Down-ballot in the weeds

Matt Yglesias has an excellent and rather fiery denouncement of Democratic complacency. His basic point? While the left celebrates its apparent advantage in the electoral college — usually attributed to the demographic skew resulting from the party’s popularity among growing portions of the electorate such as young people, blacks, and immigrants — it’s ignoring the importance of down-ballot races. It’s not just that Democrats fail to win the House or the Senate; they also fail to win state houses and governorships across the nation:

The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Indeed, even the House infighting reflects, in some ways, the health of the GOP coalition. Republicans are confident they won’t lose power in the House and are hungry for a vigorous argument about how best to use the power they have.

Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House. But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist.

This is incredibly important for Democrats to understand. Because the party’s coalition tends to be more marginally interested in politics anyway, more of its numbers turn out during presidential years than any others. Republicans might have put their stock in the older, whiter, and wealthier segment of the country, but these are exactly the voters who not only have fiercely held beliefs, they’re willing and able to devote the time to pursuing them more frequently than the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years.

And it’s the Republican success in down-ballot races that gives them the confidence in their partisan approach to contemporary politics that outsiders to the party find so befuddling. Think of the GOP point-of-view: Barack Obama might have won two elections in a row, but since 2010, Republicans have won landslide majorities in the House and subsequently taken the Senate, all while building their influence in state governments across the country. From this perspective, the party’s major failing came from putting its faith in moderates like Mitt Romney or John McCain while strong conservatives like Scott Walker have been winning election after election even in a Blue state like Wisconsin.

Philip Klein delineates the difference in how the two parties view the national landscape:

Democrats figure that the coalition of unmarried women, minority groups and young voters aren’t going to back a Republican nominee who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, support voter ID laws, crack down on illegal immigration, oppose efforts to combat climate change, protest gay marriage, and so on. Given their growing confidence that the changing face of America is with them, Democratic voters feel more comfortable letting their liberal flag fly in a way that Bill Clinton would have never dreamed of. His ever-calculating spouse has made the calculation, in the words of the New York Times‘ Jonathan Martin, that “there’s no gen[eral] election downside in aligning w[ith] the left.”

Republicans, on the other hand, are making a completely different calculation. Looking ahead to the 2016 campaign, they see Hillary Clinton’s numbers steadily tanking under an ethical cloud, as a growing number of Americans say they don’t trust her. Polls have shown Republicans ahead of Clinton even in Pennsylvania, a blue state that has eluded GOP nominees for decades. They’re confident that her weaknesses as a candidate have made the presidency ripe for the picking. Given this sense of optimism, they see no reason to settle.

I asked Barry Jackson, a veteran of the Bush White House, about this Republican optimism when he visited the Centre earlier this year. This was his reply:

I think the Republicans, nationally and locally, are on an ascendancy. We hold more governorships across the country than has ever happened; we hold more state legislative houses than ever before; Speaker Boehner is presiding over the largest Republican majority since the 1920s, and that tells you an awful lot about the mood of the country. It doesn’t mean that they’ve given Republicans a blank cheque in terms of governance, but it is sending a message on both sides of the aisle that we’re uncomfortable with where things are — so we may give you a chance.

Both Americans and, especially, non-Americans have a habit of ignoring down-ballot races. But state legislatures, as well as city and county councils, are where a lot of American public policy gets made — particularly the type non-Americans find so foreign and incomprehensible about the country: gun regulations, abortion laws, labour and welfare policy. Democrats are making a big mistake when they focus on the White House to the exclusion of these less glamorous but just as important engines of government.

Yglesias chides liberals for focusing “on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate.” He’s right, and as much as I agree with some of Sanders’s policy proposals, this ideological narcissism does frustrate me about his campaign. But the larger problem doesn’t concern the ideology of Sanders’s supporters, but that they’re applying it to the wrong race.

Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee because he is seeking to represent a party that, at the peak of its political powers, could only muster a coalition strong enough to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as its health care reform and Dodd–Frank as its financial reform. It has not been able to pass meaningful climate change legislation or immigration reform. The problem is not the president at the top, but the rank-and-file representatives that make up the party.

Anyone who belives Bernie Sanders is the right thing for the Democratic Party should not be trying to get him elected president; they should be trying to vote more men and women like Sanders into the Senate — as well as the House, and in legislatures and governorships across America. Don’t send Bernie Sanders to Washington; find the Bernie Sanders of Wisconsin or West Virginia and back them.

After all, Barack Obama’s success lay in good part on former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s fifty state strategy: the nationwide electoral effort that gave the party major victories in the 2006 midterms. And it’s that strategy that has ensured Republicans remain influential in American politics, even as they find control of the White House an increasingly elusive prospect.


American Daily: October 16, 2015

Those conservatives in the House say they want a speaker who will not be a top-down leader, but will give members more of a say in what legislation sees action on the floor and who controls committees.

Webster says that is the mode in which he ran the Florida House of Representatives when he was the speaker in Tallahassee from 1996–98.

This is a Republican Party problem, which has serious implications for Congress as an institution and for American governance more broadly. Republicans are paying the price for having encouraged government-hating candidates to seek office with the expectation that they could undo Obama’s 2009-2010 achievements. Their constitutional ignorance and political naiveté was breathtaking. But Republican establishment leaders, who had few policy differences with the new radicals, soon became victims of the forces they helped unleash. Their party reminds us of the nullification forces in the antebellum South. The champions of “The New Nullification,” as we refer to it in our book, have left damage and chaos in their wake. More is likely to follow.

But the dynamic here shows why some of the scenarios people have been spinning these last few months, in which a Sanders victory in Iowa or New Hampshire sets in motion a cascade effect that costs Hillary the nomination, have always been so unlikely. The analogies to 1968, in particular, with Sanders playing Eugene McCarthy to Hillary’s L.B.J., ignore the fact that Johnson was at that point genuinely hated by a substantial portion of the Democratic base. But Hillary isn’t hated by Democrats; they still like her, even if the rest of the country doesn’t at the moment, and they like Sanders in part because liking him seems like a way to make her more likeable (that is, more liberal) as well. And that, in turn, puts a pretty hard-seeming ceiling on his insurgency, because the party doesn’t want to turn against the frontrunner in a truly fundamental way, and so the arguments that a normal insurgent would need to deploy against her — again, character arguments above all — are likely, if deployed, to hurt him as much or more than her.
  • The one question hawks need to answer about Syria.

Stephens’s attempt at an answer gets to the crucial distinction between foreign policy outputs and foreign policy outcomes that Spoiler Alerts has harped on in the past. When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.

Is Donald Trump truly one of a kind—a sui generis sensation in U.S. politics? As Americans try to make sense of the businessman-turned-Republican presidential frontrunner and how he’s come to dominate the polls and the airwaves in the 2016 cycle, Politico Magazine decided to consult the archives: Is there a historical figure the Donald resembles—a model who can help explain his rise? We asked some of the smartest historians we know to name the closest antecedent to Trump from the annals of American history. Some maintained that he is a unique product of the era of reality TV, social media and the 1 percent. But others saw similarities to politicians, personalities and tycoons past, from Italy’s former bunga-bunga prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to the last billionaire to disrupt presidential politics, Ross Perot, to segregationist populists like George Wallace. If history repeats itself, consider this a preview of where Trump’s candidacy could go from here.

American Daily: October 15, 2015

It may be obvious in retrospect, but few people predicted beforehand just how thoroughly the debate atmosphere would play to Clinton’s advantage. The media has viewed her campaign message almost entirely through the filter of the email scandal. Clinton was able to use the poorly-disguised partisan excesses of her Republican tormentors in Congress to escape responsibility for a serious error in judgment on her part, framing the issue (not altogether inaccurately) as a partisan fight, so that Democrats would rally to her side. She further played off the campaign media, casting its email obsession as an unworthy distraction from the policy discussion that she, her fellow candidates, and nearly all the Democratic voters want to hear. Clinton, suddenly finding a moral ground on which to stand (which the news media had denied her for months), burst out in uncontrollable glee.
People will call tonight’s Democratic presidential debate boring, too issues-oriented, and lacking catchy moments. And that wasn’t a bad thing for Democrats. In fact, it was a good thing. The debate was not about a group of people tearing each other down; instead it was a debate about ideas. And that’s perfectly acceptable in a democracy. Viewers—prospective voters—heard candidates’ ideas, policy proposals, and the manner in which they differed from each other. What did they not see? Name calling, personal attacks, and petty politics.
Why, then, was the debate good for Biden? Because Martin O’Malley is probably his chief rival for Clinton’s understudy. Bernie Sanders isn’t right for the job. Even if he’s barely within the party’s mainstream in his positions on public policy, the Vermont socialist is widely (and probably correctly) viewed as too liberal to be a strong general-election candidate.
And while O’Malley’s performance wasn’t a joke or anything, he failed to stand out, and he’s unlikely to receive a post-debate public-opinion surge.
  • The debate demonstrated just how far apart are the two parties.
That’s certainly true on immigration, where the GOP candidates all oppose Obama’s executive actions, and all focused on border security at their two debates; the only real disputes on the Republican side were whether it was feasible to try to deport the 11 million (as the candidates called them) “illegals” currently in the country, and whether it was appropriate for politicians to address the public in Spanish. But it is also true on just about every other issue that came up in the debates so far, and many that didn’t.

Digital information itself has all kinds of advantages. It can be read by machines, sorted and analyzed in massive quantities, and disseminated instantaneously. “Except when it goes, it really goes,” said Jason Scott, an archivist and historian for the Internet Archive. “It’s gone gone. A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”

America’s last major party businessman-candidate


One reason to disregard Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency — and Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson as well, for that matter — regardless of what his present standing in the polls might suggest, is a look over the resumes of the men who captured the nominations of the major parties in previous elections. Here for example, is a rundown of the most recent position held by recent Republican nominees:

    • 2012: Mitt Romney, Governor of Massachusetts
    • 2008: John McCain, Senator for Arizona
    • 2004: George W. Bush, President
    • 2000: George W. Bush, Governor of Texas
    • 1996: Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader
    • 1992: George H.W. Bush, President
    • 1988: George H.W. Bush, Vice President
    • 1984: Ronald Reagan, President
    • 1980: Ronald Reagan, Governor of California
    • 1976: Gerald Ford, President
    • 1972: Richard Nixon, President
    • 1968: Richard Nixon, Vice President
    • 1964: Barry Goldwater, Senator for Arizona
    • 1960: Richard Nixon, Vice President

And finally, in 1952, the pattern breaks, with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the supreme Allied commander in Europe during the Second World War. Even the candidates with unconventional ideologies like Goldwater or backgrounds, like Reagan, had still campaigned for, and won, lower political offices.

Lewis L. Gould looks at the most recent major party candidate to gain the nomination from a non-political background: Wendell Willkie, the Republican Party candidate opposing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term–bid in 1940:

Here was a candidate for eastern Republicans who was an opponent of parts, but not all of the New Deal. On foreign policy, Willkie said, “it makes a great deal of difference to us—politically, economically, and emotionally—what kind of world exists beyond our shores.” Suddenly, Willkie seemed more exciting to Republicans than the blandness of Taft and the evasions of Dewey.

Seventy-five years ago, it was still possible for a candidate such as Willkie to seize the nomination. There were fewer primaries than today and the party structure was more fluid. Because there was no clear front-runner, Willkie divided and conquered. “Willkie for President” clubs sprang up across the nation. Every down-tick in the international news made Willkie more appealing. By the time the Republicans met in Philadelphia, the Willkie bandwagon was rolling. The crowds in the galleries chanted “We want Willkie,” and the delegates yielded to what seemed an irresistible tide.

Alas, Willkie’s campaign peaked the day he was nominated. In his acceptance speech he referred to “you Republicans.” A wag likened the disorganized Willkie campaign to “a whorehouse on Saturday night when the madam is out and all the girls are running around dropping nickels in juke boxes.” By October, with the polls showing him behind the president, Willkie played the isolationist card. “Our boys shall stay out of Europe.” Roosevelt countered with famous assurances that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” When he heard Roosevelt’s words, Willkie said, “That hypocritical son of a bitch! This is going to beat me.”

And how did the Willkie experiment work out?

Roosevelt beat Willkie by five million votes and 449 to 82 in the Electoral College.


American Daily: October 9, 2015

  • Beau Biden’s dying wish for Joe Biden to run for president was leaked by Joe himself.

Aug. 1, to be exact — the day renowned Hillary Clinton-critic Maureen Dowd published a column that marked a turning point in the presidential speculation.

According to multiple sources, it was Biden himself who talked to her, painting a tragic portrait of a dying son, Beau’s face partially paralyzed, sitting his father down and trying to make him promise to run for president because “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”

Sanders was defending his vote for a 2005 law that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits by victims of gun violence in a manner that big corporations in no other sector of the economy have received. It’s the same law that has prevented parents of the Aurora massacre victims from suing the manufacturer who didn’t think twice about selling 4,300 rounds to James Holmes via the Internet without so much as a cursory check. Whether marketing guns to kids or bullets designed specifically to kill cops, there is no getting around the fact that Sanders joined Blue Dog Democrats and right-wing Republicans in giving arms-dealer conglomerates a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The Islamic State has drawn tens of thousands of people from around the world by promising paradise in the Muslim homeland it has established on conquered territory in Syria and Iraq.

But in reality, the militants have created a brutal, two-tiered society, where daily life is starkly different for the occupiers and the occupied, according to interviews with more than three dozen people who are now living in, or have recently fled, the Islamic State.

The political events of 2015 are a brutal reminder about how far this country is from embracing libertarianism and how alien those ideas are even to the purported shock troops of the freedom movement. While libertarianism’s opponents can take heart, its champions are setting their cause back by pretending that all is well.
  • Should the Rock ‘n’ Hall of Fame induct NWA?

“F— tha Police” is a song that came into being because of a popular need with an unpopular profile, a reasonably good definition of rock ‘n’ roll. The Hall of Fame deals mostly with the quieter stage of an artist’s career, when the violence has moved from the present into engravings and Ken Burns documentaries, but N.W.A is very much alive in 2015 and connected to a profoundly American moment of conflict.

American Daily: October 1, 2015

  • John Boehner’s failed speakership.
And what did Boehner’s cowardice in the face of the Tea Party stalwarts get him? They forced him out anyway. Boehner built his career around keeping his job, and he still failed. If Boehner had allowed the passage of immigration reform, it’s entirely possible that the Tea Party would have rebelled and evicted him—but at least he would have had a substantial accomplishment to his credit. Instead, Boehner tried nothing, accomplished nothing, and lost his job anyway. It’s the legacy he deserves.
  • How effective are criticisms of Marco Rubio’s Senate voting record likely to be?

Presumably, there will be some conservatives who consider that the above information does not so much let Rubio off the hook as make an excellent case for the unflappability of Ted Cruz. And perhaps it does! Cruz, after all, did not make a mistake on immigration, and, from some rightward-leaning perspectives at least, has a pretty much perfect record on all other fronts as well. What it does not do, however, is to suggest that Rubio is a “moderate” or that Donald Trump is his superior in any way — both of which contentions are implied in Trump’s critique. Au contraire: Over the last five years, Rubio has amassed a consistently conservative record that has on its face a single major blot — a blot, it should be said, which Rubio now claims to regret. Donald Trump, by contrast, has compiled a long and ugly history as a cynical “foot in both camps” moderate, to which he has now added six months of embarrassingly ersatz “conservatism.” If we are to be encouraged to more closely examine the political records on offer, whose do we think will come out ahead?

But Jeb’s efforts to challenge Trump failed to capture the imagination. Now, suddenly, the internet is abuzz with talk about how Marco Rubio is the one who is drawing blood from Trump, and talk of Rubio having a plausible shot at the nomination is on the rise.
In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share. He is, as many say, making a mockery of the entire political process with his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. But the mockery in this case may be overdue, highly warranted, and ultimately a spur to reform rather than the crime against civic order that has scandalized those who see him, in the words of the former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, as “dangerous to democracy.”

For Warren to get into the race at this point after shying away from running and then letting Sanders do the dirty work of demonstrating Clinton’s vulnerability would be a little dishonorable. It’s reminiscent of when Bobby Kennedy jumped into the 1968 primary only after Eugene McCarthy took the risk of challenging Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. But Kennedy took the plunge for a good reason. He — like Warren, but unlike McCarthy or Sanders — actually stood a decent chance of beating the establishment favorite.