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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

September 17: Midterm Implications of Big Recall Win Are Mixed

Pouring over the details of the gubernatorial recall election in California, some significant patterns emerged, as I noted at New York:

The overwhelming defeat of the effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom was a big victory for a Democratic Party that has had its troubles lately. With the margin of victory for the “no on recall” campaign roughly doubling the already-robust advantage shown in pre-election polls, the earlier scare that the recall threw into the ranks of the Golden State’s dominant party dissipated entirely. With about three-fourths of the expected vote now counted, “no” leads “yes” by a 63.8 to 36.2 margin (which could get even larger if the usual pattern of last-cast mail ballots leaning Democratic manifests itself once again).

The “no” vote was remarkably close to Joe Biden’s performance in California in 2020 (he won 63.5 percent). Given the extreme partisan polarization that underlay the recall vote (exit polls showed 89 percent of self-identified Republicans voting “yes” and 94 percent of self-identified Democrats voting “no”), that means the partisan patterns of the presidential race were reduplicated to a remarkable extent in a non-presidential special election, where Democrats often experience a “falloff,” particularly when they control the White House (and in this case, the governorship). That’s great news for California Democrats, and not a bad sign for Democrats nationally, who are bracing for the midterm losses the “White House Party” typically suffers.

Precisely because of the reduplication of the 2020 patterns, there’s really nothing about the recall returns that suggests Democrats are sure to claw back some House seats in California. Two of the four seats Republicans flipped in 2020 (with Asian-American women Young Kim and Michelle Steele as candidates) were centered in Orange County. While “no” won in Orange, the recall race there was closer than the Biden-Trump contest of 2020. A third battleground seat was the one Republican David Valadao won in a very competitive section of the San Joaquin Valley. The recall improved on Trump’s 2020 performance in every county in his district (e.g., Trump won 55 percent in Kings County, but “yes” on recalling Newsom won 63 percent). These results could reflect an intensifying alienation of this heavily agricultural area from Sacramento’s environmental and water-supply policies. Or it could reflect a drop-off in Latino turnout that could spell disaster for Democrats in close 2022 races. Either way the recall numbers should give pause to Democratic optimism about midterm House races.

One study of 2020 returns in California showed Latino turnout trailing non-Latino turnout by about 10 percent. One mail-ballot tracker for the recall showed the turnout gap between Latinos and non-Latino white voters swelling to 20 percent. Youth turnout for the recall was also terrible, exit polls suggest. Yes, these are constituencies that are difficult to mobilize in special elections. But that’s also true of midterm elections, which is a problem Democrats in California and elsewhere need to solve.

The bottom line is that Newsom won the Democratic and Democratic-leaning elements of the California electorate by strongly encouraging partisan polarization via his lavishly funded campaign. This was the obvious smart strategy in this heavily Democratic state. It’s less clear the same strategy will work wonders downballot for Democrats in 2022, which they probably will not have a big financial advantage and shifts in public opinion away from the presidential winner may have settled in, as they did for the last three presidents. Even if Democrats hang onto their monopoly of statewide offices and their super-majorities in the state legislature, any failure to make progress in House races could contribute to the much-dreaded moment when Californian Nancy Pelosi hands over her gavel to Californian Kevin McCarthy, and the Democratic trifecta that gives Biden a chance to implement his agenda comes to an end.

September 16: You Can’t Save Democracy By Appeasing Its Enemies

Having spotted an argument for stubborn bipartisanship on voting rights, I decided to respond at New York:

Right now, voting rights in America are subject to a condition of partisan gridlock in Washington that preserves Republicans’ ability to wreak havoc on voting and election laws in the states they control. So long as centrist Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to consider a carve-out for voting-rights legislation to liberate it from the Senate filibuster, that’s where things will stand at least through the 2022 elections, in which the GOP has a very good shot at busting up the current Democratic trifecta.

The Manchin-Sinema position is that voting-rights protections must be enacted by a bipartisan coalition to instill confidence in the system given the Trump-induced mistrust that metastasized during and after the 2020 elections, inspiring the attempted and ongoing MAGA coup to challenge or overturn the results. The central question now is what happens when (it’s no longer really a matter of “if”) it becomes unmistakably clear that Republicans won’t cooperate with “compromise” efforts like those in which Manchin has engaged twice this year.

At the invaluable Election Law Blog, Ohio State University professor Ned Foley answers the question by suggesting Democrats might just want to let the GOP do its worst for a while, assuming the “worst” doesn’t fall below some hypothetical “floor” of “minimal conditions necessary for an election to qualify as being small-d democratic.” His basic argument provides sort of a theoretical underpinning for Manchin’s reflexive belief (sincere or merely tactical, given the very red political coloration of his state) that election reforms that aren’t bipartisan simply aren’t worth enacting.

Before addressing Foley’s take, I will emphasize that his counsel of strategic surrender for Democrats is contingent, not absolute: If Republicans violate the hypothetical “floor” that Foley discusses but does not define, then he says Democrats have no choice but to override GOP voter-suppression measures if they can, even if such partisan action exacerbates the GOP’s “electoral McCarthyism” (his term for the Big Lie ideology of pervasive but never documented “voter fraud” claims).

But Foley pretty clearly thinks that what Republicans are doing in states like Georgia and Texas isn’t so very bad, and concentrates his argument on the importance of keeping Republicans from falling into an authoritarian pit forever:

“[W]hen as now the especially dangerous and distinctive paranoid conditions of electoral McCarthyism have taken root, and are growing, it seems as if that kind of one-party imposition of its electoral policy preference upon the other party that suffers from the paranoia of electoral McCarthyism has the potential of being extremely counterproductive. Indeed, it risks propelling forward the possibility of a reaction that would cause the society to fall below the floor of what’s essential for small-d democracy, thereby bringing out the circumstance that is exactly desired to be avoided.”

It’s less obvious how Foley (or Manchin) would ameliorate “electoral McCarthyism,” other than this very wishful thinking:

“Might it not be a smarter strategy to let Republicans write the rules for upcoming elections (as long as they remain within the realm of adequacy in terms of casting and counting votes), and then be able to say to them after they have lost, ‘Hey, we conducted the process exactly how you wanted it; what possibly gives you a basis for complaining with the result just because you lost?'”

There are two pretty big and obvious problems with this surrender strategy. The first is the most obvious: What if Republicans don’t lose in 2022 or 2024? If they win, they may very well be convinced that making it harder for their enemies to vote saved them, and ask for more helpings of the same satisfying meal. They will, moreover, have the power to do just that in more states, and to thwart Democratic voting-rights efforts in Washington for the foreseeable future. A Democratic surrender on voting rights that produces defeat would be accurately viewed as a betrayal of the loyal minority constituencies that lifted Democrats to victory in 2020.

The second flaw in the surrender strategy is it relies on the premise there is some silver bullet that will slay the Big Lie; that there is a single item feeding Republican “mistrust” of the electoral system that can be disproved by letting them indulge their malign fantasies. There really isn’t.

Yes, some Republican base voters believe without evidence that there is currently rampant “voter fraud” that can be prevented with greater vigilance. Others think voting by mail is inherently corrupt; since it hasn’t been outlawed anywhere, wouldn’t reestablishing the traditional Election Day — part of the lost America Donald Trump promised to restore — be an important agenda item to be pursued with renewed vigor? Still others think the problem is easily herded minority voters who want to vote themselves government benefits (the heart of Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” remark); they might favor a return to literacy tests or polls taxes. Some “constitutional conservatives” reject any electoral outcomes that undermine “natural rights” (e.g., to property or to fetal “personhood”) that they regard as having been established by the Founders and God Almighty. They aren’t going to wake up and recommit to small-d democracy.

And then you have the people who exist in both political parties, and indeed every political party from the beginning of time, who don’t bother with theories or evidence or “rights” at all and simply favor whatever electoral arrangements improve their chances of victory. What makes today’s Republicans distinctive in that respect is that their leader, the 45th president of the United States, exemplifies that attitude as much as Jesus Christ exemplified the Golden Rule. Indeed, winning at any cost is Donald Trump’s Golden Rule.

Even in the more “reasonable” precincts of the Republican Party, among people who don’t promote the Big Lie and all but visibly roll their eyes at Trump’s excesses, there is currently an iron and nearly universal opposition to the enhancement of any federally established voting rights, even those (most notably those protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965) that their own party accepted and even celebrated until the U.S. Supreme Court began tearing them apart in recent years. So even if Foley is right and the current passion for vitiating voting rights at the state level burns itself out, does that mean bipartisan support for establishing a durable national floor for voting rights via federal legislation will magically return? There’s no reason to think so.

It’s regrettable that purely partisan avenues are the only ones available to Democrats right now on this and so many other crucial questions. And yes, wherever possible, Democrats should exhibit reasonableness unilaterally as the sole custodians of small-d democracy. A voting-rights bill imposed by a filibuster carve-out or (even less likely) budget reconciliation need not include every conceivable or advisable reform, so as to enable Republican claims of a “power grab.” Restoring the Voting Rights Act to its original dimensions might be enough, along with modest measures to clarify how post-election challenges work so the courts don’t have to litigate them endlessly.

If today’s wave of voter suppression in the States grows worse next year and after the midterms, the folly of Manchinism will become more evident than ever. You cannot restore bipartisanship, on voting rights or anything else of significance, by giving power to your extremist opponents in hopes they will come to their senses or become glutted with too much winning.

September 9: Anti-Abortion Movement Won’t Be Satisfied With Reversing Roe

As the specter of a Supreme Court repudiation of a constitutional right to choose an abortion becomes very tangible, I offered some thoughts at New York about where the fight over reproductive rights might ultimately go:

These are high times for the movement to abolish the constitutional right to an abortion. It has long since conquered one of our two major national political parties. Via that partnership, three justices strongly supported by the movement ascended to the Supreme Court when Donald Trump was president. Last week, all three joined justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in a shocking decision to green-light, at least temporarily, a Texas law banning all abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy. And now the odds are high that the Court will reverse or significantly modify its precedents on abortion in a case on the immediate horizon involving a Mississippi law that directly challenges the Court’s protections for pre-viability abortions laid down in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

If that’s how the deal goes down, anti-abortion activists, after they finish celebrating, will focus on spreading abortion bans into contested territory beyond the red states where they have routinely been enacted in recent years, right? Having spent 48 years arguing that states, not courts, should control abortion policy, they’ll be happy to slug it out with their pro-choice opponents in state capitols where neither side has a prohibitive advantage, right?

Not necessarily. Truth is, hardly anyone has ever joined the anti-abortion movement out of passionate support for states’ rights. Sure, in the immediate shock of Roe v. Wade, the idea that a policy matter controlled by state laws since time immemorial would instead be dictated by the federal courts seemed alien. But 48 years later, that shock has surely faded. There are no state legislators pining for the power they lost in 1973 when many of them weren’t yet born or were children playing with toys rather than the lives of women. And the official position of the anti-abortion movement has been clear from the beginning: As early as 1973, it had backed various versions of the Human Life Amendment, a device to place fetal rights into the U.S. Constitution and ban abortion nationwide, not simply reversing but displacing the privacy-based right to abortion identified in Roe.

While the movement suffered from a strategic split between those supporting both an amendment and a return to state-controlled election law and those for whom only the former would do, there was never any question that banning abortion everywhere by the most efficient means available was the common goal. The Human Life Amendment made its way into the national Republican platform as early as 1980.

But securing a constitutional amendment these days isn’t just problematic. The process — with its requirement of a proposal by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress (or a much less likely state-called constitutional convention) and ratification by three-fourths of the states — has made the prospect all but extinct for anything remotely controversial. So unsurprisingly, support has grown steadily among anti-abortion advocates for securing protections for “human life” by the same means once used to strip them away: the Supreme Court. As Garrett Epps notes, a recent amicus brief filed by two highly distinguished conservative legal thinkers, John Finnis and Robert George, makes the argument explicit:

“The prohibition of abortion, they told the [Supreme] Court in their brief, is ‘constitutionally obligatory because unborn children are persons within the original public meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.’ No state can permit it, they say.”

The idea that the congressional devisers of the 14th Amendment thought the term persons included zygotes is preposterous, says Epps. But as a strategic matter, getting an increasingly conservative Court with members closely associated with the anti-abortion movement to adopt the Human Life Amendment by judicial fiat makes excellent sense, at least as a goal.

Even if that outcome presently looks distant, its logic is powerful to those accustomed to arguing that “the unborn,” from conception, are people who are metaphysically and morally indistinguishable from those we see walking around. As Harvard professor Jeannie Suk Gerson observed in 2019, the growing tendency of Republican legislators to discard the exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, which used to be standard fare in legislation restricting abortion, reflects a “personhood” point of view. It’s significant that neither of the state abortion laws adopted in Mississippi and Texas that are creating such a stir right now has a rape or incest exception. That’s not because the lawmakers drafting them are simply stupid or cruel (though Texas governor Greg Abbott was arguably both in his ridiculous claim that he would eradicate rape in his state so pregnancies resulting from it would no longer exist). They simply reflect a different concept of personhood. And though efforts to put this radical concept into state constitutions have fared poorly in ballot tests over the years, it’s clearly gaining momentum in the anti-abortion movement and conservative legal circles.

Short of that long shot, if Roe is knocked down, you can expect conservatives to do the same thing progressives are talking about doing: promoting legislation in Congress to establish a preemptive national policy on abortion. It would be a statute, not a constitutional provision, and thus could quickly be reversed after one adverse election; but as long as it was in effect, it would ban abortions in New York, California, and Vermont just as surely as in Alabama, West Virginia, or Utah. It’s not a practical immediate possibility for Republicans because they control neither Congress nor the White House (a Democratic president would obviously veto such a law). But if Republicans regain the trifecta they lost in 2018 at a time when Roe has already been overturned, of course they would try to enact a preemptive statue, and, in fact, given the power of the anti-abortion movement in the GOP, they might well sweep aside or change the rules allowing filibusters to make it possible without a supermajority.

The bottom line is that happiness over a potential Supreme Court counterrevolution on the right to choose isn’t going to make anti-abortion activists complacent or even willing to play by a new set of rules in the traditional sandbox of state legislation. Give ’em an inch and they will want to take control of the reproductive systems of every woman in America. And let’s not concede any false equivalence between the two “teams”: Nobody is talking about forcing anyone to have an abortion. But the anti-abortion movement is very definitely talking about, and planning toward, a system in which every pregnant woman will be forced to carry pregnancies to term. And that would be true from sea to shining sea.

September 7: Abortion Politics Could Help Democrats in the 2022 Midterms

As I continue to mull the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s conduct in its review of Texas’s new abortion law, I offered these thoughts at New York:

The growing brouhaha over Texas’ new law banning all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to declare it unconstitutional by hiding behind its weird private-citizen enforcement mechanism, are competing for attention with other crises at this late-summer juncture. But the new controversies over abortion law are likely to remain at the center of public attention — to the point that abortion could even be a bipartisan voting issue of unprecedented significance in the 2022 midterms.

The legal calendar makes it entirely possible. Whatever the murky trajectory of legal maneuvering over Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson — the case that triggered last week’s Supreme Court order at least temporarily green-lighting a pre-viability abortion ban — compliance (so far) of abortion providers is giving pro-choice Americans a taste of what life was like before Roe v. Wade struck down state abortion bans in 1973. And perhaps more importantly, the same Court that provided five votes to smile upon Texas’ mischief will soon hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, involving Mississippi’s direct challenge to Roe. The decision in that case will probably (given the usual big-case timetable for SCOTUS) come down in June or even July of 2022, just as the midterm election campaign is gearing up. And if, as is widely expected, the Court reverses or significantly modifies the federal constitutional right to abortion that has been in place for 48 years, it could become a major campaign issue for supporters of both parties and rare groups of swing voters in both federal and state elections. Below is a primer on how the legal fight over abortion could impact the vote next November.

Why would congressional elections be affected by a Court decision that has already been handed down?

If SCOTUS reverses Roe next year, and particularly if it’s a close and not entirely definitive decision, the salience of Supreme Court decisions (and Senate confirmations) in the immediate future could go up rather than down. Should, for example, Stephen Breyer still be on the Court when voters vote in November 2022, control of the Senate could be critically important to the confirmation of a successor — even one appointed by Joe Biden — and to the shape of the Court going forward. After the Merrick Garland saga, there is no doubt that a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell would sit on a Biden nomination as long as it took to preserve the SCOTUS seat for a Republican presidential successor.

Beyond that contingency, the return of a pre-Roe state of affairs on abortion law would open up the possibility of a federal statute preempting state abortion laws and establishing a national standard. This kind of action would be on the table if Democrats continue to control both Houses of Congress and the presidency after the midterms. It wouldn’t actually come to pass, of course, so long as the Senate minority can block legislation via the filibuster; abortion policy is not one of those topics that can move forward via the budget reconciliation process, since it’s not budget-germane under the Senate rules. But as my colleague Eric Levitz has suggested, it’s possible the subject could add critical pressure on Senate Democrats to reform the filibuster rules, perhaps via a “carve-out” for legislation involving individual rights like the right to choose and the right to vote.

Would local elections be affected in states other than Texas?

While SB 8 will likely make Texas ground zero for abortion politics in 2022 (it will already be competitive generally thanks to the separate red-hot controversy over the GOP-sponsored voter suppression law), a reversal of Roe could make nearly every state a battleground. Yes, the immediate focus might be on Republican-controlled states where legislators and governors will come under hellish pressure to abolish reproductive rights as quickly and thoroughly as possible. But Democrats in states they control will be just as eager to consolidate a right to abortion via new or newly implemented state laws.

Most obviously, in states where the governorship or control of legislative chambers is in play, abortion laws will have a fresh urgency as a campaign platform. And it will be an issue that is difficult to ignore, even in hard-core red states where anti-abortion activists may want to push for ever-more-draconian laws, and in hard-core blue states where issues like abortion funding and provider regulation could divide some pro-choice Democrats while giving Republicans traction.

After nearly five decades of abortion politics being mostly rhetorical, and mostly dealing with marginal issues like rare late-term abortions, a Wild West period will arrive. There will be plenty of gun-fights and saloon brawls as well: As with so many other issues, the two major parties have been totally polarized on abortion policy, with pro-choice Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats being almost hunted to extinction at the level of elected officials.

Which side of the abortion fight will have the most energy in 2022?

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

SB 8 has changed those dynamics overnight, which is one important reason (others are fear that SCOTUS’s favor will be temporary, and a tactical interest in playing down the immediate impact) the reaction to the law taking effect has been much less intense in anti-abortion than in pro-choice circles.

If SCOTUS goes the whole hog and kills or seriously wounds federal abortion rights next year, the topic could become a central focus of national Democratic messaging, in part because the perceived status quo would switch sides, and in part because rank-and-file Democrats are more unified than Republicans on abortion policy. According to a Pew survey earlier this year, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor keeping abortion “legal in all or most cases” by an 80-19 margin, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents want to make abortion “illegal in all or most cases” by a smaller 63-35 margin. In the past, Republicans have occasionally succeeded in creating splits among Democrats by focusing on side-issues like rare late-term abortions or abortion funding, but with the basic legality or illegality of abortion now front-and-center, the shoe may be on the other foot.

Will abortion swing voters?

While base mobilization will likely be the principal focus of those on both sides exploiting concerns over abortion policy, it’s possible the topic could help flip a slice of the small and shrinking but sometimes crucial portion of the electorate that is truly independent. All in all, self-identified indies stand pretty much where the electorate as a whole stands on abortion, with a significant but not overwhelming lean towards the pro-choice position. But again, a focus on the basic availability of legal abortion rather than poll-driven proposals to restrict when and why abortions will be permitted should help Democrats on average. And abortion politics could be especially helpful to Democrats defending the suburban congressional districts they won in 2018 and then held onto in 2020.

Certainly the salience of abortion politics in 2022 will depend on what else is in the news and on the minds of voters, and on the strategic thinking of partisan decision-makers and sometimes individual candidates. But with Democrats looking down the barrel of historical data suggesting likely midterm losses at both the congressional and the state level, any issue that could break the mold will be welcome.

September 1: Biden’s Underwater Approval Ratio Is Not Unusual At All

The freak-outs some Democrats are experiencing over the president’s declining job approval ratings show the need for some historical perspective, which I tried to supply at New York:

It’s unclear how much the brouhaha over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will matter in terms of the 2022 or 2024 elections, or even exactly how much it is contributing to increasingly sour public and media perceptions of Joe Biden. But there’s not much question that the intense glare of publicity over the president’s management of the situation in Kabul has eroded his previously amazing ability to lurk in the background, seemingly protected from Republican attacks, even when his policies aroused controversy. So what we may now be seeing in his job approval ratings are how well Biden fares when the eyes of the nation are riveted on his every action.

Given how Americans are feeling about current conditions in the country (at RealClearPolitics the right track/wrong track polling averages have eroded from 44-50 in May to 30-60 now), it’s not that surprising that Biden’s job-approval ratio is now underwater for the first time (47 percent approve to 49 percent disapprove in the straightforward RCP averages and 46.7 percent approve to 47.2 percent disapprove at FiveThirtyEight, which adjusts polls for partisan bias, and weighs them for reliability).

As I noted in an earlier post, reaction to adverse overseas developments can fade pretty quickly, as occurred soon after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when Gerald Ford’s approval rating rose significantly as soon as the Mayaguez incident (in which the U.S. freed merchant sailors captured by the Khmer Rouge off the Cambodian coast) replaced the Vietnam collapse in the news.

Whatever it means, Biden’s plunge underwater is hardly unique. According to a UC Santa Barbara analysis of Gallup data, every president dating back to Lyndon Johnson had net-negative approval ratings at some point. (John F. Kennedy’s abbreviated presidency was very unusual; his lowest monthly Gallup approval rating was 56 percent, not long before his assassination. His Republican predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also blessed with consistent popularity.)

The most relevant points of comparison to Biden should comfort him. Barack Obama was regularly underwater in weekly Gallup surveys nearly all of 2010, in the first half of 2011, and throughout 2014. But he managed to serve two full terms. And Donald Trump didn’t achieve his first net-positive Gallup approval rating until the spring of 2020, and came close to getting reelected despite a 46-52 Gallup rating on the eve of the 2020 election.

So there’s no reason for Team Biden to freak out, unless congressional Democrats become frightened and cannot sustain their remarkable degree of unity this year long enough to enact the combo platter of infrastructure and budget-reconciliation legislation that contains much of Biden’s agenda. But while you never know what lies ahead these days, the odds continue to diminish that the 46th president is going to be popular enough (and he would need to be very popular to defy midterm history) to lift his party to victory in the 2022 elections.

August 25: Trifectas Don’t Grow on Trees

As part of a continuing effort to urge Democrats to be bold in use of the power they have right now, I examined past and future prospects for governing trifectas at New York:

In the last 50 years, there have been 13 in which one party or the other held a trifecta in Washington — governing the White House, Senate, and House — and 37 when they didn’t. The odds are very high, as I previously noted, against today’s Democrats holding onto the House in 2022. More broadly, though, it’s helpful to understand how rare and precious trifectas have become generally, at a time when they have become essential for big legislative accomplishments.

Until the 1990s, the ideological diversity of both parties meant trifectas or the absence of one could be misleading. Jimmy Carter had a trifecta the entire time, but struggled to get major legislation through “his” Congress. Subsequently, Ronald Reagan never had a trifecta, but was able to attract enough moderate-to-conservative Democratic support to create a working majority in Congress for six of his eight years in office. Indeed, the power of a “conservative coalition” of southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress made it possible for Republican presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon to have decent legislative records.

Since the ’90s, trifectas became much more essential to getting one’s way in Washington thanks to two changes: increasing partisan polarization and then the use of the Senate filibuster to create a de facto supermajority requirement for virtually all major legislation. Meanwhile, close partisan divisions in the country and the tendency of presidential parties to do poorly in midterms has made trifectas more fragile. Bill Clinton lost his two years into his presidency, in 1994. George W. Bush lost his almost immediately due to a Senate party switch, won it back in 2002, and then lost it again in 2006. In 2009, Barack Obama had a Senate supermajority for a hot minute, but lost that in a 2010 special election, and then lost the House later that year, never to win it back. Donald Trump’s trifecta also lasted two years. Lately Democrats have really struggled to assemble or keep one. According to David Shor, they’ve averaged about one trifecta every 14 years since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Let’s say for the sake of argument, I’m wrong about the House in 2022, or I’m right and Democrats are fighting to win back a trifecta they lost that year. How does it look for 2024? It’s no slam dunk for Democrats to hang onto the Senate in 2022, of course: They have a slight advantage in that Republicans are defending more seats (20 to 13 for Democrats), including three (possible four depending on what Ron Johnson does) open seats in competitive states. But if Republicans get the usual national midterm wind in their favor, it could protect their seats in states like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and endanger Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire.

If they do keep control of the Senate in 2022, things get tougher in 2024. That year Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, three in states carried by Trump in 2020 and six in states carried by Trump either in 2016 or 2020. Republicans will be defending just 10 Senate seats, all of them in states Trump carried twice. In 2024, of course, Democrats will either retain or lose the presidency. If they win then, 2026 is likely to be another bad year for them in House races. But if they lose, the trifecta is gone for sure until 2028.

So without question, Democrats need to maximize use of the current trifecta if they don’t want to risk a long wilderness stretch of divided government or Republican trifectas, when the kind of legislation they are contemplating in the upcoming $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill will be unimaginable. There has been a lot of debate about whether Biden will come out of this year and next with a record of progressive social policy accomplishment rivaling that of LBJ. Democrats should also debate whether the 54-year gap between the end of the Great Society era and the window of Democratic opportunity today is one they are willing to risk repeating.

August 20: For Democrats the Future Is Now

I decided it was time for some blunt advice to Democrats mulling 2021 and 2022, and offered it at New York:

Every political party that achieves power in Washington has to make a central strategic decision: Does it want to focus on substantive accomplishments or on perpetuating its power? Democrats who hold a fragile trifecta right now need to make that choice very soon.

It’s not always a binary choice: Sometimes governing well is a political asset. Indeed, to hear ideologues of both the left and right tell it, pursuing their agendas (which have, as they tell it, never been given a fair test thanks to the cowardice and venality of centrists) will definitely produce massive landslides as far as the eye can see. But true or not, in the legislative branch at least, the most vulnerable representatives facing voters universally reject the belief that loud-and-proud extremism is the ticket to reelection.

So you have the situation facing Democrats today, in which congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are trying to enact Joe Biden’s presidential agenda tout court in just two interrelated bills (the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the FY 2022 budget reconciliation package). They have no margin for error, even as progressives demand shooting the moon while centrists want to shrink, tone down, and maybe even defeat the larger and much more important of the two bills (the reconciliation package) in hopes of surviving their next election.

On the reconciliation bill, bipartisanship is not an option. So deals must be cut, sooner rather than later, to get all Democratic senators and nearly all Democratic House members on board. The reckoning in the House could come very quickly in the form of a key procedural vote next week, with Pelosi looking to hold the infrastructure bill hostage until the reconciliation bill passes, and a group of centrists pressuring her to do exactly the opposite.

Underlying this struggle is the dirty little secret of the Democratic Party: Barring something beyond anyone’s control, it is extremely unlikely that Democrats will hold onto the House, and thus their trifecta, in 2022. I won’t go through the entire explanation that I have written elsewhere, but the simple reality is that no president with job-approval ratings south of 60 percent has ever had a first midterm in which his party failed to lose House seats (indeed, a couple with job-approval ratings over 60 percent still lost House seats). In 2022, the burden of history will be augmented by Republican gains via redistricting. In part due to partisan polarization, the odds of Biden, whose own approval ratings have now slumped down into the 40s, reaching the 60s any time soon are vanishingly small.

Three of the last four presidents had terrible first midterms (the one who didn’t, George W. Bush, benefitted immeasurably from one of those events beyond anyone’s control, September 11). But here’s the silver lining: Three of the last four presidents were nonetheless reelected, with the other, Donald Trump, coming pretty close despite his heroic efforts to offend as many Americans as possible. Minimizing 2022 losses while joining the ranks of the reelected is a reasonable (and perhaps the only reasonable) strategy for Joe Biden.

What this means in terms of the current legislative choices being made by Democrats is they shouldn’t sacrifice too much to accommodate highly vulnerable House members who are probably going to lose anyway. Yes, Democrats need their votes right now, so accommodations will be necessary. But perhaps in some cases a future ambassadorship or an assistant secretary cabinet post or just a big political chit would be more appropriate than knocking a half-trillion dollars off a reconciliation bill that may wind up being the summit of the Biden presidency or the chief accomplishment of a president running for reelection in 2024. I don’t know if it will work, but the same logic should apply to Senate Democrats standing in the way of filibuster reforms necessary to enacting voting rights legislation: If there is anything within the president’s power that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema want — that does not involve obstructing or gutting crucial legislation — I am sure Democrats everywhere, most especially progressives, would love to see them fully gratified.

What Democrats do not owe to vulnerable members of Congress, however, is the opportunity to go home and campaign on the boast that they thwarted their own party’s agenda. And make no mistake, politicians fighting for survival are as principled as any other cornered animal; some would sell vials with the tears of small children denied “socialist” benefits if it produced a positive op-ed from some inflation-obsessed windbag back home in the district. They need to know that if they sabotage Joe Biden’s presidency, there will be consequences far worse than losing one election.

Even if Democratic leaders follow this advice, they will not, and should not, make their calculations public. They should still fight for every congressional seat in 2022 for multiple reasons: Minimizing losses makes recovering easier, for one thing; for another, I’m sure that if she has to hand her gavel to Kevin McCarthy in 2023, Pelosi would prefer he have to suffer from the kind of unstable and insecure majority she has endured this year. Democrats do, moreover, have a realistic shot at hanging onto the Senate next year, which could be critically important in terms of judicial confirmations if nothing else.

But as Democrats make the fateful choice between getting things done or making substantive concessions to add a decimal point to bad midterm odds, they should understand this: The future is now.

August 19: California’s Strange Recall Ballot

After getting my mail ballot for the September 14 gubernatorial recall election in California, I offered some reactions at New York:

Over the weekend I received (like 22 million other registered voters in my state) an unsolicited mail ballot to vote in the California gubernatorial recall election. I’ve been reading and writing about this election for months. But I couldn’t help but find the actual ballot weird, and remain a bit conflicted about how to fill out and return it.

Typically, California primary or general election ballots have a lot of questions, in part thanks to the state’s permissive rules on ballot initiatives. The recall ballot has exactly two:

Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the Office of Governor?

Candidates to succeed GAVIN NEWSOM if he is recalled:

Following this second question (and the instruction to “Vote for One”) is a list of 46 names, with each candidate’s party preference (if any), and brief self-descriptions. These are highly restricted in practice: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, for example, is identified simply as as a “Businessman/Educator,” while the iconic erotic billboard figure and singer Angelyne is described simply as an “Entertainer.”

Now the number and variety of candidates is not that strange in California these days; thanks to the top-two primary system the state has utilized since 2011, a large jumble of candidates from every and no party appears on primary ballots regularly. But the contrast between one stark binary ballot question and one with luxurious options is jarring, and potentially confusing. Yes, if you read the county voting instructions that accompany the mail ballot (and don’t throw them out on purpose or by accident), you will see that “Each question will be counted independently,” whatever that means, and that “You may vote for a successor candidate regardless of whether or how you vote on the recall question.” The alert voter will realize that she may vote to keep Newsom in office and still express an opinion on a successor, but it’s unclear how many such voters will exercise that choice since Team Newsom is discouraging it as a matter of message discipline.

The big question, however, is how many and which voters will bother to participate in this confusing election. Politically active California Republicans may be super-psyched to send back their mail ballots (despite the disdain their hero the 45th president held for this method of voting), since it is a rare opportunity to register a statewide victory in a place where they are outnumbered two-to-one in party registration, hold no statewide offices, and are on the losing side of a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature. Pure partisanship aside, Gavin Newsom is sort of a parody of everything today’s Republicans are prone to hate: a wealthy and culturally hip man from Sodom itself (San Francisco), who looks like he stepped out of an upscale fashion ad and oozes superiority, along with a conventionally liberal viewpoint on nearly everything.

Unfortunately for Newsom, there is another category of highly motivated recall voter that includes independents and Democrats as well as Republicans: people who are enduringly angry about restrictive COVID-19 measures. This includes small business owners forced to shut down or radically restrict operations; parents compelled to keep and educate kids at home; and church members shunted into parking lots or virtual services. The late-2020 incident wherein the governor disobeyed his own pandemic rules by attending an indoor birthday party for a rich lobbyist friend at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants pulled together all the threads of Newsom-phobia and made him a cartoon villain to his detractors and an exasperating figure to his allies.

Until recently it looked like vaccinations (which, after a rough start, went relatively well in California) and a revenue boom that enabled both free spending and a balanced budget might dull resentment of the incumbent. But now the resurgence of both COVID cases and California malaise (fed by another megadrought, wildfires, spiraling living costs, and homelessness) is energizing recall supporters without necessarily arousing opponents.

Newsom has consistently campaigned against the recall as an effort by Republican Trump supporters to overturn the will of the voters who elected the governor in 2018, and even as sort of a ballot-box version of the Capitol riot in Washington. As part of this deliberate polarization effort, he successfully kept any prominent Democrat from running as a replacement candidate. This was in keeping with the common belief that earlier recall victim Gray Davis’s ejection from office in 2003 was attributable to his Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante’s decision to file as a replacement candidate, splitting (or at least confusing) Democrats fatally. More recently, Newsom has instructed Democratic voters to ignore those 46 names that take up the bulk of the ballot, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Voters who choose to keep Newsom as governor by voting ‘no’ on the first question can still select a replacement candidate on the second question if the recall prevails. Even so, the governor has urged Democrats to skip the replacement contest — and did so again Saturday.

“’One question. One answer. No on the recall. Move on. Send in the ballot,’ Newsom said during the event in El Sereno. ‘We’ve got to turn out the vote and remind people of the consequences.’”

But California Democrats may be unable to entirely ignore that second ballot question, which could determine whether their future governor is the old guy (John Cox) who is campaigning with a rented grizzly bear; the transgender activist, former Olympian, and reality-TV star (Caitlyn Jenner); or even the rare Democrat (YouTube financial adviser Kevin Paffrath), who disobeyed the party line and is running in the replacement race. Despite his stern instructions to ignore the second ballot question, Newsom himself has been bashing the candidate who leads most polls, veteran conservative talk-show host Larry Elder, who, like most veteran conservative talks-show hosts, has said a lot of stupid and profoundly unpopular things over the years.  And down the stretch, Team Newsom could decide an ace in the hole is the argument that, even if he is recalled, his support will dwarf the small number of Californians voting for the plurality winner of the replacement contest. Even though it’s how California’s system is set up, it ain’t right.

As the official election date of September 14 approaches, the recall campaign will heat up and that, Democrats hope, will save Newsom by waking up their voters to the disastrous local and national consequences of messing up the party’s current control of America’s preeminent blue state — the state that contributed 5 million to Joe Biden’s 7 million-vote national popular vote advantage last year. The polls are beginning to show a close race that could go either way. But staring at my mail ballot, I can’t say we really know how voters will navigate this strange  set of choices.

August 13: Cuomo’s Resignation Speech and Its Antecedents

After watching Andrew Cuomo’s resignation speech and listening to some of the excited and outraged chatter about it, I decided to offer some historical context at New York:

As a midday TV drama, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s speech culminating with his resignation from office was first-rate, despite all the self-serving, weasel-like content. That it came after his lawyer’s attack on an attorney general’s report that had destroyed Cuomo’s base of support among New York Democrats added a lot of momentary suspense. Would the famously obstinate veteran governor force the Legislature to move toward removing him from office? Would he resign only at the 11th hour to prevent any action that would deny him a comeback opportunity in 2022 or beyond? It wasn’t clear until the very end, after his weird, bathetic effort to pose as a feminist through identification with his three daughters, who must have been cringing if they watched at all.

Drama aside, as a resignation message rooted in a non-apologetic apology and an alleged desire not to let his accusers disrupt governance, the immediate analogy that came to the mind of us baby boomers was Richard M. Nixon’s speech to the nation almost exactly 47 years ago, on August 8, 1974.

There really wasn’t much doubt about what Nixon was going to do. Republican leaders had made clear to him that impeachment and removal from office were a certainty if he didn’t quit in the wake of the appearance of a “smoking gun” tape exposing the president’s personal involvement in a cover-up of the Watergate scandal.

One key overlap between the Nixon and Cuomo speeches involves an insincere-sounding apology that evaded the allegations that made the resignation necessary. Here’s Nixon’s:

“I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.”

And here’s Cuomo’s:

“I have been too familiar with people. My sense of humor can be insensitive and off-putting. I do hug and kiss people casually, women and men. I have done it all my life. It’s who I’ve been since I can remember. In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have. No excuses.”

Both men also explained their resignations as the product of politics, rather than justice. Nixon said he was resigning because:

“I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future. But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.”

Cuomo was even more blunt:

“This situation and moment are not about the facts. It’s not about the truth. It’s not about thoughtful analysis. It’s not about how do we make the system better. This is about politics. And our political system today is too often driven by the extremes.”

Finally, both Nixon and Cuomo seemed most concerned with insisting they weren’t “quitters” but were selflessly putting aside personal feelings out of concern for the office they were resigning from. Here’s Nixon:

“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.”

And Cuomo:

“I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy, which I truly believe is politically motivated. I believe it is unfair and it is untruthful, and I believe that it demonizes behavior that is unsustainable for society. If I could communicate the facts through the frenzy, New Yorkers would understand … but I became a fighter for you, and it is your best interests that I must serve. This situation by its current trajectory will generate months of political and legal controversy … It will consume government. It will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It will brutalize people …

“I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing. And therefore, that’s what I’ll do because I work for you, and doing the right thing is doing the right thing for you.”

The biggest difference, of course, is that, as far as we know, Nixon wasn’t plotting a political comeback but to stay out of the hoosegow — a possibility soon removed by the pardon his successor, Gerald Ford, gave him.

Speaking of Ford, another famous resignation speech preceded Nixon’s by ten months: that of former vice-president Spiro T. Agnew. He had to explain to the American people the plea deal he had signed a few days earlier that included his stepping down as veep (to be replaced eventually by Ford).

Like Nixon and Cuomo, Agnew blustered his way through a denial of any real culpability, blaming his forced resignation on politics (in his case, the politics of Maryland’s tradition of bribes and shakedowns, in which he had been caught by shocked federal prosecutors who stumbled upon evidence that the former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor had been and was still accepting cash kickbacks from road contractors). But there wasn’t much question that Agnew resigned to avoid prison (he instead got parole by pleading guilty of tax evasion on the money he had pocketed), and the only drama was the resignation itself, which occurred six days before his speech.

A gubernatorial resignation speech that did come out of the blue and that I thought of when watching Cuomo’s careful, serpentine exposition was that of Sarah Palin on July 2, 2009.

Palin offered up a characteristic word salad that never really explained why she was stepping down with nearly a year and a half remaining in her only term. She vaguely alluded to political enemies who were investigating her involvement in “Troopergate,” a state-employee firing scandal, but it was all quite confusing. As I noted at the time, “To the extent that there are any coherent rationales expressed in her announcement, they involve the distractions of her battles with her lower-48 enemies (and perhaps their Alaskan stooges) and her realization that she wouldn’t be doing much work as a lame duck, so why wait to resign?”

At least Cuomo didn’t leave us guessing about his motivations, much as we may wonder if he is already dreaming of a 2022 comeback — which would be delusional, albeit not much of a surprise from one of the most famously rampant egos in American politics. Regardless, the disgraced governor’s resignation speech will likely be of interest to political scientists, and psychologists, for a long time to come.

August 12: One Cheer For the BIF

After all the brouhaha about the bipartisan infrastructure bill (or BIF), I offered a small demurral at New York:

Watching Joe Biden’s happy gloating about Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, I had a fairly cynical reaction. Biden seems to be assuming he will get credit for his involvement in this achievement, which in turn will retroactively validate his 2020 campaign pledge to work across party lines to get stuff done. Per ABC News:

“Biden praised the bipartisan negotiators, touching on themes from his candidacy — the idea that this 36-year veteran of the Senate could reinvigorate the bipartisan cooperation of an era gone by.

“’I want to thank the group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, for doing what they told me they would do. The death of this legislation was mildly premature as reported. They said they were willing to work in a bipartisan manner. And I want to thank them for keeping their word. That’s just what they did,’ Biden said.”

I’m glad the president feels all warm and fuzzy inside, but if he thinks the bipartisan glow will last until the 2024 election, he’s wrong. Indeed, the one thing we can be certain of is that congressional Republicans, having checked the bipartisanship “box,” will return to their characteristic obstructionism henceforth, citing the infrastructure deal as the last train out of deficit-land, and contrasting future partisan Democratic legislation with the bill that even Mitch McConnell could bless. Indeed, Politico is already reporting that it “remains unclear what other agenda items Republicans will be willing to collaborate on,” and “even advocates for bipartisanship are skeptical about future deals.”

The questionable nature of the achievement this bill represented flows in part from the fact that everything in it could have been enacted, and maybe even improved, had its content simply been nestled into the upcoming budget reconciliation bill that Democrats expect to pass on a strict party-line vote. In effect, Democrats chose to share the credit with Republicans for legislation they could have made exclusively their own.

The only logical rationale for doing that (other than the pleasure some take in bipartisanship for its own sake) is that passing the all-important reconciliation bill requires the votes of Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and they insisted on making the infrastructure bill a bipartisan project. Indeed, the fear that Manchin and Sinema might nonetheless oppose or gut the reconciliation bill caused Nancy Pelosi (backed by House progressives) to refuse to bring the infrastructure bill to the House floor until the Senate has cleared the reconciliation bill. But in any event, if making the infrastructure bill bipartisan was necessary to get the larger and more important reconciliation bill over the finish line, it was worth it (depending on future developments).

But an honest look at the tradeoffs involved requires considering possible lost opportunities. If Democrats and Republicans both needed to pass one big bipartisan bill this year, for separate but mutually beneficial reasons, might it have been better had it involved matters that could not be passed via reconciliation — matters that required bipartisanship?

You don’t have to search very hard to find them: Just look at some of the big progressive policy goals already discarded from reconciliation bills because they would fall prey to the Senate’s Byrd Rule governing germaneness to budget legislation. There’s the $15 minimum wage; a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants; and most of all voting rights.

Yes, it’s very unlikely that the ten Senate Republicans needed to pass legislation outside reconciliation would go for such Democratic priorities. But on the other hand, a higher minimum wage polls extremely well, even among Republicans, and the current labor shortage makes it less controversial. Not that long ago, comprehensive immigration reform was a completely bipartisan project despite hard-core conservative (and then Trumpian) opposition. And the same is true of the more modest forms of voting-rights legislation, like restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the form that it had when it was unanimously extended for 25 years by the Senate in 2006 (with George W. Bush signing the extension).

All three of these policy areas are intensely important to Democratic constituencies, and they expose differences both within the GOP and between Republican elected officials and their voters. Given what’s happening around the country right now, voting rights are arguably a priority of existential importance to Democrats, certainly as compared to infrastructure investments that do not require bipartisan legislation. Did Biden and congressional Democratic leaders give serious consideration to putting Republican feet to the fire in these other areas before making infrastructure the subject of the one big bipartisan gambit of 2021? I certainly don’t know, but suspect they took the path of least resistance.

Since it’s Manchin and Sinema and their silent partners among Democratic senators who are insisting on maintaining the power of the minority to block legislation via the filibuster, I’d say their power over their party and the country is already far too excessive. They should have been asked to use their leverage with the GOP to exact support for something really special.