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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

August 5: Trump’s Coup Attempt Was, and May Still Be, Recurring

After reading some of the murky but shocking stories of what went on the in White House in late 2020, I tried to put it in perspective at New York:

Recent revelations about what was going on in the Trump administration between Election Day 2020 and January 6, 2021, have made it more apparent than ever that the riot at the Capitol was just the final, desperate measure in an attempted electoral coup that Trump and his henchmen had been scheming to execute for months. The latest “shocker” (that really shouldn’t shock anyone at all) was reported by ABC News this week:

“Top members of the Department of Justice last year rebuffed another DOJ official who asked them to urge officials in Georgia to investigate and perhaps overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the state – long a bitter point of contention for former President Donald Trump and his team – before the results were certified by Congress, emails obtained by ABC News show.”

The “DOJ official” in question was Jeffrey Clark, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Division, who in late December drafted a letter to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and the Republican leaders of the Georgia legislature urging them to convene a special session to investigate alleged 2020 voter-fraud claims. Given Kemp’s refusal to back Trump’s lies about Georgia’s vote, it’s understandable (if bizarre) that Clark’s draft letter also suggested the legislature call itself into session to consider whether it should appoint electors to rival the Biden slate already certified by Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Subsequent reporting by MSNBC indicates that Clark had drafted similar letters to Republican leaders in five other states carried by Biden but which Trump claimed to have won.

The one truly surprising thing about this gambit was its late timing. All along, as I noted on December 1, the most feasible avenue for a Trump election coup was to mobilize Republican state legislatures to usurp the selection of electors on his behalf:

“[I]t was obvious by mid-November that Trump’s only hope was to create enough phony doubt about the outcome in key states to justify a power grab by Republican legislators. The idea, which was fully aired in many of the preelection ‘red mirage’ speculations … was that state legislators would assert a constitutionally sanctioned (if controversial and arguably in conflict with their own statutes) right to appoint electors themselves since “fraud” had tainted the popular-vote results. Trump publicly called on GOP legislators to do just that, as Politico reported on November 21.”

It didn’t work in November, but Clark (and very clearly Trump himself) wanted to give it another try based on the exotic constitutional theory that the whole Electoral Count Act process for certifying and confirming electors violated the sovereign power of state legislatures over electors (there was a parallel claim, shot down by the federal courts a few days later, that the Constitution gave then Vice-President Pence the power to disregard state certifications of electors and count them however he wanted).

All the Trump campaign’s efforts (which continue to this day) to gin up phony “evidence” of voter fraud were initially aimed at creating a pretext for an intervention by state legislators (or Pence, who refused to accept the king-making designation) to overturn Biden’s victory. It’s probably another accident of timing that it didn’t come closer to working: Back in late December and early January, the Big Lie of the stolen election had not yet become GOP orthodoxy — at least, not to the extent that legislators in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, or Michigan felt obliged to steal it right back. Similarly, Clark’s letters were not sent out (which probably would have set off a constitutional crisis) because they horrified Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue. But it was a near thing, as the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump explains:

“[On January 3] Clark told Rosen that he was going to be made acting attorney general by Trump. That led to a contentious meeting in the Oval Office involving all three men in which Trump weighed making such a switch to advance his fraud claims. A number of senior Justice Department officials had promised to resign should it happen, which the New York Times credits with helping preserve Rosen’s job. But that outcome was by no means certain. Replacing Rosen would probably have meant a quick issuance of Clark’s letter and a public rationalization for Georgia’s Republican-led legislature to act in support of Trump’s effort to snatch away the state’s electoral votes.”

Three days later Trump ran out of options for rigging the electoral vote count and resorted to an incendiary call to arms of a MAGA mob determined to “stop the steal.” It has never been clear what Trump hoped to accomplish other than to temporarily disrupt the inevitable confirmation of Biden’s victory. But it was definitely the culmination of a long series of efforts to subvert the 2020 elections and tamper with the results. That it is still going on is an ominous sign that January 6 wasn’t simply the last spasm of a failed 2020 coup. It may also have been the first step towards repeating it in 2024, with a different outcome. As election law expert Rick Hasen argues at Slate, that is entirely possible:

“It’s easy to picture how this might play out in the next presidential election. Imagine that a state legislature sets forth general rules for conducting the 2024 election, but it does not provide every detail about how the election is run. Republican legislatures in states won by the Democratic candidate could seize on some normal election administration rule created by a state or local election administrator or some ruling from a state court, and argue that implementation of the rule renders the presidential election unconstitutional, leaving it to the state legislature to pick a different slate of electors.”

If that happens, Jeffrey Clark could prove to be a prophet of democracy’s doom.

July 28: Some Basic Realities For Democrats on Voting Rights

Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:

There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:

“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”

Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.

Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.

Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.

At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.

Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.


July 21: Don’t Dismiss the Power of Inflation Politics

All the talk of renewed inflation brought back some terrible memories for me, and I wrote about them at New York:

When I was a freshman college debater at Emory University in the fall of 1970, the national debate topic was not Vietnam, but the desirability of wage and price controls. Little did we know that just months ahead a Republican president would impose a wage-price freeze, long the anti-inflationary prescription of the left wing of the Democratic Party. But the surprise known in financial circles as the “Nixon shock,” nearly a half-century ago (on August 15, 1971) showed how pervasive the fear of inflation — running at just over 5 percent in 1970 — had become.

That’s ancient history now, even to those of us who remember the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s, and the particularly horrid scourge of “stagflation” (high inflation and unemployment simultaneously). Inflation seems to have been tamed by wise monetary policies. The periodic warnings from 21st-century conservatives that low interest rates and federal budget deficits would create inflation didn’t much bother me. It was like hearing an old priest chant a forgotten litany in a lost language — just one among many ritualistic arguments for the tight credit and reactionary social policies these people favored instinctively as a sort of class self-defense posture.

Like Tim Noah, I suspect there may be a generational lapse in understanding the politics of inflation:

“I don’t care to be condescended to by a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials about my ’70s-bred fear of inflation. It feels too much like the condescension we Boomers directed toward Depression babies whenever they warned us that we were playing with fire in deregulating the financial markets. Poor dears, we thought, traumatized for life by the 1929 crash and one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

“The Depression babies turned out to be right, of course.”

Noah makes it clear he’s not arguing inflation per se is bad for the economy. It is, however, bad for progressive politics, and not just because “stagflation” probably killed the Carter presidency and ushered in the Reagan era far more than the Iranian hostage crisis or other better-remembered Democratic foibles. The deflationary economic strategies of the 1980s weren’t called “austerity,” but rather a corrective for undisciplined policies that fed wage and price spirals which in turned hammered the value of savings, the living standards of those on fixed incomes, and the political case for federal domestic spending.

Most lethally for progressivism, the conservative supply-side tax-cutting when combined with inflationary fears can create enormous pressure for public disinvestment and the shredding of safety nets (which is why reactionaries happily labeled the intended result “starving the beast”). We are still living with some of the long-term consequences of anti-inflationary backlash. As Noah points out, California’s Proposition 13 ballot initiative in 1978 and similar “tax revolts” were a by-product of price spirals that boosted tax assessments on property and income alike.

But sometimes lost in an examination of the right’s exploitation of inflation fears is the abiding fact that the left has no clear prescription for dealing with it, either, other than by denying its existence or significance (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly). Ironically, that was made most evident by the supposedly illiberal Richard Nixon’s surprising use of the great liberal instrument for taming inflation.

The veteran ex-conservative economic and political analyst Bruce Bartlett has penned an exceptional explainer on the background and consequences of the “Nixon shock,” particularly its international dimensions, and the role played by Treasury Secretary John Connally, who like his boss and ally Nixon was more focused on short-term politics than on long-term economic realities. What’s clear is that Nixon was convinced a recession induced by the Eisenhower administration and its Federal Reserve Board appointees designed to kill inflationary pressures also killed his 1960 presidential candidacy. As prices spiked in 1970, he was terrified the same thing could happen in 1972.

Nixon had inherited (and temporarily extended) an income-tax surcharge from LBJ that was designed to pay for the skyrocketing costs of the Vietnam War, but its effects were limited. So with his signature televised bombshell reveal (the one he deployed a month earlier to announce his trip to China), amid great secrecy, Nixon rolled out a combo platter of initiatives to fight inflation and international economic instability. They included a suspension of fixed currency exchange rates and the convertibility of the dollar to gold (to head off a raid on gold supplies triggered by a British demand for a major conversion); an import surcharge (to prevent a worsening of the trade balance); and most significantly for most Americans, a 90-day freeze on wages and prices to be followed by an indefinite period of controls by federal panels.

As political theater, Nixon’s speech announcing a “new economic policy” was, well, Nixonian. He began with dessert: an assortment of tax breaks and job-creation incentives balanced by mostly unspecified spending cuts; only then did he mention the wage-price freeze. After promising to “break the vicious circle of spiraling prices and costs,” Nixon moved on to his international proposals, which he downplayed as “very technical,” while assuring viewers that “if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.”

Nixon’s wage and price controls were initially very popular (as polls had told the White House they would be) and did indeed hold down inflation through the reelection year of 1972, when Nixon won his famous landslide reelection over poor George McGovern, in part by goosing federal appropriations to create a mini-boom. By then the administration had moved on to a more discretionary system for regulating wage and price increases, which generated rumors of employers currying favor with generous donations to CREEP (the Committee to Reelect the President), the notoriously corrupt operation heavily complicit in the Watergate scandals that brought down the Nixon presidency. Between the suppressed and eventually unleashed inflationary pressures and the oil-price shock Nixon’s international economic policies helped create, the country paid a very high economic price for the brief respite from inflation the wage-price freeze earned him. He sowed the wind with even greater inflation, and his successors Gerald Ford (whose feckless “Whip Inflation Now” campaign was widely mocked) and Jimmy Carter reaped the whirlwind.

Before you dismiss these events from 50 years ago as irrelevant, consider how much Nixon’s short-sighted approach sounds like something President Donald Trump might have done if inflation had became a political problem during his tenure (or in, God help us, a future term). Indeed, any president mulling Nixon’s choice of recession-inducing fiscal or monetary policies might be tempted to resort to the easy-to-understand, if dangerous, strategy of wage and price controls in which the pain is mostly back-loaded, particularly in or near an election year. Old folks remember how it preceded Nixon’s landslide 1972 win, followed by a decade of economic pain and multiple decades of political misery for progressives.

July 14: Trump Aides Spin Revisionist Tale of Election Night 2020

When I read the Election Night excerpt of a major new book on Trump, I nearly fell out of my chair, and wrote a challenge to it at New York:

Donald J. Trump’s victory claim in the wee hours of November 4, 2020, was a pretty big moment in American political history. It launched a challenge of the election results that hasn’t ended even eight months later, and shows signs of becoming a “bloody shirt” that could dominate Republican rhetoric for years to come.

So like many political observers, I read the Election Night account given by Trump White House insiders to Washington Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker for their book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year with interest, and then with astonishment. To hear these sources tell it, everyone in the White House other than a possibly inebriated Rudy Giuliani was tensely awaiting the full returns — understanding they would take days or weeks to come in — when Trump shocked everyone by taking Giuliani’s advice and saying he had already won, and would go all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary to stop the voting he claimed was still underway. According to this account, Trump’s speechwriters had prepared remarks cautioning patience in assessing the results, but instead the 45th president, smarting from the “betrayal” he experienced when Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden, tossed it away and began the “stop the steal” crusade that culminated in an attempted coup the following January and convinced many millions of Republican voters they had indeed been robbed.

This tale of a sudden lurch into Election Night madness is as implausible as Trump’s attempt to preemptively declare victory that same night was unsurprising — and horrifying.

Since the spring of 2020, I and many other journalists had been predicting that Trump’s near-hourly attacks on voting by mail were intended to produce exactly this sort of scenario: The in-person votes first counted would tilt red, enabling him and his supporters to claim victory and then challenge the validity of the blue-leaning mail ballots that would be counted later. There was even a name for this scenario, the “Red Mirage,” based on which votes would be tabulated and reported first. It produced widespread discussion in early September. But Trump’s apparent plans were clear much earlier.

So is it really likely that the thought of doing exactly that only occurred to Trump just before he walked out to inform the nation of his thoughts? That’s what Trump’s insiders clearly want us to believe via the Post reporters’ book:

“After a while, Rudy Giuliani started to cause a commotion. He was telling other guests that he had come up with a strategy for Trump and was trying to get into the president’s private quarters to tell him about it. Some people thought Giuliani may have been drinking too much and suggested to Stepien that he go talk to the former New York mayor. Stepien, Meadows and Jason Miller took Giuliani down to a room just off the Map Room to hear him out … Giuliani’s grand plan was to just say Trump won, state after state, based on nothing. Stepien, Miller and Meadows thought his argument was both incoherent and irresponsible.

“’We can’t do that,’ Meadows said, raising his voice. ‘We can’t.’”

Hmmm. Rudy has this brilliant idea that the chattering classes had been discussing for months and months and Trump’s staffers were shocked to hear of it, off the top of Giuliani’s possibly fogged head?

Now, it’s possible that Trump and his advisers were hesitating in implementing a victory-claim plan because there was a better chance that anyone expected he could win without skulduggery. But was the claim spontaneous?

It seems more likely that Trump’s staff is doing a little retroactive gaslighting and ass-covering to cleanse themselves of responsibility for the nightmare that later ensued. It’s absolutely true that Trump himself bears responsibility for the attempted election coup, whenever it was that the election-victory-claim scheme began to become strategy. It’s why he was ultimately impeached a second time. But it did not come as a bolt from the blue; it wasn’t just a coincidence that what we all thought Trump might do he just happened to do, on a whim. And if, as one should fear, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat becomes permanent for his supporters, everyone in on the plot should accept their share of the blame.

July 10: Democrats Should Not Sneer At Plan B For Voting Rights

When Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights at Howard University this week, there was some negative reaction among Democrats that needs rethinking, as I argued at New York:

Reading this NBC News account of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s voting rights speech today, you get the sense she was offering up largely symbolic dollars to ward off criticism of the Biden administration for its failure to enact voting rights legislation:

“Vice President Kamala Harris will announce Thursday a $25 million investment by the Democratic National Committee to support efforts to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“The announcement comes as Republican-controlled states around the country have passed a wave of restrictive voting rights laws fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the results of the 2020 election.

“President Joe Biden has been criticized by some Democrats and civil rights advocates for not taking a more aggressive approach to fighting those new laws after Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation last month.”

It’s true Democrats have failed to overcome Republican resistance to voting-rights legislation, either by securing GOP support or by convincing Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to restrict or abolish the competing right of Senate minorities to kill legislation via the filibuster. But it’s hard to blame Biden or Harris for this brick wall built over many decades, and it’s not clear to me what the critics would have them do other than threatening a nuclear strike on West Virginia. So instead of some sort of face-saving gesture, we should interpret Harris’s announcement as representing part of a fallback strategy for voting rights that is the only responsible course to take. Another prong of this strategy was announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland last month: deployment of an expanded cadre of attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to challenge state voter-suppression and election-subversion measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To put it simply, if the Justice Department or voting rights advocates fail to stop such legislation at the state level or in the courts, the prudent thing is to devote resources to educate voters on how to navigate the roadblocks Republicans are erecting, and to mobilize them to exercise their rights. That’s what Harris has in mind, as CBS News reports:

“According to the vice president the funds would help with voter registration, help educate voters on some of the state laws being brought up by Republican led state legislations as well as mobilize voters in the upcoming 2022 elections. Harris also said the DNC would assemble the ‘largest voter protection team we have ever had.’”

“Voter protection” means staff on the ground to make sure voters (particularly the younger and minority voters most likely to support Democratic candidates) are not intimidated or misled by vote-suppressing election officials or partisan “volunteers” who “watch” polls with malice. These are the kinds of things you have to do to short-circuit voter suppression and rewire a flawed system to get people to the polls despite laws and politicians that try to keep them at home. What Harris announced should be treated as a serious and important contribution to the cause of voting rights, not dismissed as an excuse for failure to do the impossible in Congress.

July 7: Conservatives Keep Adding Litmus Tests That Make Expanding the GOP Difficult

There’s an idea floating around that Trump has liberated his party from the conservative strictures that made it hard for Republicans to build a majority coalition. I pushed back on that notion at New York:

Heading toward the 2022 midterm elections, Republican-watchers are fascinated by the aggressive role Donald Trump intends to play in GOP primaries. Aside from his plans of vengeance toward those who egregiously crossed him at some point over the past half-century, he is selectively backing candidates whom he can claim as his very own. Indeed, the former president has already endorsed ten Senate candidates, two House candidates, and five candidates for state offices (one for a 2021 election). More important, his potential endorsements have Republican candidates and proto-candidates scrambling to prove their MAGA credentials so as to head off, or at least partially neutralize, the possibility that the Boss will give the magic nod to an opponent. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is in the Ohio U.S. Senate race, during which candidates had an Apprentice-style audition with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March, with one aspirant, J.D. Vance, subsequently launching his candidacy by apologizing for criticisms of the 45th president back in 2016.

“’I have never heard Herschel Walker’s position on pro-life. I haven’t,’ Collins said. ‘I’ve never heard his position on gun control. I’ve never heard his position on a lot of these issues that are conservative issues.’”

Collins himself is a MAGA stalwart, having served as Trump’s chief defender on the House Judiciary Committee during the former president’s first impeachment. But he won’t take Trump’s word for it that Walker is ideologically kosher: The current Republican front-runner for the 2022 Senate nomination needs to publicly pledge his allegiance to culture-war causes like banning abortion and outlawing any outlawing of a single gun.

Certainly, abortion and guns represent two major issues on which any sort of heterodoxy is disqualifying for nearly all Republican candidates. The once-robust pro-choice Republican caucus in Congress is now down to two veteran senators: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. A good indication of how obligatory anti-abortion views have become was provided by recent party-switcher Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. He had a strongly pro-choice voting record as a Democrat, but one of his first House votes as a Republican was on behalf of a failed effort to force a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy onto the floor. Similarly, one of the vanishingly few congressional Republicans open to any kind of gun regulation, Senator Pat Toomey, is retiring next year. On both of these cultural issues, Republican opinion seems to be hardening. The ascendant conservative view on reproductive rights is now fetal personhood as a matter of federal constitutional law, rather than simply a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and a return of abortion regulation to the states. And on guns, the big conservative trend is “constitutional carry,” a rejection of any firearms licensing provisions, which is closely associated with the even more dangerous idea that the Second Amendment was designed to give teeth to a “right to revolution” against a “tyrannical” government.

But these are hardly the only litmus tests of “true conservatism” that survived or even flourished in the Trump era. Tax increases remain verboten, as evidenced by their absence from the recent bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate. Anti-government rhetoric, an inheritance from the Goldwater-to-Reagan conservative movement that was intensified by the tea-party phenomenon of the Obama era, now has even greater power thanks to the Trumpian doctrines of a traitorous deep state and a corrupt Swamp dominating Washington. Hostility to organized labor is now universal in a party that used to more than occasionally secure union endorsements for its candidates (unless you take seriously the eccentric endorsement by Marco Rubio of an effort to organize Amazon workers or the more general revolt against “woke” corporations).

There are obviously some tenets of traditional conservatism that Trump has called into doubt as orthodoxy. Several are really restorations of Old Right thinking: the abandonment of free-trade principles for a return to the protectionist creed that animated Republicans from the Civil War to World War II, an America First repudiation of neoconservative commitments to alliances and interventionism, and a return to the nativism that has always been just under the surface in Republican politics. While Trump’s sometimes incoherent views on these topics haven’t become totally obligatory for Republicans just yet, gestures in his direction probably are required. It’s hard to imagine, for example, more than a smattering of Republicans vocally opposing a border wall, or calling for closer trade relations with China, or saying something nice about NATO, much less the United Nations. In international relations, Trump’s determination to throw money at the Pentagon and his unremitting bellicosity have made his isolationist tendencies more acceptable to the Cold War set.

There’s one very loud new habit of Republicans that Trump has elevated from a fringe extremist preoccupation into a near-universal habit in the GOP: the attacks on “political correctness,” “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and now “critical race theory” that present a violent antipathy to cultural changes deemed threatening to white patriarchal hegemony (or, stated more neutrally, to the “Great” America Trump has promised to bring back). All these phantom menaces are nicely designed to make old-school racism and sexism respectable.

All in all, it’s a complicated landscape that ambitious Republicans must navigate to safely rise within the Trumpified GOP. The safest are hard-core conservatives of the old school who downplay Reaganite views that are now out of fashion — and who add in conspicuous personal loyalty to Trump and whatever he wants at any given moment. Examples of this formula are Ted Cruz, the members of the House Freedom Caucus, and, above all, Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who is still doing penance for endorsing Cruz in 2016, in part by personally participating in Trump’s January 6 insurrectionary rally. Trump is close to the once-unlikely accomplishment of making “true conservatism” and Trumpism identical. The big question is whether his personal presence as a presidential candidate or a hurricane-force disrupter is necessary to seal the deal.

July 1: Refocusing on 2020

So many words have been spilled about the 2020 presidential election that it’s easy to put it in the rear-view mirror. But only now are we getting the kind of reliable data that makes understanding it easier, as I noted at New York:

One of the many weird things about the 2020 presidential election is that there was never a moment of big-picture clarity immediately after the count came in. Trump and his Team of Disrupters jumped into wild conspiracy theories based on insanely detailed (if largely made-up) claims involving the closest states. Meanwhile, the usual source for a quick understanding of national elections, the network-sponsored exit polls, were generally ignored. In part that was because of greater awareness of their documented shortcomings in the recent past, and in part because the very high level of voting by mail subverted the basic function of exit polls as a scientific after-the-fact tabulation of how people had already voted (“exit poll” data for by-mail voters was actually derived from a standard phone poll, in a relatively bad year for pollsters).

Since politics abhors a vacuum, particularly in close elections, the absence of authoritative data slicing and dicing the electorate along the usual demographic categories led to the development — via various studies of county-level data and some sheer hunches — of various takes on what happened, and even a bit of a conventional wisdom. As information is released from voter files and census reports, we are now getting a better picture of the actual 2020 election results, and an important new analysis of them has just been released by Pew. It’s of voters validated by voter files, and it provides a fresh and more accurate look at the 2020 fault lines.

Things we knew (but now know more precisely)

One of the big narratives of the election was that Biden won by making gains among suburban voters, and in the overlapping category of white voters with college degrees. The Pew numbers show that even more strongly, with Biden winning suburbanites 54-43 (the exits showed a narrower 50-48 margin), as compared to a Trump advantage of 47-45 in 2016; and white college-educated voters 57-42 (again, the exits show a narrower 51-48 Biden win). Notably, Pew had Biden improving on his party’s 2018 midterm congressional performance in the suburbs, which was the dominant story of that election.

It was widely reported that Trump repeated his boffo 2016 performance among white non-college voters in 2020. But Pew confirms Biden reduced the Republican margin in that demographic from 36 to 32 points.

Perhaps the biggest storyline from 2020 among Republican spinmeisters was that Trump cut into expected Democratic margins among Latinos, despite his long and recently intensified nativist rhetoric and occasional anti-Latino racism. The exits showed him winning a third of Latinos. But Pew showed Biden winning them 59-38, a margin of only 21 points, as compared with Clinton’s 38-point margin in 2016, and the Democratic congressional margin of 47 points in 2018.

Things we didn’t know but now know

The initial analysis of the results suggested the kind of gender gap we have seen in so many recent elections. The exits showed a 23-point gap (Trump winning men 53-45 and Biden winning women 57-42) close to the 26 point gap in 2016. But Pew’s numbers show the gender gap being cut in half since 2016, with Trump winning men 50-48 and Biden winning women 55-44.

There was at least one under-discussed surprise on the age front as well, though the exits did capture this one: Biden’s margin among under-30 voters (59-35) was six points lower than Clinton’s in 2016 (58-28), and a shocking 25 points lower than the margins won by congressional Democrats in 2018 (72-23). Similarly, both Pew and the exits showed a modest Trump win among seniors (down from his nine-point margin among them in 2016), but it was impressive when you consider Biden’s regular leads among over-65 voters in nearly all the polls for months.

There were two small surprises in terms of religious affiliation. Joe Biden cut Trump’s margin among white Catholics (57-42) by more than half from 2016 (64-31), and nearly tied Trump among Catholics generally. Yes, Joe Biden is a white Catholic, but in today’s polarized ideological and partisan climate, that might not have made much difference. Meanwhile, there was a lot of speculation during the campaign that Trump was losing altitude with white Evangelicals, his strongest large constituency. In the end he won them 84-15, an improvement over his 77-16 margin in 2016.

Things we thought we knew but didn’t

One apparent “surprise” that was hyped to high heaven by Team Trump was his alleged “breakthrough” among Black voters. The exits showed him doubling his support in this demographic, albeit from an anemic 6 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020. That was still an impressive improvement for the candidate of neo-Confederates everywhere, running on the thinly veiled racism of attacks on “rioters” and other threats to suburban neighborhoods. The 19 percent the exits gave to Trump among Black men was even more eyebrow-raising.

Pew’s validated numbers show Trump getting 8 percent of the Black vote, a much smaller boost, with Biden actually increasing Clinton’s share of that vote. Biden’s 60-point margin among Black men in the exits grew to 75 points in the Pew data. Not quite a Republican breakthrough.

Just as you can’t take the politics out of politics, you can’t take the spin out of post-election analysis, particularly if informative breakdowns of the results are slow to arrive. But we now know enough to have an educated guess at the trends we are likely to see in 2022 and 2024, particularly if Biden and Trump are the candidates.

June 25: No Time to “Move On” From Voting Rights

As the For the People Act crashed on the rocks of Republican obstruction, I sought to look at the bigger picture at New York:

As expected, Republicans filibustered a motion to proceed to Senate consideration of the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting-rights and election-reform bill that cleared the House in March. Tuesday’s motion produced a pure partisan split, with its famous Democratic opponent, Joe Manchin, voting with his party to open debate on the bill — presumably in hopes of getting a vote on his recently unveiled compromise proposal, though key GOP senators quickly denounced it.

In theory the Manchin proposal could get a fresh look, and a narrow component of it — a revival of the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provisions — is still alive in the separate John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But all in all, prospects look grim for any voting-rights legislation in the Senate, with Republicans attacking any Democratic proposals as “power grabs” designed to block restrictive state-level Republican legislation, and this GOP hostility failing to shake Manchin and several other Senate Democrats in their opposition to filibuster reform.

“[I]t’s clear that the White House is operating at a more tempered level of concern than other Democrats about the threats to small-d democracy emerging in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election. Based on my conversations with them, officials there seem to take a more nuanced and restrained view of what’s happening. They do not believe that more assertive public denunciation from Biden would dissuade any of the Republican governors or legislators who have moved to restrict voting rights. And although White House officials consider the laws offensive from a civil-rights perspective, they do not think most of those laws will advantage Republicans in the 2022 and 2024 elections as much as many liberal activists fear.”

This sort of limited commitment to voting-rights legislation is, of course, music to the ears of those Democrats who believe anything that smacks of special attention for Black and other minority Americans is a midterm-election killer among white voters who might otherwise warm to Biden’s jobs, infrastructure, and family support initiatives. And the fact that voting-rights proponents cannot presently identify any viable path to legislative success only increases the impatience of those in the party ranks who want to stop looking “woke” and resume tossing money around.

This attitude is both short-sighted and unprincipled. Every bit of time spent on voting rights agitation and legislative activity is a sound investment that will pay off richly for Democrats. Here’s why:

This debate on national voting standards is urgent and long overdue

Until Democrats took control of the Senate this year, Congress had been under either divided or Republican control since 2011, short-circuiting any real debate or legislative progress on maintaining minimal national standards for voting and elections. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court gutted protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as even as Republican-controlled states launched successive waves of increasingly partisan attacks on access to the ballot.

The Trump campaign’s efforts to convince state-level Republicans to overturn adverse election results in 2020 was neither the beginning nor the end of this sinister trend, which is advancing under the false flag of election integrity. Even if one believes Democrats can counter such developments with voter education and base mobilization efforts, the message that Republicans are traducing basic democratic norms that should prevail in all 50 states is essential to the task. Promoting federal legislation and — if it fails — aggressive Justice Department enforcement efforts and litigation is the simplest way to draw this line in the sand.

State-level Democrats are playing defense, and need high-profile allies

Whether or not new federal voting-rights legislation can be enacted before the 2022 midterms, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration — from the president and vice-president on down — owe their counterparts in Republican-controlled states loud and active support when voting rights are compromised or election administration is subverted. The idea that such matters are entirely up the states contradicts every bit of voting rights legislation and litigation pursued since the high tide of the civil-rights movement.

Aside from state legislative fights and litigation ongoing right now, voting rights and related issues such as partisan gerrymandering and neutral election administration are going to be red-hot midterm issues in many parts of the country, with fateful consequences. A coordinated Democratic message from the president down to state legislative candidates is the most effective way to wage this very national fight.

Voting rights is the best issue on which to fight the recent assault on democratic norms

Without much question, the abandonment of democratic norms by Donald Trump’s Republican followers is best illustrated by their attacks on voting rights and fair administration of elections in 2020. And if Democrats are serious about institutional reforms that prevent authoritarian and ant-majoritarian abuses of power by the GOP, whether it’s filibuster reform, admission of new states, or even judicial reform, the need to restore representative democracy remains the strongest context for remedial action.

Yes, the inability to get 50 Senate Democrats to support filibuster reform is precisely why the For the People Act and probably even the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are doomed in this Congress. But if filibuster reform is ever to succeed, he best foot forward is likely an effort to vindicate voting rights for all U.S. citizens, appealing to what was very recently a bipartisan tradition.

Democrats have a moral obligation to defend the rights of their most loyal and vulnerable constituents

While voting rights is a universal cause transcending race, gender, class, or national origin, there is no question the current GOP-led assault on the franchise is squarely aimed at predominantly Democratic constituencies, including those Black, Latino, Asian American, and under-30 voters who have traditionally been the object of discrimination in this area. If Democratic elected officials in Washington are indifferent to their plight or treat voting rights as an unsexy “process issue,” why should young and minority voters feel any reciprocal loyalty?

Yes, Democrats need to be smart in choosing their priorities in this precious moment of party power in Washington. But voting rights are too fundamental to all rights, and too central to Democratic electoral prospects, to be subordinated to other issues the minute it becomes expedient.

And for that matter, the party can keep the focus on voting and election fairness in 2021 without sacrificing other legislation. The current infrastructure negotiations will either succeed or fail by July. Then President Biden’s remaining budget-germane initiatives — whatever is left of his infrastructure proposals, plus his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan — will be rolled into a budget reconciliation bill that is expected to take shape by mid-summer and reach fruition this fall. There’s even a possibility that Democrats could include in this legislation election administration or voter education spending, making defense of democracy filibuster-proof.

Perhaps at some point it will become politically, legislatively, and morally imperative to “move on” from voting rights as a Democratic priority. But that moment has not yet arrived, and may never.

June 24: Is the Democratic Plague of Midterm Fall-Off Ending?

A very old topic (to me) has arisen in connection with 2022 previews, and I wrote about it at New York:

As political observers know, the party not in control of the White House usually does well in midterm U.S. House and state elections. (The Senate is a bit iffier because the landscape can vary enormously based on which “class” of one-third of the chamber is up for reelection in any one year.) There have, however, been two aberrations in the recent past, in 1998 and 2002, wherein the White House party gained House seats. As I discussed in a recent post, Democrats hope 2022 could be an aberration as well, thanks to positive feelings about the subsiding pandemic and a strong economy, and perhaps the continued presence in the public eye of Donald J. Trump — the man nearly all Democratic and many swing voters love to hate.

But there’s another midterm variable that should be considered: a traditional “midterm fall-off” in voting by demographic groups that have recently become Democratic bastions. This was exhibited most forcefully in the very bad (for Democrats) midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.

Even after Trump’s election in 2016 gave Democratic-leaning demographic groups plenty of reasons to turn out disproportionately, there were fears the falloff would reduce or even wipe out Democratic gains in 2018. That didn’t happen, of course, as Ron Brownstein recalls:

“In 2018, more than 118 million Americans voted, exactly half of the eligible population, according to [Michael] McDonald’s calculations. That was the highest midterm turnout, as a share of eligible voters, since 1914, before women won the right to vote.

“And while the 2018 electorate was still somewhat older than in 2016, the gray shift wasn’t nearly as powerful as in the past, because young adults turned out at twice the level they did in the last midterm, of 2014. Turnout among Blacks and Hispanics also declined much less than in previous midterms, with the result that the White share of the vote actually fell from 2016 to 2018, according to McDonald’s calculations, an unprecedented pattern in recent years … The turnout wave continued into 2020, with nearly 160 million people voting and turnout among young people and people of color again rising dramatically.”

One key question for 2022 is whether the fall-off will resemble what we saw in 2010 or 2014 or instead the smaller version that appeared in 2018. The experts Brownstein consulted expect something in between, which, if combined with the kind of gains Democrats made in 2018 and 2020 among college-educated white suburbanites and older voters, could make a midterm upset possible under the right circumstances.

Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to get new or marginal voters to turn out again in 2022: Trump managed to turn out a surprising number of them in 2020 himself. Keeping them energized is job one for the GOP in 2022, and Republicans may have the advantage of the kind of enraged opposition to a “socialist” president that was so visible in the tea-party movement of 2010 — though thus far, Biden is not inspiring the same levels of hostility.

That leads to the 2022 variable that no one can entirely foresee: How visible will Donald Trump be in the midterm campaign? The threat of a Trump comeback is the easiest way for Democrats to mobilize their new 2018 and 2020 voters and for Republicans to mobilize their own. Trump could help Democrats turn the midterm from a referendum on the incumbent president (a referendum incumbent presidents typically lose) to at least partially a referendum on the once and possibly future President Trump.

All of this seems far in the future to those who are focused on Democratic efforts to deliver popular legislation in a closely divided Congress. But if we know anything about the current political environment, it’s that partisan polarization will make big swings in public opinion difficult or even impossible barring equally big changes in the quality of real life. So it may well be the small underlying currents in electoral politics, including the demographics of midterm turnout, that will determine whether Biden has at least four years or just two to implement his agenda.

With or without some help from Trump, though, Democrats really need to find ways to keep young and minority voters engaged.

June 17: The False Equivalence of Omar and Greene

After a week of efforts to equate the controversial remarks of two particular members of Congress, I pushed back a bit at New York:

It looks like House Republicans are going to deal with outrage over their perennial problem child Marjorie Taylor Greene by finding a Democrat to punish. That would be Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, according to Politico’s Huddle:

“’I think that Ilan should receive the same type of punishment as Marjorie because if it’s good for one, it is good for another,’ Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.), who voted to remove Greene from her committees, told me. ‘Anti-semitism is the same thing as anti-semitism. It’s just that Nancy is afraid …'”

There are others who want to push for Omar’s removal as well as those looking to censure her over her war crimes remarks — and a few Dems may join them.

The idea of equating Omar’s complaints about unequal treatment of countries in investigating military misconduct with Greene’s comparisons of mask and vaccine requirements to the Holocaust is deeply satisfying to a lot of people. Republicans can continue their now-ancient habit of waving away extremism in their ranks by claiming it’s more prevalent on the other side of the aisle. Nervous centrist Democrats can document their nervous centrism by firing thunderbolts left and right. And most of all, accusing both parties of harboring those prone to “false equivalence” appeals to the false equivalence many Beltway media folks want to draw between Democrats and Republicans, who are engaged in the mutually assured destruction of partisan polarization.

There’s only one problem: Treating what MTG and Omar have said as equal expressions of false equivalence actually is false, as any honest evaluation of their words quickly shows. Greene bluntly compared COVID-19 precautions to the Holocaust, analogized vaccine documentation mandates to the Nazi practice of making Jews wear yellow stars, and, for good measure, said Democrats are like Nazis because they are “socialists.” Omar said this in the midst of a virtual exchange with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over investigations of the brief but intense war between Israel and Hamas:

“’We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,’ she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.’”

Her point wasn’t to say the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban were equally culpable in their commission of atrocities, but that all should be equally subject to international investigation. I suppose there are superpatriots who would dispute the idea that America has ever committed “unthinkable atrocities,” though the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks, and of countless genocidal assaults on Native Americans, among many examples, suggest otherwise. But in any event, when challenged by Republicans and Democrats alike to make it clear she was not imputing equivalent culpability to these various nations and coalitions of fighters, Omar complied instantly:

“U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said Thursday that she was ‘in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems … ‘

“’To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding [International Criminal Court] cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel.’”

MTG, meanwhile, kept doubling down on her comparisons of public-health measures with the slaughter of many millions by Nazi Germany, and finally, after more than three weeks and a tour of the Holocaust Museum, she issued an apology that betrayed little understanding of the full scope of the Holocaust, and then refused to apologize for the Democrat-Nazi analogy.

Looking more broadly at the two women and their records of controversial utterances, Ilhan made an unfortunate and erroneous reference to “the Benjamins,” in a gratuitous comment about support for Israel in the United States, for which she “unequivocally” apologized:

“Anti-semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be able to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”

Greene lost her committee assignments earlier this year after media focus on an almost incredible blizzard of incendiary statements she made on social media before coming to Congress (barely anyone even noticed her practice of brandishing an AR-15 when discussing her enemies in campaign ads). In February, she apologized for claiming that school shootings were fake and for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories. She never apologized for happily contemplating violence against congressional Democrats (including, very specifically, Ilhan Omar) and the Speaker of the House, or for her unusually aggressive support of Trump’s electoral big lie and the effort in January to overturn the presidential election results, or for her own subscription to very weird anti-Semitic claims.

If you cannot discern a qualitative difference between Omar’s “outrages” and Greene’s, and between the speed and coherence of their clarifications and apologies, it may be time for some remedial work in logic and rhetoric. These two members of Congress aren’t alike at all, and as much as I sometimes disagree with Ilhan Omar, treating her as a left-wing MTG is lazy and just plain wrong.