Impeachment- Rome is Burning…

The view down Pennsylvania Avenue…

A few hours from now, Donald J. Trump is likely to become the third President to be impeached by the House of Representatives in the more than 240 years of the Republic. As I write this, I’m sitting in the Capitol Hill Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the House floor. I might as well be home in Easton, given the divide I currently feel towards our politics.

To be clear, I believe Donald Trump should be impeached on many more counts than the two the House will consider tomorrow. Yes, he attempted to abuse his power by withholding both military aid and an Oval Office visit from the Ukraine, unless they investigated Joe Biden and his son. To be clear, that’s also an effort to extort a bribe. Trump also obstructed justice in his attempts to thwart Congressional oversight, refusing to turn over documents, make witnesses available, and ignoring subpoenas. Robert Mueller also made clear that Trump obstructed justice in his probe of election interference, particularly in limiting cooperation and firing the FBI Director. He also filed false reports of his campaign spending, when he failed to disclose his “hush money” payment to Stormy Daniels (and others) that he made when he wanted to keep the affair with the porn star quiet before the election. In addition to all of that, he is not disclosing the “gift” of free legal representation from Rudy Giuliani on his ethics forms (I’m not sure they’re a gift, but I digress). I’m leaving aside matters I consider to be of personal distaste, or his moral character, which I believe should be settled by the 2020 Election, not the impeachment process. I think he should be minimally impeached on articles of abuse of power, two counts of obstruction, bribery, falsification of campaign finance reports, falsification of an ethics report, and possibly extortion. In fact, I believe the House is wrong to vote on this matter until they have played out all legal disputes for additional testimony from people such as Mick Mulvaney, Rudy Giuliani, and Secretary Pompeo, because let’s face it, then Senate isn’t going to force the testimony of anyone else. House Democrats cutting this short are short-changing Democracy. And again, I’m leaving aside all issues of policy differences, Trump’s capacity to serve, or his moral character. Those have no place here.

Here’s the other, obvious side of this, to me- this was both inevitable and completely pointless. From the day he took office, some House Democrats, and very many activists in our base wanted to impeach him for all the political and personal reasons we find him disgusting. To be clear, most of America, including some of the people who supported him in 2016, find him unacceptable- Trump is the first President in modern times to never average or sustain a 50% approval rating for any sustainable period of time in the first three years he sat in office. In fact, 2016 exit polls showed his Election Day approval at 38%, while he received 46% of the vote. A full 8% of America knew Trump was no good, and still preferred him to any other choice for President. Americans know what Donald Trump is, and don’t care. Nothing he did to Robert Mueller, the Ukraine, with Russia, to the Congress, or otherwise uncovered in this investigation is going to dramatically change anything. The televised hearings didn’t move public opinion. Shaming the GOP for supporting their President (who has mostly done what they wanted in delivering conservative judges, tax cuts, and deregulation), it didn’t work. You can make the Senate take any oath as jurors that you would like, Donald Trump will not be convicted and removed from office by 67 Senators. This is not in doubt. In fact, the outcome was inevitable. Trump supporters do not care that he is objectionable to the Democratic base, and in fact they like it, full stop. Democrats should have listened to the voices telling them this from the start, because this is a process with no point. Trump won’t have to wear a “scarlet letter” for being impeached, but perhaps the freshmen Democratic members representing actual competitive districts might, because we put them in the inevitably hard position of choosing between the just (holding Trump to account) and the good (working on politically popular items that would allow them to continue helping their constituents by being re-elected). History will show Trump to have looked like a clown, and absolutely no living person has any reason to care.

And so tomorrow we will have a historic moment in our Congress that will have little to no tangible impact on today. Your Facebook feed will be full of middle aged white men in red hats calling Speaker Pelosi and Democrats vile names, talking ignorantly about Hillary Clinton’s “crimes” that never existed. You’ll also have women in pink hats on your feed talking about how the “Senate must do the right thing,” and posting Capitol phone numbers to lobby Senators who have long since made up their mind, based on opinion back home. Some twitter warriors will call for Rep. Peterson (D-MN) to be primaried for voting “no” on impeachment (good luck ever holding that dark red seat without him). The noise will be loud. And for who, for what?

To be clear, again, I think Donald Trump deserves his historical designation as a crooked dumpster fire of a President tomorrow. I’m just failing to see what we all get from it. If Democrats had been able to subject Trump to the drumbeat of criminal accusations over the next year, much like Republicans did to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and ultimately moved a big chunk of that 8% that voted for him and disliked him to stay home, vote third party, or vote Democratic next year, a failed impeachment would have had tremendous value. As is, it feels like we appeased the loud voices in the party that never understood the value of this anyway.

Moving forward, it’s clear to me that we should not view impeachment through some sort of moral duty prism. There is no trigger in the constitution at which Congress is compelled to impeach. In fact the House chose to not impeach Vice-President Spiro Agnew in the 1970’s even as he was indicted and convicted of felonies. The only “successful” impeachment of our President was the Watergate process against Richard Nixon, which pushed him to resignation once we had broad national unity against him. Even though this standard would protect reprehensible people like Trump, it would also stop nonsense conversations that have no real value. You can’t impeach and convict a President unless their own party turns on them. It was true with Bill Clinton. It’s true today. Perhaps we’d be better off making that our standard.

It Was Never About Trump

One of the most confusing things for the American left to understand is how Republicans keep supporting Donald Trump…

… and I get it, it doesn’t make so much sense. His personal life should disqualify him with Evangelicals, who carried George W. Bush politically. He’s blown a hole in the deficit, something that should have disqualified him with the alleged “fiscal conservatives.” He’s no Dick Cheney styled neo-conservative. In fact, the guy seems to have no real policy credentials or ideas. He’s flip-flopped on abortion rights, been inactive on his stated desire to bolster coal and fossil fuels, and even been largely ineffective on immigration. What exactly do they like about this guy? Why do Republicans continue to protect a guy cozying up to their one-time enemies in the Kremlin?

Do they like him? Like, for real? The polls say yes. Trump’s approval among Republicans routinely tops eight or nine out of every ten voters. Did they always though? No. Over the Summer of 2015, Trump’s approval within the GOP went up from 65% unfavorable to 57-40% approval to disapproval. Did anyone forget about who he was? Of course not. It was during that time that Trump upped his rhetoric on immigration and other cultural issues that drew Republican interest. It’s worth noting though, they knew all the stuff we knew, and they didn’t like him. But they could accept a person they didn’t personally approve of, once he was speaking their language. Indeed, they did by the Fall of 2015.

Eventually, Trump did win the Republican nomination, but he did so with 30% of the party’s delegates against him. Yet, today we regard his support as being like a cult. When did it change? Did it really? Is the GOP all in with him, really? Trump’s approval offers us a clue. Trump was elected with roughly 46% of the vote, but only 38% approval on that same day. At his lowest points in office, he has fallen about as far as 33% approval, and his ceiling has been just under his 46% vote share. A portion of the Romney 47% and McCain 46% that were solid GOP voters before, particularly suburban moderates, have become “never Trump” Democrats, helping them flip Congress. On the other hand, there was a near equal group of Obama-Trump voters who flipped from the Democrats in his favor. It’s fair to say that about 33% of the country love Trump, and intend to vote for him and Republicans across the board. It’s fair to say that there is another 5-7% of the country who usually approve of Trump, but are occasionally embarrassed by his antics. If you add these folks up, you get a 38-40% voting block that make up the base of the Republican Party. There is another 6% of the country that can’t bring themselves to say they like Trump, or the GOP for that matter, but generally end up voting that way in the end- because they prefer Republicans to Democrats. If you break down the full 46% that is the Trump coalition, you realize that about 13% (roughly very close to that 30% that opposed him at the convention) are less rock solid in their commitment to Trump. Democrats see this and wonder why these people don’t turn on Trump. Surely these fault lines in the party offer opportunity, right? Unless Democrats and the left are completely misreading Trump and his support- which they clearly are.

The choice these GOP voters made in 2016 was that they preferred a person they had problems with over Hillary Clinton, or for that matter a third-term of Barack Obama. They were not under any illusion about Donald Trump the person, or the political vision he put forward for the country on everything from immigration to climate change, to abortion rights and tax policy. This is why Trump has record setting negatives, as Clinton attacked his dirty language and personal character, but she could never quite put him away in the polls. They knew Donald Trump, good and bad. They were prepared to pick him over the Obama-Clinton Democratic Party. There was nothing about him that mattered.

As Democrats fret about impeachment polling not moving after hearings in the intelligence committee last week, it’s important to apply these past lessons- Trump’s coalition doesn’t care what Trump did. A solid 70% of them love whatever he does. The other 30% just don’t like the Democrats. Whether or not he was fair to the Ukraine isn’t going to suddenly awaken the “good” Republicans. Nothing about Trump will. Not his dirty language, his affairs, his love of Putin, or anything else. The policies don’t particularly matter. The man certainly does not.

The main animating principle of the Republican Party is opposition to the Democratic Party. The Republican base built by Trump is uniquely strong in the electoral college and U.S. Senate. This problem isn’t going away because Donald Trump did something bad. It was never about him anyway.

The Reactive American Government

When a child is diagnosed with a developmental disability, the education system is expected to draw up a detailed plan for how it is we expect them to learn (no comment here on how I think they do at that task). By contrast, the American health care system essentially waits to treat illness until there is a diagnosed illness, rather than proactively drawing up a plan to usher the patient to success. In a way, you could invert these two examples to say that special education is reactive to a negative diagnosis and American medicine is proactive to avoid death. Either way, if comparing American governance to these systems, our government is much less proactive to reactive. We do not really try to create the reality that we seek, we just react to the problems we come across.

What is the outcome we are seeking on health care, or maximum employment, or a functional criminal justice system? Like hell if I know. We pass crime bills after a decade of violent drug trade in America, and we pass criminal justice reform when we realize we have over crowded prisons and millions of convicted felons that we destroyed in the prison system. We’re going to react to climate change, while failing to set the energy and environmental policies that get us to where we want to be. Infrastructure? We’re arguing over whether we should fix crumbling highways and bridges, decades after having the foresight to build the interstate highway system. We’re not forward thinking. We react to sickness in our public sphere. It limits the range of our reactions, and frankly our ability to have a unified, shared system of goals.

When we think about American success stories, those that were true American exceptionalism, we find they were only partially reactive, if they were reactive at all. The creation of the interstate highway system was more visionary than reactive. So was going to the Moon. Sure, both were reactive to some extent towards the Cold War, but they were more aspirational in that we set out with a national goal for what we wanted to be. The same can be said for Social Security and Medicaid, programs inspired perhaps by the Great Depression, but frankly forward thinking beyond the current crisis. LBJ’s “Great Society” was visionary of what we wanted to be, and it delivered us Medicare. In all these instances, we set goals based on values, and we pursued them based on aspiration, not illness.

Trumpism is simply a public reaction to what they perceive that we’ve become. Even though Barack Obama was a great President, the perception was that he spent a lot of time fixing the societal ailments, but less time “progressing.” Was perception right? No, but it’s reality. Sure, Obamacare was aspirational in what we want to be, but it also felt like only solving the problem of people without health care, treating a failure instead of building a future.

There is certainly an importance in fixing failure. It’s an important government function. When that’s all that we can do though, the public looses a measure of faith in the ability of government to improve their lives. That leads to the rise of frauds, strong men, and populist screwballs. We’re seeing that in America. We’re seeing that across the western world.

What 2020 Might Look Like

Everybody has an opinion, and it usually matches their politics. Will Donald Trump be re-elected? No way, say the resisters. Of course, say the “red hats.” Not if Bernie is nominated, say the Socialists. And the moderate Democrats and #NeverTrump Republicans keep cautioning Democrats to stop moving left. But what do the numbers say?

Above is what I call the consensus concession map. The states in blue and red are the states that almost no one is arguing will change. The Democratic nominee starts at 175. Trump starts at 103. Under virtually any scenario where either side loses states they have above, the election was simply a national consensus landslide against both the losing party and nominee.

How likely is that to happen? It’s not going to happen. The Democrats almost can’t get beaten any worse than this, as Donald Trump is an unpopular incumbent President. I see no scenario where Trump falls below this either- his approval is higher today than it was on Election Day of 2016, when it was just 38%. He got 46% of the vote that day. With over 90% approval among Republicans, Trump basically can’t lose these dark red states. His current approval on Real Clear Politics is 43.2%.

So where do we begin? Let’s start here, a fair approximation of what is truly possible as a battleground. All of the Obama-Trump states in play, all of the states Trump was close in are in play, and the Democrats hopes in some Southern and Southwestern states remain in play. From here, we begin at 188-125.

Here’s some cold water on everyone though- not all of those states are in play. If either party ended up winning all of these states, it’s a historic blowout. Just for fun, here’s what those maps would look like.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, understand that those scenarios are really unlikely unless one side or the other dramatically changes it’s mind about itself. Since that won’t happen, here’s my realist battleground map:

Behold a map where the Democratic nominee starts out with every Hillary state but Nevada, while Trump is defending the “Obama” states he picked up, plus Arizona and North Carolina. In other words, it’s 2016 and 2012’s battlegrounds, plus Arizona. What do we know about this? The Democrats only need to be a little better than they were in 2016, but these things usually run in one-sided trends at the end. Trump had to win all the swing voters in 2016 to squeak out a win, but he did. Barack Obama won nearly every swing state in 2008 and 2012 as well.

What might a Democratic victory look like? Here’s a few possibilities:

This is the “momentum” Democratic map, where the swing voters all break Democrats way at the end, and Democratic turnout is high.

This is the scenario where Democrats squeak out a win by flipping the PA/MI/WI states from last time, plus North Carolina, where they had a good midterm, but states like Iowa and Ohio just don’t budge, Trump hangs on in Arizona, and Florida continues trending badly. This map is essentially one where both messages work at reaching their sides, but Democrats win.

Here’s a possible narrow victory through the Rust Belt.

Here’s a scenario through North Carolina.

Ok, so enough with the fun stuff- how does Donald Trump win? You said it couldn’t happen last time, but it did. So let’s start with scenario A, 2016. He gets back to 46% and wins.

Not much imagination in that. So let’s go with a scenario B- where Trump builds off of 2016. He surges in some of the predominantly white states he lost last time, and gets this:

Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire flip, and Trump wins on the back of over 60% of the white vote.

One more scenario here, which is just a straight Trump sweep of what he won last time, the three states above, and the more diverse, but highly competitive Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia.

Could there be chaos? Yes. Ties are possible. Very possible. I came up with two plausible pathways there.

Who knows who controls Congress under this scenario, but things get chaotic. I doubt either side accepts the results. Things are bad.

How do Democrats most insure defeat in 2020- embrace a “base only” strategy and completely eschew persuading anyone that’s not neatly in their demographic camp. While the “emerging” electoral coalition that includes minorities and millennials largely is out there, the reality is that it is not ready to insure electoral college victories. This is where a “screw the Rust Belt strategy” begins 2020:

It’s not as dreamy as some people make it sound on the internet or on TV. Not at all.

So where do I have 2020 right now? Here’s my current prediction map:

I do not take into account the nominee or VP- yet. I might give Joe Biden more Rust Belt states, or Kamala Harris a shot at Georgia, or a ticket with Castro on it Arizona or Texas, but for now I can’t. I just give these states based on generic opinions. I might give Trump more states against a Bernie Sanders or other more lefty candidates too. But, without the benefit of particulars, I’m here right now.

The Debates are Terrible? Blame Tom Perez.

I pretty much give Debbie Wasserman-Schultz a pass for her tenure at the DNC. The chair really doesn’t have much control over things when there is an incumbent President from their party. The only thing I do blame her for was allowing an independent to run in the Democratic Presidential Primary. Party membership should be a minimal requisite, since you’re putting them on stage with your candidates.

Tom Perez seemed obsessed with fixing all the non-problems from the start. He had his humiliating “listening tour” with Bernie, which ended up being a sign out the gate of what was ahead. In his determination to be “more fair” than his predecessors in 2016, Perez decided we would let 20 candidates debate over two nights- never mind that we don’t have 20 serious candidates. Never mind that we have no less than seven people who are absolutely certifiable in the field of 25. We wanted to give everyone a chance.

Worse than the size of the field though is how they qualify. Perez’s DNC decided to make a candidate’s raw number of donors a standard, a metric that favors internet sensations. Candidates like Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang found quick success meeting these standards, while actual members of Congress and Governors just struggled. Let’s face it, cults do well on the internet. As we saw with Bernie Sanders in 2016, once like minded people find each other in online communities, they feed off each other. Suddenly you have some very strange, very different kinds of views on your stage when that is one of the only two metrics that matter.

Isn’t it good to have diversity of views on stage? I guess that depends on your goals. The goal of the DNC should be to nominate the 46th President of the United States in 2020, a candidate who can beat Donald Trump. Forcing legitimate candidates to debate with people who have fringe ideas, or worse yet, appeal to the political fringes themselves for small dollar donors, doesn’t help us nominate a candidate who can appeal to the broader electorate. Without a doubt there are people on the political left who’s goal is to move the conversation further left, but it’s important to understand that there is a point where that goal is at odds with winning an election. The nation as a whole is not activist Twitter, or a Reddit thread, or a DSA meeting. One can reasonably want to move the health care conversation a step left of Obamacare and still realize there are limits to how far that can go.

Tom Perez’s insistence on letting literally any voice on stage landed us with a pro-Assad Congresswoman basically calling one of our top candidates an over zealous prosecutor last night, and an absolute lunatic saying she would defeat Trump with “the power of love” the night before. This is not helpful for a party that is trying to win an election this year. It may seem cruel and narrow, but Democrats should have stuck to raw dollars raised and polling data to determine the ten candidates we should have had on stage. We’d be able to see all the top candidates at once, without the circus coming to town. Unfortunately, Tom Perez tried to appease the crazies from the last war.

Understanding Republicans

One of the problems many Democrats have is that they don’t understand how they are different than the Republican Party, fundamentally. They look at Donald Trump, and they just can’t even fathom how 63 million people could vote for him. How could Evangelicals vote for a serial adulterer? How could Republican women vote for someone who doesn’t respect them? How could Second Amendment voters back a man who clearly isn’t a hunter? How could blue collar, lower educated voters back someone who doesn’t respect them? They view Trump through the relationship he has to his voters, and in that they miss what it means to be a Republican.

Democrats are defined as the “big tent” party, the patchwork quilt of different interest groups in the party, the “identity politics” party. They value diversity, and as a result have many different views of the world. Perspective is a part of being a Democrat. While not all Republicans are white men, all Republicans identify with “traditional majorities.” Black and Latino Republicans identify with the GOP majority through their work, their community, their class, and their religion. Indeed they view the world through those lenses. It’s precisely for this reason that Republicans circle the wagons in support of “the troops,” “the flag,” “police,” “Jesus” and other institutions that they view as representing traditionalism (note that I put these in quotations because these words only represent their interpretation of them). Because they have this shared identity among them, Republicans don’t spend a lot of time “pandering” to different demographics in their party, both because they aren’t plentiful and their voters aren’t particularly motivated by those divisions.

Democrats are a coalition of sometimes unaligned interest groups. As a result they try to build an intersectional ideology around common themes of justice, fairness, tearing down oppression, and destroying bigotries. Many times though, the identity driven divisions rear their ugly head.Since Republicans essentially have one shared “traditional majority” identity, they deal with this a lot less. Republicans are largely united by shared conservative ideology. There are certainly divisions between religious, economic, cultural, militant, and constitutional conservatives, but they are more differences of scale, style, and rhetoric, and less about actual policy. Republicans are fine with uniting after most messy primaries, because they’re all Republicans. Their values are shared.

The reality about Republicans is that their moderate-conservative divide is mostly a matter of posturing and messaging, and their voters are pretty much okay with it. A nasty primary is no reason to vote for a Democrat, because a Democrat does not share their values. Donald Trump emerged from a vicious primary with 17 competitors, flawed and all, and 90% of Republicans were willing to overlook whatever personal issues they had with his past behavior and beliefs, and still vote for him. Indeed, Trump failed to capture a majority of their primary vote, while Hillary Clinton won nearly 60% of her party’s, and yet it was Clinton that was dogged by divisions within the left, not Trump with the six in ten Republicans who didn’t support him in the primaries.

If we’re going to be fair, Trump has delivered Republicans the government they asked for, perhaps as well as any Republican in history. They got their tax cuts on wealthy people and corporations. Obama era regulations are being stripped away at record pace. Trump has delivered a packed federal judiciary of young, conservative judges, and two conservative Supreme Court judges who will be there for decades, cementing their control there. On immigration, Trump is at least attempting to deliver on the “hard border” policies they say they want. Sure, they have to put up with the semi-kooky trade talk, but he’s not really breaking up the corporate racket. Not only are Republicans getting the policies they wanted from Trump, his politics are a direct appeal to the white Democrats that felt most unhappy with their “place” in the Democratic coalition, the sort of political answer to the “Obama coalition” that can lead them to electoral college victories. The White House and cabinet are full of Republican operatives. He’s governing as a pro-life, anti-immigration, pro-gun, pro-corporate, big military Conservative. If all your here for is the ideology, you’re getting it from Trump.

Trump is delivering Republicans what they want, and as a result they’re following him. It’s why his approval among Republicans is over 90%, even as he’s underwater with everyone else. Oh sure, they “wish he wouldn’t tweet so much,” and he’s crass, and he’s “not Presidential,” but none of that stuff is what matters. He defeated the hated Clintons, he’s ripping apart the Obama legacy, and that is what’s important. He’s empowering their views on immigration and “American identity,” which again, is what matters. And most of all, he’s winning.

This is why the GOP has no one standing up to him- they realize they’ll be gone. Mark Sanford survived cheating on his wife and lying, but lost his 2018 primary for not being pro-Trump enough. Justin Amash’s weird views were tolerable, until he called for Trump’s impeachment, and now he’s had to leave the party. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and even Ted Cruz have had to bend the knee and accept and defend Trump. That would be the guy Trump published the phone number of, “Little Marco” and his small hands, libertarian Jesus Rand Paul, and of course, Lyin’ Ted, who’s father Trump said was involved in killing JFK. Supposed conservative brainiac Paul Ryan and much of the “moderate” wing of the House Republicans simply retired and went home, rather than fight back against the Trump brand. And Mitt Romney, who swore he was “Never Trump” in 2016? He’s bending over backwards to defend Trump in the Senate now. George P. Bush, the son of “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, the grandson and nephew of a President? He had to beg Trump for an endorsement and robo call on his behalf to continue the dynasty and survive the 2018 Texas primary for Land Commissioner. You’re not a Republican office-holder in 2019 if you’re unwilling to kiss the ring. There’s no constituency, no base of power for you.

Why are Republicans sticking with Trump? Democrats. The Democratic coalition is scary to them, it doesn’t share their values and world view. Democrats don’t share their views on capitalism, “western Christianity,” the English language, law and order, and just their general view of “Western Civilization.” They want to be a Christian, capitalist nation that speaks English. All the talk of “demographics are destiny” in the Obama era was (incorrect, for one) enough to freak them all out. They were willing to accept whoever could stop Hillary. Since he succeeded, they’re ready to stand behind him. It is really about “owning the libs” as much as anything else. John McCain and Mitt Romney’s “respectability politics” didn’t beat President Obama. George W. Bush’s entire Presidency lead to Obama. That brand of Republican was leading them to eventual defeat.

What of the “Never Trumpers” though? Notice a few things about the #NeverTrump crowd:

  1. Most of them were DC based staffers and consultants, not activists or elected officials.
  2. Most of them were regulars on cable news and other media outlets where they needed to maintain “respectability.”
  3. None of them, from Kasich to George Will, are influential in this White House, or even really working for the official GOP. I admire Rick Wilson and the whole crowd, but they’re as out of power as Hillary.

The #NeverTrump movement is not a thing in today’s Republican Party. They hold little influence. They represent less than 10% of the movement now. It turns out it wasn’t about their “small government” after all.

What Democrats can’t wrap their head around is what it all means. To conservative America, Trump’s flaws and imperfections are less important than what he’s delivering. They’re getting what they want in policy, rhetoric, and symbolism. He’s driving liberals literally insane. Do they necessarily like the tweets and racism? I don’t think they care at all either way. If that’s the price for the America they want, well they knew it wouldn’t come free. They’re not sitting around fretting over things that upset Democrats.

It’s worth noting that Democrats can and should defeat Trump in 2020, and should have in 2016. Democrats win the debate on a bunch of issues. They just happen to get defined by the issues they lose on. Rather than marketing themselves on the broadly popular things people like about them, Democrats are seen as having a debate between “identity politics” and socialists, and there’s not broad enthusiasm for either. Democrats are a coalition though, and you can’t yell at a portion of your coalition to sit down and shut up, or you end up in the food fight Speaker Pelosi has to have with “the Squad” a week or two ago. Frankly, Democrats constantly have to strike the balance between their different constituencies across the spectrum, or risk part of the coalition not showing up to vote. All the groups don’t just fall in line and march in lockstep.

The Republican Party has an easier base to manage, one that presents less consequences for their leaders when they make decisions. When you square this with their structural advantages, you understand why they’re able to be so effective. Their voters show up more frequently. They share an ideology. Voter “self-sorting” of where they live is an advantage for them. Half the population will live in eight states in twenty years, especially non-white voters, which should give them huge advantages in the Senate. When you dive into the entire psychology of American conservatism though, you start to realize that it’s just easier for their candidates to appease their whole base. This explains so much of why they seem more cohesive and organized than Democrats do.

Power

So there’s another Al Franken article making the rounds talking about the regret over Franken’s sacking in 2017 from the Senate. Apparently people have regrets. They feel like there was a rush to judgment. Maybe the Senate Ethics Committee should have investigated, they’re saying. All of these were my thoughts at the time, but I’m actually a bit less sympathetic to Franken now. For one thing, he admitted bad actions. Two, he resigned. As we’ve seen from the Governor of Virginia to the President, if you’re shameless enough to tell your critics to go to hell, you don’t have to exit stage left.

The moment was bad for Franken though. The feminist movement was reeling from Trump’s victory over Hillary. The “#MeToo” movement was taking off. There were pictures. He was only disputing some of the details. I think a lot of people are revising history to pretend he could have survived and been a powerful voice in the Senate. He was the casualty ready and available to a political moment. Stubbornness probably doesn’t change that.

As with most political moments though, the chaos was not random, or without point. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has taken a lot of grief for her role in this chapter, and that’s probably unfair. Yes, she absolutely used the moment to take down a potential rival, but is that rare? Is she alone? In Democratic Party politics, the answer is no. The party is a coalition, and different factions compete for power every day. It’s less common to be so public in the GOP, in part because they have more core shared ideology across their party, and more shared identity. Not all groups within the Democratic Party actually are cheering for each other to succeed.

What Gillibrand did to Franken is really not that much different than Bernie’s populist broad side on Hillary in 2016’s “anti-establishment” moment, the Obama campaign wacking Bill Clinton over his Jesse Jackson comments in South Carolina’s 2008 primary, or AOC and “the Squad” attacking their more moderate Democratic colleagues after a recent immigration vote, or for that matter their attacks on Speaker Pelosi. The ideological and identity driven chess played within Democratic Party politics are constant, and when the moment arrives, they are used to bludgeon rivals. While some cringed as Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden on busing in the first Democratic debate, the reality is that she just did what every other modern candidate for President has done with an opening.

The post-1968 Democratic Party is a patchwork quilt of diversity, a coalition of interest groups who are only bound by the varying levels to which their causes have been oppressed in American society. Beyond that, you can find enormous gaps in the interests and beliefs from one group to the next. Because it is precisely these specific interests that bring these voters, activists, and donors to the table, Democratic power holders must decide to what level they need to cater to each group to reach power. For Gillibrand with more ardent feminists, or Harris with African-American voters and women, the choice to attack their white, male counterparts was probably easy and instinctual. It was a direct appeal to the interest groups whom they needed support from to rise to national prominence. Again, I think we need to be careful not to slam them for making a political judgment while we applaud those we like for doing the same thing. Both Barack Obama, using Iraq and “establishment politics” as foils for his “Hope and Change,” and Bernie Sanders, using class politics and open attacks on “the establishment” to elevate his Democratic Socialism politics, slammed Hillary Clinton as a cold creature of Washington, out of touch with the spirit of the American left. Many of my friends and I treat one much more favorably than the other, in no small part because he won.

Of course, it’s also worth remembering what a disadvantage that Democratic patchwork quilt really is politically. The Republican Party doesn’t have nearly the same identity divisions, or ideological ones, and is really open to anyone who can convince themselves conservative ideology helps them (so basically, white folks, mostly). They can stand up and cast themselves as defenders of a “majoritarian” American institution or concept- the flag, church, troops, cops, capitalism- and they don’t really have to critically examine the flaws of what they’re defending. Democrats have to have open, public debates about these things, because (for instance) African-Americans and organized labor voters might have drastically different views of the police based on their ideology and experiences. Democratic politicians may take nationally unpopular positions on issues like reparations or de-criminalizing border crossings, to win election in their Congressional district, or to seek the passions of activists and donors who care about those positions at a national level. Democrats like to wonder why their broadly popular positions don’t set the terms of the debate, while ignoring the unpopular positions that their coalition forced them to take.

Representing a patchwork of oppressed groups makes winning elections very difficult to win. Representing a group, or even several inside the coalition is a great way to rise to power within the party. Of course rising to power in a political party that has seen it’s power decline in the past quarter century from these internal struggles may not seem like a victory worth having. Then again, if you’re a traditionally oppressed cause, having power, even less power, beats being left out altogether.

Trump’s Battlefield of Choice

From the very start, Steve Bannon laid it out bare:

“I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

It fits with the Trump campaign’s 2016 strategy– sacrifice educated white votes from suburbia to pick up more plentiful (especially in swing states) lower middle class white voters. Trump wants to talk immigration, trade, and retracting the American global role, and he wants Democrats to talk racism, sexism, and things that generally don’t resonate with their voters, or swing voters. It works pretty well for them, or it at least did.

If you were going to pick a dream scenario for Trump, it would be a fight over racism with “the Squad”- AOC, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Just days after AOC called out Speaker Pelosi for “racism,” Trump could hardly resist injecting himself into this mess. Now he is in a fight with four women of color, two of which are Muslims, all of which are quite left, and at least two of which have a history of questioning Israel’s decency and legality. It’s a wet dream for him in motivating his base, and convincing the persuadable voters- the roughly 8% of the electorate who said they didn’t like Trump in 2016, but voted for him anyway- that Democrats don’t really care about people like them. Battling with AOC in particular, who isn’t popular nationally, or even in just New York, is perfect for Trump. Trump needs to keep almost all of these voters, and AOC is the opponent to help him do it.

One of the big fears Democrats in DC should have is that their base is certain Trump is unpopular, and just being bold and unapologetic is a winning strategy. It’s worth noting that Trump is currently polling his best on record. It’s also worth noting that this comes right after the first Democratic debate (perhaps it wasn’t a hit?). Many Democrats point to last year’s mid-terms, or Trump’s overall not impressive poll numbers as evidence he will be beaten in 2020. They point to Democratic advantages on issue polling, which also existed in 2016. They point to a perceived slew of new Democratic voters- even if registrations don’t back that up. It’s like 2016 didn’t happen- Democrats are sure the country feels like they do. Plenty of signs say otherwise though.

One of them is the debate we’re having- this is Trump’s favored battle field. Donald Trump wants the Democrats to focus their attacks on him on racism and sexism, and he wants AOC to be a big part of it. AOC and Ilhan Omar poll really poorly with the voters Trump swung in 2016, and he’d like them to be the face of the Democratic Party.

None of this is to excuse Trump’s tweets and general racism, but do consider it a call back to reality. Over the past three weeks, AOC has been a dominant figure in our political news. First, her Chief-of-Staff called moderate and new Democratic members today’s “Southern Democrats,” basically quasi-segregationists. Then Nancy Pelosi stepped in to defend them. Then AOC called her a racist. Then the House Democrats defended Sharice Davids against AOC’s Chief-of-Staff calling the Native-American, LGBT member part of a “racist system.” Then Trump tweeted racist things about “the Squad.” Now the House has rebuked him. It’s AOC, all the time. America doesn’t like it. They don’t like her.

A (Too Early) Look at 2020

November 8th, 2016 was shocking to a lot of people, but it should not have been. The Clinton campaign was built to maximize their total vote number, and it did, despite the candidate facing a number of challenges that were unique to her. The Trump campaign was built to maximize his swing state vote. Both succeeded. That gave Trump a win.

The Clinton campaign was very metric driven, producing huge call numbers and lots of volunteer shifts. Hillary’s campaign focused in on turning out the “Obama coalition.” Her travel scheduled focused on urban vote centers where the goal was turnout. She ran phenomenal vote numbers out of big cities- Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Miami- even as she lost swing states. She ran record breaking margins in the huge blue states (California and New York), and narrowed red states with large minority populations (Texas, Arizona, Georgia). The only candidate to get more votes than Hillary was Barack Obama- maybe the best political talent we’ve ever seen.

The Trump campaign made an early gamble that paid off- they could never get nominated in a conventional campaign, and the resulting “traditional” Republicans they lost in wealthy suburbs (the supposed “small government,” anti-tax breed) were less useful than the newcomers and Democratic converts they were targeting. Trump gambled that 90% of the 46-47% that had voted for McCain and Romney would stick with him, even as he ran harder on identity right-wing politics. With that base of about 42%, Trump took aim at Democrats that Hillary was less interested in- lower middle-class earning whites. He went after “Gephardt” Dem issues like global trade deals. He attacked illegal immigration, which Democrats used to decry as lowering wages. And he called her a war hawk. It didn’t hurt that Bernie Sanders attacked these same vulnerabilities in Hillary in the primary, but the strategy was very lucrative for Trump- those voters live disproportionately in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine- and Trump saw the benefits pay off in close state after close state.

Not much seems to have changed for 2020 so far. Trump is messaging to the exact same people so far. The only wrinkle in his strategy is an increase in talk about Israel, which clearly is meant to help him hold Pennsylvania and Florida. Democratic messaging hasn’t changed much either. Democratic messaging has focused on “expanding the base,” and increasing turnout. Both sides have largely doubled down on 2016. The result is a rather highly engaged electorate very early on- more people than ever say they will vote in 2020.

What can we gather from this? What will 2020 look like? I have some very early predictions about the electorate.

  • I expect turnout to be up from the 2016 number of 138 million to between 142-145 million voters.
  • I expect the electorate to be about 69% white and 31% non-white.
  • I expect the Democratic popular vote win to increase from about 3 million votes in 2016 to 5 million votes in 2020. I expect the Democrat to get about 72 million votes to Trump’s 67 million votes.
  • I’m predicting a 50% to 46% Democratic popular vote win.
  • Despite all of this, the election is no better than a toss up for Democrats. If I were a betting man, based on Trump’s approval taking a bump up after the first Democratic debate, I’d say he should be favored to basically hold around 300 electoral votes. He has a decent chance of holding his 306 from last time, and even expanding it. Re-running 2016 on both sides, or Democrats just trying to be “better” at it, is not likely to change anything. Trump’s current approval sits between 43 and 47%, while it was 38% on Election Day in 2016.

This runs counter to what you might think if you spend a lot of time interacting with progressive activists on Twitter, so it’s a bit jarring for many of us. The fact is that both sides are re-running the 2016 playbook, and I don’t see a lot of evidence that any Democrat is much (if any bit) stronger than Hillary. Of the 20 some candidates, my feeling right now is that there are three to maybe six with a chance to beat Trump. They’re not all polling at the top of the field. The chances that Democrats nominate someone who’s appeal is strong with all or part of the base, but not with swing voters, are real. If that happens, you could be looking at something slightly worse than 2016 for Democrats, an environment where Speaker Pelosi not forcing her endangered members to walk the plank early ends up paying off in preserving the Democrats as relevant in at least one chamber of the government.

The Democratic Base and Winning Elections

If you want to understand American politics, take a look at the House Districts that Democrats held continuously between 2011 and 2019. What you will find unites them is that in nearly all of them, the Democrats in those seats won with over 60%, and often over 80% of the vote. While Democrats won nearly half the vote for the U.S. House, and actually more in 2012, they won a minority of the seats in Congress. Some of this was a direct result of gerrymandering. Even if you unpack gerrymandering, the problem is that Democratic base voters largely live packed together in cities and inner suburbs. Highly educated white voters, single women, African-Americans, non-Christians, Latinos, Asians, and the LGBT community largely live in urban enclaves. The result of these voters becoming the backbone of the Democratic coalition is that Republicans are virtually non-competitive for any major city Mayoral race in America. The flip side of that coin is that Republicans have controlled the U.S. House for 20 of the last 26 years.

If you understand the geography of American politics, and the demographics, you understand everything. You understand why Bush and Trump could both win without majorities, and why Trump might win again. You understand why Democrats struggle to win majorities in the House and Senate, even when they win more votes. And of course, you understand the impending demographic hell awaiting Democrats in 20 years, when half the country lives in eight states. The big, diverse, broad coalition Democrats have built may in fact grow substantially bigger, but they probably are destined to be ruled by a not-so-diverse minority of regressive thinkers, as things stand.

The American Constitution was not written to support majority rule, but frankly to protect the rights of states, communities, and minorities of the population from doing things they didn’t want to do (to be read at that time as slavery, but later desegregation and other awful stuff). While many on the left have come around to realizing the system is rigged against them electorally, none of them have really come around to any sort of realistic changes. Abolish the electoral college? Abolish the Senate? These ideas require Constitutional Amendments, which require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress, or by ratification by two-thirds of the states (38), either in the legislatures there of or a constitutional convention. Good luck there. Some suggest packing the Supreme Court the next time Democrats get power, but remember, the Republicans will do the same the next time they’re in charge too. There’s no quick, easy fix to our system of government.

Now that I’ve laid out the demographic, electoral, and constitutional hell lying ahead of the American left, let me make you feel a little bit better. Democrats can win elections to change things for the better. There are three living former Democratic Presidents who managed to win fairly large electoral college majorities. Hillary Clinton would have won an electoral landslide in 2016 with just 500,000 more votes spread out correctly across Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. Democrats won the House in 2006, 2008, and 2018 under our current rules. Democrats controlled the Senate for part of 2001 and 2002, and again from 2007 to 2015. Unless you’re convinced Russia can hack voting machines and change votes, Democrats can actually win some elections and make change that way. It is possible, but maybe not the way you want to win.

One of the most common, and fair laments of progressives is “why do Republicans listen to their base, and Democrats don’t.” It’s a fair question, but one that takes us back to geography and demographics. The average Democratic Congressman wins by a larger margin than Republican ones, even in fairly drawn districts. This is a nice way of staying the obvious- Republican districts (their base) has more in common with competitive districts (the 40 that Democrats won in 2018) than Democratic districts (our base), demographically speaking. They’re whiter, more practice religion, more are married, and more own homes than rent- to name a few things. Democrats did well in 2018 by focusing their appeal to these voters on issues like health care and education, rather than proposing large scale wealth redistribution and social justice programs that polled well among the base. These are the types of voters who would support Bill Clinton’s abortion position of “safe, legal, and rare,” but might cringe at going further. There’s probably a sizable group in these districts that gave Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton negative approval, but also say they disapprove of “socialism.” To put it bluntly, they’re not big fans of “extremes.” Republicans have seen some erosion of their support in these communities in the era of Trump, but they didn’t buy into the full Democratic base vision either. Democrats have always needed to maintain some base of support beyond their base to win elections. Before it was “Blue Dogs” and with electoral realignment it is the upper middle-class suburbanite. They’re not out at marches and demonstrations, and they’re alarmed by extremism in both parties. They’re demographically more like Republicans, but socially lean left. They don’t want their taxes raised, but they want their government services functioning. When push came to shove in 2016, many of them voted demographics. In 2018, Democrats clawed them back.

What this means, both in Presidential and Congressional Elections, is that Democrats are prisoners to the middle more than Republicans, both because of geography and demographics. It also means that the voters most loyally supporting Democrats are quite a bit different than those last voters that Democrats need to win over. It creates a natural tension between social and economic progressives and the politics in the swing districts. This manifests itself on issues like impeachment, where the base is near unanimous in support, but the issue lacks majority support. The same snag can be hit on issues like immigration, where there is broad agreement that Trump’s position is bad, but more ambitious Democratic positions don’t poll well either. The base wants and needs different things than the voters who hold the key to majorities. In short, elections are a tough business.

I have real doubts about theAmerican future right now. On the one hand, we may just end up in a hellscape, where a regressive minority rules a progressive majority. We also may end up with an overly pragmatic, successful Democratic Party wins elections, but perpetually fails to satisfy or excite the passions of their most enthusiastic voters. The third option? I don’t know, but it’s probably pretty ugly.