The Washington Post is out with a report today from NYU saying that Russian disinformation on Twitter probably had very little impact on the 2016 Election. The basic finding is that the tweets probably didn’t reach nearly a big or broad enough audience to really make a difference. The report notes that Facebook posts reached a much wider audience, and “hack and dump” operations against the DNC likely did reach the broader public, based on other studies. In the end it’s nearly impossible to see exactly how much Russian operations were because of missing variables.
Setting aside the issue that Twitter has more of a “political influencer” crowd on it, there’s not a lot to argue against from the report. As the years have passed since 2016, I have not for one second doubted that Russia was messing around in our elections, or that Trump was okay with it. I’ve had two basic problems with the whole narrative though. First, “collusion” is not the crime, conspiracy would be, and that would require a direct agreement of some kind, which hasn’t been totally laid out to us. Second, I spent most of 2016 in Northeast Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina- do I really think all the Trump voters I saw needed Russia to convince them? Sure, bad people tried to do bad things, but is that really why Trump won?
It’s an uncomfortable conversation for a lot of liberal-leaning Americans, because I don’t think we like the implications, but Donald Trump did win the 2016 Election. Sure, he lost the popular vote, but that isn’t our system. So much of the conversation about Russian interference in our elections has been an attempt to discredit the result, rather than secure the future, and that is probably energy poorly spent. In 2012, the swing states broke mostly as a group towards Barack Obama, while the rest of the country voted along red and blue lines. In 2020, the swing states broke narrowly towards Joe Biden, while the rest of the country voted along their partisan lines. In 2016 they broke the opposite way. Typically the winner of the election is the candidate who does best where the paid communications are happening, which is to say the swing states. In 2016 that happened to be the Republican nominee.
Part of the reason the Russian interference narrative is a comforting way to explain 2016 is that it avoids saying that nearly half the country actually agrees with what Trump is saying. The truth is, they do though. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a fluke. Joe Biden needed north of 81 million votes to narrowly beat him four years later. To treat Trump’s win as though it didn’t really happen is to comfort one’s self in a reality that never really existed.
It was funny, maybe the first five times. Then it became pathetic. Then it made me mad. Finally it ended, when I was asleep no less, and Kevin McCarthy finally was Speaker. The House was sworn in, and honestly that was it. They lacked the votes to get any rules passed. So the House went home, patting themselves on the back. After almost a week of work, they managed to put someone in charge and swear themselves in. They will spend the next two years being this unproductive. This was the easy part.
There are 435 House members and 100 Senators in a country of 330 million people, and they used that power for this performative bullshit. To be clear, the Senate is not nearly as bad as the new House, but both will largely spend their time in session trying to “message” to the country on the issues they want to talk about for the next two years. Neither will pass much actual law. We’ll be very lucky if the House can even raise the debt ceiling or fund the government at all, let alone pass any helpful laws.
It sort of amazes me that people want to be elected to Congress to go there and hold oversight hearings, stage sit-ins, and make TikToks, instead of writing bills, appropriating money, and passing legislation. You have members (in both parties) who served multiple terms in the Majority and the biggest legislative achievements they have are Post Office names. Getting clicks for performance art brings in small dollar donations, gets coverage, and raises name ID much more than real legislative work though. The incentive structure is all messed up, and Congress is full of people for whom the point is getting on camera- it’s literally why they are there.
The use of oversight committee hearings to get on television goes back to at least McCarthyism in the 1950’s, and just has been progressively worse since. We probably should have understood this during the baseball steroid hearings or the Benghazi hearings, but an increasing point of this stuff isn’t producing legislation or even legislative reports, they’re there to get on TV. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert just spent a week using the election of a House Speaker to get on TV, with no substantive goal or demand, just basically to impress some activists somewhere that they showed their leader who is the boss. Nothing was achieved for the country. Just fame for them.
There are people who will argue it’s good that we just watched Congress debate their leader in the public sphere. Sure, maybe for two, three, or even five rounds. These folks spent at least twelve rounds voting the exact same, over and over. To foreign powers, it’s dysfunctional. To the domestic audience, it was clownery. To those in the know? These people aren’t capable of the job of serving in Congress. They literally won a seat in the most powerful legislature in the world just to impress strangers on the internet.
Don't be the next contestant on that Summer Jam screen Because you know who (who) did you know what (what) With you know who (yeah) but just keep that between me and you for now.
Those prophetic words from the great Jay-Z could easily have been written about the three men pictured above who the Republican Party tapped as the faces of their opposition to a young President Barack Obama. The funny thing about it is, in 2009 and 2010 it looked like they were doing pretty well. Now it’s 2022, and Obama’s Vice-President is now the President, and at any time now the last of them could be laid waste to by his party. They have been summarily humiliated, defeated, and vanquished from the GOP.
It would be very easy to sit here and talk about the political failings of each of them individually, or laugh at how foolish it was to think these guys could take on the coolest American politician of his generation. One could spend time making this a demographic case study, and try to make the argument that the “arch of time” is against the House GOP, but that would ignore that the GOP has won or gained seats in every House election since that book cover, save for one. My hypothesis in the end though is quite different than that- none of the “young guns” individual flaws ended up mattering nearly as much as the entire miscalculation of creating the “young guns” at all.
The retired lady in North Dakota, the angry Kari Lake voter in Arizona, the young guy in Johnstown, PA, or the random retiree in The Villages of Florida all may have been seeking an alternative to Barack Obama in 2009, but the last 14 years have shown us that what they were not looking for was policy alternatives packaged in Washington, DC. Paul Ryan’s budget was not the response to Obama’s America they were asking for. The truth is that the whole “young guns” idea was something out of Bush’s Washington, and that Republican Party and America were simply dead when Obama came to town. It was a total misread of the Tea Party moment, and an even worse misread of where American conservatism was by the time 2015 arrived and John Boehner was being forced to vacate the Speaker’s Office to go sell marijuana. After Eric Cantor’s loss the GOP should have never thought Paul Ryan or Kevin McCarthy were going to be able to pacify what the GOP base had become. The last seven years that culminated in Kevin McCarthy’s utter humiliation on the House floor yesterday should have been predictable.
After Obama’s election, anyone who wanted to organize the GOP around an organized policy platform has come to be viewed as a moderate. To be a true conservative of the post-2008 world, one had to be willing to make a cultural argument directly against the America of Barack Obama. To be clear, allow this to clear up the dissonance of how some people voted for Obama himself and became Trumpers- it really wasn’t about Obama or even Bill Clinton’s job performances, it was more about the changes in America that were allowed to go on during their tenures. It was more about the people perceived to be getting preference in that vision of America, and that those people were getting those advantages while the new Republican base was being left to rot. This is why Romney failed to capture this base’s hopes and dreams, but Trump became their hero, his rhetoric reached them. It’s why the Republican “young guns” of 2009, in their suits, armed with their white papers on tax policy failed. The post-2008 GOP base didn’t give a damn about your policy talk, they wanted to know you would fight like hell. The more so you showed them, the more they loved you.
Let’s face it, nobody thinks Kevin McCarthy is a fighter. Or Paul Ryan. Or Eric Cantor. In fact, one by one they’ve been exposed as more willing to deliver for the rich donors than the GOP base, and it eventually catches up to them. Not one of the 20 Republicans who bucked McCarthy yesterday will be angering their own primary voters, just the DC based GOP crowd that the real base doesn’t think delivers for them anyway. The pulse of their party is fine with this.
The truth is the official, DC, mainstream GOP response to “Obamaism” was an attempt to put forward a polished policy alternative, and that bet was all wrong. The folks who wanted an alternative to the world Obama was putting forward wanted a visceral, confrontational opposition. Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor didn’t provide that. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush didn’t provide that. Eventually the base of the GOP figures that out and disposed of them. For McCarthy, whether that really happened yesterday or a year from now, his time is coming. He and his fellow”young guns” made their bet, and they failed. We have reached the point where that is becoming pretty clear.
A lot has been written about Nancy Pelosi’s 22 years in the House Democratic Leadership, her eight years as Speaker of the United States House, and 36 years to date in the House. I really don’t have much to add there. She’s simply the most effective, best Congressional leader of my 39 year life. One could argue she’s the best ever. I really don’t have much to add.
I have one thing to add though- watch today. Today the GOP will take control of the House with 222 seats, the same number Nancy Pelosi had in her last term as Speaker. In 2021, Nancy Pelosi secured her 218 votes to be Speaker with little drama or fanfare. Even at times when she was Minority Leader, and there was real talk about replacing her, Pelosi kept her post with little drama or fanfare. Nancy Pelosi always knew her vote count, whether it was on a leadership vote, or passing any of the massive pieces of legislation she passed as Speaker. Nancy Pelosi was consistent and steady. With her exit as Speaker today, that era is gone for America.
Today you’ll watch Kevin McCarthy humiliate himself to attempt to be Speaker. He might succeed, he might not. It matters very little. No one that replaces Speaker Pelosi has one-tenth of her abilities to lead. The next two years will turn her former office into a prison, where the leader will be forced to acquiesce to lunatics, grifters, and liars. Kevin McCarthy is walking into chaos.
You’re going to miss Nancy Pelosi. The woman is good at her job.
Back in 2019, my theory was that Joe Biden would win the Democratic nomination, and ultimately the Presidency, basically because he was unlike anything else running in the Democratic field, and that was going to be good with the general electorate. While all the other candidates came out for pet slogans and causes of the activist and leftist wings of the party (Green New Deal, Defund the Police, reparations, “bold” change), Biden simply did not. He didn’t do things like defend Castro’s Cuba. Joe Biden said he was “not the guy” for voters who wanted that, and bet that more voters would back him. It worked. He won the nomination. He then won the Presidential Election, despite his party’s mixed results at other levels (particularly the House, but also to a lesser extent the Senate). Basically, my bet at the time was that the public would embrace a somewhat “normy” liberal at the ballot box, and valued competency more than it valued ideological purity, or frankly even personal charisma (Biden’s approval has mostly been below that of recent Democratic Presidents, both running and in office). I figured he would get elected, go do the job lower key than his predecessors of recent time, and move the Democratic Party as a result.
When I was first thinking about writing this, I was going to say that Joe Biden hadn’t quite done what I expected. As I got to actually considering his performance, he absolutely has though, and the party has benefitted handsomely as a result. I’ll preface this by saying that Biden has been more progressive than probably every Democrat in office since LBJ, but that’s not a super high bar. With that said, Joe Biden also probably just finished the two best performing years of any Democratic President, again since Johnson. His most “progressive” acts include executive action to attempt to wipe away billions in student load debt, which while controversial to some, is really just trying to fix the harmful impacts of a straight up predatory system. He passed the largest infrastructure bill since Eisenhower, one that will create millions of jobs and improve life in this country for generations. His eventual “Build Back Better” legislation may not have been as large as the original, but it took the most substantial action against climate change in our history. He put a highly qualified judge on the Supreme Court, and she happens to have shattered a wall in front of Black women in law through our entire history. He passed a huge stimulus early in his term and got millions of vaccines into arms (and yes, this was a good thing). He did a ton of things in his first two years, and I’m not even getting into all of them here. He did some “traditional” stuff too, like strengthen NATO and confront an expansionist Russian dictator, but that’s for another time. Basically, Joe Biden did go to Washington and govern as the “competent,” boring guy I thought he’d be. He got stuff done. He got elected that way, he governed that way. As expected.
The Democratic Party benefitted from Biden’s pathway, even if it never really made sense that they did. Biden’s personal approval has not been overly high for an early Presidency. His approval wasn’t super high through most of the primaries, and considering who he was succeeding, he didn’t enter office very high. Let’s be honest, Joe Biden doesn’t appeal to the base instincts of the masses. He does not have the charm or charisma of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, or the bravado of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Unlike Donald Trump, his appeal is not a double down on his base, Biden is not leading a cult like following. He’s probably most like George H.W. Bush of the modern times, who by the way, lost his re-election. His appeal was literally that he did the #2 job in the Administration pretty competently for eight years, and now he’s just asking to get the promotion. It is not traditionally how we pick Presidents in America. We normally want big personalities like JFK, Teddy Roosevelt, or Reagan. In Biden, we didn’t go that way. This isn’t to say he’s the “class nerd,” but “Uncle Joe” isn’t Clinton or Obama, and well, that worked out pretty well for 2022 Democrats. The GOP picked up just nine House seats, their worst performance against a first term Democratic President in a midterm since before cell phones, color TV’s, or America Online existed. Worse yet for the GOP, they lost a Senate seat. The net effect of course is that Biden will continue appointing judges at a record pace for the next two years, and the House GOP’s “suicide caucus” won’t be able to pass any of their priorities- probably not even through the House. They will send a neutered Kevin McCarthy up to try and capture the Speaker’s gavel tomorrow in the House, and people are openly wondering if he will be able to do anything even if he wins. Joe Biden may not be beloved with the public, but his lower key Presidency has helped the Democrats run circles around a GOP that is completely broken right now.
I guess the only part I am fretting over is whether Biden has changed the Democratic Party as it’s leader, and that question is less obvious to me. To be fair, first off he didn’t promise to. Second off, if you look at the staff world around him, many more of the lead figures in his White House are people who came to him from other major Democratic politicians of the last generation, at least if you’re comparing it to the Obama or Clinton White Houses. Finally, sometimes you can’t really stop a party from being what it is, especially if there’s only maybe 5-6% of the electorate out there to be moved. Biden was never going to cut into Trump’s base and “bring them home” or something, in fact it’s phenomenal that he brought the tiny sliver of “swing” vote his way, considering how they feel about his party as a whole. I think it’s totally fair to say that Biden didn’t attempt to stop some of the trends within the party, or that he didn’t try to change it’s Washington message or culture, but then it’s also totally fair to say he never felt the need to, or probably the ability. He signed up to run the government right, not change an entire movement.
And so here we are. Biden is the center of the Democratic Party, and frankly if Democrats want to win in 2024, they need to follow his lead. Deliver. Run a competent government. Do good things. It might not be absolutely everything we wanted back in 2019, but maybe it’ll end up being everything we need.