“Zero Dark Brandon” Gets Things Done

Governing and elections aren’t perfectly symbiotic. How much legislation you pass through Congress and sign as President has very little to do with your re-election, while history tells us your unemployment rate, ability to not raise taxes on most people, and global events beyond your control have a lot to do with it. Jimmy Carter did a lot of innovative things as President, but was undone by lines at the gasoline pump, hostages in Iran, and inflation. High gas prices and inflation may very well do the same to Joe Biden.

With that said, it’s hard to argue Joe Biden isn’t achieving things or that his White House has nothing to sell to a restless public. In his Administration, the following acts have reached his desk, or are about to:

  • American Rescue Plan of 2021– The major Covid recovery bill signed in 2021, valued at $1.9 trillion that mostly went to money for small businesses, vaccines, and other areas impacted by the disease.
  • Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021– This $1 trillion, bipartisan bill provided money for highways, broadband, mass transit, and much more.
  • Protect Our Kids Act of 2022– The most significant national gun safety bill to pass since the opening two years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency, done so on a bipartisan basis.
  • The appointment of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson– approved on a bipartisan basis, Judge Brown Jackson became the first Black Woman on the bench.
  • CHIPS and Science Act of 2022– This bipartisan bill will make cars, household appliances, and computers cheaper, and was approved on a bipartisan basis. This will also help our national security agencies meet their technological needs, domestically.
  • PACT Act of 2022– This is the “burn pit” bill that was held up by Ted Cruz and other Republican Senators. This will help veterans receive the care they were promised.
  • And finally, The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022– The 2022 Reconciliation Bill would make record investments in fighting climate change, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and lowering the deficit over the next decade.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were pretty effective Presidents from the Democratic side, and both oversaw very good economic outcomes in their tenure, but neither accomplished this much in their first two years. Action on infrastructure unmatched since Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, the most important gun bill since 1994, tens of millions of vaccines administered, a major climate bill, a historic Supreme Court judge, major action for veterans and technological industries, and money to save millions of small businesses in the first two years. No, it isn’t a perfect first two years, and certainly Democratic frustration with the pace on Capitol Hill, not to mention with the Supreme Court, is warranted. It’s worth noting though that Biden’s peers on getting things done in his first two years are both known by their three initials, LBJ and FDR. Part of the promise of Biden in the 2020 campaign was that he would actually get things done. Things have certainly been done.

I’ll close how I opened though, being good at passing legislation is not a sign that an incumbent President will be good at winning re-election, and I certainly think the Biden White House has had messaging issues the first two years. Like Obama and Clinton before him, his communications team set the expectation that the mere arrival of this President would mark the beginning of better days ahead, and that was never realistic. Everything from the inflation and gas prices to the empowerment of the least progressive forces in the Senate Democratic Caucus was absolutely predictable and should have been baked into the expectations the team set. There is also the bigger problem- continual messaging that doesn’t nearly celebrate the achievements of this White House enough, and allows the media to spin victories into defeats reigned supreme in the first two years. The achievements of this President are historic. The inflation and growing pains of his administration are all cyclical and to be expected coming out of a predecessor who thrived on creating chaos. The team around the President needs to do a better job of framing his results within the paradigm that is reality, and stop trying to create the utopia that some of these folks (many who weren’t Biden people to begin with) want to give to the country. If they can do that, Joe Biden will get the second inaugural, with a big crowd this time, that he deserves.

The “Reagan Democrat” Electoral Myth

He didn’t flip the voters you think…

There’s a political myth that has survived too long- Ronald Reagan won because he flipped the “Reagancrats.” They were northern, union, Catholic households that were attracted to his message of lower taxes and less government. To Democrats, Reagan convinced them to vote against their own economic interests. It is a neat story, a more interesting story of complicated outreach that changed electoral politics. It’s also pretty much fiction.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. He won without winning anything in the Western United States, literally. With the exception of Hawaii, Carter won all of his electoral votes in states that closed their polls by 10pm at the latest. He won without sweeping the Northeast. He won while losing almost as much of the Rust Belt as he won. He dominated in Appalachia. He won nearly the entire South. President Ford won a lot of places that Republicans don’t even dream of competing in today. He lost the election because he got crushed across the “Solid South” that Democrats dominated for a little over a hundred years, but never again after this election.

But let’s talk about those “Reagan Democrats” from labor households, across the Rust Belt, Kennedy Catholics that had been the backbone of the Democratic Party up until this point, supposedly. Yes, Reagan won them in 1980 and 1984. He won almost every group in both elections. He lost a grand total of 62 electoral votes in the two elections, and while he did better across the Rust Belt than Ford, the difference was pretty much in proportion to his victory. Basically Minnesota and West Virginia defied his political reach. Ford managed to win those and hang on to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and it was close. Carter was an outlier in this era though.

One look at Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 victories tells you the story of the “Reagan Democrat.” Their flip happened in 1968, from Kennedy voters to the swing voters that remain crucial even until today. Nixon carried Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio in both of his victories. Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia came along in 1972. Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana went red for Ford in 1976 for a third straight election, and Michigan went for the 38th President’s party a second straight time as well. All in, from 1968 until 1988, the GOP did pretty well throughout the midwest:

  • Illinois and Indiana went red six straight times.
  • Iowa went red five straight times until Bush lost it in 1988. Ohio and Missouri went red every time except for 1976. Michigan went blue every time except for 1968.
  • Pennsylvania went red four times out of six elections in this time period. Wisconsin did as well.
  • Minnesota did defy the GOP every time in this period, amazingly.

The main point of course is that it was not Reagan who flipped the Midwest, or the “Reagan Democrat.” One could make a pretty strong argument that this was already a region in play, and that it was Nixon who brought it onto the red side, more so than Reagan. The trouble for the GOP heading into the 1980 election wasn’t the Rust Belt- it was the South. The Democrats hold on the region was already slipping in 1968 when Wallace won Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and Nixon pulled in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. In 1972, Nixon swept across the South, as with most of America. In 1976 though, Carter swept the whole region back into the Democratic column, for the first time since LBJ’s 1964 blowout. Reagan’s task was to break that hold on the South. His campaign zeroed in on it, and that focus has predominantly held it since.

Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” He made it an explicit attack on government and a fight for “states rights.” He attacked anecdotal enemies such as the “welfare queen.” He gave an explicitly “states rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair, near the site of the Philadelphia, MS lynchings of 1964. On the one hand we have to admit that Reagan simply seized on electoral trends that dated back to at least 1966 (the first “post Civil Rights” legislation election) and ran with them. On the other hand, Reagan explicitly ran on those themes and flipped the region into the Republican column for good.

In the 40+ years since Reagan’s victory, there have been some exceptions to the GOP’s “Solid South,” which now clearly includes Appalachia running north out of Dixie. West Virginia stayed in the Blue column in 1988, 1992, and 1996, before leaving to the Republicans ever since. Bill Clinton carried Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky in both of his elections, and Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996, before Al Gore and John Kerry lost every state in the South. Barack Obama did flip Virginia and Florida both times, and North Carolina once, before Hillary Clinton lost everything in the South besides Virginia. And of course, Joe Biden won Virginia and Georgia on his way to victory in 2020. For the most part though, Reagan left a legacy of a solidly Republican South. One look at 1988’s map shows what he created.

Ronald Reagan’s political revolution realigned the Southern United States into the Republican column. The truth about the northern “Reagan Democrat” is that while he won them, it was not any true marking of a massive change. Nixon and Ford did well with them too, but these voters remained the swing voters that would give the Presidency to Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, Trump, and eventually Biden thereafter. Reagan’s enduring political legacy is the permanent flip of the South away from Democrats, because he made an explicit appeal to grievance politics in the region that have become emblematic of his party since.

Deadlines and Destiny

Nothing in sports gets more unnecessary ink than NFL practices.The amount of attention people put into practice- yes, we’re talking about practice- is silly. I’ve read more Philadelphia sports media takes about the team being great based on practice field success than I’d care to remember. It’s almost always garbage. The only important news out of camp is who gets hurt, otherwise I’m not really interested.

MLB’s trade deadline is actually in a similar boat. Obviously if someone snags Juan Soto today, that is significant news that you should care about. Many times though, the big moves are not really the big moves, and the most significant stuff that happens are margin moves that improve a serious weakness, more than the moves that land stars. This is true the other 364 days a year too, but those days receive less hype. Lots of attention will be put into some of the bigger names moving today. History tells us that’s not the right way to view deadline moves.

In 2008 the Phillies got figuratively mugged by the fans and the writers for getting outbid on Rich Harden and other name starting pitchers, and instead getting back-end of the rotation Joe Blanton for their playoff run. Those Phillies chased down the Mets, won a second straight division, and the franchise’s second World Series title. It is often the little moves- like picking up Jamie Moyer from Seattle’s 2006 scrapheap, or a J.C. Romero or Scott Eyre off a waiver wire, that end up paying off the biggest for a franchise. The 2009 Phillies cruised to the NL East title and picked up Cliff Lee and an unemployed Pedro Martinez, far bigger names than anyone they grabbed in 2008, but only nabbed an NL Pennant for that effort. Trade deadline moves, both back in the era of the August waiver period and now, can be a tricky thing. Does one player, even a Roy Oswalt or Hunter Pence type, dramatically change your odds of winning a World Series? The answer is probably not, even if they’re a great player. On the other hand, picking up a marginal upgrade at a particular point of weakness can dramatically improve a ball club. In other words, if your fifth starter is terrible, or you’re trotting out a negative WAR position starter every day, and today you pick up someone who is even league average at that spot, the odds that your team is going to get hot and get on a run down the stretch into the post-season goes way up. In other words, Juan Soto or Frankie Montas are really good players, but it’s hard to tell today if they would make a Dodgers or Yankees that much more likely to win.

There’s the other side of this, and it’s that the teams dealing may not be setting up their futures that well by selling today. I almost feel for the Washington Nationals (but I can’t) because I cannot imagine exactly what kind of haul for Soto would make me feel any better about trading a 23 year old that was second in last year’s MVP vote and isn’t even near his prime yet. They got their championship, but have watched a steady stream of Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars they amassed in their “Natitude” era run that began in 2012 walk away. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner got sent to LA at last year’s deadline and now Scherzer is up the Acela route in Queens. Bryce Harper got that second MVP up I-95 in Philly. Anthony Rendon fled to Southern California. Ryan Zimmerman retired. Now Soto could be gone, and you can’t possibly get a return that equals the player he is now, let alone what he’ll be in five years. Trust me, we’ve been there. When the Phillies traded Cole Hamels, they got a package of top 100 prospects, all of whom are gone now, and only Alfaro fetched them anything in return (he was part of the Realmuto package). The only piece from the Ken Giles trade still hanging around Philly is Mark Appel, now a 31 year old reliever that actually left baseball for a few years and came back to find his success. The Papelbon deal landed Nick Pivetta, and we know how that went in Philly. In short, you’re lucky if any of the guys you get in these big trades ever even make it in the Majors, and even then, the odds they perform at a high level like Soto are almost nil. Sure, maybe you get Randy Johnson for Mark Langston. It’s more likely you get close to nothing. I despise the Nationals, but I feel for their fans who are feeling like this is a funeral for their franchise today.

None of this is to say you don’t go out and try to nail the blockbuster today. If I were the Padres, for example, I’d move mountains with my prospect haul to try and get Soto and even Josh Bell, and check in to see if I could even get the Nationals to take Eric Hosmer’s contract off my hands in the process. And if I were the Nationals? Yeah, I’d probably do it all. At least they’ll have a mountain of prospects in exchange for Soto. They could be the Angels, deciding that holding onto Ohtani right now to sell tickets, but continuing to put an uncompetitive, awful product on the field is acceptable. With Mike Trout’s back condition being a long-term storm cloud over a franchise that’s not even remotely competing for a Wild Card spot, I just don’t get what they think is going to happen for them. Standing pat and being terrible is the epitome of hell in sports, and at least for the Nationals they won’t be doing that (whether they trade Soto today or in the Winter). No one wants to watch that. No one wants to watch their contender team sit on their hands today either, and to the credit of the biggest contender of all, the New York Yankees, they didn’t. They filled virtually all of their holes at this deadline. Fans just want to see a good faith effort to try and win. Some teams clearly do that better than others.

As for my Phillies today, my two most pressing needs are a centerfielder I can actually put out there every day and a starting pitcher that at least improves one spot in my rotation. Honestly though, a couple of reliable relievers may do the most impactful good of anything on the market for them. I like the move for Edmundo Sosa from the Cardinals on Saturday, as team defense is still a glaring hole that needs improving, even if it hasn’t killed them yet. I would be fine with Noah Syndergaard or Tyler Mahle as a starting pitcher, although both probably cost more than I really wanted them to give up at this deadline. Neither is a top of the rotation option in 2022, but both are probably better than hoping for Zach Eflin’s health to improve. Rumors about Brett Phillips are fine, but he’s not an offensive upgrade on either centerfielder they have right now, and while he’s much better defensively, neither of them are bad defensively. It’s always about improving your weakest points, and hopefully the Phillies can do that today.

Delicate Coalitions

Andrew Yang has been getting more attention on Twitter than someone who lost a New York City Mayoral Primary last Summer should. One could say the same for his comrades in starting the “Forward Party,” former EPA Administrator and New Jersey Governor of 20 plus years ago Christie Todd Whitman and pre-Trump former Congressman David Jolly. Their third party won’t appear on a single 2022 ballot this November and probably won’t even be competitive for a single electoral vote in the near or long-term future in a Presidential race. Third parties, even when started by fairly legitimate figures like Ross Perot, almost always are irrelevant in the immediate and dead in the long-term. The energy being used to attack Yang for his stunt is really not worth it.

The problem though is that it is a problem for the Democratic Party if a third option arrives on the scene and is given credible coverage. As I recently stated, the majority of the Democratic Party’s base are not leftist ideologues, and may even have certain hostilities towards their party’s more ideological orthodoxies. The Democratic Party, post-Reagan, built a large chunk of it’s base on opposition to the rigid social conservatism of the Republican Party, but it’s worth noting that populist and progressive choices generally don’t win larger-scale (national or statewide) Democratic primaries. This is the opposite of the GOP, where today’s “America First” ideology is king, and tends to dominate their primary electorate. Democrats are far less satisfied with their ideological viewpoint than Republicans. You have moderates in the middle that dislike the “leftward movement” of the party, and you have leftists in the party that view it as weak and ineffective at governing to their satisfaction. Both have a certain interest in alternatives to the perceived failings of the national party. There is a faction of Republicans who feel the same about their party, but it is a smaller faction.

A third party is unnecessary and probably harmful to our democracy, since we require Presidents to win a majority, not a plurality, of the electoral college. A successful third party would likely mean every Presidential election would be thrown to the House of Representatives to decide when nobody ever wins the electoral college, and Americans would simply never accept that. Putting that aside, it also would probably cement an era of conservative dominance that would last until one of the three parties literally died out. Democrats would not be able to hold their 48% national base, and even a drop to somewhere around 42% would limit them to political dominance in ten states or less.

This brings me to my main point- the Democratic Party’s brand is quite fragile. The only reason the party continues to do well at the national level is that the Republican Party has completely embraced a minority of the electorate as it’s base and taken on unpopular positions. People don’t particularly like the Democratic Party though as much as they like the perceived positions of the party. We will see this play out in real time this Fall. While 70% of the country is pro-choice, Democrats will underperform that number by over 20%. The same is true of the large majorities for gun control, sometimes as high as 90%, which Democrats will greatly underperform, maybe by as much as half. Lots of people out there in America agree with Democratic positions on major policy issues, but vote Republican because of some combination of thinking Democrats are ineffective, caring about only one or two issues or qualities where they like the GOP, or just not wanting to be a part of a liberal vision for society. You often times hear progressives talk about how popular progressive policies are, and yet they don’t seem to get votes. Joe Biden, for whatever faults you have with him, is probably having the most effective first two years in passing legislation we’ve seen in about 50 years from a Democrat, and his poll numbers are not going up from it. It is extremely counter-intuitive.

The actual percentage of people who will march with “Proud Boys” or wear a MAGA hat is a small minority within our electorate. Most people when asked, will tell you they support a woman’s right to choose, Civil Rights, and everyone having a fair opportunity to vote. The GOP builds their coalition up though with people who simply oppose paying their hard earned money in taxes, people who generally think our society is pretty decent and doesn’t need massive change, and people who support issues like higher national security spending, gun rights, or jobs in industries like fossil fuel energy. When they build this coalition up to their full potential, they’re suddenly around 46-47% of the electorate (at least) and can win elections in a federalist system like our’s. People know there are problems with the GOP governing, but are willing to accept them because they simply don’t want Democrats governing. Hence, losing even a few people to a third party could be a death blow to Dems.