Hanging chads and an election decided by the United States Supreme Court (2000). The election of the first black president (2008). Sarah Palin (2008). The 2010 midterm tsunami (Republicans gain 63 House seats). The nomination of the first woman for president by a major party (2016). The election of Donald Trump (2016). Russian bots interfering in the election (2016). The realignment of white men without a college degree (2016). The realignment of white, college-educated women (2018). Lose the popular vote, win the Electoral College — twice (2000, 2016).
The political world has been turned on its head more than once over the last two decades. The uncommon becomes ordinary. The bizarre, commonplace. Why should it stop now?
It’s time to think that the unthinkable is actually inevitable, so here is what I guarantee will happen during next year’s campaign and election. The Electoral College will deadlock, with both the Trump-Haley ticket and the Buttigieg-Biden ticket receiving 269 electoral votes.
Oh, wait, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
How it happens
Running on a message of decency, change and tolerance for people with names difficult to pronounce, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg sweeps the first four Democratic contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and virtually wraps up the nomination on Super Tuesday (March 3, 2020).
Buttigieg initially decides on California Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate, but switches at the last minute to Joe Biden to add maturity and both foreign policy and vice-presidential experience to the ticket — but only after Biden promises to stop hugging people and smelling their hair.
Not wanting to be shown up by Buttigieg, President Donald Trump — whose re-election campaign slogan is “But what about Hillary’s e-mails?” — pulls his own last-minute surprise, replacing Vice President Mike Pence on the ticket with Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador.
Trump predicts that this move will help him win women, immigrants, people of color, Indian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Jewish voters.
With his head tilted and his eyes fixated on Trump during the president’s announcement, Pence praises the decision as “brilliant” and offers to become Trump’s personal butler for his second term.
Pence is openly disappointed when told that Jerry Falwell Jr. already has that job. But Trump isn’t done yet.
Fearful that selecting Haley will upset most of the old white men in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump promises to name Sebastian Gorka as secretary of State in his second term.
Upon hearing the news, CNN immediately pre-empts its “regular programing” of eight-person panels proclaiming Trump insane for special 12-person panels proclaiming the president insane.
After the convention, Trump announces that even though his re-election is certain, he is appointing Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Vladimir Putin as senior campaign advisers.
Over at Fox News, Sean Hannity calls the move “another example of Donald Trump’s brilliance and the mainstream media’s bias and stupidity.”
It gets better
But as it turns out, the Electoral College deadlock is just the first in a series of dramatic events following Election Day.
The 12th Amendment of the Constitution stipulates that the House of Representatives will pick the president if the Electoral College is unable to elect one. But the 2020 election produces a House in which each party controls 25 state delegations, thereby deadlocking the House until one state flips — or until Hell freezes over.
Over in the Senate, which picks the next vice-president if the Electoral College is deadlocked, Republicans are stunned to find out not only that Texas Sen. John Cornyn has lost his recount, but also that Beto O’Rourke’s victory has cost the GOP its majority.
The 50-50 deadlock in the chamber prevents the Senate from electing the next vice president, who would be the acting president. Given the deadlock, Trump announces that he is using his executive powers to declare a national emergency.
His first decision is to offer a special “fifth night free” for foreign diplomats staying at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
With the presidential election in limbo, the House and Senate unable to organize, and Stacey Abrams still insisting that she should be the governor of Georgia, the four House and Senate leaders publicly invite former British Prime Minister Theresa May to negotiate a deal to keep the United States in the United States.
From the 16th green at the Trump National Golf Club Mar-a-Lago, the president tells reporters that he opposes the step, though he notes that his father, Fred, was born in England.
On to 2024, America.
Thiis column appeared initially in the April 10, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
Is the Democratic race for president — and possibly even the 2020 general election — going to boil down to a choice of aged front-runners (or incumbent) versus a younger challenger who represents generational change? It’s certainly possible.
President Donald Trump, the oldest person ever to assume the presidency when he was inaugurated in 2017, turns 72 in June. It wouldn’t be without precedent if Democratic voters — and eventually the electorate as a whole — saw the 2020 election as an opportunity to make a statement about the future and generational change.
It has already happened a couple of times in recent memory.
President Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961 at the age of 70 after serving eight years in the White House. His successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, was just 43 when he was elected president the previous year.
The contrast between Eisenhower and Kennedy was obvious, as was the charisma gap between the Massachusetts Democrat and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was only 47 but represented continuity.
Thirty-two years later, in 1992, another Democrat ran for the White House on a message of generational change. Bill Clinton was 46 when he was elected president, making him the first baby boomer in the White House.
The Republican incumbent Clinton defeated, President George H.W. Bush, was 68 when he sought re-election. He had also served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan, whose presidency ended when he was 77 years old.
Again, there was an obvious charisma gap between Clinton and Bush.
Now, 28 years after that 1992 election, Democrats face a quandary: Do they nominate a senior citizen or someone much younger who can portray the sitting president as part of the past?
The answer, to some extent, depends on the kind of campaign Democrats want to wage. Do they want a contest about ideology, issues and policy or about change, hope and character?
Four announced Democratic hopefuls are old enough to collect Social Security: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (age 77), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren(69), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (68) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (67). And that doesn’t count former Vice President Joe Biden(76), who is widely expected to enter the race.
On the other hand, two hopefuls are under 40 — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (37) and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (37) — and three others are in their 40s: former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (44), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (46) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (49).
Six announced candidates and potential hopefuls fall between the two extremes: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (52), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (52), Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (54), California Sen. Kamala Harris (54) and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (62).
Of that latter group, Harris offers the greatest contrast with Trump, a younger, female, multiracial Californian.
The Feb. 24-27 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters how comfortable and enthusiastic they would be with a potential nominee who had certain characteristics.
Only a third of those responding said they would be comfortable or enthusiastic with someone over 75 years of age. On the surface, that’s not great news for older hopefuls, especially Biden and Sanders.
But there is no way of knowing how many voters are so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate in his or her mid-70s, especially since recent ballot tests have shown the two oldest names tested, Biden and Sanders, leading the pack.
Not the norm
But Trump is not Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or George H.W. Bush.
He is relatively new to elective politics, and he has a certain kind of charisma — at least to about 40 percent of the public. And unlike Nixon in 1960 and Bush in 1992, Trump doesn’t yet represent the status quo, even though he is the incumbent.
His entire message is about disruption, destroying the “deep state” and sticking it to the elite and the establishment.
That means Trump might not be as vulnerable to some form of “change” message as Nixon and Bush 41 were.
There is another side to that coin, of course. Polls consistently show a plurality (often a majority) of voters won’t vote to re-elect Trump next year, and the enthusiastic response among Democrats to O’Rourke and Buttigieg can’t be ignored.
Neither man is a typical politician or presidential hopefuls, and they have different styles. The Texan asks a lot of questions but provides few answers (at this point), while Buttigieg has been more combative against Trump and explicit about his views and personal values.
Harris remains the most interesting case. The California senator (and former state attorney general) is relatively new to national politics, having been elected in 2016, and has plenty of charisma.
Half Tamil (Indian) and half Jamaican, she is a woman of color who projects a knowledgeable and substantive view of politics and policy.
She will certainly have great appeal among women and nonwhites, two demographic groups that are crucial to winning her party’s nomination next year and to turning out base voters next November.
But would she do better than Hillary Clinton did among white, working-class voters, particularly in the Great Lakes states?
Depending on the economy, the Democrats may be able to run a basic “change” message in 2020. But party strategists can’t count on that being enough.
They may well need a nominee, and a ticket, that can offer a much bigger message about the future and what kind of country most voters want this to be.
In theory, any of the candidates can offer that kind of message, since Trump’s America is so different from what we have come to expect over the last six decades, from both parties.
Democrats need to figure out who can best deliver that message and inspire voters — Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans — about the future and what form that “change” message takes.
Note: This column appeared initially in the April 2, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
For most of the last campaign cycle, Republican ad-makers treated then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi like a piñata.
They used her name and image in thousands of GOP television spots around the country, trying to turn the midterm election into a referendum on her liberalism and “San Francisco values.” That effort failed, of course, because midterms are never about the minority party’s congressional leadership, at least not when the president is someone as controversial and polarizing as Donald Trump.
But Pelosi, who turns 79 today, didn’t merely survive the GOP attacks. She has prospered and continues to be the glue that holds the Democratic Party together, proving again and again that those of us who believed last summer that her party would be better off with new leadership were completely wrong.
In fact, Pelosi may be the only individual now able to keep her party together and keep Trump back on his heels. Pelosi — not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nor Sen. Elizabeth Warren nor Rep. Ilhan Omar — remains the leader of the Democratic Party, no matter how often Republicans and their allies try to paint the Democrats as a lunatic band of socialists preparing to ban cows and air travel.
Since last year’s election, Pelosi has shown her gifts as a leader, vote-counter and strategist. She succeeded in winning another term as speaker and, so far, has kept a more fractured party together.
Last August, almost three months before the midterms, The New Republic published a piece titled “The Democrats’ Real Pelosi Problem Is After the Midterms.”
The focus of that piece and others was the substantial number of Democratic House hopefuls who insisted that they could not and would not support Pelosi for speaker.
And yet, she successfully maneuvered through the mini-revolt of newly elected pragmatists from suburban, swing districts and outspoken progressives who wanted fresh leadership and were impatient for change.
Yes, she had to make a handful of deals to keep the speakership, including agreeing to only four more years in the position. But making deals is nothing new for Pelosi.
Only a few weeks later, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave Trump enough rope to allow him to hang himself (politically, that is) when the government shutdown and the president shouldered most of the blame.
Between two wings
How was Pelosi able to survive those very different challenges? One of the congresswoman’s great skills, a former House Democratic staffer told me recently, is that “she is comfortable both with being in the establishment and with challenging the establishment.”
While Pelosi has long political bloodlines and was elected to the Democratic National Committee in her mid-30s, she hasn’t always been the insider she has become.
When she defeated Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in a fall 2001 contest to become the House Democrats’ new whip, The Washington Post observed that while Hoyer “had chaired the Democratic Caucus and served in other leadership posts, Pelosi styled herself as an outsider who would bring a fresh approach to inside-the-Beltway politics.”
Only 13 months after winning the whip job, Pelosi was elected House minority leader by her party. That made her the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate.
She ran, she said back then, “as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment.”
Apparently, Pelosi had no problem morphing from insurgent outsider to experienced legislator in the blink of an eye.
As a woman in an arena dominated by men, Pelosi had to see herself as something of an outsider intent on making history.
That fact may well make it easier for her to understand the ambition and impatience of her younger House colleagues, many of whom are women.
In spite of her liberal bent, Pelosi is smart enough and strategic enough in her thinking to know where her party can and cannot go.
Her efforts to short-circuit talk of possible impeachment is just the latest example of her savvy.
Her ideological positioning in the party, her gender and her fundraising IOUs have allowed her to survive when others might have lost control of House Democrats.
Even those new House members who would like the party to change more are quick to respect Pelosi.
They understand that she rose up through leadership starting at a time when junior members were expected to be “seen but not heard.”
Of course, Pelosi’s role as party leader will end about a year from now, when the Democratic Party has a de facto presidential nominee.
That person will represent the party nationally, though Pelosi, as speaker, will still have a significant voice.
For years, observers of the House have been asking each other when Pelosi will call it quits. Her recapturing of the speakership, combined with her promise not to serve more than two more terms in the House’s top post and her age, suggest that retirement is fast approaching.
That development, whenever it happens, is likely to be a far bigger headache for the Democratic Party than the gentlelady from California has ever been.
Note: This column appeared initially in the March 26, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
Democrats are off to a fast start in their efforts to blow the 2020 presidential election.
Sure, Donald Trump’s job approval ratings from reputable polling firms still sit in the low- to mid-40s, and congressional investigations are likely to keep the president, his family and his administration on the defensive.
And yes, the 2018 midterms showed what a united Democratic Party looks like and that college-educated whites are swinging to the Democrats in reaction to Trump.
And of course, Trump trails a generic Democrat in early polling, confirming the view that a clear majority of American voters want change in 2020.
But even with all that, the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Democratic Party has already succeeded in taking the heat off Trump and making the party appear so far left that moderates may not be able to support its nominee for president.
If they continue their early successes, this band of ideological purists may “save” their party from a pragmatic progressive who could actually win the White House, thereby handing Trump a second term.
The recipe for victory
The Democrats’ winning strategy for 2020 ought to include three straightforward steps:
- Make the 2020 presidential election about Donald Trump — about his tweeting, his language, his flagrant untruths, his lack of empathy, his efforts to belittle his adversaries, and his affection for authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and Kim Jong Un. As much as possible, make the contest a referendum on his performance, agenda, character and style.
- Select a presidential nominee who can energize the Democratic base, including progressives, younger voters and non-whites.
- Select a presidential nominee who can attract the votes of swing voters, including those suburban women who helped create the Democratic House wave last year.
This recipe for victory doesn’t require a nominee with a particular ideology or agenda.
A progressive/liberal or a moderate/pragmatist could be elected, as long as he or she completes each of the three steps.
But it’s clear the more extreme the nominee ideologically, the harder it is for the party to appeal to swing voters, including college-educated whites.
The most progressive elements of the Democratic Party will pooh-pooh the notion that an uber-progressive nominee can’t win.
They’ll cite Hillary Clinton’s defeat and insist that Bernie Sanders would have won in 2016. And they’ll argue that getting the party’s base out is crucial to victory, and only hopefuls like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren can do that.
But while an appealing uber-progressive might be able to win under the right circumstances, the chances shrink as the nominee moves further left.
The road to victory still usually depends on winning less ideological voters.
The present reality
So how have the Democrats done in positioning the party for next year’s election? Since the midterms, the party has done an abysmal job of making the 2020 contest about Trump.
The leaders of the Corbyn wing of the party — including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have sought to make everything about themselves and their agenda.
While it’s true that the old quip “Freshmen in Congress should be seen but not heard” is no longer relevant, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib have been unusually vocal and controversial.
Whether it is a proposed “Green New Deal,” criticizing Israel and raising questions about the allegiance of American Jews, or announcing an intention to file an impeachment resolution, the freshman trio have done things to draw attention to themselves and their personal agendas.
The national media, of course, has amplified their statements and agenda, which has taken attention away from Trump.
In baseball terms, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey) is a hanging curveball for the GOP to mash over the fence.
Progressives haven’t worked out the details or the cost of specific steps, allowing Republicans to attack it as a radical, exorbitantly expensive, unrealistic agenda.
Similarly, Omar’s comments about Jews and Israel made her look anti-Semitic, intolerant and radical, undercutting the Democratic argument about Trump’s intolerance and meanness.
Tlaib’s initial steps toward impeachment do what party leaders have been trying to avoid for months — they make the Democrats appear partisan and petty, more interested in destroying Trump than in pursuing policies that are good for the American people.
While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer try to define the Democratic Party in broadly appealing terms, thereby keeping the nation’s focus on Trump, the Corbyn wing is more interested in pushing its agenda, which makes it easier for the GOP to turn the 2020 election into a choice, not a referendum.
Right now, core Democratic groups appear energized, primarily because they find Trump’s agenda and behavior offensive.
They turned out in the midterms, and polling suggests they remain angry and energized.
The danger here is that if the Corbyn wing pushes impeachment, it puts congressional leaders in a difficult position and risks splitting the party.
If leadership appears to be blocking the Sanders/Warren/Ocasio-Cortez agenda, and the party nominates someone not sufficiently to the left, some progressives could become estranged, sitting out the 2020 election.
For now, Trump’s behavior and the Democrats’ agenda on health care, guns, immigration, climate change and economic inequality is keeping liberals and progressives energized.
But the party’s standing among swing voters is currently fragile. It’s not clear whether Democrats will nominate a ticket that appeals to them, but the more the party is defined by Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez et al, the more it risks pushing swing voters and moderates into Trump’s camp.
Unfortunately for Democrats, Sanders, Warren and others seeking the presidential nomination are likely to continue stirring the pot on issues now that they are in campaign mode.
And Ocasio-Cortez and her friends on the Democratic Party’s left flank are unlikely to grow quiet over the upcoming months. Indeed, they may grow increasingly bold in their willingness to challenge the party’s leadership.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2019.
Under normal circumstances, Sen. Cory Gardner would be a clear favorite for re-election.
Personable and politically astute, the Colorado Republican ran a terrific campaign in 2014 to oust Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. But President Donald Trump has energized partisan Democrats and alienated suburban swing voters nationally, and that has made Gardner the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election in 2020.
Still, it would be unwise for Democrats to count their Colorado chickens before they’ve hatched. Gardner has an uphill fight, but it’s not an impossible one.
Racking up wins
Gardner was just 30 years old when he was appointed to the Colorado state House in 2005. He won a full term the next year and was re-elected in 2008.
In 2010, he challenged and defeated Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey. After initially announcing in May 2013 that he wouldn’t run for the Senate, Gardner reversed himself the following year in late February.
National Republicans, who never stopped recruiting him for the Senate, were overjoyed, while Democrats realized that Udall had a serious fight on his hands.
Gardner opened his general election campaign with a renewable energy/pro-environment television ad that showed he would run from the center and woo suburban voters.
It was a savvy move and a smart strategy, given the likelihood that Democrats would portray him as a conservative ideologue.
The challenger was simply more likable than Udall, who didn’t help himself by obsessively focusing on reproductive rights at the same time that Gardner was stressing economic and energy themes.
Gardner won narrowly, 48 percent to 46 percent, a margin of just under 40,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.
While he ran a strong race, Gardner definitely benefited by running during Barack Obama’s second midterm election. Without the dynamic that produced a nine-seat Republican Senate gain nationally, he may well have fallen short in his Senate bid.
The state of the state’s politics
Though Republican presidential nominees have carried Colorado in 10 of the last 15 elections, the state has been generally competitive for years. More recently, however, it has been sliding away from the GOP.
Last year, Democrats retained the state’s open governorship, took over the offices of attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state, and gained a new congressional seat. The party also flipped the state Senate.
Democrats now control the state House with 41 seats to 24 seats for the GOP, and the Senate more narrowly, 19-16.
But state election results tell a slightly more complicated story.
Donald Trump received a smaller percentage of the vote in 2016 (43.3 percent) than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (46.1 percent) or John McCain in 2008 (44.7 percent), but Trump’s losing margin (4.9 points) was actually less than Romney’s (5.4 points) or McCain’s (9 points).
And while Democrats won an at-large University of Colorado regent seat last fall, Republicans held the other at-large regent seat in 2016 at the same time Trump was losing the state.
University board of regents or board of governors races often reflect a state’s partisan fundamentals, combined with the particular election cycle’s partisan dynamics.
Still, Democrats have won 10 of the last dozen gubernatorial elections, a remarkable feat that suggests something more than mere chance.
Interestingly, the state’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, has not exactly blown away his Republican opponents, both of whom were regarded as relatively weak.
Bennet, who was appointed to the seat in 2009, squeezed by Ken Buck 48.1 percent to 46.4 percent in 2010, which probably reflects the strong anti-Obama midterm message more than the two candidates’ quality or the state’s underlying partisanship.
Six years later, Bennet beat Republican Darryl Glenn, then an El Paso county commissioner, 50 percent to 44.3 percent.
Both parties seem to have relatively low ceilings and high floors in statewide races, which means a tight Senate race next year is very possible.
A couple of recognizable Democrats are already in the race. Andrew Romanoff is a former speaker of the Colorado House who lost a 2010 Senate primary to Bennet and a 2014 challenge to Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. (Coffman lost re-election by a surprisingly large margin last year in a suburban swing district.)
Mike Johnston is a former Colorado state senator who finished a credible third (with almost a quarter of the vote) in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.
Other prominent Democrats, including Rep. Ed Perlmutter, continue to be mentioned as possible candidates, though one of them, former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, has decided to run for the House instead.
Democrats haven’t yet given up on their hope that former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who announced a presidential bid recently, will eventually forgo his White House ambitions and instead enter the Senate race.
Gardner is lucky his seat is up next year instead of 2018.
It’s generally easier for an incumbent to swim against the tide in a presidential year than during a midterm election, when voters use their House and Senate votes to make a statement about a president who is not on the ballot.
Next year, voters who dislike Trump but generally view Gardner favorably have separate votes to cast, giving the Republican senator a better opportunity to attract ticket-splitters.
Nevertheless, Trump will be a significant liability for Gardner, since a vote for the incumbent is one for continued GOP control of the Senate and inevitably a vote in support of the president.
Gardner, after all, chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle (making him a member of the party’s Senate leadership), and he generally has been a loyal soldier in Trump’s Senate army.
He will have to depend on his campaign skills and, possibly, some Democratic division to hold his seat next year. It will be a difficult challenge with Trump at the top of the ballot.
Of course, Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana squeaked out even more difficult victories last year, so Gardner at least has a roadmap to follow.
Note: An almost identical version of this column first appeared in Roll Call on March 5, 2019.