The Presidential Race, Through Two Debates

Two debates, and their post-debate spin, are over. Two quarters of fundraising are over. The polls are somewhat stable. We’re reaching the point where we can start to make some assumptions about this race. There is starting to be some “tiering” of the field. Here’s mine:

  • The front-runners- Joe Biden stands out here on his own. The former Vice-President still leads the polls, and he raised the most money per day in his first partial quarter. His first debate not withstanding, he’s done well so far. Despite a drop in the polls, Bernie Sanders remains here too, as his fundraising and polling still stands out. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are also clearly in here too. Based on money and media coverage, Pete Buttigieg is also clearly in this group. In a field of 25, these five are clearly the elite.
  • Viable and Alive, But Disappointing- I really like most of the candidates in this group, but polls and/or fundraising suggest they are failing to meet expectations. Cory Booker remains serious, but he seems unable to connect with voters or donors so far. Amy Klobuchar has a great track record of winning a swing state, but she’s been almost silent on the debate stage, which is translating to her (lack of) traction. How many of you remembered that Michael Bennet, a great Senator that also wins a swing seat, was still in the race? Kirsten Gillibrand has been, and this is charitable, bad at this, so far. Jay Inslee is an awesome Governor, and everyone agrees with him on climate change, but no one seems to think he’s going to win this thing. John Hickenlooper does a great job at smacking Bernie, but it isn’t translating into anything other than calls for him to run for the Senate. Steve Bullock is a red state Governor, the mother of electability arguments, and he’s trapped in single digits too. Literally everyone loves Julian Castro, and many want him on the ticket, but yet he can’t raise any money. His fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke, is a former front-runner that now has struggled to do much but define who he sees as racist for the rest of us. I still think any of these candidates could break out and become a front-runner, but they’ve all come up short so far.
  • It’s not Gonna Happen, Bro- Bill de Blasio is the Mayor of the largest city in the country, but he’s been reduced to “tax the hell dot com” for attention. Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton are actual Congressmen, not that it’s helping them much. John Delaney was a Congressman, not that it’s helping him much either. None of these folks are going to win, even though I like some of them.
  • Wtf- Who thought letting a pro-Kremlin, pro-Assad stooge on the debate stage was a good idea? Please come pick up Tulsi Gabbard for us. Tom Steyer is going to spend millions of dollars to tell us why he’s more progressive than everyone else, and he still won’t be President. Andrew Yang has a position on circumcising guys. Joe Sestak has lost two PA Senate races. Mike Gravel has teenagers running his twitter account, so there’s that. Ever heard of Wayne Messam? I know you saw Marianne Williamson, and know all about the “dark, psychic forces” she’ll defeat as President. Why are these people running?

So by my count, there are 25 total candidates, but only 14 with an actual chance. Of those 14, I would be happy with about ten of them being nominated. I’d be excited by maybe six of them. So at this point, that’s my state of the race.

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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.

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.

Bad Choices

I’ve been a Democrat since I registered to vote in 2001. Among my core reasons for picking the Democratic Party were growing up in a union household, being angry about the 2000 Election, thinking Bill Clinton was a pretty good President, and believing the Gingrich Republicans leading Congress were incompetent, cruel people. Within a year or two I would become a more active Democrat in large part due to my opposition to the Iraq War. I went to intern for an anti-war Congressional candidate, then for a young, progressive, exciting Mayoral candidate in Bethlehem. When 2004 came around, I wanted Al Gore to run again, as I found him to be right about the two most important issues in the world, the Iraq War and climate change. When he took a pass on another run, I backed Wesley Clark, because he had the right mix of electability, and being right on the big issues, like Iraq. When he didn’t win though, I backed John Kerry. The stakes were too high in my mind.

I’ve been a loyal Democrat ever since. I’ve worked for candidates that are members of the Progressive Caucus, and open Blue Dog candidates. I’ve worked for candidates who were Muslims, Jewish, women, Latinos, African-Americans, and anything else you can imagine. In 2008, when my first choice candidate (Chris Dodd), and my second choice candidate (Hillary Clinton) were out, I enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama. In 2016 Hillary was my candidate, and for the second time I went to work for her, but if she had lost to Bernie in the primaries, I would have voted for him, despite my misgivings. I think overall values generally matter more than the individual candidates. Within reason.

One of the things that attracted me to the Democratic Party was it’s reasonable style and competency. Democrats were not absolutists in the way the GOP was. Democrats were not trying to ignite culture wars, use wars to prop them up politically, or embracing bigots in the manner of Jerry Falwell. They felt like the right party to me.

People should not over marry themselves to a party though, not unless they can trust that said party will not lead them away from the values that brought them there. You should have red lines you won’t cross. You should have standards you uphold. If you’re an honest broker, you should probably have some members of your party you refuse to embrace, because they violate values of your’s. You should have limits to how far you compromise yourself.

One of these folks for me is Tulsi Gabbard. While I agree with her overall philosophy that we should stop fighting wars of aggression and spending our blood and treasure over seas, I cannot stand with an Assad apologist. What Assad has done to the Syrian people may or may not be worth fighting a war, but it certainly doesn’t warrant support. I could not back her after she met with Assad and cast doubts on his crimes.

The second person I’m pretty absolute about isn’t a Presidential candidate, this time. I could not bring myself to vote for AOC for anything though. I’ve laid out my reasons for not liking her, from attacking her Democratic colleagues, to her lack of legislation, to her support of Bernie, to her sloppy messaging. The truth of the matter is, she’s our version of the Tea Party. That’s not the kind of government I support. I don’t give a damn if she angers Republicans- she doesn’t get work done on her job. Everything is posturing and advocacy.

There are plenty of other members of the Democratic Party I’m not big fans of. Bernie isn’t actually a Democrat, but I would really struggle to support a “socialist.” I do not agree with Rep. Omar and Tlaib’s more extreme positions on Israel. I can’t support a Congressman representing Chicago and being anti-choice and LGBT rights like Rep. Lipinski. The Democratic Party has some folks I can’t be too positive about. I try to give Senator Manchin a pass when possible, but his position on coal isn’t something I support.

To blanketly support every member of your party makes you a partisan hack. You may find the other party unacceptable and refuse to vote for it, handing your votes to imperfect Democrats by default, that’s a values judgment you make when you need to. Just don’t argue that you really believe in everyone on your side. That’s an inhuman political position. That’s just being a hack. I generally try to not discuss people I don’t like on our side. Lately that’s been hard.

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.

Give Me Nancy Over AOC Every Time

Nancy Pelosi is taking more than her share of grief from the far left right now for stating the obvious- real politics isn’t twitter. She was mad that AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley voted alone against the House Democrats border supplemental spending bill, then voted against the Senate bill too, and criticized House leadership for caving. Pelosi fired back with “All these people have their public whatever, and their Twitter world.” Pelosi then continued with “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” The internal fault lines of the House Democrats are on display.

This is not a new fight. In one of the very first votes of 2019, AOC joined Ro Khanna and Tulsi Gabbard in voting against the rules package. AOC once voted with the GOP against re-opening the government during the shutdown, because the bill funded ICE. AOC joined up with Tlaib, Pressley, and Omar to vote against the 2020 Appropriations bill for Labor and Health and Human Services, putting them in strange company with more conservative Democrats Colin Peterson (MN), Ben McAdams, and Denny Heck. Obviously their stated reasons were different, but for the four freshman “progressives” they claim it was opposition to the Hyde Amendment remaining in the legislation. Never mind the hypocrisy. Never mind ending the Mexico City Policy (Global Gag Rule).

This is not the extent of the AOC lead internal battles. Her spokesman stated this week that “the greatest threat to mankind is the cowardice of the Democratic Party.” No, really. But that’s not all. AOC wants to see Caucus Chairman, Black Caucus member, and fellow New Yorker Hakeem Jeffries face a primary. Yes, really. On impeachment, AOC claims it has more support within the freshman class than publicly stated, and that progressives are frustrated with Speaker Pelosi. Yes, really.

I think it’s about time we call it as it is, and stop trying to make it anything but- AOC is pretty much a younger, non “white dude” version of Bernie Sanders. She is not “loyal” to the party, but rather views herself as a leftward critic of leadership. She’s sponsored just two pieces of legislation so far, neither of which has passed Congress, one of which was a resolution and wouldn’t have the force of law, and on the Green New Deal, she bungled the roll out. So basically, passing legislation is not her thing. Also, voting for legislation, if it’s less than perfect to her, is not ideal. Critiquing the Speaker though? That’s her jam.

AOC is using her seat in Congress for advocacy work, rather than legislating on the behalf of her constituents. If that’s what the people of Queens and the Bronx want, they are certainly free to re-elect her. Don’t hold this up as a blue print for America though. AOC, like Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley are all freshmen, but all represent seats that Democrats held before the 2018 Election, unlike the 40 seats Democrats picked up that were held by Republicans after 2016’s Election. Those 40 freshmen were running on far less divisive messages, like protecting Obamacare (not voting against the Health and Human Services appropriations bill, like her) and defending traditional Medicare. They may have talked about raising the minimum wage or expanding green energy development, but they weren’t going as far as AOC. They couldn’t. The Democratic Party can’t, unless it plans on going back to pre-2018’s 180 seats where they win 60% or more in the districts, but fail to win majorities. Those 40 new Democratic members can’t afford to legislate like AOC. They didn’t run on her agenda, because they would just lose.

Nancy Pelosi is not an advocate, she’s a legislator. She’s the woman who came to Congress and advocated for those suffering from HIV and AIDS. What does that mean? From her House website:

Armed with the lessons of San Francisco’s model of community-based care, Congresswoman Pelosi worked to accelerate development of an HIV vaccine, expand access to Medicaid for people living with HIV, and increase funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), the Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative and other research, care, treatment, prevention and search for a cure initiatives vital to people living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS.

In 1989, Pelosi, along with Rep. Jim McDermott and then-Rep. Charles Schumer introduced the AIDS Opportunity Housing Act, which led to the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA)initiative – an essential lifeline for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Legislating is about action. It’s about passing bills. For Pelosi, that’s passing the last minimum wage hike in our nation. It’s passing H.R. 1. It’s passing the Affordable Care Act. It’s passing Dodd-Frank. It’s usually about swallowing some things you don’t want in a bill. Sometimes it’s about being responsible, and even if you don’t like a piece of legislation, passing it any way because otherwise children sleep on concrete floors, with no blankets, soap, clean clothes, or toothbrushes. I know it can feel smart to simply say no if you don’t like something, but who do you leave behind? Someone leading a major party in Congress, you have more obligations than to your own ego and ideology. So while you may want to impeach a bad President, you may realize it’s not wise- both because he’ll never get convicted, and it will kill your party in the next election. Legislators have to get things done. Leaders have to have better judgment than to just do what the Twitter mobs want. Nancy Pelosi legislates and shows that judgment. Is it always perfect and satisfying? No. Adult life isn’t either though.

So back to the top, “the left” attacking Speaker Pelosi and supporting AOC- give me Nancy 100 times out of 100. I’d much rather have a responsible adult leading the Democratic Party, the first woman to ever lead any branch of the United States Government. I have faith that Speaker Pelosi has the best interests of the people of our country in mind. I have faith that she will get the best deal possible under any circumstances, and that she understands how to get things done in Washington. I don’t believe any of this about AOC. I believe she knows how to get television cameras to follow her, how to create memes, and how to get re-tweets. None of that is legislating, or leading. I’ll take a hard pass.

How Trump Gets Re-Elected

It’s 3am, the wee early hours of Wednesday, November 4th, 2020. You’re continuing to click refresh on the New York Times/Politico/MSNBC’s election results site, trying to make sense of the results. Donald Trump has been re-elected, despite losing the popular vote by a record margin for a victorious U.S. President, a margin the commentators are saying “will approach 5 million votes.” Democrats narrowly came up short of re-taking the Senate, winning 49 or 50 seats, but narrowly coming up short in three other pick-up opportunities. While it looks like Democrats will hold the House, they will lose seats, and Donald Trump is claiming a mandate. There are real fears that Trump will not only get to replace Clarence Thomas on the high court, but also liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The commentators talk of impending doom for Democrats on television.

You watch as ugly scenes break out in the streets of several major U.S. cities. The cable news shows continuously show the crying faces of young campaign workers at the Democratic nominee’s election night party. While this time they didn’t schedule a fireworks show to cancel, the look of shock seems to be hanging on the faces of Democratic pundits all night. How could they be so wrong? Democrats won nearly all the individual issues in the exit polls. Turnout was up among the electorate at large, reaching 140 million for the first time. Minority and youth turnout even went up. How did this happen?

By the slimmest of margins, Trump held onto Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, six states he held by under 500,000 votes in 2016. Trump also managed to flip Minnesota and New Hampshire, and still may flip all of Maine to go with his ME-2 victory. While he lost New York and California by record margins, and saw his margins in Texas and Georgia shrink, Trump seemed to hold on in all of the swing states. His growing margins in red America enabled him to get to 46%, losing the popular vote by 4%. The Democratic nominee is being savaged by pundits for going too far left, while their defenders point to increased turnout and margin as proof that the nation wanted change.

It’s all you can do to watch the clips of Trump’s defiant victory speech and not scream at the television. What happened to America? It just doesn’t feel fair.

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I’m probably not as excited about the 2020 field of Democratic Presidential candidates as most people reading this. I like something around a dozen of them. I also think only something like 3-5 of them are electable. Half of the 24 candidates have a roughly 0% chance of being nominated, and should not have been allowed on a debate stage (I’m looking at you, Tom Perez). We still have the non-Democratic cancer from Vermont in our primary field to wreak havoc, and he still won’t promise to support the nominee without pre-condition. I can see the fault lines that could shift beneath our feet.

We have a front-runner who can’t get out of his own way. We have another who has a “white paper” for everything, a treasure trove for GOP operatives to cherry pick and misrepresent. We have another who has twice said she would kill private insurance altogether in her advocacy of Bernard’s “Medicare for All” plan, and the requisite tax increases. Mind you, these are three candidates I really like, and would happily vote for, both in the primaries and general election. But our first set of debates not only featured the whole field saying they would give undocumented people health insurance on the government dime (without the opportunity to explain why that’s smart policy, no less), but had a debate over 1975 busing policy, complete with a states rights position and one candidate basically calling the other a cop. It wasn’t our party’s strongest hour.

The Democratic Party definitely is moving left, for a variety reasons- misreading Bernie’s success in 2016, addiction to grassroots fundraising from online activists, a falling share of elder white voters and rising share of other groups, and the natural propensity of Democrats to want to move left after tough defeats. The debate put that on full display. The group think in DC is that Hillary lost because she didn’t excite “the base.” Hillary did of course win the popular vote by 3 million votes and get more votes than anyone not named Barack Obama in our history. 2016 turnout was also record breaking. Hillary’s margins in places like metro Philadelphia and Wake County (Raleigh) were historic though, and suggest the group think. Hillary lost because virtually every swing voter broke against her at the end of the campaign, thanks to a lot of factors. What you have to ask yourself is this: do you think those swing voters were mad Hillary wasn’t further left? If you punt on those voters, can you really find enough new voters in the base to offset that? The answer may not be what you like.

Maybe a more useful question to ask is *who actually makes up the electorate in the swing states?* In the swing states Hillary won- Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada in particular- a good chunk of the “rising electorate” of minorities and youth is present. In states where she lost or dramatically underperformed President Obama- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine particularly- millions of older white and moderate voters switched sides or turned out as new voters for Trump. The states of North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona are all states that were very close and have both characteristics in them- but they all went for Trump. It would suggest that if both parties pump up their base, Democrats will win the popular vote comfortably, but probably not the election. The Trump base is what exists more widely in the swing states. If Democrats want to win the electoral college, they will have to persuade some people not in live with the party.

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Donald Trump can be re-elected, and he won’t need a majority to do it. That’s the breaks of our federal system. He can do it by inciting fights over the Betsy Ross flag, school busing, women’s soccer players that 80% of his base never heard of (and 100% instinctively dislike), and immigration. It’s all culture wars, maybe 10% policy, and it requires little to nothing in thought. Trump will call it all “socialism”- identity politics, tax increases, and big spending- and his base will eat it up. We already saw this happen in this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

While Trump himself is incapable of coherent policy statements, it’s important to understand the ideological shift he represented. He moved himself into the space politically we might call “Gephardt Democrats.” He attacks global trade deals as being anti-worker (even as he makes them worse). He echoes past Democratic rhetoric on immigration, saying “illegal immigration” hurts wages (though we know he doesn’t care about that). He talks of wanting to avoid war through diplomacy with North Korea (and Russia), echoing in his own incoherent way non-proliferation talk. It sounds like Democrats of only a generation ago, even if it’s all nonsense and jibberish. Meanwhile he gets out of the way as more progressive Democrats tear down Democratic leaders of just a few years ago, from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden. A lot of the “Trump-Obama” voters liked those guys and voted for them. Now they hear major Democratic candidates trash them, and the positions of the “Gephardt Democrats,” and they come away with the impression that Democrats are at least as crazy as the Republicans. As Trump sounds a nationalist alarm, he sounds at least like he “cares” about them, to them, while Democrats argue whether they should even bother with them. The results are a small, but catastrophic shift across the swing states towards Trump. Sure, he’s losing Manhattan and Chicago by record-setting margins. He was going to lose them anyway. He only cares about the voters in the states that matter to his electoral pathway.

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To be clear, I do believe the Democrats can and should win in 2020. Donald Trump’s approval is not very high. It doesn’t take much to flip six states in 2020- for less than 500,000 votes, Democrats could win over 330 electoral votes and deal Trump a crushing defeat. With a half decent campaign, Democrats could take the whole government, actually. I’m just not betting the house on it. Impeachment, a hijacked message from younger House members, more debates with fringe figures and subject matter like the first one could derail 2020.

Like I said, don’t bet the house on it.

All the Things Democratic Campaigns are Getting Wrong

It was Friday. I wanted some intel on a Presidential campaign I’m interested in working for. I got in touch with an organizer in Iowa to ask about her day. Her response? She’s in the office, calling through a volunteer list. Just as the other days. The scene this young lady described to me was not unusual, it was in fact very similar to what friends on other campaigns I’ve talked to have described. This makes it no less disturbing to me.

The Democratic campaigns for President have not yet, on the whole, made it clear they understand the mistakes of the Clinton campaign in 2016. This is not an alarm that I think they’re hopeless, or that Trump is a lock to win, it’s simply an observation of weakness that I’m making from more experience than some of the folks put in position to screw this up (thus far).

What are some of the failures I’m seeing? What should be different? I’ve compiled a small list of the things that stand out:

  1. The DNC and the campaigns are joining forces to ruin the future of digital organizing. An organizer in Iowa said to me “with all the young people online, we need to meet them there.” She’s right, but that’s not what we’re doing with digital organizing. We’re using digital as an ATM. Why? Because someone at the DNC decided grassroots donors would be a good metric for access to the first debate. Why? I guess because Bernie did it well in 2016- as though Bernie 2016 was the ideal campaign. Turning digital organizing entirely into an arm of the finance department makes zero sense when you look toward a future where actual organizing online will be an essential part of campaigns, but I guess burning a major potential future tool on an unsustainable model now is cool to someone.
  2. Organizers should organize, not just phone bank. The HFA organizing model had one main goal- produce enormous numbers. It did that. What it didn’t do was produce neighborhood organizing teams, or persuade swing voters in any of the decisive swing states. It was built off the idea that the election was purely a turnout battle, that there weren’t really any undecided people to persuade, so the most important thing to do was hit huge numbers, assuming that would cause higher turnout. The entire premise of the program was wrong. Clinton somehow won the popular vote by three million votes, but fell short in the six closest states by under a half million votes. As dumb as I thought the program was for a general election, it’s even dumber for trying to win an Iowa Caucus. Caucuses are all about personal relationships, getting quality captains, and the overall quality of your organizing work- not raw quantity. Unless you’re going to have paid staff at every caucus site in the state, it’s absolutely crucial that you build the best, most motivated, most strategic grassroots leadership teams in each caucus site, so that they know what to do on caucus night and have a plan to get it done. Organizers need to spend their daytime hours out, meeting with the people who may potentially be their caucus captains out there leading the charge. Build the relationships. Build the plan. Train them. You don’t do that phone banking.
  3. Bernie’s policies are not what helped him in 2016. Bernie Sanders didn’t get over 40% of the vote in 2016 because people loved his policy on Medicare-for-All or free college. A huge chunk of his votes came from people who didn’t want to vote for Hillary. Some of them were more moderate voters who have since peeled off to Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and others. Some were more ideological lefties that now are dividing between Bernie and Elizabeth Warren. Even so, a majority of Democratic primary voters ultimately voted for Hillary. Why so many candidates thought it was smart to chase him on policy issues is beyond me. Why they’ve all chosen to accept his paradigm, of eschewing major Democratic donors and pledging to take “no PAC or lobbyist money,” is beyond me (note- unions and liberal aligning organizations have PACs and lobbyists too). Much of Bernie’s support was built off of personal feelings toward Hillary, not specific policy issues. Trying to replicate that in a race with different people is idiotic.
  4. Make your damn candidates accessible. One of the reasons Hillary never got the benefit of the doubt in her campaigns was that the press didn’t like her. One of the main reasons they didn’t like her was that she never was overly accessible, and when she did talk she was often safe. People aren’t that ideological, and they aren’t policy experts. They do like authenticity, some real answers, and to hear from their leaders. And the press are junkies for access, and will treat candidates differently who give them their fix. Give interviews. Have your candidates tweet. Do all the social media. Try to make them fun.
  5. People want something positive. The percentage of the population with whom shitting on Donald Trump is a motivator is fairly baked in. Hillary got 48% running ads about what a bad man Trump is, and that wasn’t enough, as appalling as that is. If you’re going to win in 2020, it’s going to take something more. Speaking to the base, trashing Trump, and praying for demographics to win the election for you aren’t going to work. Put forth a bigger vision, speak to more people, and give people some hope again. Bill Clinton gave them hope. Barack Obama gave them hope. Hell, even Donald Trump in his crude way asked “what the hell do you have to lose?” If you want to win the election, go with something positive and hopeful.

That’s my two cents at least.