witch hunt targeting Trump. Then Bruce Castor used it again to dramatize his claim that Trump’s wild remarks on January 6 were protected by the First Amendment and squarely within existing political traditions.

This semantic development was probably inevitable. “Cancel culture,” a term originally associated with a sort of loosely organized boycott of offensive people in power, gradually gained use as an invidious description of any incident where people are pressured to conform their opinions. But then “cancel culture” was adopted by conservatives, for whom it has the same sort of function the equally abused term “politically correct” used to serve: a way for those wrong-footed by habits of prejudice and privilege to regain high ground by posing as victims. And it has caught on with Republican politicians in a very big way, as Vox’s Aja Romano pointed out during the 2020 GOP National Convention:

“[D]uring Monday night’s lineup, several speakers mentioned cancel culture. Former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle portrayed it as a culture of ‘elites … who blame America,’ and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) stressed that Republicans ‘don’t give into cancel culture or the radical and factly baseless beliefs that things are worse today than in the 1860s or the 1960s.’ Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley described cancel culture as ‘an important issue. [Trump] knows that political correctness and cancel culture are dangerous and just plain wrong,’ she told viewers. ‘You cannot cancel a culture that love its heroes,’ Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl) said, referring obliquely to the nationwide trend of toppling Confederate statues in protests against racism.”

More recently, the term “cancel culture” has been used to convert some of the more egregiously aggressive and violence-prone conservatives into brave and persecuted dissenters, most notably freshman congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Last week, House Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan wept crocodile tears for Greene, asking: “Who will the cancel culture attack next?”

On the principle that the most authoritarian of political figures are most likely to need the kind of moral switcheroo that attacks on “cancel culture” are designed to produce, it’s not surprising to find Donald Trump’s lawyers try to confer him its benefits. But it was devilishly clever to elevate it to a constitutional matter. Regardless of what you think of the arguments over the Senate’s power to sanction an ex-president, or the question of whether he met the definition of “incitement,” or whether mob he spoke to on January 6 constituted an “insurrection,” it is indisputable that Trump was the aggressor against Congress in trying to disrupt an entirely routine electoral vote count. Earlier he was the aggressor against the states, both Republican and Democratic controlled, who sought to count and certify votes. And above all, for months and months, he maligned and assaulted the rights of voters who wanted the opportunity to vote by mail in order to reduce their odds of dying. He left office as he spent every day of his presidency: a bully who deeply and cynically believed in winning by intimidation and incessant lying.

Wrapping this man in the crimson robes of martyrdom is one of the most outrageous stunts of Trumpism, worthy of its object in shamelessness. Yes, Trump will be acquitted, and there are defensible grounds for that verdict. But he did not come to the events under debate in the impeachment trial with clean hands. The idea he deserves pity for the treatment he has been given, and the dignity of a constitutional doctrine to protect behavior like his, is simply unconscionable.

February 11: The Beltway Fantasy About Mitch McConnell and Impeachment

Nothing in recent days has exasperated me more than the desire of Washington reporters to imagine some anti-Trump coup led by Mitch McConnell. I tried to pour cold water on it at New York this week:

A day into the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, and more than two weeks after a test vote that showed how many Senate Republicans wanted to stop the trial before it started, there remains a peculiar, glittering fantasy among Beltway media types that somehow Mitch McConnell will yet find a way to lead his flock onto the path of righteousness in time to save his party and prevent a Trump comeback. Here’s a report from Bloomberg:

“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is signaling to fellow Republicans that the final vote on Donald Trump’s impeachment is matter of conscience and that senators who disputed the constitutionality of the trial could still vote to convict the former president, according to three people familiar with his thinking.

“The Kentucky Republican has also suggested that he hasn’t made up his mind how he’ll vote, two of the people said, even though he voted Tuesday to declare it unconstitutional for the Senate to hear the case against a former president.

“That position is starkly different than McConnell’s declaration at the start of Trump’s first impeachment trial last year that he did not consider himself an impartial juror.”

This intel was gobbled up and posted at the top of Wednesday’s edition of Politico Playbook, the daily bread of the Capitol set. Both the Bloomberg and Playbook accounts have “to be sure” acknowledgements that Trump’s conviction remains unlikely. But there’s something dreamy and almost mystical about the abiding belief that the wily McConnell is operating behind the scenes to save his party from a MAGA future. It was, indeed, a raging counter-narrative in Washington until January 26, when McConnell joined 44 other Senate Republicans in supporting Rand Paul’s effort to preempt the swearing in of senators on grounds that trying an ex-president is unconstitutional.

Technically, it’s true that the January 26 vote was on a motion to table Paul’s resolution stopping the trial. So, in theory, Republicans could say they just wanted to hear more about Paul’s deep constitutional thinking, and did not necessarily share it. But that’s certainly not what anyone understood the vote to be about at the time. Paul designed his gambit to show that conviction was impossible, and accomplished his purpose.

Those who detect the moving of tectonic plates far beneath the surface of Senate Republican sentiment may point to Senator Bill Cassidy’s epiphany on Tuesday. He was the one Republican who apparently changed his mind since January 26 about the constitutionality of the trial. But what was his reasoning? He was pretty clear about it in interviews:

“The House managers were focused, they were organized … they made a compelling argument. President Trump’s team, they were disorganized. … One side is doing a great job and the other side is doing a terrible job. … As an impartial juror, I’m going to vote for the side that did the good job.”

Voting for the team of lawyers who put on a better show on a matter of constitutional law is not a very good look, though in Cassidy’s defense, he is a gastroenterologist by training, not an attorney. He’s already been rebuked by his own state Republican Party, and isn’t exactly showing his colleagues the benefits of changing sides.

As for McConnell, it’s easy enough for him to call the ultimate guilty or not guilty verdict a “vote of conscience.” In Senate-speak, all that means is that he won’t whip the vote and make it a matter of party conference discipline. But here’s the thing: Unless there’s some previously undetected movement in his conference, he doesn’t have to.

So why do sources “familiar with his thinking” keep whispering in the ear of reporters that McConnell is still on the fence? That’s unclear, though they could be trying to force the Kentuckian’s hand via the media, tapping into the intense desire of the permanent Washington Establishment for a return to the pre-Trump days when politicians didn’t incite mobs to attack the Capitol.

Most likely, a misunderstanding of the current fault lines dividing Republican elected officials is the problem. Since January 6, only a handful (like the ten House Republicans who voted for impeachment) have been willing to fully turn their backs on Trump. The vast majority have been divided between those who argued Trump did nothing wrong (and that his allies who tried to overturn the election results in Congress were brave patriots trying to “stop the steal”), and those who conceded bad presidential behavior but wanted to forget about it and move on to the crucial task of opposing Joe Biden’s agenda. McConnell has been in the latter camp all along. There’s a vast gap between that position and the fateful step of telling Republican voters they have no right to vote for Donald Trump in the future, which is what a conviction would mean. If some force exists that will ultimately save the GOP from the views of its own base, it’s not going to be Mitch McConnell or the Senate Republican conference, no matter how poorly Trump’s attorneys perform.

February 5: Four Years After the Iowa Caucus Meltdown, the Old Nomination System Could Survive

As someone who was in Des Moines during the 2020 Iowa Caucus debacle, I’ve been watching what may happen next with the presidential nominating system, and wrote it up at New York:

One year ago today, Iowa’s Democrats caucused in the first step of their party’s 2020 presidential-nomination process. As is now clear, state’s party officials were nervous heading into the night of the caucuses because of new reporting demands imposed on them by the national party, a new (the first ever) remote-caucuses process, and because they had doubts about the technologies being deployed to tabulate the results. And during the event, the overburdened, volunteer-run caucuses results reporting system broke down, leaving furious campaigns and pundits with nothing to talk about.

As I reported at the time from Des Moines, there was a palpable sense of mourning the following day amid widespread predictions that the meltdown would cost Iowa its privileged — but much-criticized — position in the nominating process.

Little did any of us political junkies know that the country was about to experience traumas that made the Iowa-caucuses reporting debacle the smallest of small potatoes. Even in terms of the Democratic presidential nominating contest, Iowa (along with its co-privileged first primary in New Hampshire) wound up being largely irrelevant, as the nomination was won by a candidate who finished fourth in Iowa (once the votes finally were tabulated) and fifth in New Hampshire.

In any event, the fateful presidential cycle of 2020 has now given way to its successor, and the parties are beginning to look ahead to 2024. Given everything that happened in the past year, everything’s on the table, including a return to the status quo that looked kaput after the last caucuses, as The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Democrats and Republicans are united in Iowa behind defending the state’s political golden goose: the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses …

“Members of both national parties are already strategizing about how to structure the 2024 nominating contests, a formal Democratic National Committee review is under way, and potential Republican presidential candidates are likely to spend time in Iowa and other early states this year.

“Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa chairman, said he plans to meet soon with his newly elected Democratic counterpart, Ross Wilburn, and pledged bipartisanship in trying to keep both party caucuses first. ‘We will stand shoulder to shoulder in this fight,’ he said.”

One option for maintaining Iowa’s position as a protected “early state” (there are four whose status have been recently protected by both parties: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) would be to switch from a caucus to a primary (as Nevada is already planning to do in a bid to enhance its own status). But that would require action by the Republican-controlled legislature and an expenditure of taxpayer dollars in a state where the parties have controlled and financed the presidential nominating contest dating back to 1972. Worse yet, New Hampshire’s law requiring its secretary of State to take every necessary measure to ensure that its primary remains first is a problem for Iowa and for Nevada – it’s largely why Iowa has stuck with having a “first-in-the-nation caucus” for so many years.

A wild card is new DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, who, as nominations-process expert Josh Putnam explains, may not approach the primary calendar unprejudiced:

“[N]ewly elected DNC chair, Jaime Harrison does hail from South Carolina. That could mean an effort to strip out contests that were not representative to the broader party (like the three states that preceded South Carolina on the 2020 Democratic calendar). But it could also translate to a maintenance of the status quo if the delegations from each carve-out state’s party to the DNC sees benefit in coalescing.”

Presidents have a huge influence over their own party’s rules for the nominating process. In Joe Biden’s case, it’s hard to overestimate how much he owes to South Carolina Democrats, who saved his bacon after poor performances in the three earlier contests and put him on the road to the White House. And any national deal to subordinate the “early states” could depend on the kind of bipartisan agreement that won’t be easy, particularly given the many uncertainties impacting the field for the presidential race in both parties. Yes, Iowa haters may use the experience of 2020 and the state’s (and equally white New Hampshire’s) unrepresentative nature to push for a new calendar. But so long as the four early states hang together, it’s a lot more plausible now than it was a year ago that the political class will again be spending many wintry days and nights in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2023 and 2024.

February 3: Why Democrats Could Beat the Odds in the Midterms

Looking through some political history, I saw some bad news and some potentially good news about 2022, and wrote it up at New York:

If it seems Joe Biden is in a big hurry to get things done, there’s a very clear reason, aside from the poor shape in which his predecessor left the country. His party has a five-seat majority in the House and only controls the Senate by the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Kamala Harris. The odds of Democrats maintaining a trifecta after November 8, 2022, are not good. In the last century, there have been 25 midterm elections. The president’s party lost House seats in 22 of them (the exceptions were in 1934, the very beginning of the New Deal; in 1998, when Republicans were trying to impeach Bill Clinton; and in 2002, the first election after 9/11). The Senate is a bit iffier, thanks to the variability of the landscape in any given election. But even there, the president’s party has lost seats in 20 of 25 elections.

The reason for these midterm blues for the president’s party are obvious enough. There’s a natural cooling-off period of affection for the party lifted to executive power, with all the afflictions and disappointments over the direction of the country becoming attached to the people controlling the White House.

Adding to the obstacles facing Democrats in hanging on to the House in 2022 is the decennial redistricting just ahead, in which Republicans have a clear advantage. As David Wasserman put it recently: “[Republicans] could gain all six seats they need for House control from reapportionment and redistricting alone.”

It’s possible, of course, that the COVID-19 pandemic is an event like the Great Depression or 9/11, one that scrambles all normal political expectations. If the Biden administration confidently leads the country to a public-health and economic recovery, a referendum on the first two years of the presidency could turn out well. But there’s another possibility, too, that Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter describes:

“Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere. Unlike previous presidents — especially those who lost re-election, he isn’t interested in retreating from public view. He — and those who support his brand of politics — are going to play a much more significant role than we’ve seen in modern times …

“Democrats [may] want to make Trump the centerpiece of their midterm strategy. Do they want to keep up the pressure on Republicans to answer for the events on January 6th or for its most controversial members like freshman firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene? Or, once the impeachment trial is finished, will they try to put Trump — and those attacks — in the rearview mirror?”

In other words, Trump’s unique character and his continued domination of the GOP could make 2022 at least in part a referendum on him rather than (or as well as) Biden, particularly if the 45th president tries to make the midterms a vindication of his thwarted 2020 campaign. Indeed, this could be the silver lining for Democrats of an impeachment trial expected to acquit Trump and leave him eligible to run for president again. If the Senate doesn’t kill a 2024 Trump comeback, some voters might feel compelled to do so in 2022. And that could provide Biden’s party with a crucial margin of victory.