Progressives are Going to Have to Pick: Sanders or Warren?

Only a few months from now, populist Democratic progressives around the country hoping to elect one of their own to the White House will need to choose between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Do they back the angry Democratic socialist, or the feisty, anti-corporate populist who wants to break up the banks and big tech companies? One says he is trying to lead a revolution. The other calls for dramatic change, often dismissing critics in her own party for regurgitating Republican talking points.

Only one of them is now a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. That would be Warren.

Sanders is passionate and intent on becoming the Democratic standard bearer, and he’s running well in key state and national polls. But it’s still very difficult to see the 78-year-old Vermonter becoming the Democratic nominee next year.

Novelty’s worn off

This is Sanders’ second presidential rodeo, but unlike four years ago, he isn’t a quirky novelty this time. He now shares his lane with another top-tier hopeful who echoes his populism. That alternative, Warren, is a woman, is eight years younger than Sanders, and is a strong enough speaker to have moved from near obscurity in the race to the top tier.

And unlike the Vermonter, Warren hasn’t embraced socialism.

But Sanders’ campaign, which has plenty of money, shows no signs of stopping after a relatively brief medical scare. He’s a man on a mission, and people like that don’t quit easily. He took on Hillary Clinton (and the Democratic National Committee), after all, when nobody else was willing to do so. It’s hard to believe he could be scared out of the presidential race by Warren.

And that is a problem for the Massachusetts Democrat. For as long as Sanders remains in the contest, Warren will have a hard time consolidating support among the party’s left.

But Warren has another problem, which follows from her party’s desire to beat Trump next year. Many Democrats in the business and financial communities believe her ultimate agenda is not very different from Sanders’ when it comes to raising taxes, sticking it to corporate America, distrusting the free market, adding new entitlements and piling on layers of additional debt to pay for new government programs.

Warren’s continued embrace of “Medicare for All” has become a substantial problem for her. It’s not just the cost of that program. It’s the larger message that the government knows what is good for you better than you do. Many in the party prefer “Medicare for All Who Want It” or Obamacare with a public option, both of which seem more appealing — and manageable — to pragmatic legislators and voters.

Won’t move right

Warren has had plenty of chances to slide to the right slightly, but she never takes them. On health care, all she needed to do to broaden her appeal was to emphasize her willingness to negotiate with others in her party. She could make it clear that while she prefers Medicare for All, she is certainly open to compromise.

But would Warren undermine her own appeal with populist, grassroots progressives, who favor dramatic proposals and not piecemeal changes, by giving herself some wiggle room on health insurance? Possibly. But it might also make her seem more reasonable to those worried about her agenda.

Not satisfied to paint herself into a corner on only one issue, Warren has unveiled a K-12 education plan that goes after charter schools. The Washington Post editorial board immediately challenged her, arguing that “when it comes to education, Ms. Warren has a plan that seems aimed more at winning the support of the powerful teachers unions than in advancing policies that would help improve student learning.”

On one hand, you can say that Warren is simply protecting her left flank, making sure that she doesn’t lose true believers to Sanders. But the problem is her positions are less about campaign strategy and more about her views of government and her views of corporate America and the affluent.

Warren may not call herself a Democratic socialist, but her rhetoric and overall approach to issues like health insurance and education puts her far enough left that she would have a hard time appealing to pragmatists and political independents.

Energized base

Of course, Warren (or Sanders) would energize the Democratic base and turn out voters who sat on their hands (or voted third party) in 2016, and that could be enough to flip the White House. But Warren and Sanders’ populist progressive positioning would also make it much easier for the GOP to make the 2020 election about them — and socialism — than about Donald Trump. And that may be the only way the president can win a second term.

Democratic candidates often move left in the primary but right if and when they make it to the general election, so it’s possible that Warren is merely following that well-traveled path. Maybe, if she gets her party’s nomination, she will zig and then zag toward the center.

But like Sanders, Warren rarely (really, never) conveys the impression that she is prepared to build coalitions, negotiate with friends and foes alike, and eventually forge compromises to enact legislation. Put another way, both Sanders and Warren are as much prisoners of their ideology as Trump is a prisoner of his narcissism.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 11, 2019.

One Year Until the Most Important Election in American History

While it feels as if we’ve all been watching the 2020 race for years, it’s still 12 months until voters decide whether or not to give President Donald Trump a second term.

Given the president’s performance during his first term and his opportunities to cement and then expand those changes in another four years, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the 2020 election is the most important one in our nation’s history. No wonder there is so much early attention on Trump’s reelection prospects.

Our friends at Moody’s Analytics have once again produced a presidential election model to tell us who is going to win the White House next year. Like virtually all nonpartisan professional handicappers (including myself), Moody’s predicted days before the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably.

Moody’s economists have tinkered with their methodology and produced a mixed bag of changes. Some of the changes are welcome, including multiple turnout models that reflect the importance of who actually votes and the difficulty pollsters have in gauging turnout.

Moody’s also now offers three different presidential election models, which presumably increases their chances of being right. Unfortunately, all three treat presidential elections as contests between two generic nominees, completely discounting noneconomic factors, to say nothing of the candidates’ personalities. That may have been a reasonable way to proceed in the days before Trump entered the White House, but, as the 2018 midterms demonstrated, it’s not always “the economy, stupid.”

The politics components in the models (as opposed to the economic components) strike me as strange.

Yes, past state electoral results are crucially important in predicting future state electoral behavior. But the models reward Trump because they assume “Democrats and Democrat-leaning independent voters are more likely to switch sides and vote for a Republican candidate than vice versa.” In other words, more Clinton voters are going to vote for Trump in 2020 than will Trump voters for the Democratic nominee. I see no reason to expect that to be the case next year.

In addition, instead of factoring presidential job approval into their analysis, the folks at Moody’s Analytics are concerned only with how much Trump’s job approval has fluctuated. As they write, “Trump’s approval rating has, at most, oscillated not much more than 10 percentage points. As a result, our approval rating variable does not penalize the president as much as it has previous candidates.” So, Trump’s job approval ratings — which have largely ranged from the mid-30s to the lower 40s — matter less than how much they change?

The fundamental problem with the analysis, which seems to have been directed by chief economist Mark Zandi, who always sounds thoughtful when I hear him talking about economics and business, is that it fails to acknowledge how our politics has changed since Trump started running for president.

Economics mattered less than usual in the 2018 midterms because Trump’s style, language and agenda have been so controversial. His policies and personal behavior turned off some voters who supported him in 2016, which is why the GOP suffered a stunning net loss of 40 seats during improving economic times. Swing voters cared less about the unemployment rate and stock market than about health care, gun control, global warming and Trump’s divisiveness, meanness, crudeness and mendaciousness.

Economic variables have been important predictors of presidential elections in the past (and will remain so in the future), but we have never had a president like Trump. Acting as though he won’t be a factor in 2020 is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Oddly, the president has never sought to expand his electoral coalition. Instead, he plays solely to his political base in rural America, among white evangelicals, with self-identified conservatives, and with working-class whites without a college degree.

That coalition got him 46 percent of the vote in 2016, which was enough to win only because of demographic patterns in three Great Lakes states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — allowed him to squeak to an Electoral College victory.

Trump is once again limited to the states he won in 2016 (plus possibly Nevada, New Hampshire and Minnesota) to put together another winning coalition while losing the national popular vote. Meanwhile, he will be on the defensive in the three Great Lakes states he won narrowly, plus in North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, and possibly even Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.

Changes in key electoral groups between 2016 and 2019 also present problems for Trump. As the midterms showed — and polling conducted since then has confirmed — he has lost ground with younger voters, college-educated whites, suburbanites and especially white women with a college degree.

Finally, Trump’s prospects depend to a considerable extent on the Democrats — on whom they nominate, how united they are and how energized the party’s constituencies are. Some Democratic tickets would have a better chance of mobilizing the party base and reaching out to swing voters than others. In other words, candidates and campaigns still matter.

Trump’s path to a second term rests on larger losses in the popular vote and narrower victories in a few states with crucial electoral votes. That is a possible scenario, but hardly one that should leave Republicans brimming with confidence.

The president has damaged himself by alienating large chunks of the country, and his behavior over the next year is likely to give Democrats more ammunition to use against him. The only question is whether the Democrats will find a nominee who can take advantage of Trump’s fundamental weaknesses.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 5, 2019.

Is a Democratic Wave Building for 2020?

 Like other handicappers, I have noted that there are few signs that the national political divide, so apparent over the last three years, has started to crumble.

Trump voters are sticking with the president, while those who opposed him in 2016 generally have become even more vociferous in their opposition.

Given the closeness of the last presidential contest — and subsequent big Democratic gains in the House two years later — it’s hard to see 2020 producing a House wave for either party.

After all, only three House Republicans sit in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and most of the seats that flipped to the Democrats last year are in the suburbs, where Trump and the GOP are having serious problems.

In other words, there are few “easy” opportunities in the House for either party. But while electoral “waves” almost always refer to large changes in the House, the term can also apply to Senate and presidential outcomes where there are dramatic shifts.

In fact, the extreme partisanship we see, especially combined with the way our House districts are now drawn, limit the number of seats in the chamber that can conceivably flip, even in a partisan wave.

At some point, a competitive Senate seat becomes more likely to flip than an uncompetitive House race. We may be at that tipping point in this cycle.

How a wave begins

Electoral waves generally happen under at least one of two circumstances.

They occur when turnout in one party drops precipitously, producing an electorate that dramatically favors the other party. Or, they can occur when swing voters, who normally divide evenly between the two parties, swing dramatically to one side, thereby producing an electorate that once again disproportionately favors one party over the other.

In 2004, for example, self-identified independents in the national exit poll split evenly, 49 percent for John Kerry and 48 percent for George W. Bush.

Bush won the presidential election narrowly at the same time the GOP gained a modest three seats in the House. But two years later, in a wave election during Bush’s second midterm, the national exit poll showed self-identified independents breaking to the Democrats, 57 percent to 39 percent.

Democrats gained 31 House seats that year. Four years later, during Barack Obama’s first midterm election, which produced a GOP electoral wave, the national exit poll showed independents breaking toward Republicans, 56 percent to 39 percent.

When both partisan turnout and independent/swing voter preferences change at the same time (and in the same direction, of course), we tend to see larger electoral waves, as we did in 2010, when Republicans made large House (63 seats) and Senate (6 seats) gains.

Large gains are also possible (even likely) when the party on the defensive holds an abnormally large number of House and/or Senate seats that traditionally favor the other party.

What the polls say

While the 2020 election is still more than a year off, Republicans ought to be concerned about some early signs, both at the national and state levels.

Trump carried self-described independents in 2016, 46 percent to 42 percent, according to that year’s national exit polls, but the GOP lost them, 54 percent to 42 percent, two years later in the midterms.

Even more concerning, the Oct. 6-8 Fox News poll found the president’s approval among independents at 36 percent, with 61 percent disapproving of his performance.

In Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton won by only 1.5 points and where Trump’s campaign is likely to make a major effort, an Oct. 14-16 Star Tribune poll found the president losing to the three top Democrats anywhere from 9 points to 12 points in hypothetical ballot tests.

In Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016 by less than eight-tenths of a point, an Oct. 13-17 Marquette Law School poll found former Vice President Joe Biden leading him by 6 points, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was up by 2 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren led by a single point.

Fox News poll conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in Wisconsin found Biden leading by 9 points, Sanders by 5 and Warren by 4.

In Florida, an Oct. 14-20 University of North Florida poll found Trump stuck at 43 percent or 44 percent against four top Democratic contenders.

He trailed Biden by 5 points and Warren by 3. Trump won 49 percent of the vote in Florida in 2016, carrying the state by only 1.2 points.

In Iowa, an Oct. 13-16 Emerson College poll showed Trump essentially tied with Biden, Sanders and Warren in a state that he carried by 9 points, a serious problem for the president’s team if — and it is a big “if — the Emerson results reflect the actual strength of the candidates in hypothetical ballot tests.

It’s certainly possible that these national and state polls are misleading or flat-out wrong. Circumstances could change, either helping or hurting Trump, and both parties’ prospects won’t become clearer until the Democrats actually have a nominee.

But it’s equally unwise to be wedded to an assumption — e.g., we are headed for another squeaker in 2020 because the Trump and anti-Trump coalitions are largely immovable — that may ignore the possibility that modest defections from Trump combined with a significant change in the behavior of independents/swing voters (including suburban whites with a college degree) could produce substantial changes in the 2020 presidential vote and surprisingly substantial Democratic gains in the Senate.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 29, 2019.

Would Everyone Please Shut Up for 48 hours?

It’s language I try not to use, but would everyone please shut up for a while?

How about two days? That’s not too much to ask, is it?

The accusations and finger-pointing are getting out of hand. And tiring. And depressing. And divisive.

Maybe the cable TV folks could do something to change the tone of our national discussion by showing only animal videos for a couple of days. Or maybe cooking shows.

How about temporarily canceling CNN and MSNBC panels about how crazy Donald Trump is and what a puppet of Vladimir Putin he is? (Not that both things couldn’t be true.)

Maybe both networks could report some news — about something other than the Trump administration. BBC says there’s news about Brexit. And I’m betting something is happening in South America and India that is worth my attention.

As for Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs and Laura Ingraham, maybe they could tape their mouths shut for 48 hours. That would both improve the content of their programs and make them look less foolish defending Trump’s ridiculous statements and ill-advised foreign policy decisions.

Oh, and Adam Schiff, could you please take a couple of days off and go to a beach in the Caribbean, promising not to utter a word in English during your trip?

I’d appreciate it if Hillary Clinton and Tulsi Gabbard could stop some of the unbecoming bickering for a couple of days. Hillary, what the hell were you thinking? And of course, Tulsi couldn’t resist ratcheting up the rhetoric by firing back at Clinton.

The result was a wholly unnecessary fight that served nobody’s interest — except the opponents of democracy and civility. Now, who could that be?

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said there was a quid pro quo regarding Ukraine before he said that there was no quid pro quo.

By the way, do we all need to start learning Latin to understand cable television shows? Will the next CNN interview go something like this?

Erin Burnett: Welcome, Mr. Mulvaney. Quid pro quo?

Mulvaney: Yes, quo. No quo. Quid pro quo.

Burnett: Carpe diem.

Mulvaney: Et tu, Brute?

Burnett: In vino veritas.

Mulvaney: Nil desperandum.

Burnett: Caveat emptor. And thank you, Mr. Mulvaney.

I’m pretty certain I can’t get 48 hours, but could we please have one full day when any time a reporter mentions the Kurds, he or she also has to mention “whey”? At least that might make me laugh.

I know, the slaughter of the Syrian Kurds is nothing to laugh or joke about. It’s terrible. How dare I make light of something so horrible.

Excuse me, but could you lighten up for 24 hours? Instead of being offended by everything, talk about baseball, the beautiful fall weather, pumpkin pie or even HBO’s “Succession,” a really smart (and often funny) television show featuring a lead character who is a billionaire megalomaniac and narcissist with a corrupt family that runs a major media company.

I’d really like it if Trump could stop telling untruths for 48 hours — even if that means he has to do something to make sure he doesn’t move his lips for two whole days.

I know it’s unreasonable to ask the president to clean up his language and try to tell the truth for TWO WHOLE DAYS!!!!!

That would be quite a challenge for anyone with such an extreme personality disorder, especially a narcissist who thinks everything in the universe revolves around him.

But try, Donald, please.

Maybe you could play board games with your children. Or revitalize the State Department. Or get some therapy.

I’d appreciate it if I could get a day or two without Rudy Giuliani. Just because, well, if you’ve seen Rudy recently, you know why.

I could almost wax poetic about HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who knows so little about his own department and is so busy keeping his head down that he has gone mute.

Thank you, Ben, wherever you are and whatever you are doing (probably picking out more new furniture for your office).

A little more than a year ago, during the final week of September 2018, I wrote a column titled “I’m just tired of it all.” And I was.

Trump’s presidency was draining and debilitating, full of mean-spirited accusations, name-calling and controversy.

But here’s the problem: Things have only gotten worse since then. I’m more “tired of it all” a year later — tired of the daily controversies and the president’s outlandish tweets.

I didn’t think that was even possible.

Each morning I get out of bed knowing that the new day will only be worse than the day before. More chaos. More lies. More chatter in the media. More cable news panels with people saying the same things they said the day before.

More lunacy from the president of the United States who — whether at campaign rallies, press conferences or Q&A’s with the media as he’s leaving the White House — seems unable to put two coherent sentences together. More wins for Russia and Putin.

But no matter Trump’s shortcomings (and they are many), my request for a national timeout isn’t partisan. Both sides could use one, as could the country. And a bourbon. Or two. Just give me a couple of days to recover.

Then you can all return to the chatter, chaos, mind-numbing arguments, “what about” retorts and sometimes vulgar, belittling and demeaning attacks and counterattacks.

Please.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 22, 2019.

Will Trump Go Negative? Just Kidding …

There is no need to speculate about President Donald Trump’s strategy for reelection. He plans to — and needs to — destroy his general election opponent.

That’s the only way an incumbent president with a job approval rating in the low 40s and sitting at 40 percent in hypothetical ballot tests can possibly win.

Trump loves the combat and the name-calling. It wouldn’t matter if the Democrats nominated Mother Teresa (were she still alive). Trump would mock her, give her a demeaning nickname, portray her as selfish and self-centered, and brand her a phony. That’s what Trump does.

But don’t take my word for it. It was his wife, Melania Trump, who told a crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2016, “As you may know by now, when you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder. No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.”

“Equal,” as in equally nasty.

Politics can be a rough game. I get it. I’ve been covering campaigns for the last 40 years. No, politics ain’t beanbag.

But in the old days, political dirt was shoveled under cover of darkness, circulated by whispering campaigns or anonymous handouts left on car windshields on Sunday mornings.

Trump has taken negativity to a new level.

He delivers the attacks himself, often during rallies or press events. So whether the Democrats nominate Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock, John Delaney or someone else, you can be sure that Trump and his allies will run the same slash-and-burn campaign they did in 2016.

Something on everyone

There are no flawless candidates this year or any year. Democrats shouldn’t be looking for one.

Obviously, some Democrats are carrying more baggage than others.

Sanders’ embrace of socialism, for example, may earn him points for being frank, but it’s a considerable liability in a general election.

Biden’s son Hunter’s membership on the board of a Ukrainian energy company is also a liability for his father, though not one so serious that it would define the former vice president’s candidacy.

We don’t now know what opposition research Trump has on each of the Democratic candidates, but Democrats would be wise to assume he has something on everyone — and if he doesn’t, he’ll just make something up, as he has done in the past.

He is, after all, trying to muddy the waters so that he wins a chunk of voters who don’t like him but dislike his opponent even more.

Remember, Trump won the 2016 election even though he had worse ratings that Hillary Clinton, according to that year’s exit poll.

Forty-three percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Clinton, compared to 55 percent who saw her unfavorably. Trump’s rating was measurably worse at 38 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable.

A solid 55 percent of respondents said Clinton had the right temperament to be president, while only 35 percent said the same of Trump. And while 52 percent of those polled said Clinton was “qualified to serve as president,” only 38 percent said Trump was qualified.

Clinton even bested Trump, albeit very narrowly, when it came to honesty and trustworthiness. Only one in three respondents said Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” while 36 percent said that that description applied to Clinton, who was carrying years of political baggage.

Given all of those numbers, Clinton should have won the election comfortably. But she didn’t, in part because many voters didn’t trust her, eight years of Barack Obama produced an anti-Democratic fatigue, and a slice of voters were so frustrated with unfulfilled promises that they took a flier on an outsider they hoped could change the trajectory of the country in a positive way.

Even if many voters had doubts about Trump — even if it was a gamble to vote for someone unqualified and with the wrong temperament — wasn’t it worth the risk, given the alternative?

Four years later

Trump’s problem is that the rhetorical question he asked of black voters in 2016 — “What do you have to lose?” — now has a different answer for many voters (regardless of race) than it did four years ago.

He will continue to run against the establishment, the Deep State, the national media, Obama, Clinton and his eventual Democratic opponent. But unlike 2016, when voters could vote for Trump in the hope that he would become “more presidential” and would “grow” into the office, those voters now see that the exact opposite has occurred.

And while millions of Americans who still support the president may like his political incorrectness and the chaos he produces on a daily basis, some of those 2016 supporters won’t want to stomach another four years of disarray and insanity. It is simply too fatiguing.

So the president has no option but to drive his opponent’s negatives higher. That means attacks on his or her character, judgment, health, integrity, intellect, family members, friends, business associates and personal behavior.

And yes, Trump will brand him or her a socialist who wants open borders and gun confiscation, and who supports closing all houses of worship, destroying the U.S. military, bankrupting the country and letting rapists and murderers run free.

And he’ll probably do all that before the end of September. Just imagine what the last month before Election Day will be like.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 15, 2019.