What the Times misses about Biden's strategy & how Manchin hurt Democrats w/Sinema + more notes
My weekly roundup.
I can’t start this column without an acknowledgement that today ought to be a national day of mourning. With the Eagles loss, Philadelphia sports teams dropped to 2-11 in my life in championship games and series, and very few were more of a gut punch than this one. Having the Eagles offense play incredibly and still lose, on a night with so many what ifs is hard to stomach. Now back to our regularly scheduled political analysis…
After the State of the Union address, the New York Times ran a solid reported piece by Jonathan Wiesman exploring how the speech was a bid to win back White working class voters. Weisman noted that, “Democrats have lost ground with them [the two-thirds of eligible voters without four-year college degrees], especially with less educated white voters.”
As I observed in my analysis of the speech, Biden tried to reach out to these voters on a human level, as well as touting how laws he signed will produce good paying jobs in manufacturing, construction, clean energy, and more. I agree with Weisman that the success of these efforts will come down to whether Democrats can lure these voters back with economic policies even as Republicans relentlessly stoke the culture wars to maintain their loyalty.
But there’s something Weisman didn’t note that is crucial here. Biden isn’t trying to win the White working class in 2024 (he won only 33 percent of them in 2020). He’s simply trying to do slightly less bad.
The president knows that Democrats have been bleeding White working class votes since the 1960s. As I wrote earlier in the month, many of these “hardhat” voters were George Wallace style populists — not opposed to government programs philosophically, but demanding that these initiatives benefit them and not those they considered less deserving. These voters became the vaunted Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, and they’ve gradually slipped further and further away in subsequent decades. While historians disagree on whether Democrats could have kept the allegiance of these voters with more aggressive pro-worker policies, I suspect the answer is no.
When you read about things like the Kanawha County textbook fight in 1974 in West Virginia, it becomes clear that a lot of these blue collar voters are cultural conservatives. And that was always going to make it hard to keep them in a coalition with the young voters driving social norms to the left. Fundamentally, many of their grievances were also deeply tied to race — and in some cases outright racist, no matter how much they hid them behind coded language. That meant keeping them in a coalition with the vast majority of Black voters was going to be difficult.
Today, the Democratic Party is even more the home of non-White voters who are demanding — quite reasonably — that the party do something to ameliorate the many legacies of racism in America that have hurt their communities. It’s also still the home of young voters continuing to push cultural norms leftward, at an increasingly rapid pace. So there are a lot of White working class voters — especially regular church goers — who are probably not gettable for Democrats.
But if Biden could even jump from winning 33 percent of non-college educated White voters to capturing 38 or 40 percent of them, that extra 5-7 percent is probably enough to ensure he wins the three “Blue Wall” states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — that Donald Trump won in 2016 and Biden took back in 2020. It also might allow Biden to close the gap some in Ohio, which might be pivotal to Sen. Sherrod Brown surviving.
Realistically, Democrats doing less poorly with these voters is also crucial going forward in terms of control of the Senate. They need to do better in states like Ohio and Iowa, full of white working class voters, that have moved away from their party over the last decade. Otherwise they have absolutely no margin for error in trying to get to the 50 or 51 Senate seats they need for a majority…
I wrote extensively about Democrats’ Kyrsten Sinema mess in November when she left the party. But the news from Puck’s Tara Palmeri that Sinema is almost certainly going to run for reelection warrants a bit of a follow up. The move may well doom Democrats’ hopes of holding the seat, while elevating someone like Kari Lake, the reality denying, democracy opposing extremist who still refuses to admit that she lost the 2022 governor’s race.
One topic that hasn’t got enough attention is the damage Joe Manchin did to Sinema’s brand with Democrats and liberals, which contributed to this situation. Much attention got paid to Manchin and Sinema as the two most moderate Democrats in a 50 seat majority where holding every Democrat together was necessary to get anything done. But for as much as Manchin and Sinema got portrayed as two peas in a pod, they actually are quite different politically.
Manchin is a fossil fuel loving populist, who is hesitant to support any new entitlements or government programs, and especially resists the environmental agenda of most Democrats, but who has no problem with taxes on the wealthy or on corporations. This profile makes sense given that Manchin hails from West Virginia, home of a lot of those conservative populist voters I discussed above. More taxes on millionaires or billionaires won’t hurt Manchin’s brand. New social programs or legislation that moves America away from coal, however, hurts him back home.
By contrast, Sinema is almost exactly the opposite. She’s a cultural liberal, an environmental liberal, and supports things like a new paid leave program. But she’s also a friend of big business and seems to believe that higher taxes on the wealthy or on investment income is bad for the economy.
What happened when it came time to draft a big legislative package is that Sinema was able to knock out provisions like the elimination of the carried interest loophole and to negotiate a circumscribed version of Democrats’ plan for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, things that pleased her business allies. But Manchin scuttled any hope for new programs — things she might well have touted to assuage liberals angry about her defense of business. So Sinema ended up bearing the brunt of liberal outrage over what was left out of a package and never really got a chance to show off her liberal bona fides — though she was instrumental in passing the first new gun control measure in decades and the Respect for Marriage Act.
You could call Manchin a representative of hardhat Democrats, whereas Sinema is an avatar of suburban liberalism or the liberalism embraced by the professional classes — labels that are more accurate and fine-grained than moderate.
I suspect that the last blow for Sinema’s relationship with Democrats came somewhat paradoxically from her Arizona colleague Mark Kelly getting reelected. Kelly supported the Democratic priorities that Sinema opposed, and once he proved that these positions didn’t make it impossible to win in Arizona, local Democrats were freer to invite a primary challenge to Sinema from Rep. Ruben Gallego…
Republicans dislike President Biden’s populist State of the Union proposals — from limits on junk fees to additional taxes on billionaires to increasing the new tax on stock buybacks. Some observers see many of them as nonstarters.
But here’s the thing, for Biden and Democrats to compromise on domestic discretionary spending in a debt ceiling deal or an appropriations deal that keeps the government open, they have to get SOMETHING. This is just common sense: we’ve all compromised on things in life. We know a deal can’t be one side gives up things and the other gives up nothing.
Well, if Republicans are insistent that new spending is out because spending has to go down, that leaves concessions that don’t cost money. And this basket of proposals from Biden not only fits that bill, but it’s also stuff that a lot of Republican voters will like. The hardline positions adopted by GOP legislators on these proposals are classic Reagan Republicanism — drawing a line in the sand against increased taxation that would hit the wealthy or additional regulation of business. But as Donald Trump exposed, their voters are a whole lot more populist. So these things probably would not prompt much blowback from GOP voters (vs. donors or special interests). Biden certainly won’t get all of them. But if he can’t tout some wins in a deal, it’s not a deal to which he can agree…
On February 3rd, Republicans on North Carolina’s Supreme Court proved once again that there is no amount of damage the right won’t inflict on the legitimacy of the courts to win. In an unusual and ultra-rare move, the five Republican justices on the court agreed to reconsider two decisions, one on gerrymandered congressional maps and one on a voter ID law, that the Court had made in 2022. In the latter case, the court only handed down its decision in December.
Why is this so egregious and so problematic?
Because the sole reason for what is an extraordinary move — before this episode the court had received 214 petitions requesting rehearing of cases over the last 30 years and granted it in a mere two of them — was that the partisan composition of the court shifted with November’s elections. The balance went from four Democrats and three Republicans to five Republicans and two Democrats. And if the court allows the gerrymandered congressional map to be implemented — as it almost certainly will — the raw power politics being exhibited by the new Republican majority will net their party three to four congressional seats. As dissenting Justice Anita Earls pointed out, the court has grappled with plenty of hot button topics and the partisan balance has shifted numerous times over the years and the court has never reacted like this.
Maybe the worst part is that North Carolina legislators were going to have to draw a new map anyway, because the remedial map imposed by the courts was only for the 2022 elections. So the new majority could have upheld an ever so slightly less extreme partisan gerrymander and gotten the same result without making it look like judicial decision making is just a way to advantage one’s partisan team.
Instead — as U.S. Senate Republicans did by contorting themselves to concoct a rationale for not even giving Merrick Garland a confirmation vote despite his nomination to the Supreme Court coming 8 months before a presidential election, and then confirming Amy Coney Barrett a mere days before Election Day — they have exercised power just because they could.
The problem with doing this is that sometimes refraining from doing something in politics you have the power to do is the right thing for the good of the system. Instead, conservatives seem hellbent on leaving the unmistakable belief that the courts are just another political branch where each side does everything it can to win, and it tempts the other side into a never ending spiral of shattering norms to gain an advantage through the judicial branch.
At the federal level, this behavior will entice Democrats to pack the Supreme Court if and when they get the votes in Congress to do it. And at the state level, after watching this performance by the North Carolina Supreme Court, why wouldn’t Democrats, if they gain control of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court in a hotly contested election in April, start immediately overturning recent decisions on an array of hot button topics? One side can’t and won’t unilaterally disarm.
The end result will be less trust in the courts, less willingness to accept their decisions, and far less stability in the law. Instead of judges respecting precedent, Americans will come to know — especially in states that elect Supreme Court justices — that precedents only last until the other party takes control. That’s bad, but it seems like conservatives just flat don’t care…
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