Tag Archives: 2020 election

The Election: Worry or Don’t Worry?

Biden’s lead in the polls has Democrats searching for what could possibly go wrong. But some worries should be taken less seriously than others.


Just about every Democrat I know wants to punish him/herself for being overconfident in 2016. Some of us have practical regrets, and wish we’d done more to put Hillary over the top, while others less rationally feel like we jinxed her by saying too loudly that she was going to win. But whatever we did or didn’t do then, we’re now determined to make ourselves suffer by refusing to accept any good news about Joe Biden’s chances. No matter what the polls say, something is going to go horribly wrong.

For what it’s worth, I think we’re going to win this. Not that there’s nothing to worry about, but some of our worries are less serious than others. Let’s assess them one by one.

Worry #1. The polls are wrong.

Biden’s average margin in national polls is somewhere in the 8-9% range, and has been there since mid-June. More importantly, he has solid leads in the swing states he needs to win: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. If he fails in one of those states, polls also give him a good shot at flipping Florida, Arizona, or North Carolina. And even Republican strongholds like Texas and Georgia are not completely out of reach.

But Democrats remember how confident we felt in 2016, and look for reasons to doubt the polls. Republicans, on the other hand, live in constant denial of reality, and doubt the polls because they don’t want them to be true. Poll-skeptics make two related arguments.

  • The polls were wrong in 2016, so why should we trust them now?
  • There is a “hidden” Trump voter that the polls either can’t count or don’t want to count.

Neither really holds water, as long as you remember that polls are snapshots of public opinion at a moment in time, and not predictions of what people will think or do months from now.

The first thing to understand is that the final polls in 2016 were not far off from the vote totals, and to the extent they were, the more likely explanation is that Comey’s reopening of the Clinton email investigation gave Trump late momentum. The polls probably weren’t wrong at the moment they were taken; but a small shift in public opinion at the last minute put Trump over the top.

Nationally, the final 2016 RCP polling average had Clinton up by 3.3%. Her actual margin in the national popular vote was 2.1%. In Pennsylvania and Michigan the polls were off by a bit more — but still not that much. And in both cases, Trump had been gaining in the final week. The only real surprise was Wisconsin, where Clinton led by 6.5% in the final polls and lost by 0.7%.

But in 2018, the reverse happened: The final general congressional ballot polls had the Democrats up by 7.3%, and their margin in the vote totals was larger: 8.4%.

So if there were “hidden Trump voters” in 2016, were their “hidden Democrats” in 2018? Or is there always a small shift in the final days and hours of a campaign?

For what my opinion is worth, I expect the 2020 last-minute shift to be in Biden’s favor. Late in a campaign, a certain number of voters are just sick of all the noise. This year in particular, those voters will be sick of four years of noise; the thought that the loud, obnoxious Trump Era could be over will just be irresistible.

Assessment: Don’t worry about this. Things could change before Election Day, but Biden really is ahead right now.

Worry #2. Trump will stage a remarkable comeback.

In the Trump Era, when every day brings a a few week’s worth of news, three months is a very long time. A month ago, who was predicting that Portland would be invaded by DHS secret police? So all kinds of things can happen before Election Day, and you can expect Trump to push all the buttons and turn all the knobs as he tries to change the public’s opinion of him.

However, nothing he’s trying right now is working at all, or is likely to work if he just keeps at it and pushes harder. Unleashing his goons on Portland was supposed to produce a wave of support for the “law-and-order President” (who is strangely indifferent when people in his administration break the law). But in the latest Ipsos poll, 52% of Americans say the federal response to protests made things worse, with only 30% saying it made them better.

The not-all-that-veiled racism of his “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” tweet doesn’t seem to be going over all that well either. Suburbs aren’t what they were in the 1950s. Black people already live there (though still not in proportionate numbers), so they aren’t as easy to demonize. And a suburb anywhere near high-tech industries (like Bedford, Massachusetts, where I live) is going to include lots of residents of East Asian or South Asian ancestry. If you’re looking for the lily-white experience, you have to go to ex-urbs or rural small towns.

A second factor: His ability to change tactics is limited by his inability to admit mistakes or take responsibility for bad outcomes. So he has to keep doubling down on points that the public already knows are false. Like: the virus really is spreading, it’s not just that we’re testing more. That stopped fooling anyone other than Trump diehards weeks ago, but he can’t stop saying it.

And it’s not just him. The Trumpists who picture a comeback have to engage in such flights of fancy that reading their scenarios makes me more confident, not less. For example, Grady Means published an op-ed Wednesday in The Hill: “Buy the Dip: Bet on Trump“. In Means’ fantasy world, Trump has done a great job and had a great strategy going into this year, but after Covid-19 got rolling “the president has been a complete failure at playing his winning hand.”

The mainstream media and social networks stepped up their withering and relentless Trump-attacks. Statistically meaningless (increased testing and obvious selection bias) COVID-19 “cases” data were weaponized into a strategy of continued lockdowns and sustained school closures.

That’s Trump’s problem — not that America on his watch has objectively screwed up its pandemic response worse than any other rich country, or that people are genuinely hurting economically with no relief in sight. No, it’s that the media has made something out of nothing, and convinced the public to shut down businesses and schools when the virus isn’t really out of control at all. As soon as Americans realize the virus is already beaten, learn to ignore the hundreds of thousands of bodies piling up in the corner, and recognize what a great job Trump has done on the pandemic and everything else, he’ll surge again.

I just can’t picture that plan succeeding.

If Trump is going to stage a comeback, it’s going to have to be through an October surprise: either foreign help (like he got from Russia in 2016 and tried to extort from Ukraine this time around) or some headline-making indictments from the Barr/Durham investigation of the investigators. In either case, whatever anti-Biden “scandal” Trump manages to puff up will probably have little substance, and the public will have been well warned.

Assessment: Worry a little. In particular, worry enough to keep doing whatever you can to ensure a Biden victory. (If we overshoot and wind up with a landslide, that might teach Republicans to give up not just on Trump, but on Trumpist fascism in general — no Tucker Carlson or Tom Cotton in 2024.) But if anxiety about a Trump comeback is causing you to lose sleep or plunge into depression, feel free to put it out of your mind.

3. Trump might lose the election, but refuse to leave office.

It’s important to keep two things in mind:

  • The power of the president functions almost entirely through other people.
  • The White House is a symbolic place, but has no legal or institutional significance.

So while it’s very easy to imagine Trump barricading himself in the Oval Office on January 20 and tweeting endlessly about voter fraud and how he’s still president, if the people who make up the government stop taking his orders, he’s not president any more. Removing him from the White House would become a problem for the Secret Service, aided by mental health professionals.

The transition-of-power process defined by the Constitution and implemented in various state and federal laws goes like this:

  • On November 3, an election is held — or rather 51 separate elections are held in the states and the District of Columbia. This date could be changed, but only by Congress. The Constitution says: “The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors”. Votes are counted by local officials, until at some point a state official verifies the names of the electors who will represent that state in the Electoral College.
  • On December 14 (the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December), the electors cast their votes. Like Election Day, this date was set by Congress and can only be changed by Congress. (The same sentence in the Constitution continues: “The Congress may determine … the Day on which [the Electors] shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.”) The electors meet in their own states, vote, and send the vote totals to Congress.
  • On January 6, a joint session of Congress meets and the electoral votes are officially counted. (This is the new Congress, with the new representatives and senators elected in November. The new terms start on January 3.) Whatever disputes there might be — rival slates of electors and so on — Congress has the authority to resolve them. The new president will be who the new Congress says it is.
  • On January 20, the new president is inaugurated, swearing an oath specified in the Constitution. There are lots of traditions around the inauguration — it happens just outside the Capitol, the Chief Justice administers the oath, the oath is sworn on a Bible or whatever book the new president holds sacred — but none of that is required.

Here’s something I have great faith in: If the joint session of Congress on January 6 recognizes that Joe Biden has received the majority of electoral votes, he will become president at noon on January 20 and the government will obey his orders. Where Donald Trump is at the time, and whatever he is claiming or tweeting, will be of no consequence.

If Trump’s tweets bring a bunch of right-wing militiamen into the streets with their AR-15s, they can cause a lot of bloodshed, but they can’t keep Trump in office. They are no match for the Army, whose Commander-in-Chief will be Joe Biden.

So if Trump wants to stay on as president, he has to screw the process up sooner; by January 6, it’s all in the bag, and probably it’s all in the bag by December 14. Even stretching out the process with legal proceedings won’t help him: The Constitution specifies that his term ends on January 20. If at that time there is no new president or vice president to take over, the job devolves to the Speaker of the House, who I believe will be Nancy Pelosi.

Assessment: Worry about the ways that Trump might screw with the electoral process (which we’ll get to), but not that he will just refuse to leave the White House.

4. Republican state legislators will overrule the voters and give their state’s electoral votes to Trump.

Awarding a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who wins that state’s popular vote is so traditional that most people think it must be in the Constitution, but it isn’t. The sum total of the Constitution‘s instructions are:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress

So, at least in theory, a legislature could ignore the popular vote and appoint anybody it wants to the Electoral College. However, states have codified their current processes in law, and a new law would have to be passed to circumvent that process. The swing states people are most worried about — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — have been gerrymandered to lock in Republican majorities in the legislatures, but they have Democratic governors who would veto a law to hand Trump the state’s electoral votes. Republicans don’t have enough votes to override a veto.

Assuming Trump wins at least one of those states legitimately, though — or manages to suppress enough Democratic votes to get a majority — Biden could still win if he carries Florida, Arizona, or North Carolina. North Carolina, like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, has a Democratic governor and enough Democrats in the legislature to sustain a veto. So Trump needs to win the popular vote there, too.

That leaves Florida and Arizona, where Republicans have unified control of state government. (You could also talk about Texas and Georgia, but if Biden wins the popular vote in either of those states, he’ll have such a landslide that no amount of backroom finagling could undo it.) Would they dare reverse the decision of their state’s voters? This would be a truly outrageous thing to do — even some people who vote for Trump aren’t going to like the idea that their votes don’t count — and the people who do it would risk being villainized for life. So I can only imagine it happening under two conditions:

  • They’re sure it will work. This scheme only makes sense if it gives Trump a second term, where he can reward the people who put him in office. So they need to be sure their law will pass and their electoral votes will make Trump president again.
  • Something taints the vote-count that says Biden won. You could imagine a legislature legitimately awarding its electoral votes by special law, if it were clear that the popular vote was fraudulent in some way. (Imagine a surprise win by the previously unknown owner of the company that makes vote-counting machines. Wouldn’t you want your legislature to stop that?) Republicans would need to be able to argue that they were following the real will of the voters, which had been undone by fraud.

That, I think, is the point of Trump’s bogus assertions that voting-by-mail-is-unsafe and the polls are skewed. He’s setting up the argument Republican legislators will need if they want to throw the election his way.

There are a bunch of scenarios where Biden is safe from this:

  • He wins the popular vote in enough states that no single state flipping to Trump would reverse the outcome.
  • He wins three of these four states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
  • He wins Florida and/or Arizona by enough votes that the fraud-made-the-difference argument loses credibility.

There’s also a wild card: If Democrats control both houses of the new Congress, they might decide to not to count the switched electoral votes. It would be an illegitimate, unconstitutional move, but hardball begets hardball. Trump might try to get the Supreme Court to rule against Congress, but it’s not clear they have jurisdiction. And if Congress simply refuses to declare a winner, Pelosi becomes president. (All this would do horrible damage to our political system, but if Republicans don’t care about that, why should Democrats?)

Assessment: Worry moderately. Probably we won’t wind up in a scenario where this is a possibility, and even if we did, it would only take a handful of Republicans with consciences to save democracy. Who knows? There might actually be enough of them.

4. A majority of Americans try to vote Trump out, but between voter suppression and the Electoral College, we fail.

During the impeachment process, Republicans liked to orate on the awesome standards necessary to reverse the choice of the American voters. But of course, the voters did not choose Trump — the Electoral College did. Trump got only 46% of the vote: 66 million votes to Hillary Clinton’s 69 million. His approval has never gone much above that 46% — largely because he has governed as if the other 54% doesn’t count — and is now hovering somewhere around 41%. Quite possibly, there has never been a moment when a majority of the American people supported Trump.

It’s easy to imagine the same thing happening again: Biden piling up millions more votes than Trump in California and New York, while losing by a few thousand in Florida and Wisconsin. With the usual Republican margin in Texas shrinking, the effect could be even more extreme in 2020 than it was in 2016: Biden might get as many as 5 million more votes than Trump, and still not become president.

What’s more, Republican voter suppression efforts are in high gear, and have already shown some success: By a wide margin, the voters of Florida voted in 2018 to re-enfranchise felons who have served their time — nearly 1.4 million Floridians. But yielding to the will of the people is not what the Republican Party is about.

The GOP-controlled Legislature, however, sought to limit the effects of the amendment by passing a law that conditioned the right to vote on payment of all fees, fines and restitution that were part of the sentence in each felon’s case. The state, however, had no central listing of this information, and the Legislature created no system to help felons ascertain how much, if anything, they owed. Even the state ultimately agreed that it would take six years to create such a system. … The estimated 85,000 who are already registered could be prosecuted if they vote and it turns out they have not paid the fees or fines owed.

The Supreme Court, which has consistently favored Republican voter-suppression efforts sincre John Roberts’ evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, thought this was a fine law.

Covid-19 has created new opportunities for mischief, as we saw in Wisconsin in April. The Republican-through-gerrymandering legislature insisted on few polling places and long lines, and resisted the Democratic governor’s attempt to institute vote-by-mail, or even to extend the deadline for submitting an absentee ballot to allow for the fact that many ballots were not mailed out on time. Research indicates that the brave Wisconsinites who came out to vote anyway could not fully avoid spreading the virus.

Nationally, Republicans are doubling down on this yield-or-die strategy for the fall. They are fighting vote-by-mail in states all over the country, trying to force people to brave the virus-spreading crowds if they want to vote. Worse, Trump is intentionally slowing down the mail, which could well result in a Wisconsin-like situation for the whole country: People can’t receive their mail-in ballots and return them soon enough to count. Some of the more obvious suppression tactics include not counting Michigan ballots that arrive late, even if they were postmarked before Election Day (“inherent variations in mail delivery schedules could result in one person having the ballot counted and another not, even if they send them back on the same day”), and trying to stop Pennsylvania from providing drop-off boxes for people who are afraid their mail-in ballots won’t arrive in time. These attempts come wrapped in rhetoric about “election security”, but they’re transparent attempts to keep legal voters from successfully submitting their votes.

I think there’s reason to hope that these efforts will boomerang, and that the more Trump tries to keep Americans from voting, the more determined we will be. In Wisconsin, the people who did risk their lives to vote were pretty pissed off by the time they got to the booth. The Republican Supreme Court candidate this tactic was supposed to save got defeated anyway.

All over the country, people have to be asking themselves: “Why don’t Republicans want me to vote?” Trump is giving Democrats an issue, and we need to run with it. He wants to paint liberals as people who hate America, but this part of Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis sounds pretty fundamental to what America is supposed to mean:

Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance. By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are somebody who’s working in a factory or you’re a single mom, who’s got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. They’re Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around. And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.

Who hates America now, Mr. Trump? Not LeBron James, who together with other NBA stars is donating $100K to pay the fees of Florida felons, so that they can vote. We all need to be looking for ways that we can help our fellow Americans vote, and for ways to call out the anti-American politicians who are trying to stop them.

The ultimate voter suppression would be for Trump to deploy his storm troopers Portland-style in swing-state Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, harassing people in front of polling places. We can hope that mayors and governors will not stand for that, and that the police will obey their local orders rather than side with the feds. It could get ugly, and again, could boomerang against Trump. Hopefully his advisors will convince him that it will.

Assessment: Trump can put his thumb on the scale, but only up to a point. It shouldn’t have to be this hard to get rid of him, but it is. I think we’re up to the challenge. So worry enough to take action, but not so much that you paralyze yourself.

5. Trump will lose and leave office, but he’ll trash the country on his way out the door.

Of course he will. This isn’t even something to worry about, just start getting ready for it. It’s going to happen.

Look for a flurry of pardons for all his henchmen (and probably himself, leading to an interesting legal battle), abrupt closures of American bases in any country that hasn’t treated him as well as he thinks he deserves, and at least one more big favor to pay off his debt to Vladimir Putin. (Putin would be crazy not to invade Estonia or something as soon as Trump loses.) And what’s more important: Taiwan’s independence, or a new Trump Tower in Shanghai?

Biden is going to have a historic mess to clean up when he takes office. But I believe he will take office.

Who Are Those Guys?

Customs and Border Protection has finally claimed the anonymous federal law enforcement agents who have been abducting people off the streets in Portland. But it still won’t say who they are or exactly what they’re doing.


Often, when the Trump administration is described in totalitarian terms, it’s hyperbole, or at least debatable.

So, for example, describing ICE as a “Gestapo” is hyperbole. They violate civil rights and are out of control in a lot of ways, but comparisons to the Gestapo are overblown. Similarly, there has been debate (yes and no) about whether the detention facilities that hold legal asylum seekers and unauthorized border-crossers qualify as “concentration camps”. (My opinion: Yes, as long as we remember that concentration camps are not always death camps. Concentration camps isolate unpopular and dehumanized groups in harsh conditions outside of public view; death camps target them for extermination. Dachau was a concentration camp when it opened in 1933, but it didn’t become a death camp until much later.)

However, the federal law enforcement agents who have been roaming around Portland this last week are literally “secret police” — no hyperbole, no exaggeration. Their uniforms say POLICE, but do not identify what federal agency they are from or who the individual officers are. They cover their faces, drive unmarked vehicles, and grab people off the street without identifying themselves, their unit, the reason for the arrest, or where they are taking their victims. If right-wing militia groups start putting POLICE patches on their camo uniforms and kidnapping protest leaders, no one will know the difference; neither their appearance nor their behavior will give them away.

So that’s where we are: We’ve crossed one more bridge on the road to fascism, and it’s arguable that we’ve already arrived. Let’s think about how we got here.

Lafayette Square. On June 1, after the peaceful protests of George Floyd’s murder had also spawned looting and property damage in cities across the nation, President Trump called for law enforcement to “dominate the streets“. He urged governors to call in the National Guard, and made the following threat:

“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump said, referring to himself as “your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”

He said he was already dispatching “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” to Washington to stop the violence that has been a feature of the protests here.

While he was speaking, federal law enforcement agents of various stripes attacked peaceful protesters near the White House, pushing them out of Lafayette Square so that Trump could have his infamous hold-up-the-Bible photo op at historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Meanwhile, active-duty troops were being deployed to the DC area. Unnamed sources claimed Trump wanted to deploy 10,000 troops. Fortunately, generals and Pentagon civilians all the way up to Defense Secretary Esper pushed back, arguing that suppressing domestic dissent is not the military’s role. (I’m guessing the 10,000-troop story was leaked by a military person who wanted the plan stopped.) In the end, active-duty troops were never used against protesters and were withdrawn, but not before the incident “badly strained relations between Mr. Trump and the military”.

From Trump’s point of view, though, the week had one bright spot. The regular military might be reluctant to take the field against American protesters, but he did identify a force he could use: a motley assortment of armed federal law enforcement agents temporarily commanded by Attorney General Bill Barr.

Few sights from the nation’s protests in recent days have seemed more dystopian than the appearance of rows of heavily-armed riot police around Washington in drab military-style uniforms with no insignia, identifying emblems or name badges. Many of the apparently federal agents have refused to identify which agency they work for.

In the words of Butch Cassidy: “Who are those guys?”

It turns out that the federal government has something like 132,000 law enforcement officers spread out over dozens of agencies in multiple departments. Yahoo News called the roll:

The show of force outside the White House is a task force operation that includes U.S. Secret Service, National Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Park Police, … Federal Protective Service, … elite SWAT teams from the Border Patrol and sniper-trained units from ICE have also descended upon Washington. TSA’s air marshals arrived too, and three of the agency’s “VIPR teams,” which have previously faced criticism for not coordinating well with local law enforcement. Eight Coast Guard investigators were deputized by the Department of Justice upon arrival in Washington, though it remains unclear how they are being deployed.

Which raises an obvious question: What kind of rules apply to people from one agency deputized by another? The rules of their home agency? Their temporary commander’s? None? There are all kinds of restrictions, both legal and institutional, on what the President can or can’t do with the military inside our borders. But these guys, apparently, not so much. Through the years, whenever Congress increased the budgets of the Bureau of Prisons or ATF or one of the dozens of other armed law enforcement agencies, who realized they were helping build a 132,000-man Praetorian Guard?

As democracy-threatening as this seemed in June, though, comforting speculation held that DC’s special relationship with the federal government made it unique. (That even became an argument for DC statehood.) Surely these little green men could never be deployed in a state over the objection of its governor.

After all, this is America.

The Portland protests. The George Floyd protests have had remarkable longevity, challenging the conventional wisdom that the Powers That Be can always wait these things out. But nothing lasts forever, and by July 1, even Seattle’s famous CHOP autonomous zone had been reclaimed by local authorities.

In Portland, however, the spirit of resistance is still very much alive. Friday marked the 50th day of protest. OregonLive describes the situation like this:

Portland has experienced weeks of daily protests since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police. The largest of them, involving thousands of people chanting and marching for racial justice and police non-violence, have been peaceful.

But almost like clockwork, tensions flare late at night between law enforcement officers stationed at the Justice Center and courthouse and a crowd of 20- and 30-something demonstrators, a small number of whom toss projectiles at police, shine lasers in their eyes or otherwise poke and prod officers to engage.

… Although the Justice Center and federal courthouse are covered with angry graffiti decrying police, evidence of other demonstrations in the city are scarce.

But you get a different sense from local journalist Robert Evans, who has been covering the nightly clashes, which he describes as “as close up to the line as you can get to actual war without live rounds”.

The craziest night so far was July 4, where kids stockpiled thousands of dollars in illegal fireworks. They were in the center of downtown where the bulk of the protests happened around the Justice Center.

It started as drunken party, more or less. At random, cops began shooting into the crowd. Protesters coalesced around the idea of firing commercial-grade fireworks into the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse. You had law enforcement firing rubber bullets, foam bullets, pepper balls and tear gas as crowds circled in around the courthouse firing rockets into the side of the building. That went on for a shocking length of time — there was this running three-hour street battle. I couldn’t tell whose explosions were whose.

Trumpist media and administration spokespeople have been desperate for something to talk about other than Trump’s failure to control the coronavirus pandemic, and so they have seized on “mob rule” as a theme, with Portland as a prime example of a city “under siege”. But OregonLive pushes back against that narrative: “A tour of the town shows otherwise.”

The images that populate national media feeds, however, come almost exclusively from a tiny point of the city: a 12-block area surrounding the Justice Center and federal courthouse. And they occur exclusively during late-night hours in which only a couple hundred or fewer protesters and scores of police officers are out in the city’s coronavirus-hollowed downtown.

Daily life in Portland is greatly restricted by the virus, but is barely affected by the demonstrations. Evans agrees:

One of the things I think people get wrong about this place, though, is that they see the protests and the right-wing coverage and the city is depicted as convulsed and collapsing. It’s just not true. You go three blocks from the center of downtown and life goes on as normal. Where I live, you could go every day and see no real signs of the protests.

Having totally given up on doing anything to combat the virus, though, Trump had to be seen doing something about something. And so he intervened in Portland.

DHS’ little green men. If you get your view of the world through Fox News, you understand that the biggest current threat to the United States and the American way of life is not the virus that has killed nearly 140,000 of us with no end in sight. No, it is the wanton destruction of our historical statues and monuments. Any time I have channel-scanned through the Fox News evening line-up in the last month, that’s what they’ve been talking about.

To combat this scourge, on June 26 President Trump heroically signed the “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence“. If you read past the polemics all the way to the end, you’ll find this authorization:

Upon the request of the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Administrator of General Services, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, personnel to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.

He’s talking about the 132,000 federal law enforcement agents, the Little Green Men. And unlike in a riot or a natural disaster where a governor might ask for the help of the National Guard, here one part of the federal government asks another part to send the Little Green Men. The Secretary of Homeland Security, you might notice, is authorized to ask himself for assistance.

As it happens, we don’t have a Secretary of Homeland Security, and haven’t since Trump forced Kirstjen Nielsen to resign in April, 2019 because she “pushed back on his demands to break the law“. Since then we’ve had acting DHS secretaries, because Trump says “I like acting. It gives me more flexibility.” (In fact, Josh Marshall observes that every DHS official who figures in this story is acting: “acting secretary, acting deputy secretary and acting head of CBP. Not one of these men has been confirmed by the Senate to act in this role.” Having avoided confirmation hearings where senators might demand promises or commitments, all three get their authority from and owe their allegiance to no one but Trump.)

So Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf responded to Trump’s executive order by creating the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT) “a special task force to coordinate Departmental law enforcement agency assets in protecting our nation’s historic monuments, memorials, statues, and federal facilities”. The PACT announcement quotes Wolf: “We won’t stand idly by while violent anarchists and rioters seek not only to vandalize and destroy the symbols of our nation, but to disrupt law and order and sow chaos in our communities.” (“Violent anarchist” is a phrase you’ll hear again. It is to the Trump administration what “terrorist” was to the Bush administration: a term stripped of all its original meanings until it is simply an insult, i.e., “someone we don’t like”.)

Notice the subtle shift: We’re not talking about statues of Andrew Jackson any more, as Trump was when he signed the executive order. We’re talking about “federal facilities” like the Mark Hatfield Courthouse in Portland, the courthouse mentioned above. PACT’s mission also extends beyond “protecting” those facilities to the much more nebulous goal of maintaining “law and order” and fighting “chaos in our communities”. But the Hatfield Courthouse is more than just a center of “chaos”, it is also the scene of a heinous crime: graffiti.

Maybe the Trump administration will stand idly by while American coronavirus deaths once again approach a thousand a day, and maybe it will do nothing when Putin puts bounties on the lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan, but graffiti on a federal courthouse is an affront up with which it will not put.

Send in the Little Green Men.

The federal invasion of Portland. Sometime after the Fourth of July — no one seems to know exactly when, because there wasn’t an announcement — unidentified federal law enforcement agents from no particular agency began battling protesters alongside the Portland police. And they did not just support the local officials, they significantly escalated the violence. Here’s Robert Evans again:

Since the feds got involved with police it’s gotten really brutal. I’d argue we’ve seen more police brutality in the last 50 days from Portland Police Department than anywhere else in the country. It’s brutal but it’s also predictable. There are rhythms to the way police work. It’s become an orchestrated dance with both sides.

There are warnings and kicking people out of the demonstration area. But the feds have deliberately defied the rhythms. Last Saturday [July 11], the crowd was 100 or so. It was very chill — nothing going on beyond the now-normal occupation of the Justice Center. And feds came out grabbing people seemingly at random and beating people with sticks. There was the kid who got shot in the head and his skull was fractured. The federal law enforcement violence is unpredictable violence.

The “kid shot in the head” was Donovan LaBella, and we have the shooting on video. The Oregonian summarized in a tweet:

Video shows nothing suggesting that La Bella, 26, who was standing across the street from the federal courthouse holding a speaker over his head, was a threat to anyone.

What appears to be a tear gas canister bounces in front of him. He kicks at it, bends down to toss it underhanded into the street, and lifts up his speaker again. Then he goes down, apparently struck by a sponge grenade or some other “less lethal” projectile that is never supposed to be aimed at someone’s head. (LaBella’s sister says he’s making a “remarkable recovery“, but the photo of his stitched-up forehead looks pretty gruesome.)

Who shot LaBella? Hard to say. Some unmarked federal agent in camo with a mask on, from some unnamed federal law enforcement agency.

How actions like this protect federal facilities is hard to figure. And then the abductions started.

Unmarked vans. NPR reports:

Federal law enforcement officers have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters since at least Tuesday. Personal accounts and multiple videos posted online show the officers driving up to people, detaining individuals with no explanation about why they are being arrested, and driving off.

To the people being kidnapped arrested, it’s not obvious that their abductors the officers are police at all.

“I see guys in camo,” O’Shea said. “Four or five of them pop out, open the door and it was just like, ‘Oh s**t. I don’t know who you are or what you want with us.'”

See any identifying marks?

And again the question: Who are these guys? As this widely shared video shows, two agents in camo with no label other than POLICE grab somebody off an empty street and throw him into a van. They are repeatedly asked who they are and what they’re doing, but they do not respond.

For hours no one knew who the masked kidnappers were working for. But eventually, Customs and Border Protection took responsibility for that particular “arrest”. (In an interview, though, Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli identified Federal Protective Services as the lead agency; CBP is assisting them.) Their statement is a series of lies wildly inconsistent with the video, or with numerous accounts of similar abductions.

CBP agents had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property.  Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location.  For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.  The CBP agents identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia during the encounter. The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country.

In fact, the street is virtually empty. The officers do not identify themselves, and if you can spot any insignia other than POLICE on their uniforms, you’re sharper than I am. I’m also struck by the “suspected of assaults against federal agents OR destruction of federal property”. The “or” suggests that this is a generic explanation rather than the specific reason for this particular arrest. Whoever wrote the statement probably has no more idea why the suspect was arrested than we do.

Robert Evans reports:

I’ve seen them rolling around in the vans and tackling people. My partner has watched them do a few snatch and grabs. The difference is they’re not cops. They go after people like soldiers, where the goal is to be unpredictable.

Acting Secretary Wolf’s justification of the entire operation, which didn’t appear until Thursday, is ridiculous. The phrase “violent anarchists” appears 72 times, along with a list of their “violent” crimes, which mostly consist of tagging the Hatfield Courthouse with graffiti. One “violent anarchist” was caught with a loaded weapon, but there is no report of the weapon being brandished or fired. (Compare to the AR-15 toting conservative protesters at the Michigan State House in May, whom Trump supported by tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”.)

OregonLive responded:

It’s telling that in Wolf’s extensive listing of incidents over the past several weeks, he neglects to mention the most violent act of these protests – a deputy U.S. marshal’s shooting of Donavan La Bella in the face with an impact munition. … That Wolf would fail to even acknowledge such a severe injury exposes how suspect his definition of “violence” is.

(OL appears to just be guessing who the shooter works for; I don’t believe the Marshals have claimed responsibility.) To repeat: “violent anarchist” has no meaning. It’s just an insult; it tags someone as an enemy.

Remember federalism? One hallmark of the Trump Era is that any principles conservatives used to claim — free trade, standing by allies, fiscal responsibility, the importance of character — have been exposed as hollow. One such relic of the age of principled conservatism is federalism: the doctrine that states share sovereignty with the federal government, and are not just subjects of federal rule.

Under federalism, policing is a state responsibility. In this case, it’s important to bear in mind that no local official asked for the federal government’s help in dealing with the protests. Acting Secretary Wolf did not even make a courtesy call to tell Oregon Governor Kate Brown or Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler what he was planning to do. This whole episode began not with an offer of help, but with Trump’s threat: “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.

That’s how this all came about: Trump and/or Wolf came to the conclusion that Portland was not treating protesters harshly enough, so Wolf asked himself to intervene.

Now that they have had a chance to see what DHS is doing, local officials at all levels have asked the federal agents to leave. Governor Brown tweeted:

This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety. The President is failing to lead this nation. Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power by the federal government. I told Acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets. His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes. He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm’s way.

And Mayor Wheeler acknowledged the government’s right to protect its buildings, but called for it to pull its agents off the streets:

I have no problem with the federal government and federal officers inside their facilities protecting their facilities. That’s what they do. That’s what they always do. What I have a problem with is them leaving the facilities and going out onto the streets of this community and then escalating an already tense situation like they did the other night.

Subsequently he made a stronger plea:

Their presence is neither wanted nor is it helpful and we’re asking them to leave. In fact, we’re demanding that they leave.

To which Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli responded:

We don’t have any plans to do that. When the violence recedes, then that is when we would look at that. This isn’t intended to be a permanent arrangement, but it will last as long as the violence demands additional support to contend with.

Also:

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a federal lawsuit against Homeland Security and its subagencies Friday alleging the federal government had violated Oregonians’ civil rights by seizing and detaining them without probable cause during protests against police brutality in the past week.

Oregon’s senior Senator Ron Wyden:

The Trump administration’s claim that DHS police are needed to enforce the president’s executive order to protect statues is laughable. Terrorizing peaceful protesters and arresting people for graffiti and other nonviolent offenses has nothing to do with securing federal property. My colleagues and I in the Oregon delegation have demanded that these occupying troops leave Portland, demanded answers from the administration and called for an independent investigation. And this week, my fellow senator from Oregon, Jeff Merkley, and I will introduce a measure to require Trump to remove these unwanted forces from our city.

Senator Merkley made his own comment:

Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters. These Trump/Barr tactics designed to eliminate any accountability are absolutely unacceptable in America, and must end.

As Governor Brown’s tweet indicates, Acting Secretary Wolf has refused to withdraw his Little Green Men. Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli also refused to pull the LGM back to the federal facilities whose protection is the pretext for their presence.

And I fully expect that as long as people continue to be violent and to destroy property that we will attempt to identify those folks. We will pick them up in front of the courthouse. If we spot them elsewhere, we will pick them up elsewhere. And if we have a question about somebody’s identity – like the first example I noted to you – after questioning determine it isn’t someone of interest, then they get released. And that’s standard law enforcement procedure, and it’s going to continue as long as the violence continues.

Results 1. Sometimes when you break the rules, the results will give you an after-the-fact justification: The problem is solved now, so who’s going to complain? But that’s not the case in Portland. Instead, DHS’ authoritarian overreach has drawn increased local attention to the protests and raised local sympathy for the protesters.

While President Trump on Sunday described the unrest in Portland as a national threat involving “anarchists and agitators,” the protests have featured a wide array of demonstrators, many now galvanized by federal officers exemplifying the militarized enforcement that protesters have long denounced. Gatherings over the weekend grew to upward of 1,000 people — the largest crowds in weeks.

Saturday, mothers (some wearing bicycle helmets in case federal agents would decide to club them) formed a human chain between police and demonstrators and chanted: “Feds stay clear. Moms are here.” Sunday night, a similar group of mothers was in fact dispersed with clubs and gas. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, one woman had a creative response to the threat of police violence.

In one extraordinary moment, a woman, completely naked except for a face mask and a hat, strode through the protests and squared up to federal agents and did a series of ballet and yoga moves. The striking moment was captured on social media and the unidentified woman has been dubbed “Naked Athena.”

Police apparently didn’t know what to do next. OregonLive reported:

About 10 minutes after she arrived, the officers left. The woman left soon after without any additional fanfare. “She was incredibly vulnerable,” [Oregonian/OregonLive photographer Dave] Killen said. “It would have been incredibly painful to be shot with any of those munitions with no clothes on.”

One good place to get a play-by-play of the weekend demonstrations is the Twitter feed of journalist Donovan Farley.

On the whole, it’s hard to argue with Governor Brown’s assessment:

It’s simply like adding gasoline to a fire. What’s needed is de-escalation and dialogue. That’s how we solve problems here in the state of Oregon.

Results 2. How you judge results depends on what your goal is. If the goal is to end the nightly conflicts between police and protesters, and to restore “law and order”, then the federal intervention has been an abject failure.

But when has Trump ever tried to end conflict? Trump thrives on conflict. Arguably, it’s in his political interest to make things worse. The violent federal escalation and abuse of civil rights may annoy Oregonians, but Trump was never going to carry Oregon in November anyway. The more interesting question to him is: How is this playing in swing states? Governor Brown has it right:

Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.

If Fox News can spin this as the President taking strong action to preserve law and order in a city where Democratic officials are unwilling to get tough with the violent anarchists, that’s all he wants. Even better if his “toughness” takes headlines away from his Covid-19 failure. And the more violence, the more headlines.

In short, he’s doing on the ground what he often does on Twitter: provoking a conflict with somebody his base doesn’t like in order to change the narrative from a story where he’s failing. Violent anarchists and feckless Democratic officials are playing the role usually reserved for black athletes like Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James, or charismatic women of color like AOC or Ilhan Omar.

Judged by that standard, Trump may think his intervention in Portland is going quite well.

Where it goes from here. PACT was not created to be a one-off, so Portland can be thought of as a test, a “dress rehearsal” (as Esquire’s Charles Pierce puts it) for a show that might be taken on the road all over the country. The groundwork is being laid to intervene in Chicago, whose black lesbian mayor has already been tagged a “derelict” by press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. A famously liberal city like San Francisco would also make a good target for Trumpist media. A Reichstag fire won’t be necessary; a few lines of graffiti on some federal building will suffice.

Three things are being tested in Portland:

  • Will the PACT agents do whatever they’re told, heedless of the rights of American citizens?
  • Will Trump get away with this legally, or will federal courts put his secret police under injunction? Will Congress intervene in some way?
  • Will Trump pay a political price, either in the media or by losing the support of the congressional Republicans who kept him in office in spite of the crimes he was impeached for?

The first test is clearly a success: Federal agents are acting like secret police in a classic banana republic, and there have been no signs of defections. No leaks, no scandalous stories attributed to anonymous sources.

Remarkably, Portland is a second-layer headline in both the New York Times and Washington Post this morning. You’ll find a Portland story if you scroll down, but they’re not calling your attention to it. I’ve also looked for a biting editorial cartoon on the subject and haven’t found one yet. So at the moment Trump is not paying a price in the mainstream media.

Elected Republicans are also ignoring the story, in spite of the traditional conservative principles being violated. (A satire article published after the first appearance of the Little Green Men in DC is being recirculated: “NRA Accidentally Forgets to Rise Up Against Tyrannical Government“.) It remains to be seen whether Democrats in Congress will insert some anti-LGM language into some must-pass appropriations bill, and whether Mitch McConnell will allow it.

Our best hope at the moment is the courts, where I don’t know what to expect. Neither do the folks at the LawFare blog, which is where I’m hoping to find insight before long. LF’s Steve Vladeck closes that article by wondering which would be worse: that the PACT agents are abusing their authority, or that all this is actually legal somehow?

The ultimate threat. As Trump continues to sink in the polls, more and more pundits raise the question: How will he try to cheat in the election? (The question “Will he try to cheat?” has already been answered. That’s what he was impeached for.) Various voter suppression schemes are brewing, and some are already working. Many of us are hard at work imagining scenarios where some combination of Covid-19 and voting by mail create new vote-stealing or vote-suppressing opportunities.

The true nightmare scenario is if he loses the election but refuses to leave office. Or perhaps he constructs some elaborate conspiracy theory in which the outcome of the election is doubtful, and decides to hang on until the doubt can be resolved to his satisfaction, which it never will be. Obviously, he can’t succeed in that plan entirely on his own, and different scenarios require different accomplices: Republicans in Congress, the Supreme Court, and so on.

If any of those play out (and I’m far from convinced they would) we could find ourselves in a true third-world-country situation, where the last line of defense is that the People refuse to accept a stolen election and take to the streets. In a typical third-world situation, the next question is: What does the Army do? An election-stealing President can often survive if the Army is willing to sweep into the major cities and put down protests.

One reason I have not worried too much about these scenarios is that I don’t think our Army would do that. The traditions of non-interference in the political process go all the way back to George Washington, and are very strong.

But Portland raises an additional question: What do the Little Green Men do? Could Trump really call his Praetorian Guard into the streets against the American people?

That too is being tested in Portland.

In the Land of “No We Can’t”

The Trump administration’s surrender to Covid-19 is just a symptom of a larger dysfunction. Whenever a problem calls for collective action, whether that problem is a disease, mass shootings, climate change, economic inequality, out-of-control police, chaotic elections, or systemic racism, Republicans tell us nothing can be done; we just have to live with it. And until we can banish them from positions of power, we do.


In 2008, a young black senator with an odd-sounding name, facing a well-known and well-financed rival with the full backing of his party’s establishment, won the Democratic nomination for president. He went on to a landslide victory in the fall, with large majorities in both houses of Congress riding on his coattails. The slogan he ran on was “Yes We Can”.

Like most effective political slogans — “Make America Great Again” has the same quality — “Yes We Can” meant different things to different people. Most obviously, African Americans heard it as: “Yes we can elect one of our own. We don’t have to pick our leader from a list of white men drawn up by other white men.” But depending on what you were listening for, “Yes We Can” could also mean: “Yes we can reform our healthcare system” or “Yes we can rebuild our infrastructure” or “Yes we can overcome inequality” or “Yes we can do something about climate change” or “Yes we can offer all our children a 21st-century education” or “Yes we can create enough jobs for everybody” or “Yes we can get our troops out of Iraq”.

In all of its interpretations, “Yes We Can” meant that we weren’t stuck. We aren’t doomed to watch our country (or planet) decay — perhaps retaining the freedom to complain about it, but not the power to choose a new course. Instead, we can band together, elect a government that represents our real interests, and focus the power of America on shaping the future we want.

Obama himself put it like this:

When the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful, and told that it can’t be done, then it doesn’t. I’m running for president because I want to tell them: Yes We Can.

Yes vs. No. Opposing “Yes We Can” is the Republican belief that government is never the solution, it can only make problems worse. And so, if some nationwide problem keeps you up at night, all you can do is change your individual behavior or circumstances — assuming you can afford to.

If your town’s public schools are poorly funded and badly run, you can move somewhere richer with better schools, or find the money to send your kids to a private school, or quit your job and homeschool. Ditto for infrastructure and public services: If your town can’t afford to fix its potholes or keep the parks open, move somewhere that can. If you don’t want to die in some country you don’t care about, stay out of the Army. If climate change worries you, buy a Prius and recycle. If you can’t find a job, start your own business. Search out better health insurance and pay what it costs. Buy a gun to defend your family, and if you can’t stop imagining a mass shooting at your child’s school, pray.

It’s all up to you. You’re on your own. If you can’t solve it, don’t look at us, because No We Can’t.

Around the world. The dirty secret of “No We Can’t” is that lots of other countries do take collective action, and so they already enjoy the nice things Americans can’t have. Every other first-world country has universal health care; if you get sick, you get the care you need and your family doesn’t go bankrupt. And they provide that health security by spending less of their national wealth on it.

Thursday’s New York Times included a number of compelling graphs showing America’s unique dysfunction. Only in America does increased GDP not lead to increased life expectancy. A smaller share of our economy goes to worker pay. We imprison more people. Our “free market” system provides the most expensive cellphone service in the world.

Just about all the countries of Western Europe and Scandanavia have free college. Little Costa Rica can run itself on sustainable energy for months at a time. China, Japan, and Europe have extensive bullet-train networks. China is building enormous public-infrastructure projects. Finland is beating homelessness and has the best schools in the world. Fourteen other countries offer their residents faster internet than the US does; average download speed in Taiwan or Singapore is more than double ours.

And while we watch our public infrastructure and services decay, other countries give their citizens beautiful presents like the Hovenring bicycle interchange in the Netherlands,

or the Oodi Library in Helsinki, whose library director describes it as “book heaven”.

Imagine proposing marvelous things like that in an American city.

Covid. The most obvious current example of “No We Can’t” is the Trump administration’s surrender to Covid-19, which now we are told we just have to “live with” — unless we get unlucky and die of it. I often criticized George W. Bush’s response to 9-11, but at least he never told us we just had to live with mass terrorist attacks.

Public health is the original us problem. Throughout history, no matter how rich or powerful you might have been, you were in trouble if the people who prepared your feasts or changed your bed linens got the plague. At the margins, there were things you could do individually to try to save yourself, but ultimately the solutions had to come from the public sector: sanitation, pure water sources, untainted food supply chains, quarantines, and other treatment plans that contained diseases before they spread.

No matter how much medical technology advances, that aspect of it hasn’t changed: Public health is a public problem. Nothing you can do on your own is going to find a Covid-19 cure or vaccine. And you can try to be careful, but nobody is completely self-sufficient, so eventually you’re going to deal with other people. If they’re infected, you’ve got a problem. We’re all in this together.

Public-health problems are solved by government action, or they’re not solved at all. Early in the pandemic, we heard stories of governments that got ahead of the spread and took effective action to protect their populations. South Korea has gotten a lot of attention, partly because its first verified case of Covid-19 appeared on the same day ours did: January 20. The Koreans used the full public-health playbook: aggressive testing, quarantining, contact tracing, and public-information campaigns to encourage good hygiene.

It worked, and despite occasional flare-ups, it continues to work. As of yesterday, South Korea had 13,030 total cases of Covid-19 and 283 deaths. Adjusting for population, that would be like the US having around 85,000 cases and 1,800 deaths. Actually, we’ve had 2.9 million cases and 132,000 deaths.

Americans more-or-less sloughed that comparison off. Whatever the Koreans did couldn’t possibly have worked here, because No We Can’t. Through March and April, we ignored South Korea (and Taiwan and New Zealand and even Germany) and instead focused on what was happening in Italy and Spain. Looking down rather than up reassured us. We had it bad, but so did a lot of other places. We weren’t some special loser country.

But now we are.

Europe locked down harder than we did, and its people whined about it less. European political leaders united behind their public health officials, so basic hygiene measures like mask-wearing didn’t become political issues. It shows: Even including Italy and Spain, the EU as a whole, with about a third more people (446 million) than the US, now averages less than 4,000 new cases a day. This week, Arizona (population 7.5 million) has been averaging around 3,600 new cases each day, hitting a peak of 4,877 on Wednesday. The US as a whole hit 50,000 new cases for the first time on July 1, and stayed above that level for four days. (Yesterday was “down” to 43K, but I wonder how much of that was due to fewer tests being done over the holiday weekend.)

In the face of that horrifying comparison, the Trump administration has just decided to move on. His televised daily briefings ended in April, not long after his inject-bleach embarrassment. Since then Trump has talked about the virus only to minimize it, mock Joe Biden for wearing a mask, urge states to ignore the recommendations of his own CDC, and assemble his own supporters In rallies that have all the earmarks of super-spreader events. In highly promoted speeches on Friday and Saturday, Trump neither acknowledged our national failure to contain the virus, nor proposed any plan for the future beyond waiting for a vaccine — which we can’t even be sure is coming at all.

Other nations can beat this virus, but No We Can’t.

The post-policy GOP. The Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell noticed the pattern, and connected its dots like this:

Much as they gave up on coronavirus containment, U.S. political leaders previously gave up on solving our epidemic of gun violence. And on our high numbers of police-perpetrated killings. Also our high rates of child poverty, uninsurance and carbon emissions. On these and other metrics, the United States fares worse than most if not all other industrialized countries. Yet U.S. officials — from one party in particular — treat these crises as imaginary or unsolvable.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had a similar epiphany:

Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the [Republican] party wants to acknowledge.

It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.

So instead of dealing with Covid-19, Republican leaders and right-wing media figures have tried to make the pandemic into the kind of threat they want to talk about. It’s “kung flu,” foisted on us by villainous Chinese. Or it’s a hoax perpetrated by the “medical deep state,” which is just looking for a way to hurt Trump.

Steve Benen, who writes the companion blog to the Rachel Maddow Show, elaborated on this theme at book length in The Imposters: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics. Benen coined the label “post-policy party” to describe the current GOP. His book goes issue by issue, and shows how Republicans have systematically ditched their policy-making apparatus in favor of marketing, with the result that they have plenty of good one-liners, but no programs they’re ready to implement once they take power.

The most obvious example is health care. Republicans have been running against ObamaCare since Obama proposed it in 2009, and Trump has been claiming since 2015 that ObamaCare “can be replaced with something much better for everybody. Let it be for everybody. But much better and much less expensive for people and for the government.” What would that “much better” replacement look like? We still have no idea. “Repeal and Replace” was a nice slogan, but once you’ve heard the slogan, you’ve heard all they have.

That’s true across the board. There are no Republican policies, just slogans.

You can see that in Congress, where the Democratic House passes bills that the Republican Senate never debates. Nothing comes back in the other direction. If the Democratic solutions seemed to liberal to Mitch McConnell, his Senate could amend those bills with Republican solutions and send them back. But there are no Republican solutions, so the bills just sit in Mitch’s in-box.

You can see it in the presidential campaign. Ordinarily, candidates for president are dying to tell you what they want to do in office. (For comparison, here’s the Biden policy page.) But here’s how Trump answered Sean Hannity’s question about the “top priority items” for his second term.

One of the things that will be really great — the word experience is still good, I always say talent is more important than experience, I’ve always said that — but the word experience is a very important word, a very important meaning.

I never did this before, never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington maybe 17 times and all of a sudden I’m the president of the United States, you know the story, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady and I say this is great but I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York, and now I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes, like an idiot like Bolton, you don’t have to drop bombs on everybody.

What American problems does he hope to address in the second term? None. He’ll grapple with imaginary enemies like Antifa, and “far-left fascism“. He’ll protect our endangered statues of Confederate generals, but not our soldiers in the field. He’ll continue tweeting and preening in front of crowds and playing at being president. But he won’t actually lead us in accomplishing anything, because No We Can’t.

The Republican Party must be removed from all positions of power. Much ink has been spilled lamenting the loss of bipartisanship, and waxing nostalgic about the deals cooked up by Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, or Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan. Usually this is presented in a pox-on-both-houses tone, as if the two sides were equally intransigent.

Here’s the point that is often lost: You can’t compromise with people who aren’t trying to do anything. If you and I both recognize a problem and each have our own approaches to solving it, chances are good we can work something out. But if I care about climate change and systemic racism but you claim both are hoaxes, or if I want universal health care and you don’t care about healthcare at all, or if you fake concern for the budget deficit when my party is in power, then forget about it the moment you take office, or if I want DACA dreamers to have a path to citizenship, and you won’t say what you want for them … where can we go from there? What can I offer you in exchange for your help with my agenda?

Steven Benen is right: Our two-party system only works when we have two governing parties, two parties that have directions they want to go and policies they think will take us there, two parties that have plans for dealing with the nation’s problems. At the moment we only have one such party, the Democrats. Our political system will be broken until Republicans get serious about governing again.

And they won’t until the electorate forces them to. That means voting them out, up and down the ballot. You don’t have to believe that the Democratic direction is ideal, just recognize that they have a direction. You may wish they would go much farther or faster, but at least they want to move. If we enter 2021 with Biden as president and two Democratic houses of Congress, we can at least try to address our national problems.

But if Republicans are left holding any lever of power at all, we’ll be stuck in the Land of No We Can’t.

What’s in a Slogan?

Democrats may reach consensus about the future of policing more easily than they reach consensus about what to call that vision.


If the demonstrations set off by the murder of George Floyd (and now possibly extended by the killing of Rayshard Brooks) are going to be more than just a way to blow off steam, they have to lead to substantive change in the ways America enforces its laws. As I laid out last week, some reforms are already happening. Cities and states across the nation are banning chokeholds, instituting new procedures for reporting incidents of excessive force, and making it easier to identify and prosecute police officers who step over the line.

Is that enough? While those reforms are welcome and overdue, it’s hard to be confident that they will solve the problem, which goes to the heart of how police function in America: They are heavily armed, are inclined to escalate conflicts rather than de-escalate them, and reflexively cover for each other when rules are broken. Making more rules may not help, as long as police are motivated to help other police get away with breaking those rules. The pseudonymous author Officer A. Cab of “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” testifies:

“All cops are bastards.” Even your uncle, even your cousin, even your mom, even your brother, even your best friend, even your spouse, even me. Because even if they wouldn’t Do The Thing themselves, they will almost never rat out another officer who Does The Thing, much less stop it from happening.

… I really want to hammer this home: every cop in your neighborhood is damaged by their training, emboldened by their immunity, and they have a gun and the ability to take your life with near-impunity. This does not make you safer, even if you’re white.

Police also cost a huge amount of money. Bloomberg estimates:

Over the past four decades, the cost of policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017

The number of violent crimes peaked in 1993 and is down by more than 1/3 since then, but police budgets have continued to eat up about 3.7% of all state and local spending. That figure does not include the estimated $81 billion spent on prisons or the $29 billion spent processing people through the criminal courts. Some large cities spend considerably more than 3.7%: New York City budgets about $5.9 billion, which is more than 6% of its total spending.

Given all that, a surprisingly wide range of people are proposing a very simple idea: What if we just had fewer police?

The predictable backlash. That suggestion is easy to exaggerate and demonize.

Here’s an obvious attack ad to run against any politician who endorses it: Some white woman reenacts her totally true story of hiding in the closet with her toddler and calling 911 while strange men ravage her home. The invaders run away when they hear sirens approaching, and she and her boy emerge unharmed. She expresses her perfectly genuine gratitude to the helpful and reassuring officers who arrive on her doorstep. (I’d make one of the cops black, just to insulate against charges of race-baiting.)

Then a male narrator says: “Julie and Luke escaped their harrowing experience without a scratch, and the damage to their home was soon repaired. But if Senator Liberal Democrat had his way, no one would have answered her desperate call.” [A busy signal gets louder and louder as the camera slowly zooms in on the window the invaders broke to enter.] “Far-left politicians like Senator Democrat want to fire Officers Good and Noble, and slash the budgets of their departments. Let’s fire Senator Democrat instead, before the call that goes unanswered is yours.” [visual fade to the sound of an annoyingly loud busy signal]

It’s no wonder that people planning to have their names on ballots in the fall — people like Joe Biden and Jim Clyburn — have been running away from the “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” slogans. A recent YouGov poll (scroll down to page 58) says that only 16% of the public favor cutting police budgets, while 65% oppose such cuts. So it’s also no wonder the Trump campaign is already running this ad:

 

But think about it. The fewer-police proposal isn’t just that we get rid of police and do nothing else. The point is that interrupting crimes in progress and arresting dangerous suspects is a very small part of what police do. If we let them concentrate on stuff like that, and didn’t load them down with every public problem that their cities don’t have covered some other way, we wouldn’t need nearly so many of them. Minneapolis Councilman Steve Fletcher explained the council’s pledge to “dismantle” the MPD.

What we’re trying to change is how we answer 911. So many of the calls that we currently send police officers with guns would actually be better served by mental health professionals, by social workers, by outreach workers, by conflict resolution specialists.

This already happens in certain cases: If you call 911 and say your house is on fire, they don’t send police, they send a fire engine. If you say somebody is having a heart attack, they send an ambulance with EMTs. If a bear is rummaging through your garbage or a rabid raccoon is in your driveway, you might get connected to an animal-control department. There’s no reason cities couldn’t also have specialized emergency responders for many situations they currently handle by dispatching police: drug overdoses, domestic arguments, loud parties, homeless people camping out someplace they shouldn’t, and so on.

Friday night’s shooting of Rayshard Brooks is a case in point: The original problem was that he fell asleep while his car was parked, partially blocking a Wendy’s drive-through. Did someone with a gun need to handle that? If someone without a gun had been sent — the kind of plan San Francisco is rolling out, and a few smaller cities are already trying — Brooks would probably still be alive.

Even most criminal investigation doesn’t really need a policeman, or at least not an armed one. Typically, police show up in the aftermath of a crime: Your car has been stolen, or you came home to find your house had been burglarized. The perpetrators are long gone. Armed police come, but what the situation really calls for is someone with the skills of an insurance adjuster — someone who can take your statement, shoot some photos, collect some evidence, and write a report. Guns shouldn’t be necessary until it’s time to make an arrest, and maybe not even then.

The Washington Post assembled this graphic summary of what police do in a major American city:

In short, the fewer-police proposal is also a more-people-to-handle-stuff-the-police-should-never-have-been-asked-to-do proposal. And police departments’ funding gets cut, not to punish them, but because the money for those other specialists has to come from somewhere.

Some of that work would be preventive rather than responsive. For example, if a city put real resources behind finding each homeless person a home (like they do in Finland), police (or whoever) wouldn’t have to answer so many calls about them. (The homeless are probably a large chunk of that “suspicious person” block in the graphic.)

And one final point from Georgetown law professor Christy Lopez:

Once we begin to undertake this inquiry [of rethinking public safety], we quickly see that there are some things that police are doing that nobody should be doing, such as enforcing laws that criminalize poverty and addiction, arresting people instead of issuing citations, writing tickets to raise revenue rather than protect the public, and using armored vehicles to evict women and children from a home they have occupied to protest homelessness.

Political activism vs. electoral politics. “Abolish the Police” is probably a great slogan if you want to raise energy for a protest, but across most of the country it would be a suicidal slogan for a political campaign.

A good issue-activist slogan is provocative in much the same way that online clickbait is. It draws your attention, maybe shocks you a little, and pulls you into the discussion if only to argue against it. Once drawn in, you may consider ideas you had never thought of before, and the activists may elaborate their proposals in ways that make them more reasonable than they originally sounded.

To a large extent, that’s working. I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read explaining that “Abolish the Police” and “Defund the Police” don’t really mean “abolish the police” or “cut their funding to zero”: Somebody would still answer 911 calls, and if the needed response was for armed warriors to show up — say, in an active shooter situation — the city would still have some on the payroll. As Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing told NPR:

I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police.

(Then again, some people really do mean “Abolish the Police”.)

Would I have read those articles and considered those ideas if they had just been labeled “police reform” or something equally bland? Maybe not.

But while it makes sense for an issue activist to shock you with a slogan and then explain the nuances later, that’s an insane strategy for a politician trying to get elected. Ronald Reagan was right: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Issue-oriented activists tend to underestimate the importance of low-information voters in electoral politics. But those voters are why every campaign works hard to oversimplify its opponents’ positions to the point of absurdity, and then to get those simple absurdities into the minds of voters who can’t be bothered to consider the complicated details.

In 1988, for example, Mike Dukakis had a huge lead in the polls after the Democratic Convention. But George H. W. Bush caught up and won handily on the strength of two “issues”: Mike Dukakis hates the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mike Dukakis will let big black dudes rape your wife. Both were nonsense, but explaining why they were nonsense derailed Dukakis’ whole message. He had to keep explaining, and so he lost. Bush’s 53% of the vote is more than any presidential candidate has gotten since.

Trump and Biden. You can already see Trump pushing a similar oversimplification on immigration policy: Democrats want “open borders“. None of the Democrats running for president in this cycle endorsed “open borders”, and I can’t think of a single Democrat in Congress who has even said the phrase. But nonetheless it’s a staple of Trump rhetoric: If Democrats take over, the Mexican border will be left completely unmanned and unprotected.

He has been helped in this effort by liberal activists who pushed the slogan “Abolish ICE”. Now, “Abolish ICE” doesn’t mean “leave the border unprotected”, but it sounds like it does. If you tell low-information voters that Democrats want open borders, and illustrate with demonstrators waving “Abolish ICE” signs, they’ll be convinced.

Similarly here, “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” doesn’t mean “You’re on your own if a criminal attacks you.” But it sounds like it does. If I tell a low-information voter that Joe Biden won’t protect him from criminals, and then cut to a video of Biden saying “Abolish the police”, he’ll be convinced.

And that’s why Biden will never say, “Abolish the police.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn elaborates:

If you’re talking about reallocating resources, say that. If you mean reimagining policing, say that. If you’re going to reform policing, say that. Don’t tell me you’re going to use a term that you know is charged — and tell me that it doesn’t mean what it says.

California Governor Gavin Newsom explored the limits of how far a mainstream politician can go:

California Governor Gavin Newsom [said] Wednesday that while he’s not interested in “eliminating police,” he’s open to considering how a police officer’s role in a community could change.

“If you’re talking about reimagining and taking the opportunity to look at the responsibility and role that we place on law enforcement to be social workers, mental health workers, get involved in disputes where a badge and a gun are unnecessary, then I think absolutely this is an opportunity to look at all of the above.”

Is there any good electoral slogan here? Personally, I’m frustrated that no simple English verb expresses the idea I want. No everyday verb means “Expand other things so that one particular thing gets crowded out.” I can’t even think of a good metaphor to express that notion.

I agree with the abolition supporters that “reform” is too tepid. We’ve been reforming police for a long time now, and yet we still have George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. I can’t claim that nothing has changed, because Floyd’s killer is charged with murder when so many killer officers have previously gone uncharged. The Brooks incident has already pushed the Atlanta police chief to resign, and charges against the officer are expected soon. Stuff like that didn’t used to happen. But the unnecessary deaths continue, and (even assuming the reforms currently on the table become law) I can’t say when they’ll stop.

What is stronger than “reform”, but doesn’t have the unfortunate implications of “abolish”? I don’t have a good candidate. Some people are saying “dismantle”. “Reconstitute” might work. I’m tempted to steal a word from the business world, and talk about “downsizing” the police.

Another option might be to talk about “the police state” rather than just “the police”. Americans have ambivalent feelings about police, but nobody likes a police state. (Trump loves to defend the police, but defending the police state would be a gift to his enemies.) “Police state” would capture the idea that black neighborhoods are over-policed, and would also tie in to the idea of mass incarceration. It points to the observation that we currently deal with all kinds of social problems (like homelessness or addiction) through the police rather than through more appropriate institutions.

Downsize the police? Dismantle the police state? End policing as we know it? None of them strikes me as an election-winning slogan, but they’re the best I can do.

Do activists and politicians need to say the same words? Another way to look at this is to let activists advance issues and let politicians win elections. Activists could keep saying “Abolish the police”, and no electoral harm would be done as long as they understood that no national figure could say it with them. The redefinition of police and of public safety is going to have to happen locally anyway. Maybe the best thing the federal government can do is stay out of the way.

Maybe it could be enough for Biden and other major Democrats in the fall election to say things activists could interpret positively, while still holding back from “Abolish the police”, as Governor Newsom did. Maybe it would be enough if Biden could say something like “The beauty of our federal system is that cities and states are free to experiment and try new things. If some of them want to find creative ways to deliver public services, and if they want to develop a new vision of how to ensure public safety, then a Biden administration will try to work with them.”

But maybe it wouldn’t be enough. Trump won in 2016 by pounding two wedges: a “corruption” wedge between Hillary Clinton and the center-right, and a Bernie-was-robbed wedge between Clinton and left. He’s going to try the same thing again. “Abolish the Police” works for him either way: If Biden agrees with the slogan, that becomes a wedge separating him from the center. If he doesn’t, it’s a wedge separating him from the left.

So that’s the question activists will be left with: Is it enough for Biden to indicate a general sympathy with their movement (when Trump is steadfastly against it), or does he have to repeat their words?

Trump Has No Endgame

Stop stressing yourself trying to anticipate the masterstroke in his nefarious plan.


Both in the mainstream media and among my social-media friends, I see people who ought to know better switching back and forth between two divergent and contradictory images of Donald Trump: the Magical Thinker and the Master Planner. Recognizing that the president is a magical thinker makes them despair over how our country will deal with the current crisis. But at the same time they have nightmares about the master planner who will find a cunning way to stay in power.

In everything else, Trump is the Dunning-Kruger poster child. But when the subject changes to the election, or to everything that happens between the election and the inauguration of a new president, they suddenly see him as the genius he claims to be. An evil genius, perhaps — a Lex Luthor or a Victor von Doom — but a genius all the same.

Magical Thinker. When we’re talking about practical governing or attempting to solve the problems of the nation, it seems obvious that Trump indulges in magical thinking: He believes he can make the world be what he wants it to be just by insisting that it already is. What he wants to happen will happen, because he says so: The virus will go away “like a miracle”. It’s no worse than the ordinary flu. Anybody who wants a test gets a test. We lead the world in testing. There is no shortage of PPE for hospital workers. The country is ready to reopen, and when it does, the economy will come zooming back. Everyone should be grateful to him for the great job he’s been doing.

His magical thinking is made even worse by his childlike inability to consider the future. His entire focus is on looking good right now, even if it will hurt him in the long run. During February and early March, for example, his happy talk about the virus seemed to be aimed at keeping the stock market high, because that was the core of his re-election pitch: The market is high, unemployment is low; I promised a great economy and I delivered.

There was never any chance he could keep that scam going until November, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. If the market stayed high today, that gave him a talking point today, and improved his poll numbers today. November was November’s problem.

His daily coronavirus briefings (which he continued until wiser heads made him stop) were full of short-term image-building that could never hold up over time. The hospitals have plenty of masks and ventilators, no matter what they say. And Trump is a genius who has genius ideas nobody else thinks of: Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug. Bleach can kill virus inside the body.

It’s obvious now that it was always in Trump’s best interest to do a good job fighting the virus. Imagine if he had sounded the alarm early and started emergency preparations back in January and February (as the disease experts inside the government were pleading for him to do). The death total would be lower by tens of thousands and the economy really might be in a position to reopen. What if the US anti-virus efforts were one of the world’s success stories rather than the cautionary tale of neglect and incompetence it is now?

He could have benefited from the we’re-all-in-this-together wave that has boosted the approval numbers of Democratic and Republican governors alike, even in the states that have the highest death totals. If he had met the crisis head-on and given the American people straight talk combined with the steady reassurance of realistic hope (like Andrew Cuomo did in New York), Covid-19 might have been the tailwind that pushed an otherwise unpopular president across the finish line to re-election.

But that strategy would have required a months-long time horizon, which he doesn’t have. He’d have needed to sacrifice the immediate satisfaction of bragging about how wonderful he is and what a perfect economy he has made. He just couldn’t do it.

He still can’t. With another month or so of lockdown, combined with a well-funded, well-organized national test-and-trace program and some realistic guidelines for gradual reopening, the worst of the crisis might yet be in the rear-view mirror by Election Day. But pushing the states to relax restrictions while the virus is still spreading is the same short-term magical thinking all over again. It feels good right now to tell upbeat stories about restaurants and barber shops reopening, and to imagine schools and baseball stadiums opening soon. But how will that look in the fall, when people start voting?

By November, another few weeks of boredom and struggle in May and June would be long forgotten. But a pandemic that in November is still killing thousands of Americans (but not thousands of Germans or Koreans or Canadians) every week will be hard to wish away.

Master Planner. When it comes to politics, though, many people who otherwise see Trump’s cognitive, intellectual, and psychological shortcomings imagine the existence of a Master Plan that ultimately makes it all work in his favor. If he seems to be charging towards a cliff, that can only mean that he has a parachute, or that a military helicopter is waiting to pluck him out of the air.

I mean, he couldn’t just be stupid or delusional, could he? He couldn’t possibly imagine that the cliff will go away because he wants it to, or that he will sprout wings and fly when he gets there? That would be as crazy as … well, all the other stuff he’s done.

But from this point of view, he’s not blundering his way through the virus fight; he wants the virus to be raging in November so that he can use it to suppress the vote. Or maybe he plans to declare martial law and cancel the election. Even if he loses the election, he must have a plan for that too.

Heather Cox Richardson, who usually strikes me as very level-headed, sees an ominous portent in Trump’s “ObamaGate” maneuvers.

It suggests that the Trump administration really is contemplating legal action against F.B.I. officials who were investigating the attack on the 2016 election. This is unprecedented. More, though, it suggests that the Trump administration does not anticipate a Democratic presidency following this one, since it could expect any precedent it now sets to be used against its own people. That it is willing to weaponize intelligence information from a previous administration suggests it is not concerned that the next administration will weaponize intelligence information against Trump officials. That confidence concerns me.

Gee. Inventing a talking point that helps him today creates a scenario where it all backfires somewhere down the road. Who could imagine Trump doing such a thing?

Apply the model of Trump that we see validated every day in every other part of his administration: He doesn’t “anticipate a Democratic presidency” because he doesn’t anticipate anything. Imagine being a Trump aide and raising the question “What are we going to do if Biden beats you?” Do you think you’d get an answer? Would you expect him to tell you to assemble a team and construct a Biden-beats-me contingency plan? Or would he just take your head off and replace you with somebody who doesn’t ask questions like that?

We need a plan even if he doesn’t have one. Trump never looks ahead, but once he gets into a bad situation he looks around. He isn’t bound by moral scruples or political norms or even the law. All options are on the table.

So I expect him to keep denying his poor prospects for re-election until at least mid-October. In the same way that Hitler in 1945 kept promising “miracle weapons” — like the V-2 rocket or jet fighter planes — that would turn the war around, Trump will always have some reason to project success: a last-minute vaccine announcement, a surprise uptick in the economy (or maybe just forcing the Labor Department to publish fake numbers), war with Iran, or a final ad blitz that will destroy Biden once and for all.

As the election approaches, though, it will eventually dawn on him that he’s really losing. As in the Reagan/Carter race of 1980, the voters who make up their minds at the last minute will ask themselves whether this president deserves another term, and they’ll say no. At that point — and not a second before — he will ask, “How can I stop this?” How can I stop people from voting? How can I discredit the vote count? How can I steal votes in the Electoral College? Can the Senate or the Supreme Court declare me the winner even though I lost? Can I just refuse to leave?

At that point, he’ll thrash like a fish in a net. But whatever he does won’t be well prepared or well planned. A military coup is a bit more complicated than just calling the Pentagon and ordering them to keep you in power. Politicians and bureaucrats and judges who cooperated with you when you seemed invincible may decide they don’t want to go to jail for you now that you’re on your way out. And those bands of overweight yahoos with AR-15s may be willing to get violent on his say-so, but who will they shoot and what will they accomplish? All that would require a plan, and there is no plan.

Democrats should not get complacent going down the stretch, because at the last minute Trump will be ready to try anything. But he won’t suddenly become a master strategist.

He’ll thrash and he’ll bluster and he’ll try crazy things. But like most things he tries, they won’t be well thought out. And like most things he tries, they won’t work.

The Republican Shenanigans in Wisconsin

How much are Republicans willing to disrupt democracy to maintain their power? We’re starting to find out.


This week, partisan majorities in the Wisconsin legislature, Wisconsin Supreme Court, and US Supreme Court combined their power to rig Tuesday’s election, with the goal of safeguarding the Republican majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against possible interference by the voters. The cost of this exercise of raw power was both the disenfranchisement of large numbers of Wisconsin citizens and an increase in the spread of Covid-19 in the state. As a result, both votes and lives will be lost.

Wisconsin’s pre-existing condition: an ailing democracy. Before we get into the details of how Tuesday played out, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin’s claim to have a democratic form of government was already shaky. Elections are still held, but the state has been gerrymandered to the point that large Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature are just about impervious to the will of the People. Republicans have power because they have power, not because the voters of Wisconsin want them.

2018 election results in Wisconsin.

The election of 2018 proved that point: Democrats won all the statewide offices, including the governorship. Together, Democratic candidates for the lower house of the legislature — where all the seats were up for election — got 200,000 more votes than Republicans. And yet Republicans won not just a majority of the seats, but close to a supermajority: 63 out of 99.

That advantage comes on top of the unfair advantage Republicans get from voter suppression. They lost among the people who managed to vote by 200K. If voting were easier, they probably would have lost by much more.

How do they get away with that? Well, one reason is that the Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t protect the right of Wisconsin voters to control their government, at least not when that government is Republican.

But Supreme Court justices are elected in Wisconsin, so if Wisconsinites want their democracy back, they can vote out the Republican judges who stand in their way. At least in theory. That theory was being tested Tuesday.

What the election was going to be about. Outside of Wisconsin, Tuesday’s election mainly had been getting attention as a presidential primary. Joe Biden held a substantial delegate lead, but Bernie Sanders was still running, and Sanders had beaten Hillary Clinton soundly in Wisconsin in 2016. The recent polls weren’t looking good for Sanders this time, but if he could pull off a result similar to his 2016 victory, things might yet get interesting.

Inside the state, though, the election was about judgeships, particularly a seat on the state’s highest court. Politico explains:

The high court has played a pivotal role in upholding major pieces of GOP legislation including Act 10 in 2011, which limited public employee collective bargaining rights. The court, which now has a 5-to-2 conservative majority, also shut down a long-running investigation into the campaign of former Governor Scott Walker for campaign finance violations, and upheld the GOP Legislature’s move to limit the powers of incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers after his defeat of Walker. The court will also play a decisive role in the upcoming fight over redistricting as well as a host of hot-button social issues such as abortion and religious liberty.

Also at stake: “three seats on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, over 100 other judgeships, over 500 school board seats, and several thousand other positions”.

The judicial elections happening simultaneously with the primary seemed like a misfortune to Republicans, though, because (since Trump is running unopposed) more Democrats seemed likely to turn out than Republicans. If only there were some way to keep turnout down across the board …

The coronavirus election. Then coronavirus happened. Showing up to vote is a risky thing during an epidemic, especially if you have to wait in long lines with other people, some of whom are bound to be carrying the virus. Other states have recognized this problem and so a series of primaries have been postponed. In all 16 states have delayed their primaries.

Democratic Governor Tony Evers thought Wisconsin should do the same. He already had issued a stay-at-home order on March 24, and reasoned that it made little sense to tell people both to stay home and to go out and vote. On April 3 he called the legislature into special session to delay the primary. Evers wanted to convert the primary to a vote-by-mail format, and allow voters to return their ballots anytime until late May.

That, of course, would raise turnout, which is seen as a partisan issue in Wisconsin, and across the country. (If you want a lot of people to vote, you must be a Democrat.) But the gerrymandered Republican legislature could have proposed its own plan to postpone the primary, and Evers would have found himself under considerable pressure to go along with it.

Instead, the legislature came up with the best voter-suppression plan of all: Let’s make people risk their lives in order to vote! The leaders of both houses issued a joint statement: “Our Republic must continue to function.” The primary would go on as scheduled.

This looked like a trainwreck-in-the-making to Governor Evers, whose main job these days is to convince his citizens to stay home and not spread the virus. So the day before the primary — right after the legislature adjourned his special session without acting — he issued an order delaying the primary until June 9, noting the risk not just to the voters, but even moreso to the poll workers who “come into close proximity with dozens, if not hundreds, of voters”.

Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald immediately challenged that order in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which — surprise! — supported them 4-2. Vos and Fitzgerald rejoiced:

We continue to believe that citizens should be able to exercise their right to vote at the polls on Election Day, should they choose to do so … this election will proceed as planned.

What about voting absentee? OK, there’s an election. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to the polls to vote. The decision that the show must go on produced a predictable avalanche of absentee-ballot requests. Last year, when there was a spring election but not a presidential primary, 167,832 absentee ballots were requested. For the 2016 general election there were 595,914 requests. This year? 1,293,288. About 200,000 of those ballots were not returned in time to count, compared to just 30,000 in the 2016 general election.

The office that distributes absentee ballots wasn’t set up to deal with such a deluge of last-minute requests, so it soon became apparent that some number of legitimate Wisconsin voters wouldn’t get their ballots before election day.

A collection of (mostly Democratic) voters and groups sued to get an extension for absentee voters to return their ballots. A federal district court ruled in their favor, extending the deadline from election day to today, nearly a week later. The election commission was also enjoined from releasing results until then.

That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court’s Republican* majority: Votes could continue to be counted until today, but they had to be postmarked by election day. That decision is unsigned. It mentions the problem that voters may not have received their ballots (which the lower court held was an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote), but then completely ignores it, comparing the situation to normal elections where people who request a ballot at the last minute may not have much time to fill it out and mail it. (It’s worth pointing out that the undelivered-ballot question is not just theoretical. “Three tubs of ballots for Oshkosh and Appleton have been discovered at a mail processing center in Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission and a state senator.”)

Justice Ginsberg’s dissent asks a simple question:

If a voter already in line by the poll’s closing time can still vote, why should Wisconsin’s absentee voters, already in line to receive ballots, be denied the franchise?

The majority opinion doesn’t answer that question, because there is no answer.

Election day. The NYT’s Linda Greenhouse, in a column blasting the Supreme Court’s Republican majority, (and in particular skewering the majority’s use of the word “ordinarily”, as if anything about this situation were ordinary) summarized the election-day conditions.

Milwaukee voters are not ordinarily reduced to using only five polling places. Typically, 180 are open.

In a stunt that probably wasn’t as effective as he planned, Speaker Vos himself worked as an election inspector. Covered in protective equipment, he assured the public that “You are incredibly safe to go out.

Implications for future elections. In the back of everyone’s mind is the question: What if Covid-19 turns out to have a seasonal factor? It almost certainly won’t go away completely in the summer — it’s summer all year round in Florida, and they’ve had nearly 20,000 infections — but what if it diminishes, and then comes roaring back in the fall? Or what if we re-open the economy too quickly and get a fall resurgence that way?

In either case, it’s not impossible to imagine that the general election in November could take place under very similar conditions to the ones in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a plan for that now, rather than go through last-minute drama and see large numbers of Americans disenfranchised?

You know who has a plan for that? Elizabeth Warren. Her plan calls for online voter registration, a vote-by-mail option, and at least 30 days of early voting. Radical stuff like that.

The problem with all those ideas, of course, is that they encourage people to vote. Or at least Republicans see that as a problem. They talk a lot about fraud, which is their usual excuse for voter suppression, but that’s not their real issue. (Washington state votes entirely by mail and has for years. Voting by mail is the standard thing for our overseas military. Fraud has not been a problem.) Their issue is that if you make voting easy, more people will vote. Marginal voters tend to vote Democratic, so it’s important to make voting as hard as possible.


* Typically, the media refers to the Court’s “conservative” majority, but that characterization has not been accurate for some while. More and more often, dating back to Bush v Gore, Citizens United, and John Roberts’ evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has been making decisions that can’t be explained by legal philosophy. The point is that Republicans should win, not that some theory of constitutional interpretation is better than another. So henceforth I’ll be refusing to play along with the ruse that their rulings have something to do with limited government or the Founders’ original intent.

The Speech a Great President Would Give Now

If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.


Ever since Donald Trump made his famous descent down the escalator to announce his candidacy (and assert that Mexicans crossing the border are rapists), we’ve been lowering our standards to his level. Once in a great while he does something so outrageous that his opponents try (and usually fail) to draw a line in the sand. But for the most part we’ve just accepted that he will do the kinds of things he does: ignore obvious facts, insult large swathes of people who have done nothing to deserve it, funnel public money into his own businesses, deny that he said what he said, respond to his critics with schoolyard taunts, and so on. We’ve come to expect him to politicize everything, admit no mistakes, fire anyone who reveals inconvenient truths, and confront everyone who comes into his presence with the choice to flatter him or face his wrath.

At times I’ve been as guilty of this normalization as anyone. Given a choice between letting a lie or injustice go unremarked, and distracting my readers from what I saw as more important issues, I’ve often just shrugged off norm-violations that would have been major scandals in any previous American administration.

Still, every now and then I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves: “What would a real leader do in this situation?” Not because I imagine Trump will listen to our answer, slap his forehead, and say, “That’s a good idea!”, but just to maintain our own sense of what is good and right. If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

So I have written a speech for a great president to deliver in the midst of the current crisis. There’s no reason Trump couldn’t deliver it, and I hope he does. For obvious reasons, he won’t. I accept that, but I’m still going to put the vision out there.

My fellow Americans:

Every president faces crises and makes decisions that could either save or cost lives. I have already faced my share: military conflicts in various parts of the world; hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as floods and tornadoes and the full run of other natural disasters. An economic crisis may not take as many lives as war or disease, but it can ruin lives, as people lose their jobs and homes and dreams for the future.

The current crisis, the one brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, is on a scale most presidents never need to confront. Thousands of Americans are dead, and some estimate that the eventual toll could be in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already sick. Tens of thousands of businesses hang in the balance, and millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Tens of millions are sheltering in their homes.

This is not only the greatest crisis of the four-year term I was elected to in 2016, but most likely it will overshadow the crises of the next four years as well. So whether I serve four years or eight, I believe I have already met the defining challenge of my presidency, the one for which history will judge me.

Public-health experts I trust tell me that we will go through the peak of this crisis in the next month or two. No one can guarantee what will happen after that, but I think it is safe to say that the most important chapters in the story of this pandemic will be written between now and the inauguration in 2021.

It is desperately important that we get this right. The decisions that are made between now and November or January — here in the White House, in Congress, throughout government at every level, and in homes all over this country — could save or cost the lives of countless human beings, and save or cost the livelihoods of countless more. When the stakes are this high, we can’t let politics interfere with doing the right thing.

And yet, how can it not, as we move towards the 2020 election? Already, both my supporters and my critics interpret everything I do in the light of that election. I deserve credit for this, blame for that — no I don’t, yes I do — it goes on and on. But none of those arguments save anyone. They just make it harder for America to move forward in unity.

When this is all over, there will be plenty of time to distribute credit and blame. There are undoubtedly many lessons to learn — both good and bad — from what we have done so far. But trying to do that analysis in the middle of the crisis, and absorbing that discussion into what was already a poisonous partisan environment before Covid-19 emerged, does not serve this country. Partisanship can only decrease the likelihood that we will judge correctly, or learn the lessons that might save us from the next plague.

Right now, there are many things I wish I could do for this country, but they are beyond my powers. I can’t banish the disease by executive order. I can’t decree a vaccine or effective treatment into existence here and now. I can’t speed time up so that we jump past the peak of the crisis and skip all the suffering Americans will have to endure in the coming weeks and months.

But there is one thing I can do: To a large extent, I can take partisan politics out of this struggle, and I’m going to do that right now with this announcement: I will not be a candidate for re-election in November, nor will I endorse any candidate in that election. Instead, I will lead the battle against this disease until my term ends in January.

The election will still happen, and I’m sure the candidates who vie to replace me will debate their views and their plans with all the vigor we expect from a presidential campaign. But I will take no part in it. If any members of my administration want to participate in that election, God bless them, but I will ask them to step away from whatever active roles they might be playing in managing our country’s response to the virus.

I cannot insist that others follow my example. But I can ask political leaders at all levels to do what they can to take partisan politics out of this effort. Most of us tell ourselves that we entered politics to do something important. Let me suggest that nothing you might do in future years from future offices will be quite so important as what you do these next few months. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Going forward, there are many choices to make, and I expect to hear much argument about what should happen next. A healthy democracy always has room for disagreement. But let those discussions center on the health and well-being of our citizens, not on the November elections, and especially not on me. My political future is already set: I will finish my term and then return to the private sector to await history’s judgement on my actions. I pray history will be able to say that I rallied a unified nation to take decisive and successful action.

God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.

I’m Voting for Warren

Super Tuesday is tomorrow, and I’m voting in the Massachusetts primary. I’m going to vote for Elizabeth Warren.

Any who-I’m-voting-for article eventually turns into a here’s-who-you-should-vote-for article, so I might as well be up-front about that from the beginning. Here’s how I think you should go about deciding who to vote for.

In any primary, there are really just four votes that make sense:

  • Vote your heart. This is the most direct and simple vote: Who do you want to see become president? It doesn’t require any complicated analysis of polls or theories about how your party wins. Just listen to the candidates, research their positions on the issues you care about, and picture them as president.
  • Vote for the candidate most likely to lead your party to victory. This vote requires that you identify who the most electable candidate is, which is not as easy as a lot of people make it sound.
  • Unite around the front-runner. Long, drawn-out battles for the nomination risk dividing the party and raising negativity about the ultimate nominee. So if the leading candidate is someone you’re happy with (or happy enough), you can help end the nomination process quickly by voting for him or her.
  • Unite against the front-runner. If you look at the leading candidate and have a strong “Not that one!” reaction, either because the front-runner offends your heart or seems likely to lead to defeat in the fall, you can vote to block his or her path to the nomination. The most effective way to do that is to look at the polls and vote for the alternative candidate most likely to win in your state.

To make a long story short, my heart is with Warren, I’m not sure who the most electable candidate is, I’m not ready to unite behind current front-runner Bernie Sanders, and the candidate with the best chance to beat Bernie in Massachusetts is also Warren. So two factors unite around Warren in my case, which might make my decision easier than yours.

Why my heart is with Warren. I first noticed Elizabeth Warren during the financial crisis of 2008, when she was chairing a five-person commission to oversee the TARP bank bailout. Rachel Maddow interviewed her several times about how that was going, and in particular about Warren’s belief that the government shouldn’t just put the same people back in charge of the banking system so they could make the same mistakes. She struck me as someone smart and public-spirited who did her homework before making a decision. In these and many other ways, she’s the exact opposite of the president we have now.

After Obama was elected, she helped him create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. When Republican senators torpedoed the idea that she be the first head of the CFPB, she decided to run for the Senate instead. She was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2018. When I lived in New Hampshire, I heard her several times when she came up to campaign for our senators and representatives. Now that I live in Massachusetts, she’s my senator.

I like Warren because she combines idealism with a wonkish streak. She knows exactly how the government works and where injustice gets baked into policies before they’re implemented. She has a good lawyer’s knack for seeing through another advocate’s spin. (You saw that on the debate stage in Las Vegas, when she listened to Mike Bloomberg justify his company’s treatment of women, and immediately responded with “I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ That just doesn’t cut it.”)

Her campaign’s I-have-a-plan-for-that theme points to one of her key virtues: She has thought this stuff through and is ready to govern. When I look at the public health challenge the coronavirus is posing, and I ask myself “Who would I trust the most to follow the science and do the right thing?” my answer is Warren.

I agree with her general philosophy, which is that government needs to be creating opportunities for ordinary people to succeed, and not supporting systems designed to concentrate wealth. She springs from working-class roots in Oklahoma, taught kids with learning disabilities for a while, and then climbed her way through the legal profession until she became a Harvard professor. But she doesn’t cop an I-did-it-all-myself attitude. She never loses sight of all the ways that opportunities were made available to her — and how many of those avenues have since closed down. That’s why college-affordability and student-loan-forgiveness are so important to her.

She also sees the structural problems in the economy, which is what raised her original interest in the banking system and the ways it is abused to centralize wealth.

In short, I think her heart is in the right place. Her policies resonate with the life she’s lived, and so feel very authentic to me. She has a nuts-and-bolts view of how systems work that makes her likely to get things done. She lives by facts rather than by ideology, so if things don’t turn out the way she expected, she’ll come up with something new.

Who can win? I wish I knew. It’s not that there’s nothing worth saying on the topic, but it’s not as simple as a lot of pundits make it sound. I have expressed my ideas on the topic in another post.

I’m not ready to unite around Bernie Sanders. Like all the major Democratic candidates, Bernie is miles better than Donald Trump. If he’s the nominee, I will vote for him, and not in a hold-my-nose way. We could do a lot worse.

I’m not that far from Bernie on a number of issues (neither is Warren), but I wouldn’t have the same confidence in him as president. Bernie is an ideologue. If he found himself in a situation where his ideology was not working, I can’t picture him rethinking. I believe Warren would.

And getting back to who can win, I’m not impressed with the theory that says Bernie is our strongest candidate. I think there are Romney-Republicans and Bush-Republicans who would be happy to vote against Trump, but Sanders is too much to ask. Warren may be too much to ask too, but I’m not as sure of that.

Who can beat Bernie in Massachusetts? The best bet is Warren, who is the favorite-daughter candidate here. This is where your mileage may vary. In Texas, for example, polls show Biden with a better chance. In North Carolina, at least one poll says Bloomberg. I’m not telling you what you should do in those states.

So anyway, I’m in a situation where the candidate I want to vote for is also best positioned to block a front-runner I’m not wild about. That means I don’t have to make a more difficult decision where I weigh my favorite against more practical considerations.

Does Anybody Know Who’s Electable?

Like most Democrats I know, I wish someone could tell me who is electable. If I knew for a fact that one Democratic candidate would beat Trump in the fall, but that all the others would lose, I would absolutely vote for the “electable” one. Bloomberg is currently my least favorite Democrat, but if I were certain that it would come down to either him or Trump, I’d pick him. Bernie? Joe? Elizabeth? Amy? Doesn’t matter. If only one of them can win, sign me up.

And wouldn’t you know it? Lots of people claim they have that information. The problem is that they disagree.

Two theories. There are two basic theories of how Democrats can beat Trump in November:

  • Swing-voter theory. Elections are decided by moderates who swing from one party to the other, depending on who sounds the most reasonable to them.
  • Turnout theory. Non-voters lean Democratic, but they don’t vote because they don’t see politics making a difference in their lives. To get them to turn out, you need to offer bold ideas that clearly would make a difference.

Obama’s 2008 landslide came from doing both: inspiring new voters without scaring off moderates. Doug Jones’ surprising senate win in Alabama followed a similar formula. Jones was a moderate, but turnout was high anyway.

People arguing that Bernie Sanders isn’t electable usually apply swing-voter theory: He’s the most extreme candidate in the Democratic field, so he will alienate moderate voters who otherwise would be ready to vote against Trump. In particular, Trump’s know-nothing style of governing has alienated a lot of educated suburbanites who used to be loyal Republicans. Those votes are available to a centrist Democrat like Biden or Bloomberg, but not to Sanders.

Conversely, turnout theory says that Sanders is the most electable candidate.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, which were decided in 2016 by roughly 11,000 and 22,700 votes respectively, close to a million young people have since turned 18. Beyond the Midwestern trio of states, the demographic revolution has even more transformative potential. Mr. Trump won Arizona, for example, by 91,000 votes, and 160,000 Latinos have turned 18 in that state since then.

Getting those voters to the polls, the theory says, wins not just for Bernie, but for Democrats in general.

Giving voters too much credit. Neither theory is entirely crazy, but both, in my opinion, oversimplify things. Each in its own way gives some group of voters too much credit.

Like iconoclastic political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, I don’t believe in “this informed, engaged American population [of swing voters] that is watching these political events and watching their elected leaders and assessing their behavior and making a judgment.” Similarly, I don’t buy the turnout-theory image of non-voters as disaffected socialists waiting for the clarion call of political revolution.

No doubt there are a few analytic middle-of-the-roaders judiciously weighing each candidates’ positions on the issues, and a few idealistic left-wing radicals who haven’t been voting because see little difference between Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan. But in my opinion, the vast majority of swing voters and non-voters are far less impressive examples of American citizenry: They have little interest in politics and little knowledge of it. They’re more likely to be turned off by Bernie Sanders’ hair than by his policies, or they voted for Obama and then Trump because “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again” were both good slogans.

These days, knowledgeable people who care about politics have well-defined opinions and show up to vote. Overwhelmingly, the swinging from one party to the other, or from voter to non-voter, is being done by uninformed folks for not terribly intelligent reasons. CNN’s Ron Brownstein observes:

An exhaustive study from the Knight Foundation that examined the roughly 100 million eligible Americans who did not vote in 2016 underscores [Ruy] Teixeira’s point [that non-voters don’t favor either party]. For the study, which was released last week, the foundation commissioned a survey of 12,000 nonvoters nationwide and in swing states, and held focus groups with Americans who habitually do not vote. The results found nonvoters united by their disconnection from the political process and disengagement from the news, but divided quite closely in their views of the two parties. …

[T]he geographic distribution of nonvoters creates challenges for a Democratic strategy centered on mobilizing them, especially in the Trump era. On a national basis, the best evidence suggests, the Americans who are eligible to vote but don’t split about equally between whites without college degrees, who lean Republican, on one side; and minorities and college-educated whites, who lean Democratic, on the other.

Bold liberal ideas are likely to motivate both groups, not just the one.

But the distribution looks very different in the Rust Belt states that tilted the 2016 election. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three states Trump dislodged from the “blue wall,” whites without college degrees represented a clear majority of the adults who were eligible to vote but did not, according to calculations from census data by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. The adults who have become newly eligible to vote in those states since 2016, mostly by turning 18, do lean more toward minorities, according to analysis by the States of Change project, which Teixeira directs. But even accounting for those young entrants into the electorate, many Democrats believe that Trump has a bigger universe of potential new voters available to harvest across the Rust Belt than the Democratic nominee does.

Polls. Whenever people argue about electability, they start comparing polls. A few months ago, moderates touted head-to-head polls that had Biden beating Trump by a larger margin than Bernie beat Trump. Lately, progressives have been pointing to polls that either say the opposite or indicate that there’s no real difference.

In either case, the problem is the same: Polls are pretty good at telling you how people will vote tomorrow, because the people they interview are pretty good at predicting their own short-term behavior, as long as nothing important happens between the interview and the election. But polls about what will happen eight months from now are not nearly so enlightening.

They’re especially useless in evaluating candidates most of the public hasn’t formed a firm opinion about yet. My personal intuition (which may not be worth much) is that the Democrat who would run the best race against Trump in the fall is Amy Klobuchar. I have no data to support that opinion, I just think she contrasts well against Trump: She’s sunny where he’s angry. She’s in the prime of life while he’s a fat old man. She’s sharp where he’s confused. She’s a woman while he’s the embodiment of toxic masculinity. And so on.

But whether that’s true or not, I wouldn’t expect to see it in the polls this far out, because most of the country has never really tried on the idea of President Klobuchar. Or President Buttigieg, for that matter. Either one of them (or Kamala Harris or Cory Booker or one of the other longshot candidates who has since dropped out) would look completely different in November than they do now. By November, Nominee Klobuchar would have been at the center of a successful primary campaign, would have given a convention acceptance speech, and stood toe-to-toe with Trump in the debates. What an election would say then just isn’t predictable from a poll taken now.

But OK, let’s consider the possibility that polls can tell us something about the electability of the two best-known Democrats: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. As of this morning, the RealClearPolitics average of head-to-head polls of Biden vs. Trump had Biden up 5.4%. The same number for Sanders vs. Trump had Sanders up 4.9%. (The outlier was Emerson, which had Sanders beating Trump by 2%, but Biden losing by 4%.)

That’s a difference of half a percent, with eight months of events still to be processed. And there are more factors to consider. Political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla point out that the Biden voters and Sanders voters are not the same people.

We found that nominating Sanders would drive many Americans who would otherwise vote for a moderate Democrat to vote for Trump, especially otherwise Trump-skeptical Republicans.

Republicans are more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated: Approximately 2 percent of Republicans choose Trump over Sanders but desert Trump when we pit him against a more moderate Democrat like Buttigieg, Biden, or Bloomberg.

Democrats and independents are also slightly more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated. Swing voters may be rare — but their choices between candidates often determine elections, and many appear to favor Trump over Sanders but not over other Democrats. Despite losing these voters to Trump, Sanders appears in our survey data to be similarly electable to the moderates, at least at first blush. Why? Mainly because 11 percent of left-leaning young people say they are undecided, would support a third-party candidate, or, most often, just would not vote if a moderate were nominated — but say they would turn out and vote for Sanders if he were nominated. …

The case that Bernie Sanders is just as electable as the more moderate candidates thus appears to rest on a leap of faith: that youth voter turnout would surge in the general election by double digits if and only if Bernie Sanders is nominated, compensating for the voters his nomination pushes to Trump among the rest of the electorate.

(BTW: The Sanders campaign also believes it will bring Trump-leaning non-college whites back to the Democrats. The Broockman/Kalla data does not support this claim.)

So you can try to be as data-driven as you like, but in the end you come back to a “leap of faith”. Will that youth-voting surge really show up? Young people who say they will only vote if Bernie is on the ballot — might they change their minds?

How I wind up thinking about electability. Some pundits go so far as to say there’s nothing to know here, so you should just forget about the whole notion. Unfortunately, I find that impossible. November is so important, it’s hard not to form opinions about it.

Whatever conclusions you come to, though, you should hold them lightly. Use your notions of electability as a tie-breaker between candidates you like, not as your only criterion. Few political experiences are worse than to give up on someone you believe in so that you can win, and then not to win. Cast a vote you can live with.

For what it’s worth, my hunches about electability — and they’re really just hunches — come down on the moderate side rather than the progressive side. My confidence in a 2020 Democratic victory comes from the 2018 victory: Democratic candidates got 53.4% of the vote in congressional elections in 2018. If all the people willing to vote for a Democrat for Congress decide to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, it’s a landslide.

I see that win as mostly supporting the swing-voter model. Democrats flipped seats by running moderate candidates in suburban districts where educated professionals used to be reliably Republican.

Conversely, I have never seen the turnout model work. If some progressive candidate had won an unexpected victory in some red state senate or house race by using radical policy proposals to bring in vast numbers of new voters, then I could more easily imagine the same thing working on a national level. But I don’t know of any such example. The best-known progressives in Congress come from liberal bastions like Vermont (Sanders) and Queens (AOC). They don’t flip red states. Or at least they haven’t.

Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)

By focusing attention on comparatively minor policy differences, the debates are obscuring a broad Democratic consensus that voters need to hear about.


Several years ago I was having lunch with a friend when the Democratic candidate for Congress came through the nearly empty restaurant, shaking the few hands available. After she left, our young waitress came to the table, and I could tell that she had a question unrelated to food. I expected her to ask whether we knew anything about the candidate, but her actual question was much more basic: “Do you know anything about Congress? Is it, like, important?”

That encounter taught me a lesson I have not forgotten: People who pay attention to politics often talk about “low-information voters”, but most of us have no idea just how low-information they are.

Back in 2004, Chris Hayes learned similar lessons from the undecided voters he canvassed in Wisconsin.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn’t name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The “issue” is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It’s what makes up the subheadings on a candidate’s website, it’s what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it’s what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it’s what we always complain we don’t see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. … The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Year after year, elections come out they way they do because people like my waitress or Hayes’ undecideds vote one way or the other or stay home. Those decisions are made on a much simpler level than we usually imagine, and the arguments we find so convincing often miss their targets completely. If such voters are persuaded, it is more likely because of our earnestness or our tone or something we said in the first ten seconds. Or maybe we inadvertently convinced them to vote against our candidate for some similarly tangential reason.

That’s what I was thinking Tuesday as I watched the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus, which will happen February 3. Debates draw out differences, and when candidates share basic goals and values, their differences are often deep in the details of policy. Those policy distinctions — like Medicare for All vs. Medicare for All Who Want It vs. adding a Medicare-like public option to ObamaCare — mean nothing to most low-information voters.

Worse, the squabbling over programmatic details hides the candidates’ vast areas of agreement. The New York Times, justifying its decision to endorse both progressive Elizabeth Warren and moderate Amy Klobuchar this morning, wrote:

The Democratic primary contest is often portrayed as a tussle between moderates and progressives. To some extent that’s true. But when we spent significant time with the leading candidates, the similarity of their platforms on fundamental issues became striking.

I believe that those points of consensus should be the central message of the campaign against Trump. That consensus is the best definition of what it means to be a Democrat, and is a better predictor of what the next Democratic administration will accomplish than any particular candidate’s program — even the winner’s. (In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan had an insurance mandate and Barack Obama’s didn’t. But when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, it had a mandate. So if you voted for Obama over Clinton to avoid a mandate, you failed in your purpose.)

Political wonks are always tempted to dive down into the weeds of policy and argue why Candidate X’s plan is superior to Candidate Y’s. And I understand how those differences can seem terribly significant when you are in the throes of a primary campaign. But I think that’s exactly the wrong thing to be doing when we get rare moments of national attention, as we did Tuesday. What the public needs to hear are the principles that unify Democrats and set them against the current administration, not the fine details of policy that differentiate one Democrat from another.

Charles Blow made a similar point Wednesday morning:

Trump has laid out his vision for America: It is the racial Hunger Games. … The Democratic candidates, too, would be well warned to stick to a vision — a diametrically opposite and dynamically animating vision that will activate and energize the targets of Trump’s aggressions.

If I see Trump as a pestilence I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.

Here’s where I stand: If Candidate A’s policies are analytically superior, but Candidate B is the more convincing proponent of the Democratic consensus, I want to vote for B. That’s the difference I’d like to see the debates showcase. That’s not “electability” as it is commonly discussed; it’s who we should want as our spokesperson.

What do I think is in the Democratic consensus? I thought you’d never ask.

1. If you get sick, you should get the care you need, and your family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it.

If you showed this statement to the 20-odd candidates who have run for the Democratic nomination in this cycle, I firmly believe they would all agree with it.

Their differences are all about how to get there: What is the most efficient way to deliver that much healthcare? How would the country pay for it? What’s the most politically expedient path forward?

Bernie Sanders wants to get there in one fell swoop, with a government insurance plan that eliminates private insurance and is paid for by taxes. Most of the other candidates on the debate stage (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) don’t believe they could pass such a plan, so they want to take a smaller step in the same direction by building on ObamaCare. (Once the public sees how that works and develops confidence in it, take another step.) Elizabeth Warren is somewhere between, proposing a Bernie-like program with a phase-in period.

That’s what they’ve been arguing about. Trump, on the other hand, has sabotaged ObamaCare, tried to repeal it in Congress, and is still backing a lawsuit that would declare it unconstitutional. Despite a lot of rhetoric about “replacing” ObamaCare, he has never released a plan for doing so. The upshot is that if he succeeds in his aims, tens of millions of people will lose health coverage.

2. We can and should do much more to slow down climate change.

President Obama did a number of things to slow down climate change, but Trump has undone almost all of them: Obama joined the Paris Climate Accord; Trump withdrew from it. Obama substantially raised fuel economy standards for cars and trucks; Trump initially froze them at the old levels, then agreed to a minor increase. Trump reversed Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from plants that generate electricity. Trump’s plan to roll back standards on methane emissions is too radical even for some oil companies.

All the Democratic candidates want to do more than Obama did, not less. They disagree about how much more and how fast it can happen.

None of the candidates denies or tries to minimize the significance of the scientific consensus on climate change: It is real. We already are seeing the effects. It is caused primarily by the carbon emissions that happen when we burn fossil fuels. It will reach catastrophic levels if the world does not substantially reduce its carbon emissions.

3. If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a job that pays a decent wage.

Trump has reason to crow about the unemployment rate, which is very low right now. (Whether low unemployment is due to any policy of his, or is just the continuation of trends that started under Obama — that’s another debate.) But a lot of the people who have jobs are still not making a wage they can live on.

The federal minimum wage is still $7.25, the same as it was in 2009. The purchasing power (after inflation) of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. (The value of 1968’s $1.60 wage is $12.00 today.) In none of the 50 states is a two-bedroom apartment affordable on a full-time minimum wage.

President Obama tried to raise minimum wage to $9, but couldn’t get Republicans in Congress to go along. All Democratic candidates want a much greater increase. Both Bernie Sanders (the most liberal Democratic candidate) and Joe Biden (one of the least liberal) are calling for $15.

Democrats across the board want to create jobs paying good wages by repairing our country’s roads and bridges, modernizing the electrical grid, and shifting to renewable energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change.

4. The burden of taxes should fall primarily on those best able to bear it.

The benefits of the Trump tax cut went almost entirely to large corporations and the very rich. Despite the promises he often made during the 2016 campaign and repeated early in his administration, the new tax rules particularly favor people like him. In fact, many of the tax breaks that the law preserves or extends seem to be targeted precisely at benefiting Trump himself or his family. (That’s one reason he doesn’t want you to see his tax returns.)

This is part of a long-term trend that has lowered the tax rates paid by the super-rich.

(Sometimes you’ll see an article claiming that the very rich carry more of the tax burden than they used to, but these claims are deceptive: The very rich have seen their incomes go up many times faster than the rest of us. They get a much bigger piece of the pie than they used to, but while their share of the tax burden has gone up somewhat, it has not gone up proportionately.)

Corporations are also carrying a much smaller tax burden than they did in decades past. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy lists 60 corporations that among them made nearly $80 billion in profits, but paid no taxes in 2018 under Trump’s new law.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit (which Republicans thought was an existential crisis when Obama was president, but have since forgotten about) has nearly doubled under Trump — from $665 billion in FY 2017 to a projected $1.1 trillion next year. This comes at a time in the economic cycle when the deficit ought to be going down, because it will rise even further when the next recession comes.

All the major Democratic candidates would reverse most of the Trump tax cuts, and all call for shifting more of the tax burden back to the rich. Elizabeth Warren is the most vocal about this, calling for a 2% wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million. The rest don’t go quite that far, but all  agree that the rich should pay more.

5. If you want to develop your talents through education, money shouldn’t stand in your way.

States used to put big money into their university systems, but they no longer do. As a result, college of any kind has become unreasonably expensive — far more expensive than it was a generation ago. (Until 1970, the University of California charged California residents zero tuition.)

As a result, too many of our young people face a terrible choice: Give up on developing their talents after high school, or take on debts that they may never be able to pay off. Or their parents face the choice: See their children stuck in dead-end jobs, or take all the money they had hoped to retire on and hand it to a university.

Wasted talent isn’t just a personal tragedy, it’s a loss for all of us. If our young people don’t learn 21st-century skills, American businesses will have a harder time finding good people, foreign companies won’t want to open branches here, our economy as a whole will be less prosperous, and the professionals we have to deal with in our personal lives (doctors, accountants, dentists, teachers, etc.) won’t be the best people. There is also a more subtle cost: the loss of the American dream. When only the rich can afford to send their children to college, the upper classes become entrenched; where you are born is where you will stay.

Democratic candidates have a variety of plans to do something about this: Some want to make public colleges free for everyone, or maybe just free for people whose parents aren’t rich. Some want to forgive all student debt, or only part of it. As with healthcare, the difference isn’t in the general principle, it’s in how to bring it about and who will pay for it.

The Trump administration’s priorities are diametrically opposed: They are constantly looking for ways to cut back on student aid or student loans, or to make them harder to pay off. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has consistently shown more interest in for-profit colleges that rip students off than in the students being victimized.

6. America should be a positive example to the rest of the world. When international cooperation is necessary to solve global problems, our country should lead.

We’ve fallen a long way from the “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan used to brag about. These days, if you’re a third-world dictator and you want to torture people or channel government money into your own pocket or use your law enforcement agencies to investigate people who cross you or accuse the press of being “the enemy of the people” or claim a phony emergency to grab power from your legislature, you just point to the United States and quote its president. It’s fine. All the best countries are doing it.

We’re now a country none of the other countries trust, because our word means nothing. Imagine how shocked our loyal allies in Canada were when we raised tariffs because we considered Canada a risk to our national security. Or talk to the Kurds, if you can still find any.

Historically, America has been an idealistic nation. Since World War II, it has led the community of nations towards higher standards of human rights and a freer exchange of ideas and people. The US has been key in setting up regional alliances for mutual security, with NATO being the shining example.

Today, the world faces many problems that no nation can solve on its own; most significantly, climate change, but also terrorism, nuclear proliferation, floods of refugees fleeing wars or climate-change-related catastrophes, and several others. But the Trump administration has chosen to step back from world leadership with a go-it-alone policy. Given our military power and central role in the world economy, no other nation can take our place.

Democrats want the US to be a good citizen of the community of nations, and to rally the nations of the world to confront the unique challenges of this century.

7. Every American should be encouraged to vote, and all votes should count equally.

For the last decade or so, Republicans all over the country have been putting obstacles in the way of people who want to vote, particularly if they are poor, black, HIspanic, or in school. Even if such people do manage to vote, gerrymandering can concentrate them in a small number of districts so that they wind up with fewer representatives in Congress or state legislatures. You can see the result in a state like Wisconsin, where Republicans maintain power no matter how the people vote. (In 2018, 54% of Wisconsinites voted for Democratic candidates for the state assembly, but those candidates won only 36% of the seats.)

The first bill Democrats passed when they got control of the House of Representatives last year was House Resolution 1 of 2019: The For the People Act. That law would end gerrymandering, extend voting rights, and set up a program to limit the power of large donors to political campaigns. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to vote on it.

Ultimately, Democrats would also like to get rid of the Electoral College — which allowed Donald Trump to become president even though Hillary Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes.

8. All Americans should be equal before the law, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, or any other characteristic that isn’t relevant to the purposes of the law. All citizens should be treated with equal respect by law enforcement.

“Liberty and justice for all” is a key part of our national identity, but we haven’t been doing a good job of delivering it. Race makes a difference at every level of our justice system: Black neighborhoods are more heavily policed, leading to more arrests. Arrested blacks are more likely to be charged with crimes; charged blacks are more likely to be convicted; convicted blacks on average get longer sentences. The result is that a substantial portion of the black male population is in jail. (Laws preventing felons from voting, even after they leave prison, are a major way that minorities are prevented from exercising political power proportionate to their numbers.)

Far too often, black men and women die in encounters with police without ever reaching the justice system.

These problems existed long before Donald Trump took office. But as with climate change, the Obama administration was trying to do something about them, and the Trump administration has undone all that progress. In particular, Trump’s Justice Department has all but stopped oversight of racism in local police departments. Trump himself has actively encouraged police to physically abuse suspects.

Any Democratic candidate for president would get back on the Obama/Holder track of trying to reduce the racism in law enforcement and the legal system.

9. As much as possible, politics should be insulated from the corrupting influence of concentrated wealth.

Briefly, controlling campaign finance looked like a bipartisan issue. Republican Senator John McCain made it a central plank of his first presidential campaign in 2000, and he teamed with Democrat Russ Feingold to produce the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002.

But Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents have subsequently declared unconstitutional just about any substantive limits on political spending. One of the few remaining options for controlling big-money politics is disclosure (i.e., letting the public know who is financing political ads, rather than letting big-money interests hide behind shell organizations with vacuous names like “Concerned Citizens Against …”), but the Republican Senate has blocked any such legislation.

This is one of the clearest differences between the parties: Republicans want big-money donors to have as much power as possible, while Democrats want to limit the power of money in general, and (to the extent that those limitations prove impractical) enhance the power of small donors.

10. The basic constitutional covenant is still necessary and should be respected: majority rule that respects minority rights, three branches of government that check and balance each other, and an appropriate balance between the public good and individual freedom.

For years, preserving or restoring the Constitution has played a major role in Republican rhetoric, but President Trump has made a mockery of all that. This is one of the major issues in his impeachment, and should be a major issue in the 2020 campaign as well.

The Constitution assigns Congress the “power of the purse”, which means that no money can be spent without Congress’ approval. But when Congress refused to fund Trump’s border wall last year, even after a lengthy government shutdown, he declared a phony “state of emergency” and seized the money from other programs. He also illegally held up money that Congress had appropriated to aid Ukraine.

Congress has a constitutional duty to keep oversight over the executive branch, but Trump has routinely refused to provide subpoenaed documents and witnesses, arguing in court that he has “absolute immunity” against any investigations whatsoever. His legal arguments are absurd, but will serve to delay things in the courts long enough to keep the public from finding out what he’s been doing until after the election.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but he committed an act of war against Iran without consulting Congress.

Again and again, Trump has shown that he admires dictators: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and many others. (The New Yorker’s satirical Borowitz Report says “Ayatollah Mystified That He is the Only Dictator Trump Dislikes“.) That’s because he wants to be one.

In spite of decades of Republican rhetoric, Democrats are now the party that stands for the Constitution.