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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

January 30: The Value of a Strong Start for Biden

Looking back at the most recent presidential beginnings, I made some comparisons at New York  to what Biden is trying to accomplish:

For those closely following the initial steps of the Biden administration, it’s obvious the new president’s team is placing a premium on creating the impression that it’s successfully following a carefully planned rollout. Each day has a topical theme, and Joe Biden’s time is ruthlessly rationed. One purpose, of course, is to create a vivid contrast with the previous occupant of the White House, and from this Washington Post report, it seems a success:

“Almost every day of his young tenure, President Biden has entered the State Dining Room, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln looking down and wood burning in the fireplace. He speaks on the planned topic of the day. He sits at an undersized desk and searches for a pen to sign his latest stack of executive orders. Within 30 minutes of entering the camera’s frame, he has left it.

“It is all plotted and planned. Little room is left for the unscripted or the unusual.

“Biden’s first full week in office has showcased an almost jarring departure from his predecessor’s chaotic style, providing the first window into a tenure whose mission is not only to remake the White House in Biden’s image but also to return the presidency itself to what he sees as its rightful path”.

But there’s more to this disciplined approach than adding a redundant reason to wish Donald Trump good riddance. Biden and his people are undoubtedly aware that they need a sense of momentum to encourage Democratic unity and just enough Republican cooperation to get his agenda passed. Getting things done is the key to avoiding a midterm setback that will make it truly impossible to get more things done. Recent presidents provide plenty of object lessons in the dangers of a slow or clumsy start.

Bill Clinton stumbled early

Clinton was the first Democrat to occupy the White House since Jimmy Carter, which meant limited experience for his eager and relatively young team and a disorganized transition that got the new administration off to a bad start, as Vox’s Richard Skinner later explained: “An atmosphere of chaos and disorganization permeated this transition. Clinton’s policy advisers were divided between centrists and liberals. The president-elect stumbled into a controversy over allowing open military service by gay individuals that soon set him against the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of his own party.”

Clinton also had some conspicuous personnel problems, including trouble finding an attorney general who had not violated laws on reimbursement of domestic servants (the so-called Nannygate scandal that ended two AG nominations and complicated the top Pentagon nomination) and some disorganization in the White House itself. His first major legislative initiative was an economic-stimulus plan that Senate Republicans gutted. After successfully (albeit narrowly) getting a budget approved, the Clinton administration got bogged down in a complex and ultimately unsuccessful health-care-reform effort. And it failed to pursue the sort of political reforms that might have kept 1992’s Ross Perot voters from returning to the GOP voting habits many of them had abandoned.

In 1994, all these setbacks and lost opportunities contributed to a disastrous midterm election in which Democrats lost both houses of Congress for the first time since the early days of the Eisenhower administration. Democrats didn’t regain both houses until 2006.

Obama lost control

Some Biden advisers served in one capacity or another in the Clinton administration. Far more worked for Obama and Biden when they took office in 2009.

Unlike Clinton, Obama had the benefit of a solid popular-vote majority and coattails that gave his party a big margin of control in the House and 58 Democratic senators. By July, Democrats had a supermajority of 60 senators after Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter switched parties and Minnesota’s Al Franken was seated upon the resolution of a disputed election.

But before gaining complete control of the Senate, the new administration lost early momentum when it had to pare back and reconfigure its own economic-stimulus package to secure Republican votes, a step widely thought to have reduced its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the fruitless pursuit of Republican senators in the design of Obamacare slowed down its progress and complicated its provisions, nearly producing a catastrophe when Ted Kennedy’s illness and death, and then a shocking Republican victory in the special election to replace him, robbed Democrats of their supermajority.

If disorganization was the biggest avoidable problem besetting Clinton in his early days, for Obama it was probably the failure to keep his powerful campaign infrastructure in place to mobilize support for his agenda and keep pressure on a Republican Party that saw no real risk in obstructing him.

Like Clinton, Obama suffered a calamity in his first midterm election, with congressional and downballot losses that emboldened Republicans further and made a mockery of the talk after 2008 that Democrats were building a durable majority. Democrats lost the House and any measure of real control in the Senate.

George W. Bush’s accidental success

If Clinton and Obama showed how much promise could be squandered through poor planning and strategy or just bad luck, the administration between theirs got out of the early doldrums via a bolt from the blue.

Bush got off to a reasonably good start despite the shady nature of his elevation to the White House in 2000, easily enacting one of his campaign’s top priorities, a big tax-cut bill (made possible, ironically, by Clinton’s achievement of budget surpluses). But his party lost control of the Senate in May 2001 when Vermont’s Jim Jeffords changed sides to become a Democrat, and by the end of the summer, Bush’s job-approval ratings had slumped to a meh 51 percent. He was likely en route to the usual midterm setback and a further loss of power.

All that changed, of course, on September 11, 2001. W. was transformed overnight into the wildly popular commander-in-chief of a unified nation, and his party managed the very unusual feat of gaining ground in 2002 and consolidated its control of Congress. It took Bush a longer time to squander his wartime popularity than his father did after the Gulf War, but he did so thoroughly by 2008.

Presidents can overcome a bad start

Clinton and Obama both had comebacks after a slow start and a disastrous first midterm election, winning second terms and posting some impressive accomplishments (including, in Clinton’s case, becoming more popular than ever even as Republicans impeached him). And in his own way, Trump also showed there’s life after failure or, in his case, failures every day. Despite his party controlling Congress and bending the knee to his every whim, it took him nearly a year to post a significant legislative accomplishment: the 2017 tax-cut measure. Republicans lost a string of special elections the first two years of the Trump presidency and then, in 2018, lost the House and some key governorships that ultimately played a role in thwarting his attempted 2020 election coup.

Trump had his own good luck in inheriting a strong economic recovery and in harvesting an epochal trend in conservative-media infrastructure that gave him a way to convince his supporters to reject the exposure of his many lies and missteps as nothing more than enemy misinformation. But in the end he came within a distressingly small margin of winning a second term on the scorched ground of his divisive and violence-inducing rhetoric.

So Biden’s current effort to get off to a fast start isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and there will be positive and negative influences on his power that he can neither anticipate nor control. But I can think of no precedent in which early success hurt a new president. So he and his people might as well get a few steps down the road before the winds of fortune buffet them.

January 22: The Battle For Reproductive Rights After Biden’s Win

It’s been overshadowed by other issues, but now that Joe Biden is president with a Democratic Congress, the status of abortion rights remains in question, as I discussed at New York:

On the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that recognized a federal constitutional right to choose to have an abortion, there is a sense among reproductive-rights advocates that a major disaster was averted by Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump. A second Trump term might well have given him an opportunity to further strengthen the Court’s conservative, presumably anti-abortion majority, which he helped build with three Justices — perhaps by replacing the 82-year-old pro-choice justice Stephen Breyer, and certainly by giving older conservative justices like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito an opportunity to retire in favor of younger jurists with similar views. Trump would also have been sure to keep the executive branch of the federal government relentlessly on the side of those who sought to curb and ultimately destroy reproductive rights, while promoting and facilitating the state-level attacks on abortion rights and opportunities that were a constant of his first term.

It was certainly a change of pace from the past four years to see the new president and vice-president release a pro-choice statement on the Roe anniversary:

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe. We are also committed to ensuring that we work to eliminate maternal and infant health disparities, increase access to contraception, and support families economically so that all parents can raise their families with dignity. This commitment extends to our critical work on health outcomes around the world.”

The statement was a reminder that despite his past sympathy for certain elements of the anti-abortion agenda, Joe Biden is now firmly in the pro-choice camp along with nearly all Democrats in Congress. But it also reflected the limits of what they can accomplish under current governing arrangements. “Codifying Roe v. Wade” means enacting a federal statute preempting state abortion laws to ensure that if the Supreme Court does reverse Roe, the law of the land would not materially change so long as that statute stayed in place. But without elimination of the Senate filibuster, enacting such a statute is not remotely feasible. And that’s one of the reasons Mitch McConnell is demanding a “power-sharing” deal that rules out any attack on the filibuster. More immediately, breaths are being held on both sides of the abortion-policy barricades as legislators await clear signals of what the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court will mean for Roe, amid what is uniformly expected to be at least some erosion of the precedents set by it and its 1992 reformulation, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. We have every reason to assume that six justices on the Court (John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and now Barrett) are hostile to abortion rights. It’s unclear, however, how quickly and thoroughly they may proceed in undermining precedents they all recognize (even the straightforwardly anti-choice Clarence Thomas, who is least reticent about favoring their reversal). Chief Justice Roberts has, famously, been concerned about the Court’s moving too quickly on politically charged issues, including abortion; he single-handedly (though on very narrow grounds) ensured that a Louisiana law that would have had a decisively negative effect on access to abortion services was struck down last year.

But that was before Barrett joined the Court. Will the new weight of the anti-abortion majority lead to a quickening of judicial activism against abortion rights, regardless of what Roberts would prefer? We don’t know.

One big question is what strategy the anti-abortion movement will choose to pursue. It has for years alternated between efforts to restrict or ban late-term abortions (which, while rare, are also controversial) or chip away at abortion access and full-on assaults on basic abortion rights, like the “heartbeat bills” and the even more extreme bans enacted by a wave of Republican-controlled states in the past few years. It’s possible the changes on the Court will embolden those responsible for “teeing up” landmark decisions through state legislation. But it’s also possible enemies of abortion rights will fail to properly coordinate between the states and the federal courts (where, moreover, pro-choice precedents will remain binding until SCOTUS erodes or overturns them).

Pro-choice activists will await these developments nervously, accomplishing what they can through Biden-administration executive actions and litigation under existing precedents so long as they last. Soon after the Biden-Harris ticket’s victory became clear, some progressives began publicly asking Justice Breyer to retire so that a Democratic president could appoint a younger justice and a Democratic majority in the Senate could confirm her or him (a Republican reconquest of the Senate in 2022 is always possible). And grassroots support for filibuster reform (and with it the codification of Roe Biden and Harris have promised to pursue) will continue, particularly if Republican obstruction persuades Democratic “centrists” like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to reconsider their current opposition to that step.

Until the presidential-election results became certain, defenders of abortion rights had every reason to wonder if Roe as we have known it would survive to its 50th anniversary. It’s still in peril, but the most immediate threat has been repelled.

January 21: Biden’s Unity Plea Is No Surrender

There’s been so much confused and confusing talk about Joe Biden’s pleas for unity in his Inaugural Address that I decided to offer some historical context at New York:

Just about everybody has something to say about the “unity” thematics that dominated Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address. Some hopeful, if naïve, observers credulously think Biden could be on the brink of introducing some sort of new Era of Good Feelings. Progressives fear Biden is betraying a premature willingness to compromise an agenda that united Democrats before it has even been announced. Republicans are using the unity talk as a cudgel in making demands that Biden do exactly what progressives fear on subjects ranging from COVID-19 stimulus to the Trump impeachment trial. One conservative writer professes to be offended by calls for unity, which smell to him of totalitarianism!

Perhaps Biden’s unity plea seems odd because of the bitterness of the election that lifted him to the White House, a victory he was able to claim for sure only after an attempted coup failed less than two weeks before the inauguration. But let’s remember that most presidents offer similar rhetoric, whether sincere or simply ritualistic. Even Donald Trump made the occasional unity plea early in his presidency, though he kept interrupting himself with attacks on all his enemies.

“[S]ometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country.

“We do not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.”

This wasn’t strictly rhetoric, either. His political wizard, Karl Rove, developed a domestic agenda aimed at expanding the Republican base with targeted appeals to seniors (a Medicare prescription-drug benefit), women with kids (No Child Left Behind), and Latinos (comprehensive immigration reform) before the Bush presidency became defined by its foreign-policy excesses and a poorly managed economy.

Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, of course, became a breakout national celebrity with a unity speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. And he carried these themes into his presidency, as I noted in 2009:

“From his emergence onto the national political scene in 2004 throughout the long 2008 campaign, Obama has consistently linked a quite progressive agenda and voting record to a rhetoric thoroughly marbled with calls for national unity, ‘common purpose,’ and a ‘different kind of politics,’ and scorn for the partisanship, gridlock, and polarization of recent decades. Call it ‘bipartisanship,’ ‘nonpartisanship,’ or ‘post-partisanship,’ this strain of Obama’s thinking is impossible to ignore and has pleased and inspired some listeners while annoying and alarming others.”

Neither Bush nor Obama was under any illusion about leaders of the two major parties sitting down to work out the nation’s destiny in comity. Both were hardheaded politicians who wanted to undermine the opposing party’s politicians by appealing over their heads to their own and to unaffiliated voters. The idea was to expand the president’s coalition at the opposition’s expense while placing pressure on that opposition to cooperate in order to maintain its own following. In Obama’s case, I labeled his strategy “grassroots bipartisanship.” It’s obviously something Biden is intimately familiar with.

But Biden also presumably knows that Obama’s “grassroots bipartisanship” didn’t work. Instead of a segment of the Republican rank and file moving some of its elected officials in Obama’s direction, something like the opposite occurred: GOP pols in Congress decided on a strategy of obstruction, and the Republican grassroots followed them into polarization. Obama’s Gallup job-approval rating among self-identified Republicans declined from 41 percent just after his inauguration to 25 percent in mid-May 2009 and continued slumping to 16 percent by year’s end (eventually hitting single digits in 2010).

So why would what didn’t work for Obama now work for Biden? The ever-insightful Ron Brownstein thinks the new president has a small but potentially important sliver of Republican support he can use to create a more significant “wedge” into the opposition. He writes in The Atlantic: 

“Recent polls have repeatedly found that about three-fourths or more of GOP voters accept Trump’s disproven charges that Biden stole the 2020 election, a number that has understandably alarmed domestic-terrorism experts. But in the same surveys, between one-fifth and one-fourth of Republican partisans have rejected that perspective. Instead, they’ve expressed unease about their party’s efforts to overturn the results — a campaign that culminated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of Trump’s supporters.

“Those anxieties about the GOP’s actions, and about Trump’s future role in the party, may create an opening for Biden to dislodge even more Republican-leaning voters, many of whom have drifted away from the party since Trump’s emergence as its leader. If Biden could lastingly attract even a significant fraction of the Republican voters dismayed over the riot, it would constitute a seismic change in the political balance of power.”

By linking his unity appeal to a firm rejection of the Capitol riot and the lawless president who incited it, says Brownstein, Biden is seeking to establish “a new dividing line in American politics, between those who uphold the country’s democratic system and those who would subvert it.” Maybe the moment has arrived when just enough Republican pols are sufficiently motivated to break with Trumpism to make bipartisan legislation possible — or maybe if they don’t, they’ll lose enough voters to give Democrats an advantage now and in 2022 (when the normal midterm swing might otherwise be expected to undo the narrow Democratic margins in Congress).

If this gambit fails, of course, Biden and congressional Democrats can always return to partisan hardball tactics with Republicans bearing much of the blame for polarization. The question is how far Biden will take his unity campaign and how much time and opportunity he is willing to sacrifice to pursue it.

But there’s really no reason for progressives to fear, or for conservatives to hope, that Biden is so gripped by nostalgia for the back-slapping Senate bipartisanship of yore that he will sacrifice his and his party’s agenda via sellout compromises or simple inaction. What he’s doing so far is entirely traditional, even if it feels exotic thanks to the receding shadow of Donald Trump.

January 15: Assessing Senate Republicans Before the Impeachment Trial

Now that a Senate impeachment trial is going to happen sooner or later, I took a skeptical look at possible Senate Republican supporters of conviction at New York:

The brisk and successful drive to a second impeachment of Donald Trump and his ebbing power in Washington have raised some hopes that this time around the U.S. Senate might actually convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors and bar him from future office (since the calendar will take care of removing him from the one he occupies now). Predictions that this could happen appear to be based largely on the relatively low level of Senate Republican support for Trump’s electoral-vote protests on January 6, and a surge of questionably sourced claims that Mitch McConnell might actually support conviction.

It’s worth taking a closer look at how many Republican senators might reasonably be expected to throw Trump into the dustbin of history. Seventeen GOP senators would have to break ranks to convict him on the “incitement to insurrection” impeachment article, assuming Democrats stick together (and that’s not certain given Joe Manchin’s comments suggesting that it’s unnecessary and an obstacle to future bipartisanship). After conviction, only a simple majority would be needed to prohibit Trump from holding future office. Who might these Republican defectors be, in theory?

Mitt Romney, who voted to convict and remove Trump from office in February 2020, can be expected to do the same the second time around. Another regularly anti-Trump Republican, Ben Sasse, might go along with the more concrete “incitement to insurrection” accusation this time around. You could probably place Pat Toomey, an outspoken opponent of Trump’s election-coup efforts, in the same category as Sasse; he’s also announced he’s retiring at the end of his term in 2022. Other Republican senators prone to rebellion now and then are Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, against whom Trump has pledged to campaign in 2022, and Maine’s Susan Collins, the one Republican senator reelected in a state carried by Joe Biden in November. That’s five senators, though none of them is a lead-pipe certainty for conviction.

Senators Leaving Office or Fighting for Reelection in 2022

One theory of the case is that Republicans who have nothing to lose because they are lame ducks might defect at the end of an impeachment trial — as might senators in tough 2022 reelection contests. Aside from Toomey, the one Republican senator who is definitely headed for the exit in 2022 is North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who said on January 6 that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol, and has reportedly expressed contempt toward the 45th president in private. So you can put him down as a possible if still unlikely (Burr is hardly a boat-rocker) conviction supporter.

Another possibility is Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who will turn 89 in 2022 when his current term ends, and who has said Trump has forfeited any opportunity for future leadership of the GOP. On the other hand, the fitness fanatic Grassley could well run again in 2022, when offending Trump supporters could be precisely the kind of thing that might attract a primary challenge to an otherwise unassailable veteran. And his suggestion that Trump has already disqualified himself from a 2024 comeback could ironically help Grassley argue that making it official is unnecessary.

There’s not a lot of fodder for conviction among the 16 other Republicans likely to run for reelection in 2022 (excluding the aforementioned Murkowski). Only one, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, is in a state carried by Joe Biden, and he’s been one of the most hard-core supporters of Trump and his election-fraud claims. Most are in deep-red states where their major political concern would be a primary challenge.

2024 Presidential Aspirants

The Republican senators who would have the most to gain from Trump being sidelined in 2024 are those who have aspirations to succeed him as the GOP presidential nominee: Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Marco Rubio, just to name the most obvious presidential wannabes. But without question, the political calculation for any of them would begin with a hope that they could inherit some or all of Trump’s fervent supporters, and any real chance of the 2024 nomination might end with being labeled an enemy of MAGA. So while these worthies might hope Trump is convicted, they will not want their fingerprints on the weapon that denied Republicans the opportunity to seek vengeance and vindication for him.

If there is a possibility of a 2024 aspirant trying to stand out by taking on Trump and his legacy, it could be Cotton, the most outspoken dissenter toward Trump’s attempted election coup in the group, or possibly the supremely opportunistic Graham, who might stop sucking up to the former president after he leaves office. But the safer course for all of them is to find some excuse for voting no at the end of a Senate trial, with or without public expressions of solidarity for Trump. Cotton has already issued a statement opposing a postpresidential trial as unconstitutional.

Constitutional Sticklers

Two Republican senators, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, style themselves as more loyal to the Constitution than to any party or politician, and both have occasionally given Trump problems (while generally currying his favor). But for that very reason, they will likely be convinced by conservative constitutional scholars, like Michael Luttig, who argue that any textual analysis of the Constitution prohibits an impeachment proceeding against a former president (an argument already endorsed by Tom Cotton). And in general, that will be a convenient excuse for a no vote across the ranks of Senate Republicans.

The McConnell Factor

Mitch McConnell is notorious for valuing doubt about his intentions, so all the blind quotes from those said to be familiar with his thinking on an impeachment trial should be accordingly discounted. His own statement that he is “open” to a conviction is indeed different from his public admissions before the first impeachment trial that he was closely coordinating with the White House on a defense for the president. But it’s still literally and figuratively an expression of the formal neutrality customary for all senators before an impeachment trial, not a veiled signal that he’s going to send Trump to political hell. The two things we know for sure about McConnell is that he’s not going to go against a majority of his conference on anything important and that he’s already ensured, by refusing to reconvene the Senate until January 19, a trial managed by Chuck Schumer.

With Joe Biden taking office and testing Republican unity early and often, you have to assume McConnell isn’t going to divide his troops or lead them into a massive intraparty fight. Maybe he’ll give the signal that further defections are all right if a majority of Republican senators are onboard for convicting Trump, but he probably won’t do a single thing to make that happen.

Why Most GOP Senators Are Likely to Oppose Conviction

Despite strong bipartisan elite fury and dismay over Trump’s conduct leading up to and during the January 6 crisis, “the base” hasn’t abandoned him in any significant way. Yes, he’s losing some support across the board, but not enough to embolden Republican rebels. A new Axios-Ipsos survey dramatically shows the current public opinion dynamics: A majority of Americans now favor removing Trump from office, but “a majority of Republicans still think Trump was right to challenge his election loss, support him, don’t blame him for the Capitol mob and want him to be the Republican nominee in 2024.” Among the more than one-third of Republicans who appear to identify with Trump more than with their party, support for Trump 2024 — which of course conviction in the Senate would make impossible — is at an astronomical 92 percent.

Republican senators will be reluctant to fight that sentiment, particularly since there are so many ways they could vote against convicting Trump without condoning his conduct. As his presidency quickly recedes into the background, Senate sentiment for formally burying him may recede as well.

But the most powerful excuse for doing nothing will be the plea (ironic as it might be coming from Trump-era Republicans) we heard so often during the impeachment debate in the House: that the country needs healing as it moves from the Trump presidency to Biden’s. It’s an argument that was clearly not available during the first impeachment trial, which occurred on the brink of the most intensely combative presidential election in living memory. Implicit in a let’s-move-on posture is the belief (stated or unstated) that Trump’s grip on the GOP will fade quickly as his proximity to the power he has lost — and to the social-media platforms he has been denied — grows more distant. Senate Republicans may accept his fall from grace, but don’t count on them to give him a push.

January 13: Nixon, Trump and the Damage Done to Their Party

As the House moved towards impeaching Trump, at New York I did some comparisons of the consequences for the GOP compared to the Nixon disaster back in 1974:

As the Republican Party reels from Donald Trump’s seditious effort to overturn Joe Biden’s election and the impeachment it has earned him, diagnoses of the party’s malady range from fatal to weakened to sick but purged and recovering. But it’s worth remembering this isn’t the first time observers thought the party was facing an existential crisis from which it might not recover.

In October 2016, for example, Republicans were running for the hills after it was revealed that their presidential candidate had boasted of being able to get away with sexual assault, using crude terms that had to insult every woman in America. Twelve years ago, after Barack Obama’s election and a Democratic congressional landslide, there was talk of the GOP being demographically doomed unless it undertook fundamental changes to recruit new kinds of voters.

So prophecies of disaster often don’t come true. But the moment in living Republican memory that most resembles what we are experiencing today occurred in 1974, when another disgraced president scurried toward Marine One in flight from the White House: Richard Nixon.

Then, as now, Republicans stuck with their embattled and scandal-ridden president for a long time before evidence of extreme conduct (e.g., Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape and Trump’s January 6 speech inciting the riot) wrecked their unity and confidence. Then, as now, the leader had to be pushed out the door. Then, as now, there was even talk of the GOP being displaced by a new third party (today, a Trumpist “populist” party, then a Reagan-led conservative party uniting business constituencies with blue-collar workers and Southerners).

But there are some very important differences in the condition of the GOP at the endgame of these two disastrous presidencies.

Trump Has More Rank-and-File Support

In the final Gallup survey before his resignation, Nixon’s job-approval rating among Republicans was at 50 percent, and 31 percent of Republicans favored his resignation. According to a NPR/Marist survey, Trump’s job-approval rating from Republicans is at 77 percent (with 64 percent “strongly” approving), and only 15 percent of Republicans support steps to remove him from office before his term expires.

“Moving on” from Trump won’t be as easy as it was for Republicans to put Nixon in the rearview mirror, in part because they retained the White House under his successor, Gerald Ford, and in part because there was zero fear of Nixon making another comeback.

Republicans Were Consolidating an Enduring Majority Back Then, Not Now

While Nixon’s disgrace and resignation temporarily plunged his party into crisis (exemplified by the “Watergate Election” midterm Democratic landslide that occurred less than three months after Nixon left office) it’s important to remember that he won a second term by a landslide in 1972, and that the Democratic Party was in the middle of a chronic ideological crisis. Democrats won 43 percent of the popular vote for president in 1968 and 38 percent in 1972. They got a temporary respite when one-time southern voters and those disgusted by Watergate gave Jimmy Carter 50 percent in 1976, but they were back down to 41 percent in 1980 and didn’t win a popular-vote majority again until 2008. Republicans didn’t have much rebounding to do at all: They came within an eyelash of winning in 1976 and didn’t lose the presidency again until 1992.

Now it’s Republicans who are on a long-term popular-vote losing streak in presidential contests (from 1992 through 2020, with the exception of 2004). And the GOP is famously on the wrong side of demographic trends that are shrinking its coalition rooted in older white voters and expanding the opposition’s younger and more diverse base. Yes, they enjoy more robust power than their actual support merits thanks to the distorting effects of the Senate, the Electoral College, and gerrymandering of House and state legislative districts. But it’s not like they have a stiff wind at their backs as they seek to recover from a lost presidential election and now a doubly impeached president.

Post-Nixon Republicans Had a Movement and a Leader. Where’s That Now?

Despite his many years of service to his party and some genuine (if often “liberal”) policy accomplishments, Nixon had no clear ideology and no enthusiastic personal following. He sometimes pandered to and sometimes thwarted the steadily rising conservative movement that had achieved a false dawn under Barry Goldwater in 1964, but when Nixon crashed and burned in the Watergate scandal, conservatives (rooted in the South and West, where Republicans were in the ascendancy) were ready to assume leadership of the GOP. And their almost universally acknowledged leader, Ronald Reagan, very nearly won the presidential nomination in 1976 over Ford, and won the whole ball game four years later. Reagan’s 1984 reelection slogan was: “It’s Morning in America,” but it was morning in America for the conservative movement and its Republican Party in 1980.

There is no obvious ideological successor to the traditional Republican conservatism Trump swept away in 2016, and no leader waiting in the wings. Complex Republican taxonomies are a dime a dozen these days. No one thinks “Trumpism” is entirely dead as a popular movement and a distinct — if often incoherent — creed. But nor will Trump and his family conveniently step aside to enable the emergence of a “Trumpism Without Trump.” Yes, Republicans may achieve an artificial unity in seeking to thwart the new Biden administration. But the kind of positive momentum the GOP achieved in the 1980s and 1990s — and even in the early days of the George W. Bush administration — requires a hymnbook and a choir leader. Neither seem on the horizon right now.

Republicans May Not Be Ready to Move On

It all adds up to a real problem for the party Trump is damaging on his way out the door: Its voters may not let go of him, and he may not go away. And in the meantime, the problems Republicans worried about before the 45th president pushed them in a new (if self-destructive) direction haven’t been solved by his defeat and disgrace. If they can somehow get their act together quickly, 2022 could be a Republican comeback year in which they take control of Congress again and prepare to reconquer the White House. But the confusion in Republican ranks in Washington and increasingly around the country as to whether Trump is a victimized saint or a delusional villain does not bode well for a quick recovery from the furies he unleashed.

January 8: Trump Betrays His Allies One Last Time

As this remarkable week rolled on, it occurred to me that we were seeing in the last days of the Trump presidency a downward spiral that seems inevitable. I wrote about it at New York:

Unless you count the likes of Lyndon Johnson (who began but quickly ended his bid) and Woodrow Wilson (who longed for the vindication of a third term without really pursuing it), from the start of the 20th century until now, there have only been three presidents denied a second term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Of these, only Hoover expressed any great bitterness over the circumstances of his defeat. But he did not contest it or seek to sabotage his successor, and the man once known as the Great Humanitarian went on to continue the career of distinguished public service that lifted him to the White House in the first place. Carter was, famously, a much better ex-president than president. And Poppy Bush found quiet redemption in the political careers of his sons.

Had Donald Trump discovered a way to accept his defeat at some point during the long months between Joe Biden’s victory on November 7 and a pro-Trump mob’s sack of the Capitol on January 6, he might have left office with his head held high, convinced of his administration’s accomplishments and the wickedness of his enemies, with all his options open and all his friends and allies showering him with praise. He would have been the odds-on favorite for a comeback nomination in 2024, if he wanted that, and might have become a sort of “shadow president,” as Lindsey Graham predicted — an abiding presence in public life perpetually offering an alternative to a Biden administration with a world of troubles to manage.

But the very narcissistic traits that made Trump a president like no other made a graceful exit — or even a temporary exile — impossible. The same self-focus that has rendered him incapable of empathy or absorbing inconvenient information left him unable to imagine a White House occupied by someone else. And so, in this fateful two-month interim, he has systematically and shortsightedly damaged everyone who has helped him, and every institution that has sustained him, over the past four years. He will leave office (on January 20 if not earlier) resembling no one so much as Richard Nixon, a self-isolated shell of a man full of self-pity and empty of the political skills for which he was once famous.

Trump’s determination to leave no friend unbetrayed was most evident in his behavior toward a Republican Party that was desperate to hang onto its Senate power base in two Georgia runoff elections. The obvious winning message was the need to curb any excesses the Democratic Party might entertain if it secured a governing trifecta. Instead the president insisted on shattering party unity with loud and unremitting attacks on Republican officials in Georgia who did not cooperate with his efforts to reverse the presidential-election results, forcing Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to make their own campaigns an adjunct to his postelection crusade. Like so many other Trump allies, Loeffler and Perdue were punished for their conspicuous loyalty to him, losing what had become a referendum on his conspiracy theories and grievances. Victimized as well were their fellow Senate Republicans, who saved Trump from removal via impeachment only to find themselves in the minority less than a year later.

A host of other Republican officials in battleground states Trump lost were forced to choose between their responsibilities and the demands the president and his lawyers made. They were joined in this uncomfortable dilemma by dozens of conservative judges, some appointed by Trump, who rejected specious efforts by his Keystone Cops legal team to halt certification of the election results and generally throw sand in the gears of normal postelection procedure.

But all the damage Trump visited on his allies in recent weeks pales in comparison to what he did on January 6 in a doomed effort to nullify his defeat via a revolt against congressional recognition of Biden’s electoral-vote majority. He put his most loyal subordinate, Mike Pence (a man who raised sycophancy to unprecedented levels), in an impossible position, ordering him to personally steal the election by rejecting state-certified Biden electors and then publicly accusing him of cowardice and betrayal when he resisted the mad demand. By telling credulous MAGA folk that Pence could get away with the gambit if only he wanted to, Trump made his ever-subordinate sidekick an object of enduring contempt from the people the veep needs for his own political future.

At the same time, the electoral-vote challenge split congressional Republicans as never before, and the divisions deepened after Trump’s speech at the Save America March — in which he expressed white-hot rage toward the — drove his fans to invade and vandalize the Capitol sanctuary. There was no more vivid demonstration of the shrunken hard-core line of defense Trump enjoys than Kelly Loeffler — who spent most of 2020 posing as the Trumpiest Republican of them all — refusing to validate the challenge to Georgia’s electoral-vote count brought by such House Republicans as QAnon-loving Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was a conspicuous presence at Trump’s final rally before the Senate runoffs. As for “Establishment” Republicans like soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a partner-in-crime to so many Trump outrages over the past four years, the presidential incitement to violence led to the most open defiance of him we’ve seen since the mogul conquered the GOP in the 2016 primaries.

In that one respect, Trump may have done his betrayed friends a favor even as he self-destructed, making it easier for the Republicans who had been impatiently waiting for him to leave the White House to go public with the misgivings they had surely held privately all along. As the wave of White House and administration resignations we are seeing indicates, even some of Trump’s most subservient toadies are now disclaiming responsibility for his latest bad conduct. Again like Nixon, by the time he leaves power, Trump loyalists in Washington may be reduced to a handful of pathetic and marginal figures, some of them hoping for last-minute pardons.

The $64,000 question, of course, is how many of his grassroots supporters Trump has now alienated. Did yesterday’s spectacle in Washington (which snap polls suggest a lot of Republicans didn’t see as problematic) make the scales fall from the eyes of Trump voters who have long defended or ignored his aberrant conduct? Did they, like many GOP members of Congress, realize that Trump had betrayed them as well by associating his and their cause with disreputable violence? Or did the riot in fact radicalize previously square citizens and bolster the ranks of the real lunatics — the QAnon believers, the white supremacists, the crypto-fascists?

The next two weeks could yet determine how small Donald Trump’s bubble remains as he grudgingly surrenders — or is forced to surrender — power. The great Christian novelist Charles Williams once described hell as a place where those who think only of themselves enjoy perfect isolation forever. Trump may ensure himself a hellish future if he cannot find it within himself to think of those he has damaged and grant them the favor of a quiet departure.

January 7: Georgia Flips the Senate

Jon Ossoff’s confirmed victory coincided with the Trump-fueled attack on Congress, so I wrote about the conjunction of the two events at New York:

News that major news-media outlets had called Democrat Jon Ossoff’s victory over David Perdue in the Georgia Senate runoff — giving Democrats control of the upper chamber and a governing trifecta — arrived just as a shocked nation was observing the violence and chaos in the Capitol that President Trump and his Republican enablers have done so much to incite in recent months. On multiple fronts it became apparent that the irresponsible words that are the president’s signature do indeed have consequences.

For the rioters and the MAGA hordes they represented, of course, the Democratic wins in Georgia were just two more “stolen elections,” despite assurances from Republican election officials in the state that the balloting and counting were entirely clean and mostly efficient. (Raphael Warnock’s win over Kelly Loeffler was sealed late the night before, earlier than expected.) It’s increasingly clear that Trump regards any election he does not win as “stolen,” which is one of the deadliest signs of un-American authoritarianism. But no matter how long Republicans in Georgia and Washington take to concede their defeats, the Georgia runoffs will be remembered as an important part of the national transition away from the dangerous 45th presidency.

Trump richly earned another loss by trampling the potentially winning Republican message of keeping the Senate in GOP hands to rein in Biden and his party from abuses of power and excessive liberalism. He forced Loeffler and Perdue to bend their knees — and their campaigns — to his doomed effort to steal the presidential election. But then he couldn’t deliver the votes to make this hijacking of Georgia’s election an object lesson to those hoping to build a post-Trump party.

The Georgia voters who elected Warnock and Ossoff to the Senate in a dramatic general-election runoff on Tuesday had no way of knowing what would happen the very next day. But there’s rough justice in the rebuke they administered to Trump and his party. Having lost the power to systematically obstruct Biden’s appointments and legislative agenda, Trump’s divided and defeated party will suffer for quite some time after he finally leaves the White House.

December 30: The Trump Election Coup Circus Will Come to Congress on January 6

Having chronicled the tale of a shady plan to challenge Joe Biden’s election when Congress meets to certify it on January 6, I was not surprised to find it’s going to the next level, as I explained at New York:

In early December, Republican Alabama congressman Mo Brooks let it be known that he planned to challenge Joe Biden’s election win when Congress convened on January 6 to execute the typically pro forma task of counting and confirming the Electoral College vote. Under the provisions of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a challenge to any state’s electoral votes from one House and one Senate member triggers a two-hour debate in both chambers and then a vote in both houses on the challenge. Only if a majority of members in both houses vote to sustain the challenge does it have any effect. Given the impossibility of that happening, as Democrats control the House, the main effect of the gambit would be to force every Republican in Congress to go on record as crediting or discrediting Trump’s absurd claims that he actually won the election by a landslide.

For that very reason Mitch McConnell has strongly discouraged the members of his conference from joining Brooks in his gesture and triggering an actual debate and vote on January 6. But it was probably just a matter of time before the prospect of maximum appreciation from Trump and the praise of hard-core MAGA bravos led a senator to break ranks, and one of the prime suspects all along has made it official, tweeting: “Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard. I will object on January 6 on their behalf.”

Yes, the junior senator from Missouri, often described as a potential leader of a post-Trump “conservative populist” wing of the GOP, is fishing in the troubled waters of election-fraud conspiracy theories. In a statement he made a so’s-your-old-man claim that he’s just following precedents set by Democrats after the 2004 and 2016 elections. In the latter year there were protests from a smattering of House Democrats during the announcement of the electoral votes certifying Trump’s win, but no senator joined them, and as it happens, Joe Biden (who presided over the joint session of Congress as vice-president) shut down efforts to talk about election disputes from the floor. In 2005, a senator (Barbara Boxer) did join a House Democrat (Ohio’s Stephanie Tubbs Jones) in objecting to Ohio’s electoral vote based on concerns about voting-machine irregularities; this triggered a debate, but the protesters made it clear they weren’t actually challenging the outcome. More to the point, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry did not support the protest at all. It was a very different kettle of fish from today’s Trump-supported election-coup effort. If there is any analog at all to this situation, it would be the 2000 election, when Al Gore quickly conceded defeat after the Supreme Court shut down the Florida recount that might have reverse the outcome there, and then presided over the joint session of Congress that confirmed George W. Bush’s dubious win without much of a peep of protest — even though Gore, like Biden this year, unquestionably won the popular vote.

While the Brooks/Hawley gambit is bad news for every Republican in Congress who does not want to displease Trump, which means most of them, the pol placed most dangerously in the spotlight is Mike Pence, who like Gore in 2000 and Biden in 2016 will preside over the joint session of Congress on January 6 and will be responsible for announcing electors from each state (though he could delegate that chore to clerks).

It has been reported that Pence has been present at White House meetings involving January 6 plotters like Brooks, along with Trump and his lawyers. One of those plotters, extremist Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, has filed a federal lawsuit aimed at declaring the Electoral Count Act of 1887 an unconstitutional limitation on Pence’s power to decide which electors deserve recognition (whether or not they have been state-certified as the Electoral Count Act provides, cutting off all later challenges). Nobody expects the suit to get a hearing before January 6, but its intended purpose may have been to smoke out Pence on his relative willingness to steal the election by “announcing” fake Trump electoral slates from close states as the actual winners. Now Politico is reporting that Pence rejected an opportunity to join in Gohmert’s suit (he is in fact the named defendant, since he’s the one who will supervise whatever happens on January 6).

So barring some reversal by Brooks and Hawley, the circus is definitely coming to Washington on January 6, and in the center ring Mike Pence may be forced to choose between his clear constitutional duty and pressure to tug his forelock one last time to the man who lifted him to the vice-presidency. If Pence does try to claim electors for Trump in states won by Biden, we could have a full-on constitutional crisis, or more likely a repudiation of Pence by both houses of Congress. As for the “debate” over Team Trump’s claims, it clearly won’t involve any more evidence than the allegations already rejected by federal and state courts from sea to shining sea.

December 18: How Kelly Loeffler’s Career Went Off the Rails

As the whole political world becomes obsessively focused on the January 5 Senate runoffs in Georgia, I meditated a bit at New York about the unforced errors afflicting one of the two Republican senators involved:

When Georgia governor Brian Kemp settled on Atlanta sports executive and socialite Kelly Loeffler as his choice to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated at the end of last year, he seemed to be making a shrewd calculation for his own and his party’s future in a blue-trending state. The GOP had been rapidly losing ground in the growing north Atlanta suburbs that had until very recently been its electoral stronghold, with moderate women leading the exodus.

She seemed the sort of novice politician such women might find appealing: an urbane woman, a Yankee and a Catholic, who had married her gazillionaire boss, quickly shown her own business chops, and become the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA franchise. She lived in a mansion in Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead area, and kept up the social graces with charity work, while rubbing elbows with the diverse fans of the Dream. Compared to the usual Georgia Republican pols — blunt-talking Southern Baptist small-town lawyers and exurban developers with a few Ku Klux Klansmen on branches of the family tree — Loeffler was far more relatable to upwardly mobile suburbanites. And her politics seemed moderately conservative; she and her husband had been major donors to Mitt Romney in 2012, but had also donated to Democrats now and then. Kemp was also certainly aware that Loeffler would be running in 2020 in a special nonpartisan election to claim a full term, not a party primary, meaning she might be able to seize and hold the center and draw votes from moderates as well as conservatives. Best of all, Loeffler was very rich, and could not only self-fund her own 2020 campaign, but potentially a 2022 race for a full term, when she would share the ticket with Brian Kemp, who was expecting a tough rematch with Stacey Abrams. 

For all these reasons, Kemp wasn’t unduly troubled when he introduced Loeffler to Donald Trump and the president remained adamant in wanting the Senate seat for his impeachment attack dog, Representative Doug Collins, a hard-core conservative and ordained Baptist minister from the foothills of the North Georgia mountains.

But Kemp’s estrangement with Trump and Trump’s grip on Georgia Republicans have made Loeffler’s political initiation a real nightmare. And in just a year she has transformed herself from a genial country-club Republican into a snarling ideologue boasting in ads that she’s “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and brown-nosing to Trump so aggressively that she’s turned her back on the governor to whom she owes everything.

To put it simply, Loeffler and her patron, Kemp, picked the wrong time and place to launch a respectably mainstream Republican political career. With conservative activists and Breitbart News egging him on to challenge the RINO Loeffler, Collins quickly launched a challenge to the appointed senator and led her in early polls, drawing strength from the bad press she received from stock deals she and her husband made that smelled like inside trading. (Loeffler was cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee of wrongdoing but it didn’t dispel the unsavory aroma.) She counterattacked with tons of early ads Collins could not match, but it took many months for her to build a lead in a runoff race only one Republican could survive. (Democrats consolidated behind Raphael Warnock for one of the two certain runoff spots under Georgia’s arcane laws requiring a majority for victory.) Every step of the way Loeffler likely feared Trump would jump into the race with an endorsement of Collins. And so she campaigned as the most strongly pro-Trump member of the Senate.

As the election season reached its peak, Loeffler was in a right-wing frenzy. She triangulated against her colleagues and players in the WNBA, attacking their support for Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter, and probably ruining some actual friendships while offending the social conventions of her peer group, as the New York Times observed: Her “harsh criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement has run afoul of a longstanding convention in her adopted hometown, sometimes referred to as the Atlanta Way, in which the white corporate class has cultivated a level of solidarity with the city’s African-American leaders and civil rights movement.”

Loeffler reached her MAGA omega point in October when she pursued and secured the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the AR-15-wielding, QAnon-backing congressional candidate from Georgia who embodies the far frontiers of Trumpism. Nobody could call Loeffler a RINO anymore! Never mind that most of those in Loeffler’s old social circle in Buckhead are probably horrified by Greene, a woman whom veteran Georgia conservative commentator Erick Erickson called “batshit crazy.”

It may have all seemed worth it to Loeffler when she soundly beat Collins and made the cut for the January 5 general-election runoff, which will determine control of the Senate with her colleague David Perdue facing Jon Ossoff in the same election. But the runoff campaign has provided fresh demands for Loeffler extremism. Because her new idol Trump is refusing to accept his defeat in Georgia, Loeffler and Perdue have to go along with his delusional demands that Georgia’s Republican leadership help him overturn the election. On November 9, the two senators called for the resignation of the state’s Republican secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for the sin of certifying Biden’s victory. Both senators have refused to follow Mitch McConnell in acknowledging Biden as president-elect. And you have to figure it’s a matter of time before Loeffler in particular is forced to denounce Kemp, with Trump now attacking him relentlessly for refusing to illegally call the legislature into a special session to overturn the state’s election results.

Loeffler has firmly trapped herself in this intra-party feud that not only forces her to choose between her great benefactor and her new idol but that also threatens the GOP unity essential to a win on January 5. After all, here’s the standard set by her new great friend, Marjorie Taylor Greene on Twitter: “Every ‘Republican’ that isn’t fighting for @realDonaldTrump’s 2020 landslide victory is supporting the Chinese Communist Party takeover of America.” All righty then!

Greene’s screeds aren’t much more intemperate than Loeffler’s exceptionally nasty ads against Warnock, which specialize in taking old sermons from Warnock’s pulpit of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church wildly out of context, attacking its pastor and the Black religious tradition in ways that make you wonder if she’s risking divine lighting bolts.

Kelly Loeffler’s sold her soul to Trumpian extremism, and even with her enormous wealth, she won’t be able to buy it back.


December 16: Trump Delusions Keep Republicans From a Post-Mortem They Need

After watching another week of Trump denials that he lost the 2020 elections, I looked at some of the less obvious consequences at New York:

The weirdest thing about the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election is that those in the winning party are engaged in all sorts of retrospective looks at what went wrong, while those in the the losing party are bellowing triumphantly that they actually won “by a landslide,” as Donald Trump and his campaign keep asserting. (On Monday, the Electoral College confirmed this is definitely not true.)

Yes, some of this funhouse-mirror reaction is attributable to high expectations for Joe Biden and his party that they did not meet — particularly the Senate results that have left control of that chamber to a pair of January 5 runoffs in a state Biden won by the narrowest of margins. But still, Democrats won the big prize, while also hanging onto control of the House (albeit by a reduced margin) and keeping a federal government trifecta on the table at least until Georgia votes.

So perhaps it’s not so unusual that the perpetually self-doubting Donkey Party isn’t celebrating all that wildly, and besides, there’s nothing wrong with winners in close contests seeing room for improvement and debating how to do better. But that Republicans are engaging in little or none of this introspection — much less the postmortem that you might expect from a party that lost the presidential election by over 7 million votes — is purely attributable to Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him.

After all, why would the GOP need an “autopsy report” or an effort to expand its reach if its only problem is getting an honest count? The only remedial effort necessary to overcome that obstacle is a massive effort to restrict the franchise, which is exactly what the Trumpified party appears to be determined to carry out, ironically under the rubric of “election reform.”

Without the delusional claim of a stolen election, Republicans could be usefully asking themselves why they’ve lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. With demographic trends not being friendly to their cause, something more promising than only losing the Black vote by 75 points and the Latino vote by 33 points and the under-30 vote by 24 points might be in order. Republicans cannot go forever without a coherent foreign policy or health-care policy, or without anything to say on climate change or economic inequality other than attacks on the patriotism of those raising alarms. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman has asked: “How many more election wins can [the GOP] squeeze out of White grievance and voter suppression?”

Building a real as opposed to an imaginary majority is hard and serious work. The real victim of Trump’s bizarre “election theft” narrative of 2020 is the party that buys it.