Stirewaltisms: What the Heck Are Democrats Going to Run On?
Plus: Ron Johnson may get lucky with Dem primary, Mike Rounds becomes a lightning rod, and letters from our readers.
WHAT IN THE HECK ARE DEMOCRATS GOING TO RUN ON?
President Biden went to Georgia, the state that is home to the most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent and the state that Biden won by the narrowest margin in 2020, to kick off his renewed push for a federal election law overhaul. But the state was also home to the late John Lewis, a civil rights icon and longtime congressman, to whose memory the legislation is dedicated.
Is Biden being cynical in pushing legislation that is doomed in the Senate as a means to inflame the Democratic base, particularly black voters, ahead of midterms? Is the hope that the inevitable defeat of the legislation will spur further outrage and focus anger on Senate Republicans and away from Biden? Or is Biden sincere? Maybe he believes that this issue is desperately urgent for Democrats in Washington to address, even if failure is certain—as the head of the NAACP put it, without the legislation, “America may soon be unrecognizable.”
Maybe Biden really does believe that opposing the bills puts one on the same side as Jefferson Davis. But the fact that the legislation is explicitly being used to pressure Democratic senators to change their votes on rolling back the 60-vote threshold for legislation in the upper chamber suggests at least a little cynicism is at work. Whatever combination of the two impulses are at work in the decision by the White House to, forgive me, “go all in,” on voting legislation and the legislative filibuster, as a political gambit to start a midterm election year, it’s the pits.
The easiest way for me to understand what has Biden gnawing the scenery is that he is feeling the heat from within his own party. There’s the obvious part that we’ve all had to watch in gruesome detail. The progressive left is still seething over the failure of even a pared-down version of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ social welfare spending package. There’s anger at Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, too, for failing to deliver what many on the left wing believed were obvious criminal penalties for former President Donald Trump and members of his team.
But things are getting more serious for Biden in his own party. When establishment fixtures like Kathleen Sebelius feel entitled to take public potshots at Biden’s handling of COVID, you know things are getting bad. On the defining issue for his term so far, Biden is losing the confidence of the public, which means he is losing the respect of his rivals for power inside the party. Vice President Kamala Harris won’t be the only one sniping at Biden from behind the draperies as 2024 draws nearer.
So you can see the appeal of democracy demagoguery for Biden. It is an issue that is hugely important to the party’s activist base, and as a result is sacrosanct to ambitious party leaders. Plus, it's a way to keep Trump in the conversation. While much of the legislation is substantially unrelated to the state-level election changes Republicans have passed or are still pushing—things like gerrymandering and campaign donations—the framing is that this is a bill to fight Trump and his henchmen who are working in advance to steal the 2024 presidential election. The best framing for Biden in all things is that it is either him or Trump in the White House, and this fulfills that narrative. And the fact that Democrats aren’t looking to pass compromise legislation with non-nationalist Republicans certainly suggests that they might rather have the issue than the solution.
There isn’t really a good place for Biden to go lay down these days. The international scene is looking pretty scary, especially as it relates to Russia. That’s always a possible distraction for a beleaguered president, but Biden doesn’t seem inclined to much saber rattling. On the home front, inflation is hammering consumers and the administration’s COVID response has gotten so incoherent that even once-reliable allies are out with torches.
So I certainly get why the White House is eager to invoke white supremacism and a Trumpkin behind every hedgerow. It’s probably even mostly sincere. What I don’t get is why so many Democrats are going along with him.
This is a dog of an issue for the fall. The idea that the suburban voters who will decide whether or not there is a Republican wave are going to be interested in the Senate filibuster or stalled election legislation is just silly. Given how badly Biden is flailing on inflation and coronavirus, this is not a convincing distraction. Worse still, it further empowers Stacey Abrams and other democracy-is-dead alarmists in the party. Smart Republicans know what a drag the election denialism and kookery in their own party is. Are there no Democrats willing to say the same is true to a lesser degree on their own side? Running around and screaming that we're living in Jim Crow 2.0 is a sure way to tell moderate voters you’re not a serious choice. Did they learn nothing from the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election?
There’s not going to be any more big legislation in Congress this year, unless something radically changes. It’s time for Democrats to move on from talking about Washington and start focusing on state- and district-specific messages. I’m doubtful election law can shore up Biden, but it’s certainly no use for his party anyplace beyond its already too-frothy base.
TIME OUT: FLAWED-CASTS
Bloomberg: “While the overall audience for podcasting expands, the audience for individual new shows is shrinking across the board. None of the 10 most popular podcasts in the U.S. last year debuted in the last couple years, according to Edison Research. They are an average of more than 7 years old, and three of the top five are more than a decade old. (“The Joe Rogan Experience,” “This American Life” and “Stuff You Should Know.”) Only a few podcasts in the top 50 (“SmartLess,” “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” “Frenemies”) are less than two years old. And none of them are in the top 25. … Spotify, Amazon, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia and outside investors have plowed billions of dollars into production companies. Spotify has spent more than anyone, paying about $500 million for three studios. … Spotify hosts more than 3 million podcasts, up from a few hundred thousand just a few years ago.”
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WEIRD IN WISCONSIN
There has been much said about the decision by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson to go back on his term-limit pledge. But given the intensity of Johnson’s Potomac fever and its associated need for attention, who could really be surprised? It is certainly true that Johnson immediately became the most vulnerable Republican incumbent, and Democrats are wasting no time in hitting him where it hurts. But it’s also true that the Democratic Senate primary there is shaping up to be a disaster. The frontrunner is Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, an aggressive progressive with Bernie Bro bona fides who is assembling a list of endorsements sure to be unhelpful if he reaches the general election, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Worse for Democrats, there are too many Democrats competing to be the mainstream alternative, including State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, an executive with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Tom Nelson, a county executive. If it is Barnes, this race could easily turn into a Beto-sized money pit for Democrats.
Fear Itself: A Suffolk University poll out this week says 51 percent of American voters are “very worried about the future of America's democracy.” Only 15 percent said they were either “not very” or “not at all” worried. Republicans were significantly more fearful than Democrats. Sixty-one percent of GOPers were “very worried,” compared to 47 percent of Democrats. White voters were far more worried than black voters: 54 percent to 40 percent. Voters age 50 and over clocked in more than 10 points higher for “very worried” than those under 50. Democracy alarm seems to be significantly stronger among older, whiter, more Republican voters. This oddly explains how and how much the parties are discussing the subject. While Democrats are trying to get their voters riled up to go vote, most Republicans not named Trump are hoping their voters will calm down and keep coming to the polls.
Making the Rounds: How odd a figure to be a political lightning rod Mike Rounds is. The soft-spoken South Dakota senator’s statement of the obvious on ABC News—"The election was fair, as fair as we have seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.”—has drawn scathing attacks from former President Donald Trump and his defenders. But Rounds makes a hard target given his unassuming style and workmanlike approach to his job. Nobody could say that Rounds was a showboat. He’s also well thought of by his colleagues, as was evidenced by the support he got this week. Along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rounds’ fellow South Dakota Sen. John Thune, even North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, who has sounded pretty Trumpy on these issues before, threw in with Rounds against Trump.
John, Cubed: Politico: “When Mitch McConnell steps down as Senate GOP leader, which won’t happen anytime soon, John is sure to replace him. The question confronting Senate Republicans now is: Which John? The decision by Senate Minority Whip John Thune to run for reelection sets up an intricate shuffle among a trio of Republicans named John to succeed McConnell. There’s Thune the South Dakotan, McConnell’s current deputy, as well as former whip John Cornyn of Texas, the two favorites to succeed the GOP leader. Then there’s John Barrasso, the No. 3 Senate GOP leader whom Republicans believe is likely to ascend to the whip job first as Cornyn and Thune compete to succeed McConnell. … McConnell confirmed Tuesday he’ll seek to remain party leader after this fall's midterms, no surprise given his goal of surpassing the late Sen. Mike Mansfield’s record for leadership longevity a year from now.”
WITHIN EARSHOT: NEPOTISTS VS. ANARCHISTS
“You have an increase of anarchists in this city, country. We have a serious problem with white supremacy. And when you talk about this type of security that I want, it’s extremely unique.”—New York Mayor Eric Adams at a press conference explaining why he chose his brother, Bernard, assistant director for parking at Virginia Commonwealth University, as deputy commissioner of the NYPD. In the face of intense criticism, the mayor changed his brother’s title to “executive director of mayoral security."
“As the resident Dispatch expert on Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, I need you to settle a long-running family debate for me: Is Bob Huggins truly the pinnacle of Mountaineer manhood? Please explain your reasoning, and propose alternate candidates as necessary.”—Phil Rexroth, Lorton, Virginia
I think you’re being a bit too gendered here, Mr. Rexroth. The Huggs sets a standard to which all West Virginians can aspire, and does so in loose-fitting, breathable garments. My hope is that for March Madness this year, he will take his style to its logical conclusion and wear some kind of samurai robe or caftan … I am very serious, though, about the standards Coach Huggins sets. He is driven to be the best, but obviously loves and cares about the young men who are on the journey with him. He is a ferocious competitor, but has devoted the second half of his career to coaching in his hometown, even when other opportunities and easier paths to victory beckoned. I admire the heck out of a guy who sticks with it even when the rest of the world looks down on his team and his state. With 13 wins, WVU remains unranked, while lesser teams get fluffed up. Duke could lose to the Little Sisters of the Poor and still be in the top 10. But no matter: It will make beating Kansas on Saturday all the sweeter.
“I look forward to your new column, as I am a longtime fan of your writing (and political analysis). I see the obvious similarities to your bygone Halftime Report, and welcome them—for the most part. By that I mean that you provide great links to solid analysis and reporting done by others. At the same time, though, as you are covering less topics—and broader ones at that, I would welcome even more Stirewalt thoughts on the topics before you kick us to some other reporting. … As I say to my adult kids, in the rare instance I take the time (and risk) to comment on their lives, I only share because I care. Best of luck with the new gig. I will look forward to it every time I see it in my inbox.”—Ken Levine, Lionville, Pennsylvania
I’m so glad to hear from you again, Mr. Levine, and very pleased that you’re eager for more, but don’t be too quick to make assumptions about the future! We’re just figuring this new vehicle out. I haven’t even figured out where the sunglasses holder is. We will see different formats and features as we go. Some weeks may just be an essay. Some weeks may just be a bushel of small items. And while I would always love to share more of my own writing, I’m spread pretty thin these days. In addition to the work I’m doing at the American Enterprise Institute (much more to come on that in the weeks to come), I’m finishing a book, writing a Monday column for The Dispatch and co-hosting a weekly media podcast. And that’s before I even start talking about smoked meats, ‘80s television, and complaining about the designated hitter rule.
“Much has been made of Larry Hogan's presidential ambitions, but as a Marylander and big Hogan fan, I think his chances of winning the nomination are somewhere between slim and none. Assuming he is interested (a big if), what are Hogan's chances of seriously challenging Chris Van Hollen for his Senate seat in 2024? Keep up the great work, y'all rock.”—John Quinn, Washington, D.C.
I assume Gov. Hogan is aiming higher for 2024, but as we learned from then-Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2020, governors can become presidential candidates who become Senate candidates who become senators. It’s possible that Hogan could follow the same path, but Maryland is a very Democratic state and unlike Hickenlooper, Hogan would be swimming against the partisan tide in a presidential year. Of course, Hogan is extraordinarily popular in the Old Line State, much more so than Van Hollen. But getting Maryland Democrats to back a Republican governor held in check by a lopsidedly Democratic state legislature is very different from getting them to vote for a U.S. Senate candidate who will help make Mitch McConnell the majority leader. It would have to be one heck of a bad year for Democrats for that to happen. I think Hogan has the right focus. While I understand the skepticism about his chances in the GOP primaries, there’s going to be a serious demand for a candidate who can move the party beyond the past eight years.
“... whoever published the Thanksgiving stuffing recipe and repudiated oysters and fruit being in the mix, my mother says he's right on all counts. So there's that. I shouldn't have to remind you that the 24th anniversary of The Big Lebowski is this year. Since Steve Buscemi was your person of the year in 2020, I thought this Coen classic's milestone might deserve a write up in the months to come. We look forward to enjoying it. I really wish that someone would do a review of Don't Look Up referencing Jack Horkheimer. Maybe that could be you..? In the meantime, "keep looking up!"—David Mancke, Spokane, Washington
The merry band at The Morning Dispatch were right to laurel Mr. Buscemi. He’s a great dramatic actor, funny as heck, and obviously good-natured as a human. I have always seen a great deal of Peter Lorre in Buscemi, but Buscemi has now surpassed him in not just working years but in the variety and depth of his parts. That depth is why the Coen brothers made his character the moral center of Lebowski. Donny Kerabatsos’ pure hearted friendship and love of bowling was the redeeming palace for The Dude to go when life got weird. Without Donny, the movie could have been mean and stupid or freighted with a phony, sappy ending. So, yeah, I’m probably in a good spot to write a cultural thumbsucker on The Big Lebowski. I’m probably not going to write about Don’t Look Up simply because so much—too much—has already been said. But, man, thank you so much for reminding me about “star hustler” Jack Horkheimer of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium. I forget which hour of illicit late-night television viewing brought Horkheimer to my childhood eyes, but I always acknowledged it as a marker of being up very late and seeing something special. Also, your mother is right; but you didn’t need me to tell you that.
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DRAGNET FOR DUMMIES
Vice News: “Two Los Angeles police officers were fired for ignoring a robbery in progress and instead trying to catch a Snorlax in Pokémon Go. … According to court records, a patrol supervisor called [Eric Mitchell] and [Louis Lozano] to respond to an apparent robbery in progress at the Macy’s; several police officers left the scene of a homicide to respond to the call. Mitchell and Lozano, meanwhile, were in the area but didn’t respond to the call and instead backed down an alley and drove away. … Moments later, Mitchell and Lozano were recorded saying that a ‘Snorlax … just popped up .. at 46th and Leimert,’ and the two strategized how to best catch the rare, gigantic Pokémon. ‘For approximately the next 20 minutes, [the in-car monitoring system] captured [Mitchell and Lozano] discussing Pokémon as they drove to different locations where the virtual creatures apparently appeared on their mobile phones,’ the court documents say. ‘On their way to the Snorlax location, Officer Mitchell alerted Officer Lozano that ‘a Togetic just popped up,’’referring to another Pokémon.”
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on media and politics. Samantha Goldstein contributed to this report.