2024 for the GOP, a potential winner for Democrats on guns & more notes
My weekly look at politics
I hesitate to write a single word on the 2024 presidential election in February 2023. Why? Both because predictions made this early in presidential cycles usually don’t hold up well, but also, far more importantly, because I think our presidential campaigns are far, far too long.
Dwight Eisenhower announced his candidacy on June 1, 1952, John F. Kennedy announced a little bit earlier: January 2, 1960, and Ronald Reagan nudged still a bit earlier: November 13, 1979. But as late as Bill Clinton — who announced his run on October 3, 1991 — it was totally normal for a significant candidate to wait until the fall of the off year to launch a presidential campaign.
Yet, in subsequent years, our presidential campaigns have become full two year endeavors and it’s bad on so many levels. It distracts from governing, it creates a constant campaign that feeds the media’s obsession with the horse race, it fatigues Americans, who tune out politics to avoid it.
If I was in charge of American politics, we’d have no more than 6 month presidential campaigns — 3 months for the primary, 3 for the general election. Maybe you’d have a month of campaigns and debates before there primary elections began, and then 5 weeks with 10 primaries each. Then 6-7 weeks of presidential campaigning followed by 2-3 weeks of voting. It would be much healthier for the country.
Alas, no one has offered to put me in charge of American politics (I know, I’m shocked too). So there are robust discussions and news coverage of Republican jockeying already despite it only being February of 2023. And I saw an interesting Twitter exchange between Alyssa Farah Griffin, Donald Trump’s former Communications Director and now a fierce critic, and George Conway, the prominent conservative lawyer and husband of former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway (another major critic of Trump’s).
Farah laid out a potential strategy for challengers to Trump in the GOP primary.
Conway was bluntly skeptical that any of them had a prayer, unless they could get Trump in a one-on-one contest.
When I went to respond, I realized I had a lot of thoughts and needed more than tweets to spell them out.
Trump is the strong frontrunner for the nomination. He’s got a diehard base, he’s ruthless and willing to engage in political warfare to win. And he’s probably not going to be in a one-on-one race where he needs support from a full half of the Republican primary electorate. Republicans also have to be wary that if he loses, he bolts and runs as an independent (In a radio interview on Thursday, he refused to commit to supporting the Republican nominee).
But he’s not a 100% lock to win. I can definitely envision Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis absolutely destroying each other in a primary, and disgusting voters to such an extent that whoever becomes the “third option” wins. We’ve seen this happen in multiple House,, Senate, and gubernatorial primaries over the year — Nebraska in 2012 and Indiana in 2018 to name but two.
But the question is who can emerge as the third option?
Forget the pipe dreams of those on Twitter and elsewhere who yearn for former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a relative moderate. There is just no appetite among GOP primary voters for a candidate like that. Same for New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who would be a formidable general election candidate, but who is pro-choice. Abortion is a litmus test issue for GOP base voters; John McCain didn’t pick Tom Ridge — a military veteran, former governor, congressman, and cabinet secret — or Joe Lieberman — a Democrat and close friend whose selection would have infused his underdog campaign with crossover appeal — as his running mate in 2008 because of concerns about a conservative revolt over their pro-choice positions. And the GOP has only grown more doctrinaire about abortion in the subsequent 15 years. Activists have made clear that they want to see 2024 candidates supporting further restrictions on abortion. So a pro-choice candidate like Sununu isn’t winning a Republican primary.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the U.N. is running, but she’s courted the far right, gone back and forth on the former president, and done enough else to make me question her political skill — and more importantly, who exactly her constituency is at this point? She hasn’t been sufficiently loyal to Trump that his fans would flock to her and she hasn’t been sufficiently consistent in her opposition to his behavior that Trump critics like her.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is a popular name, but I struggle to see him securing the sorts of signature achievements that might appeal to the base given that he faces divided government in a blue-ish state. His mild manner also isn’t ideal for stirring up the GOP base (which, as my book explains, wants candidates who sound like their favorite talk radio hosts). And he, too, has issues with Republicans who recoil from crackpots and election lies, because he campaigned for every far right nut job the GOP nominated in 2022 (or so it seemed).
I’ve long said that the strongest possible GOP candidate with a chance to win a primary is South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Scott is a rock-ribbed conservative and he rarely criticized Trump publicly. Yet, he also kept a low profile and didn’t embrace Trump’s nuttiest, most objectionable behavior like many in the party. He also offers a positive, uplifting vision and might have broader appeal because of his perspective as an African American Republican (he focuses on issues a lot of Republicans don’t). But Scott, too, might be too mild mannered to really attract the GOP base.
That leaves me thinking that maybe Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia might be the most likely “third” candidate. Yes, he crossed Trump after the 2020 election. But he also trounced a Trump backed primary challenger in 2022. And then he went on to get reelected in what is emerging as a swing state — despite an ardently conservative record that included signing a strict abortion ban into law and a voting bill that aroused much opposition from the left (and let’s face, the GOP base LOVES owning the libs). So he’d have an electability argument without offending anyone other than the most die hard Trumpers — who are voting for Trump until the bitter end anyway. He could also tout his record of getting things done.
But it bears repeating: Trump is still a big favorite. And DeSantis is being dramatically overhyped until we see how he holds up in the crucible of a presidential election campaign — especially with a brawler like Trump attacking him…
Democrats have been on their heels on gun control for years. Last summer, they finally passed a narrow gun control bill — the first in nearly three decades. The central problem: guns are an issue where the anti-majoritarian/democratic characteristics of our politics thwart the will of the public.
Somewhere between a plurality and a strong majority has favored strict gun control consistently over time. Polling shows strong support for many individual gun restrictions too.
The problem is that those majorities don’t vote on gun control policy. Meanwhile, the minority that opposes more gun control? A lot of them are willing to vote on the issue — or at the very least politicians think they are. They’re also precisely the type of voters who show up in low turnout GOP primaries. This is the true power of the National Rifle Association: it’s not lobbying might or political donations. It’s having lots of members in Republicans’ districts, which leaves those elected officials worrying about getting booted from office in a primary if they cross NRA members and their allies.
Even Democrats shied away from gun control proposals for decades — scarred by the loss of the House for the first time in 40 years in 1994 after they passed The Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban. A mythology emerged that passage of those pieces of gun control legislation contributed heavily to the massive midterm losses. And it was more than just the volume of losses the spooked Democrats. It was who lost. Powerful House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks fell after 40 years in the House — despite his opposition to the assault weapons ban, while Speaker Tom Foley went down to defeat — the first Speaker to lose since the Civil War. The NRA dropped its longtime support for Foley and endorsed his challenger. No less than President Clinton wrote that the “gun lobby” “could rightly claim to have made Gingrich the House Speaker,” summarizing how Democrats perceived the drubbing. When Al Gore narrowly lost his home state of Tennessee in 2000, along with the formerly rock-ribbed Democratic state of West Virginia — states that were more rural, and full of the White blue collar voters who were moving away from Democrats — it reinforced this sense that gun control was a political loser.
Add that Democratic hesitancy to increasing — and now almost unified — GOP opposition, and it became impossible to pass gun control legislation, especially as securing 60 votes became a must for legislation to pass in the Senate.
All of that is a long historical preamble (I’m sorry, what do you expect from a historian?), to point out that there is finally a gun control issue on the table that might flip this grim political equation. This week, Florida Republicans announced plans to push ahead with a bill that would let people carry concealed weapons without getting a permit. When it passes, Florida would become just the latest GOP-run state to take this step (and the 26th state overall with this policy). Not surprisingly, a poll last summer found that only 29% of respondents supported allowing people to have guns in public without a permit, while 57% opposed it.
Unlike some gun control issues, though, this seems like one that could be messaged in such a way as to arouse passion from people who wouldn’t ordinarily vote on gun control. “Representative X voted to let people carry guns with no training at all and no permit. We don’t even let people drive cars without a license.” Then the ad could tell the story of someone who committed a crime in the state with a legal gun, but who common sense dictates should not have had one. The vote can be framed as being weak on crime, taking advantage of the public angst over crime.
If such a message worked, and opposing common sense gun policy finally had political consequences for some Republicans, it could make passing more stringent gun control measures possible at a national level. And that’s crucial to curbing our epidemic of gun violence, because guns are far too portable for state level restrictions to be truly meaningful.
Democrats should be on the lookout for such gun issues. On Thursday, the right wing Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which makes the Supreme Court look liberal) may have offered another one up, when it struck down a law banning people with domestic violence restraining orders against them from possessing firearms. Again, think of the ads: “Senator X supported two judges who said it was okay for people with domestic violence restraining orders against them to have guns. This puts women at risk.”
Not every attempt to do this will be effective, but Democrats need to try because they won’t be able to tighten our gun laws without changing the politics of the issue. That requires making politicians afraid that opposing stricter gun laws, instead of supporting them, will come with the electoral cost…
Periodically, someone on the right boasts about how a greater percentage of Republicans voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act than did Democrats. And historians scramble to explain that while, yes, that is true, the parties soon switched on civil rights as Republicans succumbed to the temptation to, in the words of their 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater (who opposed the Civil Rights Act), “go hunting where the ducks are.” By that, Goldwater meant appealing to conservative White Southern segregationists.
The irony about having his debate repeatedly is that people end up focusing on the moral dimension: is the GOP racist, has it courted racists, are Democrats the party who owns all of our racial sins? But there is an another related topic having a serious impact on our politics today that no one discusses.
When the GOP welcomed the conservative White Southerners into their coalition (and a few years later the White “hardhat” Reagan Democrats of the North), it meant an influx of voters who adhered to a very different brand of conservatism from the rising Goldwater-Reagan conservatism that would become the dominant philosophy in the GOP beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. The conservative White former Democrats were populist conservatives. Like the Reaganites, they championed conservative cultural values, anti-communism, and “states rights” — the idea of limiting federal encroachments on the states that was so pivotal to the durability of first slavery, then segregation.
But they were never opposed to the use of government power or to the idea of government programs. They just wanted those programs to benefit people they considered to be deserving of such largesse, namely themselves. They also were happy to have “big government” when it meant using its power to target and punish the groups they saw as undesirable or distasteful — everyone from Black Americans to hippies/protestors to feminists. Similarly, the Northern “hardhat” voters who started moving toward the GOP as part of Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority, and later became the vaunted “Reagan Democrats,” abandoned the Democrats because they began perceiving government not as helping them, but as taking from them and giving to less deserving people. These voters also favored protectionism that benefitted American manufacturers (for whom many of them worked), and later on, wanted to restrict immigration, both for cultural reasons and because they saw immigrants as competitors for jobs.
The most prominent exemplar of this sort of conservatism was Alabama’s pugnacious pugilist Gov. George Wallace, an ardent segregationist who ran for president as a third party candidate in 1968, sandwiched between runs as a Democrat.
By contrast, the Reagan/Goldwater wing of conservatism wanted less government, fewer programs, fewer regulations and supported free trade. They also loathed unions.
For decades this uneasy marriage worked. An affinity for low taxes and cultural conservatism (and until the end of the Cold War, anti-communism) bound things together. The populists liked low taxes because they saw tax cutting not only as benefitting themselves, but also as depriving government of revenue to spend on the undeserving and on things like abortion that they opposed on a moral level. The Reaganites saw tax cutting as the key to starving government as well, but also focused on the benefits for economic growth.
The Reaganites were the dominant partner in the marriage, in large measure thanks to Ronald Reagan’s popularity and his impact on the public philosophy. GOP candidates increasingly thought that their non-negotiables as a party were support for strong defense, low taxes and “family values.” They beat back a challenge from Pat Buchanan, who pushed “paleoconservatism” in the 1990s — a spin on populist conservatism that also abandoned the hawkishness of the Southern populists during the Cold War and restored the isolationist mind-set of pre-World War II conservatism.
This narrative is oversimplified — after all I teach a class on conservatism that spends something like 9 weeks on what I just described in 5 paragraphs. But it sets up the seismic moment when the populists rose up and stopped being junior partners: the election of Donald Trump. Trump’s rise has created an incoherence in Republican policy preferences. They’re demanding sharp spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt ceiling, even as prominent GOPers pledge not to touch the popular entitlement programs.
The populists still haven’t worked out a full on agenda — Trump doesn’t care about such niceties. But the divisions that threaten to roil House Republicans as they try to negotiate deals with President Biden and Senate Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government from shutting down (probably the only things that get accomplished during this Congress) owe to this fundamentally uneasy partnership that goes back 60 years. I suspect a lot of Republican voters had more of a populist attitude about government programs, spending, and regulation than most Republican politicians between 1980-2016 realized. Only with the election of Trump did they receive a wake up call, and they have been struggling to adjust since then, because for many, opposing government programs and spending his been at the core of their philosophy throughout their careers…
The most important question when trying to figure out if there is an off ramp to avoid a potentially catastrophic default for the U.S. this summer? How many Republicans does Kevin McCarthy need supporting a deal to be willing to put a bill on the floor?
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