One of the most fascinating things to me in American history is the shift in American politics between 1960 and 1980. In 1960, JFK was elected President and won north of 90% of Catholic Americans, while winning the bulk of the white southern vote. In 1980, Reagan carried both of those groups with relative ease. To read most opinions on why this happened, you get a myriad of excuses- Vietnam, Carter, the sexual revolution, Watergate, etc. All feel like they leave a bit to be explained though. How did we get from LBJ obliterating Goldwater to Reagan and Bush’s landslides of the 80’s?
I think one can find the roots of change in LBJ’s Presidency. While it is true that LBJ passed a bunch of broadly popular programs- a tax cut, the Clean Air Act, and of course, Medicare- LBJ also oversaw an era of major social programs that changed racial politics in America. Most famously he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also ended a 40 year period of extremely restrictive immigration law. He launched a war on poverty, brought unprecedented equity to education funding (for that time), and of course addressed health care for the poor. The fruits of Johnson’s Presidency were not all centered in white suburbia, and that was a fairly new concept at the time.
While much is made of LBJ’s 1964 landslide in American politics, the 1966 midterms should receive at least as much academic attention. It marked the beginning of Republican gains among white blue collar workers, particularly in the South. That trend lead to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and 1968 and 1972 electoral victories. In fact, I found this passage from Wikipedia about the 1966 Elections to be particularly illuminating:
1966 became the beginning of a political trend that catapulted the GOP to political dominance from 1968 to literally today. It produced their next generation of national leaders. It produced the demographic trends that eventually lead to Reagan’s blowouts, and the wave election of 1994, which since the GOP has held the House for 20 of 28 years. In fact, after 1968, the Democratic Party has only held unified control of the White House and both houses of Congress for 10 years out of 54. The 1966 Election marked the end of LBJ’s agenda and power- by 1968 a Democratic Senate refused to hear his Supreme Court pick, and neither house had any interest in his agenda. The Democratic Party never really regained his agenda ever since.
By 1980, Reagan was explicitly making “states rights” speeches in rural southern towns where some of the worst violence of the Civil Rights era had taken place. Less explicitly though, his message was very “us vs. them”- “we” don’t need the big government our grandparents needed when they got off the boat at Ellis Island. He argued rather persuasively that big government was not only no longer helpful, but in his inaugural address in 1981 he literally called it the enemy. His anti-government push had continued on the trends of 1966, as he ripped white southerners away from Carter, and continued to pull northern Catholics away from Democrats as well. He told them they didn’t need big government anymore. They clearly believed it.
This message clearly has worked well beyond Reagan’s Washington. In 1994, Gingrich used it in his “Contract with America” to take power from Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. In 2000, while George W. Bush did envision some activism from his “Compassionate Conservatism,” the center piece of his economic package remained tax cuts and deregulation. The 2010 “Tea Party” Republican revolution that swept John Boehner and later Paul Ryan to power centered on an attack on the supposed “socialism” of Barack Obama’s early successes. Indeed, the rise of Trumpism and the 2022 GOP strategy against President Biden have largely centered around “us vs. them” rhetoric and an attack on government tax and spend policies under the Democrats. Polling suggests it’s working right now.
It would be foolish to cast this entire argument in racial terms, particularly in light of Democratic declines in polling among black men, Latinos, and even Asians. The post-Reagan Democratic Party has largely centered competency, justice, and equality, more so than big tax, big government solutions. In many ways the debate that started in 1966 has basically ended. Americans, increasingly regardless of race, don’t really want to pay more taxes for a government program that they don’t think benefits them. This has played out in a politically lethal way for Democrats during policy fights over Build Back Better and Obamacare in recent years. Even so, there are those on the left who insist the pathway back to political dominance for Democrats is to propose bigger, more bold leftist programs, like some European governments have popularly enacted. They mistakenly believe that Americans not voting for Democrats want that.
What these critics miss is that the “small government” message has largely worked against Democrats. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden largely have won by standing out from public perceptions of the party. While many inside the party believe that Democrats would simply win more if more people voted, and feel vindicated by record 2020 turnout for Biden’s victory, they can’t quite explain the down ballot losses Democrats took in the same election, or Trump’s 2016 victory in a record turnout election. People miss that most non-voting population members don’t believe government really works for them either, hence their lack of interest. Frankly, they’re fertile ground for conservatism in an age of anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy theories.
Democrats aren’t going to win sustained power by proposing “free stuff” and big, bold legislative action. That’s been true for over 50 years. It’s true now. Too much libertarian ideology is baked into people. Smaller, more directly impactful victories on matters of tangible significance will go so much further than large ideological war.
I’ve been doing political campaigns for 20 years. I’ve found several basic types drawn to politics in that time.
People that want to be important- this is self explanatory, it’s all about egos. They love hearing themselves talk. They’re pretty sure they could do every job in government better than everybody else, despite no special expertise. They want to be in the news at all times. God sent them to lead. They’re gasbags.
Edgelords- everybody in the government always sucks, and they’re going to come along and overthrow the whole system, because they’re bold. They’ve been here for 5 minutes and they’re telling you how you could do your job better. And how that thing you did that was really awesome, it actually sucks. You don’t know what you’re doing, follow them and you’ll see how to fix all the world’s problems faster than “90 Day Fiancé.”
Saviors- they’re going to save the world, just ask them. Because, you know, the last folks who came along planning to do this didn’t “try hard enough,” or something. They’ve got a plan for everything, just ask them. The Messiah has arrived!
Legit elites- Do you know where my degree is from? Do you know what member of Congress I worked for? Bro, do you know who I am? Seriously though, in almost every case their parents paid for their Capitol Hill apartment, which explains how they took a $35k a year job in DC.
Trolls and Insurrectionists- I’m not going to talk about these people, because they almost certainly have a gun and will kill me. I’m not as about that life as I was in 2016.
Neckbeards- The dude in the Center City coffee shop that’s really caught up in philosophy. Like, really…
There’s plenty of good and competent people around too. They take their time, learn how to navigate the system to get things done. They’re smart. Maybe they’re a little less inspiring to you, but they do a basically good job. To be honest, you may never even notice them. They may have started as one or more of the first six types. We don’t thank these folks enough…
A friend who voted for Joe Biden but is extremely skeptical of his performance recently asked me how I think he is doing at the end of his first year. My answer was a quick “pretty good,” and that shocked them. They asked how I could possibly say that? Am I not watching inflation? Covid? Russia? Are my just that partisan?
The truth is that I’ve had this same conversation with people to my left and right, and the generally less ideological types like this person. In virtually all of their cases, they’ve bought into a media narrative that Biden hasn’t done very much, spends lots of time battling moderate Democratic Senators, and is overwhelmed. The news does sound like that some days. There’s not a lot of truth to that though.
Let’s step back and take an outcome based view of the first year though. Unemployment is at an all-time low and the market at an all-time high. At this time, 77.7% of eligible Americans (anyone 5+) have been jabbed at least once with the Covid vaccine, totaling over 205 million people to date. President Biden signed a multi-trillion dollar Covid recovery bill that saved and kept countless small businesses open and literally saved millions of jobs, while getting critical aid to states, counties, towns, and hospitals on the front lines fighting Covid. He also signed a bipartisan infrastructure bill of over $1 trillion that represents the largest singular investment in American infrastructure since President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway System into law. The child tax credit and other measures in the Covid recovery bill are cutting child poverty in half in our nation. President Biden has also appointed and seated 40 federal judges in his first year, blowing away any predecessor in recent times. The booming economy and historic vaccine distribution alone should get him high marks. Ending America’s longest running war ever, which after 20 years had been bipartisanly called for by our last two Presidents, is a vastly under appreciated achievement. While I love them, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would kill for his first year, legislatively. He’s done all of this, by the way, with a historic Vice-President who is redefining what American power looks like, and who has access to it. That the totality of this first year record is not the story being carried in the American press and inside the Beltway is a sign of failure both by the press and those tasked with defending him. President Biden just had the best, and most consequential year of any President since LBJ’s opening 13 months.
With all of that said, there have been failings, miscalculations, and mistakes that deserve criticism. Inflation was inevitable in an economy coming out of a year lockout, with people back at work and flush with cash again, but the White House seemed to be caught flat footed and without a message on the matter. Leaving Afghanistan was inevitably going to be ugly and disappointing, as any withdrawal from a failed state is, but the scenes of chaos from Kabul were dispiriting even for supporters. Russia is sitting at the Ukraine border ready to invade an ally we’ve sworn to defend. The decision to tie Build Back Better to the infrastructure bill nearly sank a very popular bill. Allowing the Build Back Better plan to start out as an impossibly large grab bag of unrelated policies, then to allow Senators Manchin and Sinema to spend months not defining their terms while holding a veto over the bill has made BBB sap the President’s popularity in the same way initially popular, large pieces of legislation damaged Presidents Clinton and Obama going into their first midterm. Allowing Democratic Senators to behave helplessly while blaming the White House on student loan debt forgiveness, when the White House should be directly calling on them by name to write a damn bill, has allowed a false narrative on the issue to set in. And yes, the anonymous “insider” attacks on the Vice-President are a disgrace. Absolutely everything I’ve cited here is a cosmetic mistake, and doesn’t change the reality of his consequential first year in office at all, yet. They don’t change my view of him at all, but I follow this stuff closer than 99% of America. These unforced errors have allowed lazy, stupid narratives to exist.
When someone wearing a “Let’s go Brandon” shirt complains about Biden, my general rule is to dismiss the attacks. Most of them are still dealing with the hurt feelings of their leader suffering the worst defeat of an incumbent in 40 years. Biden’s drop in approval amongst everyone else is concerning. This is a guy who flew above the Democratic brand in 2020, a guy who was viewed differently by the public even a year ago. We knew the brand has problems. We had no reason to think Joe Biden did. On the one hand, he’s been squeezed by those to his left trying to bring him around to their primary policy positions from 2020. This was probably inevitable, as these folks bit the bullet and voted for him, but really thought 2020 was their chance for bigger, progressive changes, and they’re not ready to let the dream die. Biden was also squeezed by the DC professional class and the large “outside” progressive groups in year one, who spent a lot of money to get him elected and now want their policies enacted. Really though, the most alarming drop has been among the less ideological former supporters who gave him his margin in 2020. If nothing about Joe changed, then what did?
Here’s the President’s main problem: he’s boring as ****. Yes, he does have charisma beyond the average Senator, but let’s be honest- he’s not tweeting threats at random Senators and world leaders from his toilet at 1am, he’s not mesmerizing like the Obamas, he’s not a wartime President like Dubya, and he’s neither as cool or as flawed as Bill Clinton. There’s not talk of Russia controlling him. There’s no talk of paying off adult film stars. No playing the saxophone. No first black President. No “strategery” or “human and fish can coexist” talk. No speeches about mushroom clouds. The Biden Presidency is the most boring in 30 years. Just policy pronouncements. His marriage is functional and loving. No hiring his moron kids, no refusal to divest from his companies. Just boring, old government.
I’m going to be honest- I enjoy it, it’s refreshing. Just put an adult in the White House and govern. Sure, Obama and Clinton were fun because they were interesting and competent. After Trump though, please bore me to sleep. Tell me the President is sleeping at 1am. I do get that it’s bad for the media, the lack of ratings and clicks is driving them to cover what press assistant left the VP’s office. They can’t function like this- and for that, I say good.
The problem is, and I’ll be honest again here- I’m not sure this is going to work anymore. Can a boring Presidency work in a nation with a 24/7 news cycle/echo chamber on their television/computer/phone? Polling suggests maybe not. If this ends in anything but a re-election speech, it may be the last time we see it tried.
On the morning of January 6th, a few thousand losers descended on the National Mall to rally with a President who had just lost his re-election by over 7 million votes, the largest margin in a national election in 12 years. The legitimately defeated President egged on his supporters and lead them to commit the worst terrorist act on American soil since at least 9/11. They weren’t tourists visiting the capitol. The people who stormed the Capitol were not patriots. They were domestic terrorists who defied and physically beat police officers, while stating they wanted to hang the Vice-President and others. They were the equivalent of toddlers throwing a hissy fit because they didn’t get their way. Those who attacked our Capitol were nothing short of criminal thugs, and should be treated as such.
Is my description of January 6th a little bit harsh? No, actually. It’s accurate. What I don’t understand is why this has grown more and more controversial by the day since it happened. Why members of Congress, GOP leaders, and even common Republican voters, almost all of which are good and decent people with whom I happen to disagree with on politics, are defending actions they themselves knew were wrong enough that they didn’t take part in themselves. One can oppose Joe Biden, dislike the way the election was carried out in the pandemic, think Trump was mistreated by Democrats and the media, and hold conservative views, but still know right and wrong enough to avoid taking part in an insurrection. 99.9% of Republicans did. One can be a staunch conservative and recognize that anyone involved in that nonsense should be held accountable, criminally where appropriate. There’s no reason to defend bad behavior that you yourself would not participate in. You’re not responsible for it. Republicans at the time understood this. Cabinet members, White House staffers, and Republican members of Congress denounced these violent thugs that day, some even resigned over it. Now they are almost universally defending these bums, all for cynical, political calculations.
There are lots of things wrong with a Democratic Party that is struggling to pass popular infrastructure legislation despite majorities in both houses. One can largely reject the policy and political failings of that party, but still recognize the rot at the core of the current GOP. Had the GOP rejected the insurrectionists and criminals of January 6th as a whole, they would deserve to be able to leave the terrible events of that day in the past. Instead, we are seeing them run these thugs for office (such as the GOP County Executive nominee here in Northampton County PA) and embrace their lies at a national level. We cannot allow a party willing to do that back into power. This was not a minor event. It was a very serious one. We should treat it as such.
Right now the cool kids in Democratic politics don’t like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The feeling is that the two of them are basically holding up progress on the Biden agenda by not being willing to kill the legislative filibuster or reform it in any way to push legislation through without Republican votes. They would say that infrastructure, voting rights, a higher minimum wage, and many other priorities are basically being vetoed by a bad faith Republican leadership who are likely to just eliminate the filibuster whenever it becomes convenient for them. They also say there would not be much political price for pushing through popular Democratic initiatives, but there could be a price to failure. Neither of these two Senators would do well right now with activist Twitter, but then again, neither did 2019 Joe Biden.
Since neither of them is really doing a great job putting forward a great case for their position in public though, I decided to give it a stab and see if I could make a cohesive argument for them. What I found was a long term argument that would probably not convert over most Democratic activists, but probably will end up being proven at least partially right five decades ago. Below is the basic line of thinking I came up with for their position on both the filibuster and the future direction of the party.
1. Are there 48 votes to end the filibuster? One of the great assumptions in this fight is that there are 48 other Democrats ready to end the filibuster. Do we know that though. It is certainly in Manchin’s political interests to fight the party on this issue if he wants to win in West Virginia, and probably in Sinema’s in Arizona too. Most other Senators are likely stay quiet on the matter though until faced with an up or down vote. There was an assumption that Manchin and Sinema were holding up the $15/hour minimum wage bill, until it was brought up for a vote and had only 42 votes for it. It seems likely other Democrats may at least have reservations on this matter, and might be wobbly. They may not be the only hurdles here.
2. The Democratic Party both represents a majority and is teetering on electoral ruin. President Biden won the 2020 Election by 7 million plus votes, a margin that JFK in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976, Gore or Bush in 2000, Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012, and especially Clinton in 2016 would have killed for. The result was that if Trump had done 50,000 votes better in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia, he would have won again anyway, losing by 7 million votes. Biden’s big win netted a 50-50 Senate, and a single digit House Majority. The Democrats have won every presidential popular vote but one since the Cold War, which has won them five of eight Presidential races, but produced Republican rule in the House for 20 of 30 years, and most of 17 of 30 years in the Senate. Democrats might get a majority of the votes, but they sure as hell don’t win a majority of districts and states. Democrats don’t win that often for the majority they have, and they have to thread the needle with the Manchins of the world when they do. There is no major electoral reforms coming on the horizon that will change this, so Democrats need to understand we’re at a disadvantage.
3. These Senators have to run competitive elections every six years, most don’t. Unlike most of their colleagues, Manchin and Sinema know they’ll never have an easy election again. Incumbency doesn’t make swing states or “red” states much easier. The factors that make point two true run straight into their faces every time they run. Being in agreement with online activists probably is bringing in the swing voters they need. If they’re seen as “partisan” Democrats, they probably lose, as Democrats pay a bigger price for appearing to be more partisan. While probably 80% of Senators have to spend more time concerned about losing a primary, they are two of the few that know any opponent from their left flank would likely be unelectable. Sure, they take hits within their party for moderating, but they’ve seen the price of going the other way in states that aren’t blue.
4. The demographics suggest Democratic minorities in the Senate for decades to come. America’s population is growing less and less white. That diversity is not evenly spread though. In just over 15 years, half the population will live in eight states. Since the growth in a more diverse population is almost entirely in those states, you have to consider a very scary likelihood- the majority of the states will be getting older, whiter, and if current voting trends hold, less Democratic. If Democratic messaging stays along it’s current course, and I believe it will, Democratic Senate candidates will be swimming up hill in nearly 80 Senate races. That is likely to mean the Democrats will be in the minority in the Senate more often than not. This also means Democrats will be the party more likely to use the filibuster to maintain a relevant voice in the process. They may regret killing the procedure if that’s the case.
5. These Senators probably believe the Democratic Party needs to moderateto remain viable. Manchin and Sinema are certainly more moderate than the Elizabeth Warrens of the world. It is reasonable to assume that they believe it is in the Democratic Party’s interests to moderate, for all of the reasons listed above. Keeping the filibuster in place would seem to force both sides to negotiate a more moderate product that passes. There is an argument that the threat of more passing in a majority-rule Senate would force more good faith negotiation, but it would be on the majority’s terms. If you believe the current Democratic messaging is likely to produce decades of Republican majorities, it makes sense that you would try to alter the direction of your party. You can argue their method, but I don’t doubt their goal.
If your belief is that the Democratic Party’s biggest problem moving forward is Republican state governments making it harder to vote, and stopping that makes Democratic victories more likely, of course you’d disregard the points above. You might even disagree with them on the grounds that Democrats won in 2020 and should not need Mitch McConnell’s approval to govern. If that’s your position, it probably makes sense to steamroll the filibuster and pass as much stuff as you can- but how much that actually is would be questionable when you only have 50 Democratic Senators, so beware.
Perhaps though your feeling is that the flaws of the Democratic Party run deeper. The party’s reliance on “the rising electorate” make future victories in our federal system, where there is no national election, but 50 state elections, much more difficult. If Democrats are likely to lose regardless of new voting laws, you’re likely to want to change the direction of the party. Perhaps you have questions about the impact of new state election laws, and their ultimate impact on future elections. If you think the electoral problems of the Democratic Party are much deeper than whether they pass HR1 or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, you might see some wisdom in Sinema and Manchin’s position. It really does come down to whether you think Democrats or Republicans are the biggest problem facing Democrats in the future. If I were guessing, Manchin and Sinema think the future of the party isn’t bright. An unequally distributed electorate, a likely deteriorating Democratic base, and the already lost courts have made them make peace with this view.
In reality, it’s probably not so cut and dry either way, and a case can be made that Democrats should simply do whatever makes Joe Biden have the easiest time winning re-election, to prevent a dramatic backslide for democracy under a Trump 2.0 or Trump-lite Presidency in 2025. While the party’s future prospects might be questionable, it probably goes without saying that the country is best off not going through that again. The current version of the GOP is likely in its final 15 years or so of existence, and while we don’t know what they will become either, running out as much clock on them as possible is good. In the end though, Democrats are best off at least considering what their long term prospects are, and whether or not they will be the ones needing the filibuster. Ultimately though, they can’t afford to give up democracy now based on those concerns.
Four years ago, Donald Trump spoke of an “American Carnage” in his inaugural address. He spoke of a country that resembled a hellscape. In his address, he said:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today, and everyone watching, all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration, and this, the United States of America, is your country.
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Donald Trump got very little right as President, or as a candidate. What he did get right was appealing to his market- not a shocking feat for a guy who made his money “marketing his brand (or name, honestly).” His vision of a hellscape country, one being taken away from the “common man,” by the hyper-educated, the woke, and “the elite,” hit home to voters who happen to live in swing states, blue collar voters that feel left behind by Washington. In 2016 his message hooked high school educated white voters that felt talked down to, forgotten, and left behind. It was the perfect foil to a former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State who best appealed to voters when she appeared competent in office, and appealed less as a candidate pushing an agenda of change. In 2020 he aimed his appeals not only at that base, but went a step further- targeting Black and Latino men with a message that they too are not being served well by the “elite.” That message kept him in the ballgame against a very strong opponent who can appeal to a very broad cross-section of the country both personally and politically. While President Biden clearly beat him, Trump’s message of “every man” vs. “the elite” didn’t exactly fail him in a very difficult race.
We live in a very great nation, but not everyone enjoys the fruits of that greatness equally. For many, the last 50 years of American growth has not been marked by an exponential improvement in quality of life. While our economy has grown, people are working more and more to make ends meet. Anxiety, chronic pain, and other illnesses are leading to more addicting pharmaceuticals, and more addictions. Individual households are relying more and more on credit to maintain their lifestyles. The concept of vacations is more and more foreign. Divorce is now more common than “happily ever after.” In short, people are living to work, and seeing their personal lives suffer. It is a hellscape.
Even as society is feeling the stress of this unequal distribution, our institutions have spent much of the 21st century failing us. Millions are protesting against police brutality. The Catholic Church and major college sports programs failed to protect children from predators or hold people accountable for the abuse. Wall Street and the big banks gave us the 2008 crash through unethical and immoral behavior aimed at making themselves profits. Congress repeatedly shows itself as incapable of handling major issues from climate change to immigration. Terrorism has touched our shores several time this decade, most famously on 9/11. We had an insurrection after our last election. We fought the war in Iraq for over a decade, on false pretenses. We’ve been in Afghanistan even longer than the Soviets were. We do nothing about mass shootings. Bernie Madoff and Enron seem long ago, but they too were this century. And all of that was before Covid shut down society for a year. We have had an early 21st century of memorable and epic institutional failure. In a country that has long since accepted it’s higher standard of living, it has taken it’s toll on our public confidence.
Official Washington, particularly Democratic official Washington, doesn’t quite comprehend how Trump happened, or why his message worked. They don’t understand why he made inroads with non-white voters in 2020, let alone how he won once. Their advanced degrees from prestigious universities allow them a far better understanding of New York and California than Ohio, but Ohio is more like 30 other states cast out across the nation. They find themselves shocked that their message cannot reach tens of millions of Americans, or that many Americans would simply rather “burn it down.” How can Trump’s baseless, crude rhetoric be fine to many people? So much of official Washington was shocked on November 8th, 2016 as Hillary Clinton lost to this bleak vision of America, and they were shocked again on November 3rd, 2020, when Trump was not overwhelmingly repudiated at the polls. How did Iowa and Ohio go from Obama states to Trump states? Why has North Carolina stopped trending our way? How has Florida gone this way? The truth is that many pundits, appointees, staff on the Hill, and political consultants in DC would be totally and completely lost if they were dropped into a bar in Wilkes-Barre, PA, which may offer us a clue into why their algorithms can’t explain away the anger in our electorate.
On January 6th, I watch the insurrection against our democracy in a fit of rage. As he was leaving Washington, Donald Trump had managed to truly create the kind of carnage that he spoke of in his inaugural address. Like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43 before him, he left his successors with a mess to clean up, problems that would consume their political capital, preventing them from some of the big achievements they sought to do. Fortunately, Trump and his party paid a steep political price for their failings. Even if fairly narrowly, they lost the White House, House, and Senate. For a little while, we’re safe from Trumpism. That will not be the case forever. The forces that created Donald Trump’s Presidency still exist. His defeat is not an ending, unless the conditions many Americans live under improve. People do not embrace a bigoted demagogue all of a sudden, by accident. The carnage that leads to bad leaders takes a long time to create, and an even longer time to fix.
Remember back after President Obama won in 2012? We heard from a lot of Democrats about how “demographics are destiny.” The idea was that the Obama coalition would simply carry the Democratic Party to future majoritarian status. In the time since, it’s true that Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 were built largely off of that coalition, but there have been cracks in the foundation that should be concerning, particularly given the radicalization of the GOP in the Trump era.
It is true that in the coming 20 to 30 years, the country should move from majority white to non-white in population. It is also true that within the next 20 years, half of the country’s population will reside in just eight (8) states. Yes, the diversifying country is happening in about 8 states, or roughly 16 Senate seats. In many of the more rural, smaller, more red states, the country may even be whitening. Those 42 other states will have 84 Senate seats. When you add on that the Democratic coalition of voters tend to live together in urban and inner-suburban House Districts, you get close to 200 Congressional seats where Democrats routinely win north of two-thirds of the vote, but those 200 seats aren’t enough for a majority. This means Democrats will need to win in more moderate suburban districts, where the politics can tend to be at odds with the politics in the blue districts that make up most of the Democratic caucus. In other words, an emerging non-white majority in America is in danger of being ruled by a shrinking minority of rural white voters, if Democrats can’t balance the politics just right to win the moderate suburbs.
Of course, all of this is assuming the current political alignment even holds, which is at best murky. If this isn’t clear yet, non-white voters in the Democratic Party tend to be more moderate than a lot of white Democrats, particularly the men. Making things even harder is a slight but noticeable split between white voters in the big cities and suburbs, breaking down clearly along educational grounds. When you combine more conservative non-white voters voting more ideologically than based on identity (seen in 2020 as very slight shifts towards Trump) with urban white working class voters behaving more like suburban are rural blue collar whites with their vote, because of culture grievances (canceling Christopher Columbus, Blue Lives Matter, “socialism,” etc.), you get the kind of minor cracks in the Democratic coalition foundation that can be lethal in the long-term. You get a 2016 to 2020 shift map of Eastern Pennsylvania with weird red pockets where you don’t expect them (see below).
That map tells us a lot of things, but what it’s screaming at us is that the places Trump did better are generally the places where Democrats have essentially one party rule- Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, Reading, Bethlehem, Easton. Again, we know the slight shifts among non-white men, and the more pronounced shift in white, blue collar urban neighborhoods explains a lot of this change. What I think we don’t appreciate enough is how hard it is to try and stop it. Big city mayors like Jim Kenney or Bill de Blasio are not going to be the kinds of spokes people that can push on more progressive politics, it’s antithetical to them winning. The same can be said for more progressive members of Congress that can increasingly win districts in cities and inner suburbs. While I loathe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the damage she does to Democratic candidates in the 40-50 competitive House seats left with her messaging and presence, she represents the district she represents. Asking her to “tone it down” would probably harm her as bad as asking the New York Mayoral candidates to endorse “stop and frisk.” She’d end her career taking that advice. Sure, it might help us in Long Island Congressional races and Presidential elections, but exactly zero members of Congress are taking one for the team like that. In short, the impediment of the politics in blue seats on Democratic victories is probably inevitable right now.
The map above screams a second thing at us- Joe Biden is a particularly strong politician. His ability to take the slight hits in Democratic strongholds across the country, but still flip nearly every major battleground state through suburban America is a unique political ability we haven’t seen in a long time. His coalition of voters probably had 90% overlap with President Obama or Secretary Clinton, yet he found the gains in the electorate that he needed to beat a motivated GOP electorate that produced the second most popular votes ever- behind him. Biden’s coalition was broad, really diverse, and most importantly improved on all the areas where Democrats underperformed in 2014 and 2016. Contrary to the views of pundits that Biden was “lucky” to get nominated, you could see the contours of his coalition in the primaries before Covid hit- he was winning black working class, white working class, and suburban educated voters, in some states literally taking every county. In short, Biden was the guy for right now.
So what can the President do to try and fight off the demographic and political doom that seems to be setting up a “red horizon” for us? While many Democrats are arguing policy particulars, I actually don’t think this comes down to how much they raise the minimum wage, or cut student debt, or any of the things people are rage tweeting about right now. I think there are three broad themes he needs to hit in this Presidency to stop our political decay.
End “Messiah politics,” turn down the political temperature. In short, be a boring, normal guy. Democrats, going back as far as JFK, have elected charismatic, big personality types. The GOP has done similar. We pretty much reached the peak with the Trump cult. Americans don’t elect kings, in fact we were founded on not doing so. The concentration of American power in Congressional leaders, nine lifetime appointed judges, and a singular American President has not done us well. It has divided leaders from the people, and created the perception of the “elite” ruling class. It has also made us concentrate a lot on the personal characteristics and scandals of Presidents, which short of breaking the law, should largely be irrelevant. The President doesn’t have to be a perfect person, in fact none of them are. The President can be boring, we don’t need to see them on TV every day. We certainly shouldn’t be hanging on their 1am tweets. The press is struggling with the lack of news from President Biden, and that is a good thing. Our hope and savior shouldn’t come from one elected leader, but from ourselves. Joe should be a boring guy, a devoted family guy with a very important job. We need to break our addiction to sensationalistic political news coverage that has become the newnormal, post-Gingrich.
Deliver tangible victories and results for his base. I would say a $1.9 trillion recovery package that revolutionizes public health, saves small businesses, puts cash in pockets, eradicates child poverty, and does a bunch to kill Covid is the best start we’ve seen in forever. It is not enough. Voting rights must be codified through federal legislation. The right to organize for unions must be strengthened after decades of attacks. Public education needs to be strengthened and funded. Action on climate change and the environment is needed. President Biden needs to enact legislation with Congressional Democrats that touch the lives of as much of his 82 million voting block as possible, particularly those groups who made up the backbone of his coalition.
Convince whatever portion of the Republican electorate he can that government can still be useful, at least sometimes. This is admittedly the trickiest part. Most of the Trump voting block was less interested in policy, but more so in grievance politics. Thank God for that. Had Trump went beyond his isolationist rhetoric on trade and wars, and actually combined action for the “forgotten man” on economics with his white man grievance politics, he may very well have rebuilt the FDR coalition and governed a new dynasty. Fortunately the grievances are still the lede in the GOP platform, but they can’t cross their rich donor base. Trump used their bigotry views to align lower educated white voters with millionaire Republicans better than anyone in modern time, in part because many working class white voters haven’t felt they get benefits from the government acting in decades. Of course they do, but the connection isn’t made. Whether it is on Covid relief, a massive infrastructure bill, or creating green jobs, the Biden Administration needs to change that perception. Left with their current presumptions, 47% of Americans were willing to follow an ignorant con-man into the abyss. We are on the verge of losing one of our only two American political parties permanently to the conspiracy theorists descending from the John Birchers through the Tea Party, a set of loons who stormed our Capitol and romanticize a second Civil War. In fifteen years the Republican Party will either be a healthy political party with political ideas, or it will be a dangerous, white nationalist cult that is governing the majority of the country through essentially an apartheid government. How they are brought back to the table after President Biden will decide that.
Looking at the future through the lense of reality is hard. In a couple decades, we could be a hellscape of a nation. That is, unless Joe Biden can restore some public confidence in the institutions that govern us. Unless he can convince us that DC is not a bunch of out-of-touch, hyper educated folks representing interest groups and eschewing reality in our lives. If he succeeds, he’s one of our greatest Presidents. If he fails, we will fall to the chaos of extremist politics and a bleak future.
Joe Biden is the President of the United States. To put it bluntly, it is one of the greatest political stories ever told. Once elected our youngest Senator in 1972, Biden’s promising career seemed to take a huge hit from his failed 1988 campaign. He rebounded to become a very powerful Senator, chairing the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. In 2008 his career seemed to take another hit from a tough Presidential campaign that ended in a crippling Iowa loss, but he rose again as then-Senator Obama’s choice for Vice-President. After two national victories, Biden was seemingly blocked from a 2016 run by Hillary Clinton’s perceived strength. She ran and got nominated, he didn’t enter the race after the tragic death of his son, and his career seemed over. Then fate threw a tragic curveball- Donald Trump won the Presidency. Suddenly some people saw Biden as a potential savior. Still others thought his time had passed.
The 2020 Biden campaign was incredibly predictable. Biden entered a crowded field late, and virtually everyone kicked him. People like Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, a more radical lefty, called Biden dumb. His now Vice-President attacked him for his 1970’s busing position. Barack Obama and many other members of his administration were not overly encouraging about his run. The press wrote him off repeatedly. The Bernie crowd shuffled between calling him senile, accusing him of assaulting Tara Reade, calling him a corporate shill, and saying other nasty things. Candidates like Bernie, Beto, Kamala, and Warren took turns rising up close to him in the polls, then fading. Julian Castro basically insinuated he was senile, while getting the facts wrong himself. Joe even had to take the indignities of losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada early on in the race. Predictably though, he overcame all of that. He won the nomination after a blowout South Carolina win and a Super Tuesday drubbing of the field. As he always has, he took the punches and stayed on his feet until he could give them back. Then he knocked the field out cold.
What Biden’s rivals didn’t understand was what some of us loved about him- Joe Biden was not the rest of the Democratic Party. While the rest of the candidates pandered and equivocated on who they were, Biden resisted the urge to move to the far left on health care and the environment, but knew he needed to be steadfast on issues that mattered to the true base of the Democratic Party, like labor laws, gun control, voting rights, and education. He lived with his extensive record. He was a nice guy, but he put a hardball team around him. He was strategic. In the end, he was honestly the only acceptable nominee who could beat Donald Trump. He had to win, and he won. The rest of these folks would have been rolled by Trump.
That he won without embracing “the new left” was a feature of why Biden won, not a bug. No one else could have whipped Trump as Biden did in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Detroit, not while Trump was slamming the “radical left” for huge tax increases and overreaching policies. If you don’t think Biden’s reputation mattered, built over a half century of work, just look at how Democrats did down ballot in so many targeted House and State Legislative races. It took a Biden to take those effective attacks and keep going. It took Biden’s “tough decency” to deal with Trump’s bullying style. He could tell Donald to “shut up” and still come off as the more decent human being. No one else survives that. Hell, even Hillary Clinton couldn’t.
And so here we are. Joe Biden beat every critic, 20 other Democrats, and Donald Trump. He won the nomination faster than anyone in the Democratic Party since at least 2004. He received a record of over 81 million votes, beating Trump by over 7 million votes, and 306-232 in the Electoral College. He walked into the White House with majorities in both houses, a mandate for change. He did without buckling to DC’s ideas about how to get here. While I would never call him or any other politician a saint, I’m proud to say I was both on his staff from Iowa forward, and served as a delegate for him. Joe Biden forged the only path forward for America, and he did it the right way.
All Biden inherits is the greatest mess of all time. No pressure or anything. In the short to immediate term, there are several “must do’s”- pass a major COVID/Stimulus bill, an infrastructure bill, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, voting rights protection, and fixes to the ACA. Out on the horizon are other big issues waiting- replacing Justice Breyer, acting on climate change, and public education reform. With majorities in both houses of Congress for two years, a mandate from a popular victory in the election, and the backdrop of a pandemic and insurrection, Biden will have to strike while the iron is hot. As the most skilled legislator to serve as President since LBJ, there is good reason to think he is up to the job.
There is more to the job though than legislating, and Biden will be tasked with all of that too. American politics, at least since the rise of Newt Gingrich in 1994, and arguably since 1968, have been poisoned. We are narrowly, but deeply divided. We had an insurrection at our capitol, and protests that sometimes bordered on riots, both within the past year. Domestic terrorists are on the rise. Distrust in police and law enforcement is at an all time high after a series of police killings of Black Americans. Biden inherits a country where the population distrusts it’s institutions, in many cases their government, and in an alarmingly high number of cases, each other. It is simply unsustainable. The conspiracy theories, personal vitriol, and Social Media wars have to end. There’s no guarantee any of it will.
Millions of Americans don’t consider themselves to be a party to America’s success. We are the wealthiest, most militarily powerful country the world has ever known. For millions, they don’t feel like they have benefited- for decades. This cuts across racial lines. While America has benefited overall in the global economy, large regions of the country feel they have not. While his party has turned inward to their base in so much of their message, part of Biden’s challenge will be to speak to a broader audience across America. Taking away President Trump’s fictitious monopoly on the “forgotten man” is central to getting buy-in to progress.
Let’s face it, we don’t know the future. Will Joe Biden run again? Will Donald Trump? Will the GOP treat President Biden better than they did President Obama? Will we get Covid under control? How will the midterms go? None of that is clear yet. All we know is that Joe Biden has a four year term to do it.
The GOP is in a messy civil war over the post-Trump era, and it’s easy to sit here and predict ruin for them moving forward. If they try to moderate, the Trumpism theory is that his base will bail on the party. If they embrace the Trump base, the Democratic majorities built over the last four years very well could hold. It seems hopeless, unless of course you look back over the last roughly thirty years of politics in America. Every President since the Cold War has entered office with a majority, and all lost those Congressional majorities in a midterm (Only Bush 43 survived his first one, right after 9/11). History says McConnell and McCarthy will be running their chambers in 2023, regardless of the mess they are.
Which leads to the real question: what are the Democrats? Recent history says the losing Presidential ticket influences their party more in the midterms, and wins them. Can Democrats capture the Biden brand and win again in 2022? The 2018 Democratic wave looked way more like Hillary Clinton, but message wise the Clinton and Biden brands were similar. A pragmatic slate of suburban candidates, women and men, built this majority. Joe Biden’s improvement on Hillary’s suburban performance was what won him the suburbs, and subsequently the swing states. Can 2022 Democrats improve in suburban Charlotte, hold their gains in suburban Philadelphia, and continue to grow in suburban Atlanta and Phoenix? At the same time can they deliver the needed policy victories for their non-white base that will produce big turnout? If so, maybe they can beat history. That’s their coalition now, not more radical elements on the left and seemingly gone folks still in the Trump camp. Democrats must keep the pragmatic center that was repulsed by Trump, while holding the equally pragmatic minority coalition that has faithfully voted blue. Joe Biden showed Democrats how to do this. Will we follow as a party?
It’s been just about two weeks since the 2020 Election, or just about long enough for some good and bad takes to start simmering to the surface. I did an initial post-mortem on the election, and I pretty much stand by that. I’ve thought a bit more though, and I have new things to add. Let’s dive into it.
The closest comparative to Joe Biden’s 2020 victory is Barack Obama’s 2012 win. Obama won 51.1% of that vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 47.2%, but Obama won the electoral college 332-206. Biden has 50.9% of this year’s vote, to Trump’s 47.3%, which netted him a 306-232 win. Democrats should be concerned that in the last twelve years (time since Obama’s first win), we’ve essentially traded Florida, Ohio, and Iowa into the red column to move Georgia and Arizona to swing status, and Virginia and Colorado to blue. I suppose if we can hold the “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Hampshire, it’s not so bad. However if those 60 electoral votes truly fall into undecided or red hands, even Texas and North Carolina moving blue wouldn’t equal out (and I think both are purple at best). Demographics will only be destiny if in fact conservative forces use them to create permanent minority rule through the electoral college, the Senate, and the courts. The “new electorate” is simply not equally distributed out across the country enough, nor do this year’s results suggest that it is durable enough.
It’s pretty fair to say a Democrat needs to hit 50% nationally to pull out the electoral college. There may be somewhat of an open question at 49%, but there’s not much chance below that. It’s also fair to say that hitting 50% as a post-LBJ Democrat (to be read post Civil Rights, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, etc.) is hard. Jimmy Carter hit 50.1% in his 1976 win. In addition to his 2012 victory (mentioned above), Barack Obama did it in 2008, hitting 52.9% and 365 electoral votes. Bill Clinton got super close in his 1996 re-election win, getting 49.2% and 379 electoral votes in a three way race, but his 1992 was a low-water mark in victory, with 43% and 370 electoral votes in a three way victory. Only with Biden, Obama both times, Clinton in 1996, and Carter in 1976, the Democrats have topped 49% in the last 14 elections after LBJ. Al Gore hit 48.4% in 2000, John Kerry 48.3% in 2004, and Hillary Clinton with 48.2% in 2016, but all lost the electoral college. By comparison, some low water marks of the post-LBJ era include Michael Dukakis in 1988 (45.6% and 111 electoral votes), Walter Mondale in 1984 (40.6% and 13 electoral votes), President Carter in 1980 (41% and 49 electoral votes), and Senator McGovern (37.5% and 17 electoral votes). For reference, Vice-President Humphrey received 42.7% of the vote and 191 electoral votes in 1968. In 52 years, Democrats have won six elections, and topped 49% in five of the fourteen elections. They’ve finished with 46% or less in six of those elections.
This century, elections have been remarkably stable. Every Democratic nominee from 1996 through 2020 has secured at least 48.2% of the vote. Every Republican nominee since 2000 has secured at least 46.1% of the vote. The extent to which either party exceeds those numbers is often the decisive factor. The only Republican to significantly exceed 47% has been George W. Bush (both times), while both Barack Obama wins and Joe Biden’s were close to 3% above the Democratic floor, or more. For this reason, Republicans tend to run negative Presidential races and concentrate on lowering Democratic turnout. That’s probably not going to change anytime soon. Let’s not pretend it will.
So let’s talk about how we did it, and how it didn’t spread down ballot. The story is the same in state after state. In Georgia, the suburbs. In Pennsylvania, the suburbs. In Michigan, suburbs. In Arizona? You guessed it. By no means should one suggest that Biden *only* won because of the suburbs, but one should not dismiss it because it doesn’t fit their narrative. There seems to be a lot of consternation over how Biden won, and I don’t get why. As we saw four years ago, Democrats needed to improve their margins in the cities AND persuade the suburbanites to vote for them. They appear to have done both. Turnout hit record highs in Philadelphia, improved in Detroit, and yet Biden still ran up huge margins in suburban Atlanta and Phoenix. LatinX organizers in Arizona were huge in the victory, and so was a disciplined message to the middle. Perhaps the rest of the party should have taken a hint. Poorly run campaigns and bad left-wing messaging converged together to leave down ballot Democrats consistently coming up short of Joe Biden, and victory. With a similar national margin in 2012, Senate Democrats reached 53 seats. In 2008, they reached 60 seats. In 2008 and 2012, Democratic Governors were winning Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina (once). Joe Biden was out performing the whole party at the state level in New Hampshire, and Senate candidates in Maine, North Carolina, and Georgia. Meanwhile your Mark Kellys, Roy Coopers, Connor Lambs, Lauren Underwoods, Sharice Davids, and other strong, independent brand Democrats won. Why?
Let’s start by addressing the tired debate about “far-left” messaging. No, “defund the police” was not helpful for Tom Malinowski or Conor Lamb. While the left has talked a lot about Medicare for All supporting candidates, nearly all of them won in safe “blue” districts and states. Obviously having the loudest voices in the party supporting policies that aren’t popular in swing districts isn’t helpful. This isn’t news or anything new. It’s always been a tension in the Democratic Party. People thought Truman would lose in 1948 over tensions on the issue of segregation. He did not. Of course I wish we didn’t have members talking about defunding the Pentagon. I also wish our leaders were pushing forward other voices too. No, I’m not an AOC fan, but the folks on the left have managed to push her and close to another dozen people out to the forefront with their message. Who is the “mainstream” party’s Ilhan Omar? The answer would be no one, which goes a long way to answering why our party has no one under 60 besides Kamala Harris currently occupying a leadership post in the party. The messaging did suck. If you don’t like that, do something about it.
Which leads me to my problems with the campaigns themselves. Let’s be serious, what was the message in some of these Senate races? Give us the majority? More importantly than that, they were both begging for small dollar donations (with a more progressive message), while saying “we’re not AOC!” Who believes that? Why would anyone buy that? How hard would it have been for everyone to run with Biden’s message on Covid, on health care, on climate, etc.? To be fair, some did. Others ran on their bios, demographics, general pandering, and “Mitch is bad.” The result? Republicans were effective in their attacks- the Democrats are AOC. Not that I think policy really moves voters, but what exactly was a Democratic controlled Congress going to do? Pack the courts? Raise taxes? End the filibuster? Swing states and swing districts don’t love that. What else did we give them though? Did we promise them a coherent agenda down ballot? I’d argue not.
I also would argue that the campaign consultant class needs to stop pretending it’s 2006. Spending all of your money in the final two weeks of the election only makes sense if that’s when you’re getting all of your votes. “Election Day” is a dead concept. “Election Day” now needs to be viewed by Democrats as the entire time that ballots are out. This is true both on paid communications AND ground operations. An ever growing percentage of Democrats are voting before Election Day. Democratic consultants and operatives need to adapt to that, and realize that any growth in the electorate is ALSO likely to come early. Any undervotes in this year’s election can largely be traced to candidates being unknown when our voters vote. Time to get with the times.
That’s all for now. My next post will link from convention to now.
It took me nearly a week to finally be emotionally and intellectually able to write this piece, but write it I will. Joe Biden is our President-Elect. Donald Trump has been defeated. Kamala Harris has made history. People danced in the street, they cried tears of joy, they prayed, they rejoiced. For me, Saturday was one of the most moving days I have ever had. The sting of Hillary Clinton’s loss obviously hit me personally, I worked for both of Hillary’s Presidential campaigns, but it hit me even more personally than that. Rarely in the Trump era did I feel targeted by his vitriol, because I’m a white, straight, Catholic, suburban raised man, and he wasn’t trying to scapegoat me. I watched his policies and his rhetoric aimed directly at the heart of family, friends, and acquaintances alike, and felt helpless. It made me angry. The feelings I had this past weekend were so much different, so much better. I watched millions of people genuinely rejoice, dance in the string, and dance. For the first time in my political career, none of the bureaucratic BS of the campaign mattered at all to me. I was just proud of what I had been a part of. Nothing mattered to me but how this made people feel. It’s a new day.
Now, some notes…
An ode to Joe Biden.
We don’t give Joe Biden enough credit for what a master politician he is. Just the black and white ink of his resume should have been proof enough- Senate Judiciary Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Chair, seven times elected Senator, two-term Vice-President of the United States, and yes, now the President-Elect. We tend to view Joe Biden through his losses, and lose site of what he’s achieved, be it personal or political. This man is one of the great American statesmen and politicians of post-World War II America. Don’t mistake him for a saint, but don’t dismiss him as Barack Obama’s “crazy uncle #2” either.
Joe Biden was in my top tier in this race from day one (along with Harris, Booker, and Klobuchar), so obviously I’m thrilled with this outcome. Obviously being a part of his team, this is personally fulfilling as well. A lot of people ask me why I felt he was right though, and I’ll give you this anecdote- on Super Tuesday in headquarters, I declared very early in the day that Biden would win Massachusetts, and I was basically laughed at (one super senior staff member simply replied “that won’t happen.”). A buddy on the campaign asked me if I was serious, to which I replied kinda yes, and he asked me why. I asked him what other candidate could possibly win Rep. Pressley (The Squad) and Rep. Lynch’s (Irish Catholic moderate) Boston districts. My point played out pretty well. Biden could build the broadest coalition in the race, because he could speak to and empathize with the most people. He’s got Bill Clinton abilities, combined with the experience of the Obama White House, and the wisdom of years. All of that played huge against Trump.
The Broken Democratic Brand…
After 2016, one of the criticisms of the Democratic Party was that “the brand” was broken. The party had lost power in all three branches of the federal government at that time, and our 2016 nominee had ended the race deeply unpopular. The argument was basically that Barack Obama had won twice largely on personal popularity. The party itself didn’t poll very well, and seemed to hemorrhage voters they used to get.
Joe Biden won Tuesday’s election, the Democratic Party did not. Let’s be honest beyond Biden about what kind of candidates were winning. Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper were remarkably strong Senate candidates. Roy Cooper and Josh Stein in North Carolina are very powerful Governor and Attorney General candidates. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro was the only Democratic row office candidate to win. House superstars like Lauren Underwood and Conor Lamb survived. Many of their freshman colleagues met a much harsher fate. Even at the Presidential level, Joe Biden joined Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama as the only Democrats of the post-LBJ/late 1960’s cultural revolution to win a national election. All were very gifted politicians and came to power on the back of a national crisis. We never win on generic ideology.
How bad are things though? In Pennsylvania, Democrats lost the popular vote for the US House by nearly 130k votes, at last glance. Democrats lost the entire New Hampshire state government, including both houses. Pennsylvania’s House and Senate Democrats sit at the exact same numbers they were at after the 2010 midterms. North Carolina’s legislature, just two years after Democrats broke the supermajorities, lost Democratic seats. Pennsylvania Republicans won their first row office victories in over a decade. New York State legislative Democrats lost seats. Minnesota and New Mexico Democrats lost Congressional races in good Presidential years.
I would not say 2020 was a terrible year for Democrats, but it was a correction of 2018’s majority. Like in 2016, late breaking voters seemed to decide giving us strong majorities was not in their interests. The reality is that Republicans have proven very capable of convincing voters to deny Democrats power, even in elections where they are rejecting the GOP. In 2018, Democrats were winning down ballot races in GOP strongholds. In 2020, Democrats lost some of those same seats back, limiting their ability to govern moving forward.
The Blame Game
Let’s dive into this week’s best political battle- the Conor Lamb’s of the world vs. the AOC’s of the world. I’ll start by stating the somewhat obvious- my politics aren’t a match with “the Squad,” and more so are with Lamb. With that said, I think that both sides have brought forward some interesting thoughts, both about Biden’s wins and the down ballot losses Democrats have suffered this cycle. For me, there’s lots of blame and credit to go around.
First off, I’ll state three obvious truths about Biden’s victory. First, there is no doubt that people of color, and more specifically their organizers, played a gigantic role in flipping Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and holding Nevada. Second, there is no doubt that Biden’s being more acceptable to suburban moderates in those same states got him those last few percentages of the vote that he critically needed. Third, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the unity encouraged by Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, and “The Squad” played a critical part in avoiding the lack of enthusiasm we fought in 2016. If you remove any piece of this puzzle, Joe Biden probably becomes the third Democratic nominee this century to win the popular vote but lose the crucial states needed to win. With all this in mind, I have to say that I’m not denying anybody the credit they are being given for this victory. When someone says Stacey Abrams deserves credit for flipping Georgia, all I’m doing is nodding in agreement, because you ain’t wrong.
… but let’s talk about the losing we did too. This is a tough love portion that goes in two parts, with the first being the impact of further-left messaging on the difficult races, particularly swing states and districts. The use of the term “socialism,” which is somewhat misleading anyway by “new left” Democrats, is a non-starter with many immigrant populations (especially Latinos) and suburban voters (swing districts). It played a huge role in losing Florida and Texas, and more specifically swing Congressional districts. Pointing out that candidates who supported Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal all won, while not pointing out that they represent safe blue districts, is dishonest at best. Talking about defunding the police, abolishing private health care, ending commercial flights, and phasing meat out of our diets, while quite popular in our liberal enclaves, is a straight ticket to defeat in the kinds of districts that you have to win to get a majority. For their popularity in blue districts, “the Squad” is a perfect boogeyman for Republicans to put front and center in their efforts to call moderate Democrats extremists. You can’t build a majority under the American government system for further-left politics. Fortunately, I don’t think the “socialist” messaging stuck to Biden in most places, particularly after he won a primary against that. It absolutely worked is scaring late-breaking voters in Florida, Maine, North Carolina, Texas, and Congressional districts in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ohio, and even New York. It’s not about forcing everyone to be moderate, it’s about forcing them to be disciplined. If your policy isn’t to actually *defund* the police, don’t use words with that meaning to gin up voters who are already with us. If you’re not actually going to *seize the means of production,* don’t call yourself a socialist. Since anything you say will be used against you anyway, only give them words you mean to give them. I will give a rare rebuke to our leadership though on the Hill for this- if you don’t want AOC to be the face of the party in Iowa and Florida, start pushing some other voices out front and on TV more. If you don’t, don’t get mad later.
Let’s not limit the blame to just the progressives though. Not all of AOC’s critique of the party is wrong. The Democratic Party is not interested in party building at a precinct level, across the nation. Most state legislative caucuses are fully owned by their expensive television consultants, and their money flows there. AOC’s point about investing heavier into the online presence, which those of us in the industry call digital organizing, was proven right this cycle by those of us on the Biden campaign, who both organized Super Tuesday almost fully online, then spent literally months organizing digitally during the pandemic. Elections are literally won where the people are, not Washington, and that is online in communities, and at the most localized level, which is the precinct. Want some truth? Hillary lost Pennsylvania by 5 votes per precinct in 2016. Our organizing model does not view campaigns through that sort of lense (more later on this.).
The Waste of the Grassroots Donor
I don’t have to remind you that well-funded Democrats lost Senate races in Kentucky and South Carolina. I don’t have to remind you of the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on these races, which you may have contributed to. I doubt I need to dive too far into the relative disappointment for Democrats, particularly on the House and Senate level, with how we performed relative to how well funded we were.
This is not something that would have even been a thought before Howard Dean’s 2004 Presidential campaign, and it wasn’t even conceivable until after 2008. The old big donors would ask the party leadership essentially where to donate. With the shift away from PACs and institutional donors, there’s no way to focus donations into the most flippable seats. Let’s be honest about some of the well funded Senate seats we lost- Kentucky, Montana, South Carolina, Kansas, and even Texas- were not supposed to be competitive for President. The money still flowed there. Small dollar donors as our primary life blood in donations means a lot of money will go to waste. They will donate with their hearts, not their heads, and that’s their right to. That doesn’t help though.
Back in the primaries, I ripped the DNC for using the number of donors as a criteria to make the stage. I said it forced candidates to chase the whims of Democratic activists, not the average, median voter back home. I maintain that criticism after this general election.
The Failed Democratic Organizing Model.
I’m just going to cut straight to the chase here- The Democratic Organizing Model being used nationally basically exists to make it’s managers look good. That’s it. It’s there to produce large scale numbers that look good to your potential next employer. It’s not there to do much else.
I told you earlier that Hillary lost PA by 5 votes per precinct, which she did. Did we react to that by partnering with down ballot candidates to increase our vote share, precinct by precinct? No. We instead focused on macro change, with the focus on statewide autodialers and big shifting numbers. This is not a Pennsylvania specific problem, and even in a victory it showed up in our losses down ballot. Democrats will lose roughly a dozen Congressional races nationwide, and lost close state legislative races in swing states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. This is specifically why we can’t govern and have nice things.
The average organizer was managing 25 to 40 precincts total. The organizing model in an area that size should emphasize quality, not quantity and efficiency. We should be building a precinct captain structure, and running each district as it’s own mini race. Recruitment call goals should take a back seat to one on one’s and meeting with clubs, party committees, and active citizens. We should be less reliant on predictive analytics to tell us who to talk to, because we should have volunteers engaging their neighbors. We should organize, not phone bank. Our turfs are small enough to do so.
Don’t limit this to just organizing. Our constituency outreach is one-size fits all, and often times turns off more people than it should. Our political outreach often times has no idea who the local electeds are. Our press teams spend way too much time on statewide and national press. In short, I think Democratic campaigns are too big and bloated in their structure, and broken in their execution. We got through that this time, because people worked hard and our candidate was made for this race. That won’t happen automatically again.
What I Got Wrong
In the beginning of this race, I said we needed to nominate Biden or someone like him, who could beat Trump in the close states- because I said then that Trump would get every vote of his 46% from 2016, if not more. I was right then, more so than I was right at the end. To this point, Trump has received nine million more votes than he did last time, and sits around 47.5%, a 1.5% upward shift. While his campaign and White House seemed inept, and he was polling around 41-42%, the fact is that this race played out very similarly- most of the undecided voters were actually for Trump. Trumpism was about more than a campaign or policies, but was inherently cultural. He proved much of the Democratic professional class wrong- you don’t need to quantify everything and be precise in every calculation to succeed politically. You can do it through blunt force and speaking directly to an audience motivated by things without a policy objective. Political incorrectness is what motivates their base, and we learned in this election that trying to match that turns off some of the folks we need to build a majority.
As I suspected, the demographic divides in our politics began to crumble. Biden made gains among white voters, seniors, suburbanites, and independents. Trump made gains among black men and certain Latino groups. Demographics were not destiny. I over-estimated the impact that would have in a few swing-states though- namely Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. The truth is that the era of monolithic demographic movements is coming to an end. With that end, our politics will almost certainly re-align some more. This is probably good for Democrats, if they embrace it, as the GOP did not pay a price for their embrace of Donald Trump really.
There is another silver lining- I do not see another Donald Trump. He is their turnout machine, and he will not be on the ballot in 2022. while others will try to embrace Trumpism, I sincerely doubt their ability to do it. While he is morally troubling and intellectually lazy, Donald Trump is the greatest marketing mind on the planet and he managed to sell himself- an inexperienced, personally flawed, policy lightweight- as the symbol of political masculinity, the anecdote to political correctness, and the pushback to Obamaism is America. He knew there was no market for Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand crap, Cheney’s neocon wars, or even the moral smugness of much of the old school “Christian Conservatism” crowd. You may think a Tom Cotton, a Mike Pence, or Don Jr. can easily pick up his cause now, but you’ll likely find that is wrong. Much like Bill Clinton’s successors (Gore and Hillary) could not ride his popularity to the White House, and Barack Obama’s personal popularity didn’t push Hillary over in 2016, you’re likely to find its hard to find another Trump.
That’s all for now. I’ll gather this whole series up in one, later on.