Thinking About Things: How Quickly Things Change

By John DeQ Briggs

September 6, 2022

If you have been on vacation, or otherwise taking a summer break from day-to-day news, it may surprise you to learn that the political landscape of early September, two months before the midterm elections, bears little or no resemblance to the political landscape back in May or June.  My very last column was only about two months ago, and the subject was the beginning of the end days for Mr. Biden within his own party.  During the spring and early summer things looked beyond bleak for the President and his party.  In fact, I had ruminated to myself that the only hope for a Democratic success in 2024 would be a series of bank shots along the following lines.

Step one: shortly after the Democratic shellacking at the midterms, the administration arranges for Vice President Harris to accept a lifetime appointment to some federal court or a high paying job with George Soros or somebody.  She resigns. 

Step two: shortly thereafter, President Biden appoints Mr./Ms. X to be Vice President.  Gavin Newsome might be a plausible candidate, but there are other possibilities. But let’s think of it for this thought experiment purpose as Mr. Newsome, the governor of the largest state, and one who easily survived a recent recall effort. Flaws notwithstanding, he is a battle tested success in the nation’s largest state with an economy that by itself would be the fifth largest in the world.  

Step three: at some point in 2023, President Biden announces his resignation due to health concerns and the desire to spend more time with his family at this late stage of his life.

Step four: Mr. Newsome is sworn in as President

Step five: The new President quickly appoints a respected man or woman, likely of color but not a full-blown progressive, and this person is the new Vice President.

And voilà! Presto chango.  Well in advance of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries the Democrats have a solid ticket without the bother of a grueling primary season.  They could construct a ticket certainly capable of defeating any Trump or Trump acolyte, and probably capable of defeating any Republican ticket that one could imagine.  Through a series of unilateral actions, the Democrats could turn the Republicans into toast. 

But in the brief span of just a few weeks over the late spring and summer, things have happened that appear to make it highly likely that this is already in the process of happening without the need for such fascinating machinations.  Through a series of events, some well stage managed by the Democrats, and others involving multiple self-inflicted wounds by Republicans, it seems increasingly likely that the Democrats will take firmer control of the Senate and reasonably possible, perhaps even probable, that they will keep their control of the House of Representatives.  The more one considers the reality of this possibility, the more astonishing it becomes.  First of all, in only three midterm elections since 1930 has the President’s party improved its congressional position.  Those three elections were 1934 (Franklin Roosevelt in the middle of the depression); 1998 (Bill Clinton after a full recovery from Monica Lewinski and in command of a booming economy); and 2002 (George Bush, who enjoyed extraordinarily high standing in the polls in the wake of the September 11 attacks a year earlier).  Today, President Biden’s standing in the polls is under water (although greatly improved since last Spring, when his approval rating hit a low of 33% in the Quinnipiac and New York Times polls in early July) and all of the “direction of the country” polls show a supermajority of Americans believing that the country is on the “wrong track.”  Yet notwithstanding these clear indications of Biden’s personal weakness, the most recent Wall Street Journal poll shows Biden ahead of Trump in the theoretical head-to-head election 50% to 44%.  And in a massive switch from just a few months ago, the Wall Street Journal’s most recent generic congressional ballot poll (if the election were held today would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican) shows 47% choosing the Democrat and 44% choosing the Republican. 

If, like me, you have been enjoying beach/mountain reading and being pretty much unplugged from the Twittersphere and the breathless news cycle of cable television, you might feel little bit like Rip van Winkle, awakening to an entirely new and different world.  So, what that heck happened?   Before I stopped paying close attention only a couple of months ago the administration seemed on the verge of collapse, having brought about the following self-inflicted policy disasters:

  1. The Afghanistan debacle and its many dimensions, about which I have written a great deal in these pages.  Not only did we celebrate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 by handing over to the Taliban the most important piece of real estate in central Asia (Bagram Air Base) while at the same time gifting to them billions of dollars of military equipment making them the fifth best equipped military force in the world.  Worst of all probably, the administration’s feckless Afghanistan policy doubtless played a nontrivial role in encouraging Russia to invade Ukraine and motivating China to become more aggressive than it ever has been in its entire history vis-à-vis Taiwan.  The administration’s Afghanistan mess made the world a far more dangerous place and that remains the case today.
  • At the inception of the new administration, Mr. Biden declared his fealty to Green Progressives by declaring war on the oil and gas industry. The result of this policy was to turn United States from the world’s largest producer of oil and gas; the dominant energy country in the world; and only one of a handful of countries in the world that was truly energy independent and not under the thumb of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.  The inflationary impact of this policy (gas prices rose to more than $5/gallon), amplified by the reckless infusion of trillions of dollars into a recovering economy (e.g., The American Rescue Plan of 2021 and follow-on legislation) has yet to run its course. Inflation in this country (over 8.5%), brought about almost single-handedly by the policies of the Biden administration, has not been this high in more than 40 years.  
  •  The administration forced the closure of one of only four baby food plants in the United States without considering the totally foreseeable impact of that regulatory action on baby food supply (disastrous), an impact that was exacerbated by the continuing prohibition of the importation of European baby food. 
  • There was also the administration’s complete inability to deal with supply-chain disruptions that left store sells empty of scores of ordinary products made overseas.  Many of the administration’s policies contributed to these supply chain disruptions, including its sanctions against certain countries.
  • And then there was the cringeworthy matter of watching a seemingly enfeebled and doddering Mr. Biden try to face off in meetings with Mr. Putin and later Xi Jinping of China.  The country seemed weak and powerless to protect its interests. Worse, it seemed to be clueless as to what were its interests. That has not changed. 
  • One cannot fail to forget the chaos on the Southern border, about which the administration seems wholly indifferent notwithstanding that the tens of thousands of deaths of US citizens from illegal opioids (roughly twice the number of annual gun deaths) are directly related to the open southern border. If it were not so sad, it would be amusing to see the Mayors of Washington, DC and New York City shrink back in horror at the prospect of two entire busloads (!) of illegal immigrants coming into their sanctuary cities. The very idea that they might be asked actually to live with their own policies frightens them. 

I could go on and on, but all of this has been memory-holed and I need to move on to what the dickens happened to make all of these things seem to disappear.  

For one thing, until quite recently the President spent most of the summer in Rehoboth, Delaware or some such place, thereby keeping out of sight so as not to remind people of his impairments or general ineffectiveness as a leader.  Mr. Biden out of sight is much more attractive to voters than Biden on television every day.  And as occurred during the presidential campaign, this left the media and the voters to focus mostly on stories about Mr. Trump and his various supporters. 

For example, there was the drip-drip-drip of the January 6 hearings, which went on mercilessly for much of the summer presenting some pretty horrible examples of not necessarily illegal but nonetheless horrible conduct by senior officials of the Trump administration in plotting how to “stop the steal” of the 2020 election.   And while the Democrats did not play fair with the committee by disallowing the minority leader the customary privilege of appointing his chosen Republicans to the Special Committee, the Republicans made the politically idiotic decision to boycott the entire event, thereby leaving all staging and production in the hands of a very well-organized Democratic assemblage of representatives quite capable of staying focused on particular messages each session, all designed to paint Trump and his  coterie as dangerous people, which it seems they indeed were. To a large extent, the strategy seems to have borne just exactly the fruit that was planted. 

Second, there was the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs overruling Roe v. Wade. As I have written before in these pages, I believe that the Roe decision was wrong as a matter of Constitutional law but as I have also written, I think that the three-trimester analysis set out in Roe was wholly sensible and would have been just the right approach had it been established through a democratic legislative process. Indeed, virtually every other democracy in the world (and some autocracies) have embraced the trimester-by-trimester rationale of Roe.  This includes all of the Catholic democracies. But the Republicans in many states expressed their glee at the demise of Roe in a distressing and dangerous way: by passing statutes making abortion illegal under all circumstances, period. This was more symbolic than real since the vast majority of states have not and will not make abortion illegal during the first trimester and will allow abortions under some circumstances much later (viz. New York allows post-birth “abortion.”). But the symbolism is itself real as it makes Republicans look like a party that people should rightly fear.  

To bring the point home. the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling has mobilized massive Democratic constituencies as evidenced by special elections in Nebraska, Minnesota, New York and elsewhere.  The Nebraska election was held just four days after the Supreme Court’s decision.  The Republican candidate emphasized his sponsorship of a law that banned abortion after 20 weeks; the Democrat criticized the Dobbs decision and emphasized her support for abortion rights.  This was a very Republican district, and the Republican candidate won, but the Democrat outperformed the 2020 Democratic candidate by nearly 10% and she outperformed Biden by more than 6%.

A special election in Minnesota was held during the second week of August.  The Republican ran as a strong opponent of abortion while the Democrat again ran as a pro-choice candidate with the backing of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.  Again, the Republican candidate won in a heavily Republican jurisdiction.  But in the last two election cycles, the Republican candidate had garnered about 60% of the vote, whereas this time the Republican candidate garnered just under 53% of the vote.  Again, a Republican victory but with another yellow warning flag.

Then there was New York where Democrat Pat Ryan won a very hotly contested special congressional race in a swing district in what had been “declared” by the media as the most closely watched of the summer’s special elections- an election described as the county’s best bellwether of the summer.  Mr. Ryan won, after campaigning on the protection of abortion rights (which never would be an issue in New York under any circumstances). The Democrat’s victory there suggests a national mood.   This is strongly suggested as well by the Kansas referendum on a proposition to amend the state constitution to roll back abortion rights. The proposition went down to defeat 59-41 margin in a heavily Republican state.  This appears to be a loud and clear signal that the reversal of Roe v. Wade has generated enormous energy among Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans/conservatives.  It feels like a Democratic party whose voters will walk over a bed of hot tacks to get to the polls. One gets no such sense of urgency on the Republican side. This was the first time a state has actually voted on abortion post-Dobbs.  

To make matters worse for Republicans, the GOP messaging post-Dobbs has been either non-existent or execrable. The reflex of a few states (including Texas) to take the opportunity to ban abortion under any all circumstances invites mistrust of all Republicans. The Dobbs outcome seems to me to be a clear example to both parties (but in this case especially the Republicans) to be careful what they wish for as getting their wish might destroy them. 

While I am on special elections, just before Labor Day weekend there was an Alaska special election to fill a congressional seat held for many decades by a Republican. Sarah Palin, well known and endorsed by Trump, lost to the Democratic native Alaskan woman under a ranked choice voting mechanism.  So, in five recent special elections, the Democratic candidate either won, or in losing strongly outperformed President Biden’s performance in that district in the 2020 election. 

The bromide to be careful what you wish for brings me to “the Trump Effect,” likley the biggest threat to Republican chances in 2022 and 2024. To “level set” things for a moment, let us remember that Trump lost in 2020. While he got 74 million votes, Biden got 81 million. Those numbers do not actually mean much in some ways given our electoral system, but they do mean that by every measure Trump lost. He was a loser. And it is fair to say that he all but single-handedly caused the loss of one or both Republican seats in Georgia by turning these elections into a referendum on whether the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The Republican candidates lost; Trump lost; he was a loser there. 

His interference in key Senate and House races in the upcoming midterms may well prove to be disastrous. That involvement has brought into clear focus a longstanding and deep schism within the GOP that now seems quite obviously to present an existential threat to the party. This long predicted and serious split is between Trump and his acolytes and “base” supporters (now frequently referred to as MAGA-Republicans) on the one hand, and traditional conservatives on the other. The GOP itself is the victim of this now open warfare.  In several races in important and contestable jurisdictions, the GOP candidate who was supported by Mr. Trump prevailed in the Republican primary but is now seemingly poised to lose in the general. These candidates supported by Mr. Trump all seem to have drunk the “2020 election was stolen” Kool-Aid.  These candidates stand for little beyond fighting over 2020, demanding an investigation of Hunter Biden, demanding prosecutorial vengeance of some kind, and being both anti-government and anti-regulation on an indiscriminate scale. It is almost all anger; there seems little recognition that not all regulation and not all government is the enemy, and yet these Trump-backed candidates and others have no unified platform to point to and few promises to keep that would address the major economic problems of the day (other than closing the southern border). Almost as bad, politically, GOP candidates seem to have lost their talent for framing issues and policies (and there are many) that, sensibly advanced in any normal time by conservatives, would warrant a massive mid-term blowout for the out of power party in the House and the Senate. 

Key elections are those in:

  • Georgia (Trump-backed Georgia football star Hershel Walker is behind in the polls); 
  • Pennsylvania (Trump-backed Dr. Oz is way behind in the polls to a Democrat who recently suffered a stroke and is barely even campaigning for want of much ability to hear or speak); 
  • Nevada (Trump-backed Adam Laxalt polling far behind the Democrat at the moment);
  • Arizona (Trump backed Blake Masters has been consistently behind in the polls since winning the primary)

To be sure, Trump-backed bestselling author JD Vance is ahead in Ohio, but Marco Rubio in Florida has fallen behind Val Demings 48-44%.  This might not be attributable to the “Trump Effect,” but it certainly is consistent with a general weakness impacting all Republicans both MAGA and others. 

This brings me to the Mar-a-Lago “raid” and the day and night analysis and commentary about what laws Mr. Trump may have violated and so on.  The power of Mr. Trump to make and break Republican candidates, especially in primaries, makes Republican politicians fearful of him.  This is probably why so many Republicans do not know which way to jump in reaction to the entire Mar-a-Lago brouhaha.  At first, the uniform response from the MAGA Republicans was to attack the Justice Department.  And this seemed to get some traction, even in the mainstream media.  But Trump’s reaction to things, and the leaking of considerable information out of the Administration, brought a considerable level of ambiguity into the mix.  

However, the defenders of Mr. Trump were somewhat silenced last week when the pictures of the Top Secret materials found at Mar-a-Lago were published. These were pictures of scores of documents that Mr. Trump claimed he had returned to the government and said that he did not have at his home.  And so, while the statutes mentioned in the affidavit in support of the search warrant may not have been threatening, Trump’s own recent conduct gives plausibility to the notion that he has been obstructing justice.  I am not now suggesting that there such a charge should be made (or that such a charge should not be made, although that might be a matter of prosecutorial discretion).  But I am suggesting that between the January 6 hearings and the Mar-a-Lago search warrant, the Democrats have succeeded in keeping Trump and some of his most odious features front and center nearly every day for the entire summer.  It may be that the search warrant was executed to achieve just this political goal, but it is just as likely that Trump, being all about Trump, tried to control an anti-administration narrative, failed miserably to keep the focus on the administration’s weaknesses, but instead allowed the administration and the media to keep the focus intensely and constantly on the weaknesses of Mr. Trump and his advisers. As the pundits remind us every couple of years, elections are won in November not in August.  But they can be lost in August, and the Republicans seem to be doing their level best to extract defeat from the jaws of victory through political malpractice.  

On top of all of that, the Biden administration seems to be demonstrating an unexpected degree of competence in making things happen that are generally popular.  Moreover, for reasons that cannot be credited to any action or a policy undertaken by the Biden administration (although the administration will claim otherwise and that their release of millions and millions of gallons from the national reserve was a large cause), gas prices have been plunging all summer long (down more than 25% from highs of more than $5/gallon) and so high gas prices have largely disappeared as a political talking point.  The administration’s energy policy would be a good target but there has thus far been no effective GOP message developed. 

Last fall, there was the major $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which was genuinely bipartisan (19 Senate Republicans and 13 house GOP members voted for it, although most of the MAGA Republicans voted against it and were openly critical of the non-MAGA Republicans who voted for it).

Last month, there was the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act.  Not a single Republican voted for the act. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the deal would have no statistically significant effect on inflation.  The real focus of the bill is to lower prescription drug prices, incentivize investment into domestic energy production while permitting clean energy, and add massive resources to the IRS to it can bash “the rich.”   The law will supposedly raise $737 billion and authorize $369 billion in spending on energy and climate change.  The bill will also provide $80 billion to hire thousands of new IRS agents to audit more people so as to collect more taxes, fines, and penalties.  The Republican messaging around this legislation also seems to be largely nonexistent.  The Democratic messaging is largely limited to ballyhooing the name of the act, but more importantly, focusing upon the supposed decrease in prescription drug prices that will flow like honey from heaven.  In these circumstances, there seems to be a fair amount of support for the legislation, even if not particularly well-informed.

Also, just last month President Biden announced a program to cancel somewhere between $500 billion and $1 trillion of student debt.  This probably cannot lawfully be achieved by executive action, but to my surprise (indeed shock), this is polling well at the moment even though non-college graduates, college graduates who have paid their debts, and taxpayers in general might be expected to be strongly against such a program on any number of grounds, including the moral hazard problem: the underlying notion that it subsidizes irresponsibility and risk-taking at no cost to the actors, and hence encourages such conduct in the future.   But the polls, at least for the moment, favor the President on this by something like 52% to 48%.  If this holds true (and it ought not but we live in interesting times), and if the Republicans are successful in having the executive action held unlawful (and this seems a result that is more likely than not), the Republicans will end up being the “bad guys” who prevented something popular from happening.

And while bond and equity markets are down more than 20% this year, a special problem for retirees or others on a fixed income given the nearly 9% inflation rate, employment numbers have improved greatly in the last few months damping down the sense that the country is in a recession.  In August, total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 315,000 (although the unemployment rate rose by 0.2 percentage points to 3.7%, still quite a low number).  The job numbers for July were even more impressive, with the economy adding some 528,000 jobs.  The fact is that job creation since the inception of the Biden administration (slightly more than 10 million new jobs have been added), has brought total employment to roughly pre-pandemic levels, notwithstanding inflation being at a 40-year high.  The increase in mortgage rates, which have nearly doubled from slightly over 2% to more than 4 ½%), has not yet tanked the housing market although one feels a major market adjustment on the way. 

Finally, last Thursday there was the bizarre taxpayer-funded “nonpolitical policy address” given by the President at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  He was bathed in red light and surrounded by two marine honor guards.  The entire scene was bizarre and surreal: it made the President look very much like Mussolini in the 1930s.  The President referred to MAGA-Republicans over and over.  He conflated them with the imminent prohibition of gay marriage and the nationwide disappearance of abortion. He characterized them of as representing a “clear and present danger” to democracy, and indeed the United States and the Republic for which it stands.  He made them enemies of the people and enemies of the country.  They were characterized as “semi-Nazis” and evil.  The administration, echoed and amplified by the media, has been accusing Republicans in general and Mr. Trump in particular of “breaking norms” in dangerous anti-Democratic ways that threatened the Constitutional order.  Yet that speech was something that not even Mr. Trump ever attempted.  The speech was itself norm breaking in the extreme.  The mainstream media seems to have applauded it as revelatory.  But as Ross Douthat pointed out in the New York Times, this speech warning against eroding democratic norms 

“…was delivered a week after Biden’s semi-Caesarist announcement of a $500 billion student-loan forgiveness plan without consulting Congress.  And it was immediately succeeded by the news that Democrats would be pouring millions in advertising into New Hampshire’s Republican Senate primary, in the hopes of making sure that the Trumpiest candidate wins – the latest example of liberal strategists deliberately elevating figures their party and president officially consider an existential threat to the Republic.”

So here we are coming out of Labor Day weekend with the deck of cards seemingly reshuffled.  By late spring and early summer, the establishment was ready to get past Biden one way or another.  He was too old, he was too infirm, he was too ineffective, and so on.  Now, suddenly, he and the Democrats have the wind that their back, the press again on their side, and the Republicans on their back foot.  The Democrats have also raised far more money than the Republicans, and an undue percentage of the Republicans fund raising has been through Mr. Trump’s super PAC. Those funds are not being released to the GOP in general, but only to a limited number of candidates.  So, one wonders whether the GOP has an act that they could ever get together between now and November.  They are stuck with a handful of Trump supported primary winners who seem unnecessarily challenged to win in November.  They do not have very much money.  They do not seem to appreciate that while Trump and the MAGA Republicans energize a huge number of Republican voters (perhaps even a majority of them), they energize 100% of the Democratic voters and a large percentage of independent voters to show up and vote against Republicans to make sure that Mr. Trump is denied another term as President. 

In a September 1 article for Commentary, Noah Rothman captured what seems to be happening in his title: This Is the First True Trumpism Election, And Trumpism is Losing.  His core observations are essentially these:

  • The Justice Department’s search of the President’s Mar-a-Lago residence, and the GOP response to it, has provided voters with a substantive demonstration that the Republican Party is not just a generic vehicle of opposition to Democratic governance.  It remains wholly dedicated to Trump’s personality cult
  • Republican candidates are not only not “generic” anymore, but the party hasn’t spoken with one voice in support of a set of policy preferences.  To the extent that GOP lawmakers and office seekers have spoken with one voice on anything over the last several weeks, it has been to express their unequivocal endorsement of Donald Trump on a near daily basis.  It is no coincidence that those same several weeks have seen the GOP’s support in the polls decline and Democrats outperform expectations at the ballot box.

Lastly, it is important to note that it now feels as if the Democrats are playing the role of Lucy and Republicans the role of Charlie Brown in the annual fall ritual of Lucy persuading Charlie Brown to try to kick the football.  The analogy might be imperfect, but all of the administration’s attacks on Mr. Trump seem to represent the administration trolling the GOP to get Republicans to take the bait of yet again defending Trump thereby keeping close to him and keeping the focus on him, rather than keeping their focus on the disastrous impact that various Biden administration policies have brought about.  As Noah Rothman seems to conclude, the administrations’ political advisors have been wildly successful with this tactic. 

I might be off the mark, but I have developed the view that until the GOP can shed itself of Mr. Trump and his personal miasma (while maintaining many of his important policies such as China policies, immigration policies, energy policies, and aspects of his  foreign policies), they might well be doomed to stay in the minority and force the rest of us to live in a world of policy chaos and economic decline for many more years.    

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