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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

August 20: Will Republicans Counter DNC’s Diversity with Racism?

Trying to watch the Democratic National Convention through the baleful eyes of the opposition, I got the feeling it would tempt them into sin, so I wrote about it at New York:

We don’t know much about the messaging and lineup of next week’s Republican National Convention — aside, of course, from the president’s provocative decision to deliver his acceptance speech from the White House grounds and his equally provocative choice to offer a speaking slot to Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who brandished assault weapons at peaceful protesters who were passing the McCloskey’s mega-mansion on their way to the mayor’s house. But we know that Trump’s reelection campaign has been focused on energizing his base and emphasizing those racially abrasive themes that seek to augment his base with suburban swing voters. Here’s how one Trump adviser explained it to Politico:

“’Part of our message will focus on how the suburbs are becoming unsafe because inner cities are unsafe, and Biden and Kamala are going to make it even worse. People who have been impacted by the lawlessness will speak,’ said the outside Trump adviser.”

He might have added that Trump has been crudely promoting the idea that the equal-housing policies Biden is likely to favor will damage suburban property values by letting those people move into previously white areas. In any event, it’s unlikely the Trump campaign will suddenly “pivot to the center” and moderate his pitch this late in the game.

Indeed — as Ron Brownstein points out — for all the president’s troubles, he retains relatively strong support among the non-college-educated white voters who were attracted to his hateful and divisive 2016 message:

These are not as strong as the numbers he posted in 2016, but boosting them with raw, race-based MAGA appeals may be the most direct path to another narrow Trump win. And it’s entirely possible that the images being flashed around the country by the Democratic convention will add to the Republican temptation to go feral:

“Last night’s proceedings were effectively a tribute to America’s growing diversity. The energetic, quick-cut keynote speech included multiple speakers who were Latino, Black, Asian American, Native American, and LGBTQ, not to mention several women. The brilliantly reimagined convention roll call reinforced the point, with brief testimonials—some somber, others endearingly goofy—from another diverse roster of speakers in every state and territory, a change that drew rave reviews on Twitter and TV news. Some Democratic activists complained that organizers had allocated too much of the event’s limited time to Republicans and too little to nonwhite progressive leaders such as Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But average viewers probably absorbed a very different image: On a day when Trump delivered an incendiary speech in Yuma, Arizona, touting his border wall and even reprising the language from his 2015 campaign announcement about immigrants as ‘murderers’ and ‘rapists,’ Democrats offered the 21st-century version of a Norman Rockwell painting.”

You have to figure Team Trump has some focus groups registering fear and loathing of this image of an America where 20th-century ideas of “greatness” have not been restored and are threatened anew.

Sure, the RNC will have its own overlapping agendas. You can, for example, expect as many non-white Republican speakers as organizers can find (including Black state legislator Vernon Jones of Georgia, who will serve as a counter to all the cross-party speakers Democrats recruited). But no one will be left with the impression that Trump’s GOP is anything other than the party of a threatened white Christian hegemony that is unhappy about Black Lives Matter, police accountability, and immigrant rights and is nearly twice as exercised about “violent crime” as it is about COVID-19 (according to a recent Pew survey). You can expect four days of subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging to their worst instincts.

August 14: The Building Blocks of an Early Trump Lead on Election Night

I have warning about a presidential election contested by Trump for months now, and can only watch it falling into place, as I explained at New York:

For months now, I and other observers have suggested that the president’s demonization of voting by mail wasn’t just aimed at securing restrictions in the practice by the states. He also wants his own supporters to vote in person. Why? Well, because if they comply, he is likely to take an early lead in Election Night returns that will only slowly erode as disproportionately Democratic mail ballots drift in after being authenticated and then tabulated. Since he has taken the position that mail balloting (except in Florida!) is fraudulent, and that elections decided after Election Day are “rigged” and stolen, then he will be in a position to claim victory and then contest any reversal of fortune.

If that’s the plan, it’s well on its way to implementation, as a new national survey from Pew Research indicates. Asked how they intend to vote, 80 percent of Trump supporters say they will vote in person (either on Election Day or earlier) and only 17 percent will vote by mail. Among Biden supporters, 58 percent say that will vote by mail as opposed to 40 percent who will vote in person.

If these numbers are even close to reality, since in-person votes are generally counted before mail ballots, Trump will be in a position to take an early lead nationally and in most battleground states. Any appearance of a pro-Biden trend later, or for that matter any logjam or other problems with counting mail ballots, will undoubtedly be touted by Team Trump as evidence of fraud.

When Trump first started his crusade against voting by mail, you had to wonder if it might backfire by denying loyal Trump voters — including elderly Trump voters — a way to turn out for MAGA without endangering their health. But a separate part of the Pew survey shows that Trump has also succeeded in minimizing their COVID-19 fears to an impressive extent. Asked if they found any in a long series of issues this year “very important,” only 39 percent of Trump supporters placed COVID-19 in that category, as compared to 88 percent of Biden supporters. Issues which a higher percentage of Trump supporters deemed “very important” included “violent crime” (74 percent), “Supreme Court appointments” (61 percent), “immigration” (61 percent), “gun policy” (60 percent), and “abortion” (46 percent). Perhaps these perceptions will change by the fall if Trump’s assurance that the pandemic is just going to go away predictably proves false. But for now, his people are more than willing to go vote for him in person. And the “blue shift,” whereby the latest mail ballots (and thus the last counted) tilt Democratic, can exaggerate the split between what we hear on Election Night and what we hear when the count is finally completed.

What can opponents of election tampering do about this fairly open plan to skew the early results? Well, it would be helpful if polls began to distinguish between those planning to vote by mail and those planning to vote in person, in order to make expectations realistic and head off the possibility that pundits and citizens alike will see the early returns and decide Trump’s 2016 miracle is happening again. Some pundit education is in order, too, so that the petulant behavior of TV gabbers when they were denied an early decision from the 2020 Iowa caucuses doesn’t recur.

The most important thing, however, is to make every effort to facilitate the efficient (and transparent) handling of mail ballots so that counting them isn’t unduly delayed, and BS fraud allegations are rebutted. And if they don’t want to get “counted out,” Democrats should do what they can, if conditions permit, to bank as many early in-person ballots as possible.

August 13: The Democratic Popular Vote Streak

As we drift towards November, I offered a reminder at New York that even if Trump wins, he will probably lose the popular vote — again.

When I was a much younger political junkie, a term you heard a lot was the “Republican Electoral College Lock.” E.J. Dionne explained it in 1988:

“In the last five elections, 23 states with 202 electoral votes (out of the 270 needed to win) have voted Republican every time. In those elections, Republicans have won a total of 2,075 electoral votes, the Democrats a mere 567.”

That year Republicans expanded their electoral vote lead since 1968 to a 2,501 to 678 margin (though two states, Iowa and Oregon, voted Democratic for the first time since 1964, a sign of shifting tectonic plates to come). But the more fundamental idea was that Republicans were regularly putting together a coalition of states that left them with a much shorter path to the finish line than Democrats had.

The “Republican Electoral Vote Lock” was rudely interrupted by Bill Clinton’s two wins, and put to rest for all time with Barack Obama’s two wins. But Democrats have quietly put together a streak of their own, as Ron Brownstein explains:

“If Joe Biden maintains his steady lead in national polls over President Donald Trump through Election Day, Democrats will win the popular vote for the seventh time in the past eight presidential elections – something no party has achieved since the formation of the modern American political system in 1828….

“Since…1828, no party has won the popular vote more than six times over any eight-election sequence. Democrats did that from the 1820s to the 1850s, Republicans did it from the 1890s to the 1920s and Democrats managed the feat again from the 1930s to the 1960s. Viewed from another angle, no party has previously won seven popular-vote victories in fewer than nine presidential elections (as Democrats did from 1824 to 1856, Republicans from 1896 to 1928 and Democrats from 1932 to 1964).”

Republicans, of course, have won the presidency twice in this century while losing the popular vote. That only happened three times in the previous 211 years.

Since Trump’s strategy assumes another Electoral College win combined with a popular vote loss, a record- a record-breaking Democratic streak is, well, nearly a lock. And unless the Republican Party gets serious about expanding its narrow coalition to include nonwhite voters and urban areas, its presidential candidates will likely to continue to rely on an Electoral College advantage to win the presidency – until they lose and are forced to change.

But unfortunately, they have another, sinister option: hanging onto power by strengthening the institutions – not just the electoral college, but the U.S. Senate, the states, the federal courts – that allow for minority rule. And they can also continue to thwart popular majorities by building rather than filling potholes on the path to the ballot box. Brownstein quotes Republican heretic Geoffrey Kabaservice on this point:

“The Republican appetite for vote suppression ultimately springs from the lack of confidence in the popular appeal of its ideas. Otherwise you wouldn’t need to do that. … I think the party has not just given up on ever winning majority status, it has given up on trying to persuade people who are not already in the camp.”

As for Democrats, they can continue to agitate for a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College or some scheme to neutralize it (e.g. the National Popular Vote Initiative, an interstate compact whereby states pledge to cast their electoral voters for the national popular vote winner); the former would take many years and the latter could be challenged in court as unconstitutional. The surest route to protection of minority rights is probably via voting rights activism, assuming Democrats win both Congress and the White House this year, says Brownstein:

“[M]ost observers consider it more likely that a unified Democratic government would pursue the election agenda the House passed in 2019 – and that former President Barack Obama recently endorsed in his eulogy for Rep. John Lewis. That would include approving a new Voting Rights Act, measures to ease registration and access to voting, limits on gerrymandering of congressional districts, constraints on unregulated political spending and potentially making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico new states. (The House has already voted for DC statehood but has not addressed Puerto Rico.)”

A trifecta Democratic government would also at least seriously consider abolition of the legislative filibuster, a goal Obama endorsed in those same remarks at Lewis’s funeral.

At some point the Democratic popular majority is going to reject being regularly consigned to the tender mercies of a GOP minority that’s mostly interested in fighting to protect its illicit power.

August 7: Trump Claims God and the Bible

After shaking my head for a while, I wrote up the latest Trump outrage at New York:

If you want a good, clear sense of how transactional Donald Trump’s relationship with the conservative Evangelical Christians who make up his strongest base of support really is, check out this rambling litany of comments he made in a radio interview today with his buddy Geraldo Rivera after the host inquired about how well he thought he was doing against Joe Biden:

TRUMP: One of the polls said, “Trump is leading by one in Texas.” Okay, I’m in favor of oil and gas, I’m in favor of the Bible, I’m in favor of the Second Amendment, right? Biden’s against all these things. He’s against oil and gas, he’s against the Bible — essentially against religion, but against the Bible — and he’s against the Second Amendment.

RIVERA: That may be a little harsh, him being against the Bible …

TRUMP: Well, the people that control him totally are …

Then the two of them wandered off into attacks on Biden as an “empty suit” and discussed “shy Trump voters” and other Trumpian memes. But given the importance of Bible believers to the president’s reelection, his casual mention of the Good Book as a political positioning item to tick off, like oil-and-gas subsidies and gun rights, shows how little respect he has for these voters.

Beyond this, does Trump have any idea what’s in the Bible from any sort of Christian viewpoint? Recall that when asked about his favorite Bible verse in 2016, he responded with the decisively un-Christian “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” line from the Hebrew Scriptures. He never goes to church unless it’s to pick up an endorsement. So what do you suppose he thinks it means to say that he’s “for the Bible” and Biden is “against the Bible”? Presumably, it’s that Trump is on the “right” side and Biden is on the “wrong” side of Christian-right litmus tests opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights, which, as it happens, have at best a very ambivalent relationship with the Good Book and particularly with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who never saw fit to so much as mention either subject.

Is there even the remotest chance the president has a clue about the very different conservative and liberal Protestant interpretations of Biblical passages bearing on political topics, from the patriarchal sex-and-gender codes the former deem critical to the peace-and-equality messages cherished by the latter? Since he’s calling the observant Catholic Joe Biden an opponent of the Bible, does he know Catholics view the Bible (not codified until the fourth century) as a product of the Church rather than the other way around, intelligible only via Church teachings and rational inquiry? It seems more likely that he can fluidly interpret the “unknown tongues” some of his conservative Pentecostal supporters regard as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, Trump seems to be warming to the idea of describing himself as God’s candidate, as reflected in remarks he made in Ohio today, according to Felicia Somnez:

“In Ohio remarks just now, Trump says Biden will ‘hurt the Bible, hurt God.’ Then he says: “‘He’s against God.'”

When he talks like this, Secret Service agents should scan the skies for signs of clouds from which thunderbolts might come crashing down.

All of this is simply to say that a religious illiterate with heathenish leanings like Donald Trump really needs to stay far away from blithe assertions of his and his opponent’s relationship to the Bible, Christianity, or faith itself. His religious allies can delude themselves all they want about Trump being an ignorant vehicle of divine vengeance against their liberal enemies, but even they tend to shy away from the assertion that Trump — who once famously said he had no sins to confess — is a God-fearing man in any serious sense. He’ll toe the Christian-right line as long as it’s necessary to carry the electoral votes of states like Texas, and not a moment longer.

August 5: 2020 As the New 2010

After thinking back to the calamitous 2010 election cycle, it occurred to me to compare 202o as a potential corrective to it, and wrote about it at New York.

Democrats came out of the 2008 elections feeling really good, and not just about the fact that they had nominated, and the country had elected, America’s first Black president. After two consecutive national landslide wins, they were sitting pretty across the land, with a super-majority in the Senate, the largest margin of control in the House either party had in decades, 29 governorships, and 27 state legislatures (and a share of power in eight more). There was much talk of an Obama Coalition that included all the rising elements of the electorate, and of the GOP as a spent force that had wrecked the economy and shown the folly of its foreign policy hubris in Iraq.

But in the 2010 midterms, disaster struck for Democrats. They lost 63 House seats — the most either party had lost since 1948 — and losing control of the chamber. Republicans flipped seven U.S. Senate seats, six governorships, and an incredible 20 state legislative chambers. If the size of the comeback was impressive, the timing was impeccable. All those state gains gave the GOP the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process that unfolded in 2011 and 2012 in which legislatures redrew lines for themselves and their U.S. House delegations. Particularly egregious Republican gerrymandering ensued in states ranging from the midwest (e.g., Michigan and Wisconsin) to the northeast (Pennsylvania) to the sunbelt (Florida, North Carolina, and Texas).

While most of the focus ahead of the 2020 elections is on the presidential contest and the Democratic drive to regain control of the U.S. Senate, the wave that seems to be building up for the Donkey Party could equal 2018’s and put Democrats in a far better position in the next round of redistricting than seemed possible less than a year ago.

Right now the Democratic advantage in the congressional generic ballot — a polling estimation of the national House popular vote — gives them a 8.8 percent advantage, according to RealClearPolitics averages. They won the national House popular vote by 8.4 percent in 2018, so they are on track to consolidate and perhaps expand their control of the House, which could be crucial if Joe Biden becomes president and the usual midterm House losses for the party controlling the White House occur in 2022.

But it’s at the state legislative level that big 2020 gains could pay off richly for Democrats, as Ron Brownstein explained on Friday:

“Democrats are pursuing a wide range of state-level targets in both the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt. Party strategists believe they have the best chance to dislodge current Republican majorities in the Minnesota state Senate; the state Houses in Texas, Michigan, and Iowa; and one or both chambers in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The GOP advantage now stands at six seats or fewer in all of those chambers except the Texas and Pennsylvania houses, where the Republican cushion is nine seats each. Democratic groups are contesting Florida and Georgia as well, but with the bigger GOP margins there (14 seats in Florida and 16 in Georgia), they remain a tougher climb.”

It’s worth noting that among these targets, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas are expected to gain seats in the reapportionment of the U.S. House after the Census is complete, while Michigan and Pennsylvania are expected to lose seats. These are the states where control of redistricting can have the biggest partisan impact.

Democratic potential in state legislative races actually may be larger than you’d guess from looking at the overall balance of power as indicated by the presidential contest:

“For the legislative races, the key question isn’t whether Trump or the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, wins a given state; it’s how Trump and Biden perform in the specific seats Democrats are targeting, particularly in major metropolitan regions. Even if Trump holds states such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona by maximizing his rural performance, Democrats could still get a huge boost in down-ballot races if Biden routs the president in the growing urban and suburban areas. Biden’s performance in big metros is ‘the whole ball game,’ Vicky Hausman, the founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority, a Democratic group that tries to flip state chambers, told me. ‘Trump can run up the score in the rural areas, and it doesn’t impact our path to the majority through the suburbs.'”

Unfortunately for Democrats, there are only 11 governorships up for grabs in 2020, and according to the Cook Political Report, the only two competitive races (in North Carolina and Montana) involve seats currently held by Democrats.

Still, if Democrats can pull off an election cycle in which they gain the White House and the Senate; consolidate their hold on the House; and gain the upper hand in redistricting in a number of states with large congressional delegations, that will represent a good year’s work.

July 31: Trump’s Ultimate Strategy on Voting By Mail

An ominous series of strategic moves from Donald Trump began to dawn on me, and I wrote about it for New York:

The president is getting a lot of much-deserved negative attention for his weird little tweet  suggesting that the 2020 election should be delayed — up to and including a co-founder of the Federalist Society saying that it was “fascistic” and merited a new impeachment proceeding. But considering how rapidly the idea is being repudiated by everyone in both parties, it’s likely Trump was simply adding fuel to the fire of his relentless campaign to stigmatize voting by mail, which he continued in an afternoon press conference. And it’s increasingly apparent that he has a two-pronged strategy in doing this, based on the strong likelihood that even if all the experts mock his claims about voting by mail, Republican voters will listen, setting up a strange dual election in which one party’s voters disproportionately show up on Election Day while the others disproportionately vote by mail.

One reason he might want to do this is highlighted by David Wasserman in a column warning that mail ballots are always more likely to be invalidated than in-person ballots, with the disparity skyrocketing this year:

“The real danger is a perfect catastrophe of administrative overload, postal delays and voter error that could lead to millions of absentee ballots not counting. And this year, unlike the past, those ballots are likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic … An extensive study by Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, estimates the true number of uncounted mail ballots in 2016 was … 1.4 million — 4 percent of all mail ballots cast.

“’Voting by mail is twice as involved administratively than voting in person,” Stewart said. “If problems arise in mail voting, it’s twice as hard to correct them than it is in person. And first-time voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected.’”

And that’s in a normal year, when you don’t have the number of people trying to vote by mail — many of them in states totally unaccustomed to this phenomenon — spiked by fears of contracting a deadly virus, and/or by inadequate in-person voting infrastructure in their neighborhoods (especially minority neighborhoods). As Wasserman observes, the record of states handling mail ballots in this year’s primaries has been ominous:

“[I]n pandemic-era primaries, rejection rates have been even higher, as ill-equipped and understaffed election offices strain to meet surging demand for mail ballots from voters inexperienced with casting them.

“In Wisconsin, over 9,000 requested ballots were never mailed to voters and 23,000 absentees (more than 2 percent) were rejected. In Kentucky’s Fayette County, the state’s second largest, 8 percent of absentees were tossed out. And in parts of New York City, upward of 20 percent of absentees have been flagged as invalid.”

If big majorities of these mail ballots are being cast by Democrats, then Democrats will lose votes they would otherwise harvest. And in a close election, that could be decisive, or at least muddy the waters.

And speaking of muddy waters, there appears to be a second prong of Trump’s strategy, which I have written about before:

“In most states, Election Day results are reported first (and in all states they are counted before late-arriving mail ballots and provisional ballots, both of which already tend to skew Democratic). So if Republicans are disproportionately voting in person and Democrats are disproportionately voting by mail, misleading early returns may show Trump and other Republicans doing much better than they will eventually do, enabling Trump to claim fraud when those evil mail ballots turn it all around for Biden and his Democrats.

“Anyone doubting this is a plausible scenario needs to look back to 2018, when Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy made specious claims of voter fraud when late-arriving mail ballots predictably shifted the results in key House races in California. It could have been a dress rehearsal for what might happen this November.”

And it’s with this scenario in mind that an even later tweet by Trump today should be viewed, in which he said: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months or even years later!”

After having this message beaten into their brains by Trump for weeks on end, MAGA folk — and for that matter, election officials in Republican-controlled states and counties — will be very inclined to view mail-ballot-dominated later returns as fraudulent, just as POTUS keeps saying they are. I don’t know exactly what Trump will do with the toxic atmosphere he might create with Election Night claims of total victory based on relatively small fractions of the ultimate vote. Maybe it would spawn litigation, or violence in the streets, or even schemes for Republican legislatures to begin naming electors since the popular vote is “disputed.”

Either way, by hook or by crook, a partisan split in methods of voting may give Trump an unearned advantage he’ll really need in November.

Now that they have the whip hand in coronavirus stimulus negotiations in Washington, it would be a good time for congressional Democrats to make the new funds ($3.6 billion) for election assistance a must-have priority. Perhaps more competent election administration can cut down on the number of mail ballots invalidated on minor technical grounds. And surely improving the sense that we are holding a fully legitimate election that maximizes the opportunity to vote will help silence those from the White House on down who will seize on uncertainties to cry havoc.

July 29: The Evolution of the Veep Reveal

With Joe Biden indicating he will announce his choice of running-mate next week, I decided to do a brief reminder at New York of how this “reveal” has evolved over time.

Until pretty recently, the veep preference of the nominee was traditionally announced, and more often than not actually determined, at the convention itself. In part that was because the identity of the presidential nominee wasn’t always nailed down heading into the convention, making a running mate announcement more than a little presumptuous. Additionally, the veep selection often represented a plum appointment that might prove helpful either in winning the nomination or uniting a splintered party. The ultimate non-presumptuous gesture was made by Adlai Stevenson in 1956, when he allowed the the Democratic convention to name his running mate in open balloting for the gig. After three ballots the convention chose Tennessee populist Estes Kefauver over a young senator named John F. Kennedy (with the father of a future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Albert Gore Sr., finishing third, and yet another future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, running fourth).

Equally unpredictable veep selections took place at conventions for less indifferent reasons. In 1968, Richard Nixon picked Spiro T. Agnew as an inoffensive choice after better-known options were vetoed by party factions he consulted. He did not, of course, know that Agnew would eventually resign in disgrace during his second vice-presidential term as part of a plea bargain, when he was caught taking bribes dating back to his first public office as Baltimore County Executive. In 1972, George McGovern was turned down by multiple pols before he turned to Senator Tom Eagleton — later dropped from the ticket for undisclosed health problems and drunk-driving citations (after, unfortunately, McGovern said he was “1,000 percent” behind the Missourian).

The Eagleton fiasco helped produce today’s very careful process of extensive vetting of potential running mates. That happened in tandem with a presidential nominating process dominated by primaries, which robbed conventions of most of their deliberative nature and also made possible pre-convention running mate announcements. According to data assembled by Nathaniel Rakich, the last veep announcement at a convention was in 1988 when Poppy Bush (himself announced at the 1980 convention as Reagan’s running mate after wild speculation about a Reagan-Ford ticket) chose Dan Quayle. Since then, all but two veep reveals occurred within a week of the convention, at which the choice would be formally ratified (including Obama’s naming of Biden just three days before the 2008 convention). The exceptions were John Kerry’s announcement of John Edwards as his partner 20 days before the 2004 Democratic convention and Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan 16 days before 2012’s RNC. With the 2020 Democratic convention beginning on August 17, Biden will soon be within the historical window for going public with his choice.

Occasionally the timing of veep announcements has had a secondary purpose. In 2008, John McCain’s surprise announcement of Sarah Palin occurred the day after the Democratic convention nominated Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The idea was to “step on” news from the Democrats and shorten and flatten any convention “bounce.” It worked to some extent. Hillary Clinton tried the same thing by announcing Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016 the day after the RNC ended. It did not work as Trump still got a good bounce. With the Republicans going second this year and Trump not expected to dump Mike Pence, no preemptive announcement is in the cards for 2020.

Biden, of course, has reduced the mystery of his veep preference considerably by announcing in advance that he will choose a woman — who will be the first woman selected as a Democratic running mate since Fritz Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro (that was announced four days before the 1984 Democratic convention). The fact that this year’s confab will be largely virtual, however, places a premium on Biden’s veep reveal, which may provide the only Democratic drama before Uncle Joe’s acceptance speech on August 20. Presumably, social-distancing requirements in Milwaukee will prevent the traditional clasped-hands gesture uniting the new ticket mates. Perhaps if Democrats win, a handshake or even a chaste hug will be possible before they are inaugurated next January.

July 23: No, the GOP Isn’t Moving to the Center

After another writer poured cold water on an absurd idea concerning the trajectory of the Republican Party, I amplified at New York:

With the president’s reelection prospects looking poor lately, there’s naturally an upsurge in speculation about his party’s future leadership. If he loses non-catastrophically, you might expect a struggle for the soul of the GOP between the conservative wing of the party that was dominant before Trump and various representatives of the authoritarian-populist twist on conservatism Trump represents.

But a lot of the chatter about post-Trump Republicanism dwells on two pols who would not have been considered serious national party leaders before 2016 and who most definitely do not espouse Trumpism without Trump. Those would be northeastern governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Baker had to publicly rule out a 2020 primary challenge to Trump to kill rumors that it might happen, and Hogan confesses he considered entering the race himself. Both men typically make the lists of 2024 presidential prospects.

What they have in common is a record of winning elections and reelections in heavily Democratic states and an ability to get national attention for distinguishing their views from those of a president who is toxically unpopular in those same states. As McKay Coppins notes in a deeply skeptical column on Hogan’s presidential prospects, that makes these moderate heretics vastly more popular among political writers than among Republican voters:

“[H]e’s routinely introduced as a prospective 2024 candidate. And as a popular blue-state governor with a pragmatic streak, Hogan is catnip for a certain kind of centrist pundit who has long fantasized about the heroic moderate riding in on a white horse to deliver the GOP from barbarism.

“But figures like Hogan have a history of attracting more column inches than votes in Republican presidential primaries. (See: John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, assorted other Jo(h)ns.)”

For the moment, and perhaps for good, pols like Hogan and Baker who have criticized Trump on multiple issues have in effect traded any possibility of national party significance for popularity back home. It works because the GOP in their states is so weak they will themselves trade orthodoxy for the rare opportunity to win statewide races (though it’s worth noting that Baker has lost control of his state party, and some speculate he may choose to run for a third gubernatorial term as an independent). And the self-disqualification for national leadership these moderates have invited isn’t just a matter of criticizing Trump: They are both pro-choice, which is an absolute nonstarter when it comes to being taken seriously as a presidential candidate in today’s GOP. The party remains formally committed to a constitutional amendment banning all abortions forever from the moment of conception.

The real leadership options Republicans will face if Trump loses in November will probably come down to the hard-core conservatives (think 2016 candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, plus Nikki Haley), who accommodated themselves to MAGA over the past four years but represent an older conservative movement, or the designated Trump successors (e.g., Mike Pence, Donald Jr., or Tucker Carlson), or perhaps those who may represent a sort of protofascist extension of Trumpism (e.g., Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley). There remains, of course, the possibility that the 45th president himself will hang around in hopes of becoming the 47th. It’s infinitely more probable than the prospect of Hogan or Baker leading the Republican Party.

July 22: Trump on Wrong Track for Reelection

As part of my general coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign at New York, I noted Charlie Cook’s discussion of an important metric for presidents running for reelection:

If you want to know why Team Trump is so frantic to make the November election a “choice” rather than a “referendum,” Charlie Cook has a very good answer: Presidents running for reelection when voters are sour on the country’s direction tend to lose, sometimes badly. There’s a polling metric for that perception, generally known as right track/wrong track:

“[This is] an age-old poll question, usually worded something like: ‘Generally speaking, do you think that the country is headed in the right direction or is off on the wrong track?’ Ronald Reagan’s legendary pollster Richard Wirthlin popularized the metric, even calling it ‘the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.'”

It’s a particularly important number for presidents running for reelection. There have been six of those in the past 40 years. For the four who won, the “right track” number just prior to the election was at 47 percent (Reagan 1984), 39 percent (Clinton 1996), 41 percent (George W. Bush 2004) and 42 percent (Obama 2012). The two who lost had much poorer “right track” numbers: 20 percent (Carter 1980) and 17 percent (Poppy Bush 1992).

Guess which set of numbers is similar to today’s? Cook has the answer:

“In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, ‘right direction’ was a dismal 19 percent, compared to a ‘wrong track’ of 72 percent, for a net minus 53 points. These are numbers screaming for change, and unlike four years ago when Donald Trump was running against a party that had held the White House for eight years, he is seeking a contract renewal and representing the status quo. Joe Biden is the candidate of change, even if it is a change back toward normal. Indeed, a different Republican strategist summed up the mood of the electorate as hoping for someone to make their lives normal again.”

Getting voters to change their view of Biden sufficiently to make them forget about the terrible disappointments of the Trump administration — including its mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic — would be quite the heavy lift even if Trump were a sunny, likable fellow who just ran into a patch of bad luck and held some residual goodwill from a sizable majority of the public. He’s none of that, of course, and really needs a positive feeling about the direction of the country to offset deeply entrenched misgivings about his nasty, erratic, and mendacious personality.

July 18: RIP John Lewis. His Struggle Will Survive Him.

On the sad news of the death of John Lewis, I’ll republish here the piece I wrote earlier this month for New York on a new documentary about his life.

On the eve of the 44th president’s inauguration in Washington, Georgia congressman John Lewis said, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

This was a remarkable comment from the man who was severely injured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, a police riot that horrified the country and paved the way for adoption of the Voting Rights Act in July of that year. David Remnick’s 2010 Obama biography made Lewis’s quote a departure point; the new president represented the “Joshua generation” that had reached a post-racial promised land through the efforts of the “Moses generation” of civil-rights leaders like Lewis. By implication, that older generation could retire from the spotlight with dignity, its essential work having been completed.

Over a decade later, for John Lewis at least, that dignified retirement turned out to be an illusion. In a new documentary film by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the veteran voting-rights champion views himself as facing the potential reversal of his life’s work via an open conservative crusade to restrict the franchise, led by Obama’s successor in the White House. Indeed, Obama himself is a relatively minor figure in the film, which skillfully alternates between footage and narrative of Lewis’s early life and his series of key contributions to the civil-rights and voting-rights movements of the 1960s, and his most recent efforts to fight voter suppression and the white identity politics of the contemporary right, notably in the 2018 midterm elections.

There’s an anecdote in the film in which a Lewis speechwriter asked him if he had ever spoken before a crowd as large as the one he addressed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (a speech for which I had the privilege of helping rehearse Lewis, the most decent politician I met in many years of convention service). He gently reminded her he had spoken to a throng of a quarter-million people during the March.

At every step of the way, Lewis was brutalized by police and civilian racist violence, earning him respect even from his enemies for his courage, without shaking his commitment to the principles of nonviolence he learned in Nashville. Porter’s film touches on the famous incidents in which Lewis was so intimately involved, including the Freedom Summer in Mississippi that led to the murder of civil-rights volunteers by Klansmen, another moment that helped rouse the conscience of the country.

Likely because the film wants to depict Lewis’s current political battles as something of a throwback to his civil-rights heyday, it doesn’t dwell much on his turn to more conventional political pursuits, other than a segment on the sadly bitter 1986 congressional election in which Lewis defeated his old friend and SNCC colleague (and later NAACP chairman) Julian Bond, and began his long career in the U.S. House.

But in the portions of the film devoted to his more recent campaign work we are shown the merger of Lewis’s social movement and party politics backgrounds. It’s made clear that the development that turned him from a well-deserved semi-retirement was the destruction of the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Right Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. The shocking nature of this reversal is illustrated by footage of George W. Bush proudly signing a bipartisan extension of the VRA in 2006.

By 2018, Lewis was barnstorming the country, pursuing the twin goals of a Democratic takeover of the House (in which he serves in the party leadership) and the battle to vindicate voting rights. A segment on midterm Election Night and the immediate aftermath shows his pride in the party’s victory (which also expanded the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus), but also his dismay at the defeat of Stacey Abrams, in some respects his heir as a southern voting-rights champion, for the governorship of his own state after an aggressive campaign of voter suppression by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Toward the end of Porter’s film, he is given tributes by a number of young politicians of color (e.g., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Cory Booker) who stress both his legacy and his continued leadership. Now they, rather than Obama, seem to represent the end of the bridge in Selma. Stacey Abrams encapsulates the message by saying Lewis is a living reminder that “the past isn’t past.”

You get the sense watching Lewis in the more recent footage that like most people his age, he’s slowed down. His wife of 44 years, Lillian, passed away in 2012. There is no explicit reference to his diagnosis late last year of pancreatic cancer, though clearly his staff and friends are solicitous about his health. There’s no question the upshot of the film is that defeating Donald Trump in 2020 and reestablishing inalienable voting rights would represent the capstone of a very public life. Even if his body is now weak, his voice is the same, bred in the sermons of the Black church in Jim Crow Alabama, a voice of prophecy, determination, and charity. I’m sure John Lewis has his regrets like all of us, but his principles haven’t changed since his training in nonviolent social change in Nashville six decades ago.

The title of Porter’s film comes from a frequently repeated saying of Lewis’s, usually preceded by a reference to his 40 arrests over the years: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” It’s his fate to be placed in the position of still being a troublemaker at the age of 80. But for this singular man, it’s more appropriate than a quiet retirement.

May he rest in piece as others take up his struggle.