Wednesday, December 15, 2021

BTRTN: Our Annual Analytically-Based Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Predictions

Occasionally we take a break from politics and turn our attention to weightier matters, such as our annual prediction of who will be elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.  It is a Ruthian task, indeed.

It’s that time of year again…the votes have begun to be tabulated for the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) Hall of Fame (HOF) ballot.  Each year we at BTRTN analyze the ballot – in-depth -- to answer two questions:  1) which nominees do we predict will be elected in this year’s voting, receiving at least 75% of the vote of the BBWAA, and 2) who do we think amongst the nominees deserves to be in the HOF, based on our own analysis?  The two lists are never identical. 

The BBWAA results will be announced on January 25, 2022.

I’ll explain our methodology below, but first a few comments.

First, we note that votes for the MLB HOF are again being publicly tabulated, as members of the BBWAA voluntarily publicly announce them (some do, some don’t), by Ryan Thibodaux’s Tracker.  I have not looked at those tabulations to help with our predictions.  Not that they are very helpful in predicting…the writers who reveal their votes publicly, especially in the early going, tend to differ quite a bit from their more private counterparts.  For instance, last year, 44% of the “public” writers voted for Omar Vizquel, while 69% of the “private” voters did so.  Not surprisingly, they seem to differ most on the more controversial candidates.

Second, last week we gave our thoughts on the two committees that considered earlier eras of baseball immortals, the “Early Era Committee” and the “Golden Days Era Committee.”  We did not make predictions as to who would be picked (our first question above) – those committees are too erratic to develop a workable methodology.  But we did opine on which candidates were worthy of enshrinement (our second question), focusing only on the non-Negro League candidates, as they Negro League data is still incomplete.  Among the 13 players or managers on the ballot, we believed that five – Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bill Dahlen, Gil Hodges and Minnie Minoso – were worthy candidates.  The committees agreed with us only on Hodges and Minoso, and instead opted for Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva.  (In addition, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler, who played in the Negro Leagues, were also named.)

Let’s get back to our methodology.  For the first question – our prediction of who will be selected -- we use various statistical models (based on the candidates’ stats and, for those returning to the ballot, how they’ve done in prior years) to come up with an initial estimate of the percentage of the vote they will receive, and we use judgment to finalize that estimate.  For the second question – who should be in the HOF --we have developed a methodology to compare nominees to their same-position predecessors to determine their “Hall-worthiness.”

As for the ballot itself, this year marks both the beginning and the end of two major performance-enhancing-drug (PED) tainted players on the ballot.  This is the non-gift that keep on taking, deflecting attention from worthy players who played fair between the lines.  Whatever happens this year, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa will be off the ballot next year, having either been elected or termed-out of the 10-year ballot limit.  But Alex Rodriguez, who was suspended for the 2014 season for violating MLB’s drug policy and collective bargaining agreement, and David Ortiz, whose name was alleged to have appeared on a list of players who tested positive during 2003 survey testing, are both on the ballot for the first time – and I doubt the last.  They will be a drag on the ballot, perhaps for the entire next decade.


HOW DID WE DO LAST YEAR?

We rather immodestly bill ourselves as “The Best MLB Hall of Fame Predictors” (we may well be the only ones), and while last year was not our best year, we did reasonably well, as you can see by the chart below.

Of course the main miss last year was that we thought that, without a clear first ballot candidate on the ballot, Curt Schilling would score enough new votes to achieve enshrinement, sneaking in with 77% of the vote.  But Schilling missed again, getting to only 71%, barely improving over his 70% showing the year before.

We were within a six percentage point variance for most of the rest of the field, which certainly is not hard to do for the first-time candidates who are not really hall worthy and get few or none votes.  We had larger misses on three returning candidates, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones and Mark Buehrle.

We expected Vizquel, then in his fourth year on the ballot, to jump from 53% to within shouting distance of the HOF at 67%.  But just after we made our public predictions, Vizquel was accused by his wife of domestic violence.  Vizquel’s candidacy was doubtless hurt by this accusation, which became public when most of the votes were still outstanding.  (And for the current ballot, it should be noted that in August, 2021, Vizquel was accused of sexually harassing a Birmingham Barons batboy when he was manager there.)

Andruw Jones jumped more than we expected.  We had him increasing from 19% in 2020 to 25% in 2021, his third year on the ballot, but he did that and more, gaining support from 34% of the writers.  And Mark Buehrle, a first-ballot borderline candidate, did better than we expected, coming in at 11% when we had thought he would miss the cutoff at 4%.  (This was a disappointment, because not only do we not think Buehrle is quite HOF-worthy – see below – but his name is really difficult to spell, and I’d hoped we’d be done with that chore!)

We did well with Gary Sheffield, who we correctly called at exactly 41%, an 11-point improvement over the prior year.  And while we had no other “exactly right” predictions among those who received 10% or more of the vote, all in all the variances were pretty small given the magnitude of the change in the ballot year-over-year.  When you have a first-ballot shoo-in, as with Derek Jeter in January, 2020, it tends to rob votes from other players, and there was no such player in January, 2021.

One thing we did very well was predict total votes per ballot.  We said there would be 6.2 players picked on each ballot, and the final number was 5.9.  That is pretty good, as this figure can vary considerably given the strength or weakness of the field.  Not long ago it was common for each voter to make over eight selections on average.  (The writers are not allowed to name more than ten.)

Overall, we were off by an average of 3.8 percentage points per nominee, about the same as 2020 (3.7) and not quite as good as in 2019, when we had our best showing at 3.3.  Anything under three would be spectacular, anything over five is pretty bad.  The toughest to predict are the first-ballot candidates, but none were particularly HOF-worthy last year, so that helped our variance, of course.

Here are last year’s results:






 

 

 

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WHO WILL BE ELECTED?  THIS YEAR’S PREDICTIONS

On to this year!  And here is our most important prediction:  BTRTN predicts that the BBWAA will, again, not elect anyone to the MLB Hall of Fame.

This year’s ballot might set a record for the most repugnant in the history of the BBWAA!  There are eight  --eight! -- players tainted by PEDs (first-balloters Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, plus returnees Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and Andy Pettitte), as well as the widely reviled Curt Schilling and the abusive Omar Vizquel.  Throw in, for good measure, the press-surly Jeff Kent and the abrasive A.J. Pierzynski (who, in 2012, won a “most hated player” survey of MLB players, going away), and you’ve got a ballot that most sportswriters would stare at in disgust.

The first chart below shows the complete voting history (in percentages) of all the returning players.  The returnees with the most votes are Schilling, Bonds and Clemens.  All are in the last (10th) year on the ballot.  Typically, players begin to rise in their final years of the ballot, and if they are at a high enough level, that deadline-driven surge is enough to put them over the top. Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez and Tim Raines are recent examples of that phenomenon.  All three finally made the HOF in their final year on the ballot.











But you can clearly see that that momentum factor is not working for Schilling, Bonds and Clemens.  In fact, the opposite seems to be true.  All three have made significant progress in their many years on the ballot, but that progress more or less topped out three years ago for Bonds and Clemens, and last year for Schilling, when, as mentioned, he picked up only a single point.  With that plateauing, I don’t see any of them garnering enough incremental support to get there this year.  Whatever chance Schilling might have had in this, his last year, was probably completely shuttered by his petulant demand after last year’s rebuff to be taken off the ballot.

Vizquel’s momentum was crushed, I suspect for good, by the various abuse charges.  As for the other PED’s, only Sheffield is making a run (one which I suspect will fall well short in his remaining three years on the ballot).  Ramirez stalled out last year, Sosa will be off the ballot after this year.  Pettitte may still have a chance, given that he is only in his fourth year and has risen each year, albeit very marginally and from a very low base.  But as a starter with 200+ wins and a magnificent postseason record, the backward look may be kind to him in the coming years, even with the PEDs.  And the newer generation of BBWAA members appears to be softer on PEDs than their crusty predecessors.

So all that, plus the lack of a first-ballot shoo-in candidate, makes it a good year for Scott Rolen to make a jump.  Rolen has jumped from 10% to 53% in his four years on the ballot, and he can easily get within field goal range of the HOF this year, though I think he will fall short of enshrinement.  Billy Wagner has taken off like a rocket in the past two years and, now in his seventh year, is racing against the clock.  Todd Helton has had a similar trajectory to Rolen; now in his fourth year, he will benefit from former Rockies’ teammate Larry Walker getting the nod last year (their profiles are similar, and Walker finally shed the Coors Field factor).  Andruw Jones also took off the last two years, his defensive prowess is now being properly recognized.  Jeff Kent is running out of time; while he has climbed over the years, his gap to 75% is a bridge too far with just two years to go.  Bobby Abreu is still struggling to stay above the 5% threshold in this, his third year.

As for last year’s first-balloters who return by virtue of exceeding the 5% threshold, Mark Buehrle, Torii Hunter and Tim Hudson, this year’s ballot will determine whether they advance with some second-year momentum, tread water, or fall below the 5% and are gone.

That leaves this year’s first ballot candidates.   The most prominent, of course, are Rodriguez and Ortiz, and I suspect both will do much better than Bonds and Clemens did back in 2013; indeed, they may both do as well as Bonds and Clemens are doing now, as that would make some sense.  Among the others, I believe only Jimmy Rollins will surely exceed the 5% threshold, though Mark Teixeira may have an outside chance.

So, what’s the answer?  Here’s the summary chart of this year’s ballot, including our predictions.  As said, we don’t see anyone getting to 75%, but that does not mean the year is a total washout.  With so many bad actors on the scene, it is a good year to get rid of some chaff, and hope that Rolen, Wagner and Helton make a big move upward.

We have also included in this chart our views on which candidates belong in the HOF.  For the explanations of those ratings, read on.






 

 























WHO SHOULD BE IN THE HALL OF FAME?

The second question we ask annually is this:  putting aside what the writers think, who on the ballot do we think is “Hall-worthy”? 

We believe that Curt Schilling should be in the HOF (although we are hardly a fan); and we think the ballot also includes four other players that should be in the HOF, but will fall short in this year’s balloting:  Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, Jeff Kent and Andruw Jones

To arrive at our conclusions, we use the following analytic methodology.  We compare each player to Hall of Famers at his position across a number of key statistics, both traditional (hits, homers, RBI’s and batting average) and non-traditional (OPS+ and WAR).  We show the average statistics for comparison groups, by position.  So we will compare, say, Mark Teixeira to first baseman who are in these four groups:

·        The “top half” of first basemen in the HOF (using WAR)

·        The “average” of all HOF first basemen

·        The “lower half” of the first basemen in the HOF

·        The “next ten,” the ten first basemen who have the highest WARs among those who are not in the HOF. 

The last two groups define the so-called “borderline” candidates.  Our general feeling is that to be worthy of the HOF, a candidate must be better across the board than the last two groups.  They have to be better than borderline candidates, most of whom are either not in the HOF (the “next ten”) or include at least a few players who should never have been enshrined in the first place, and reside in the “lower half."  .

We also give some consideration to how many All-Star teams a player was named to, and how many times a player was in the Top 10 in MVP or Cy Young voting.  And postseason play can certainly be a factor as well.  We try to keep it all completely objective (as you’ll see when we assess Curt Schilling).

Having said that, we at BTRTN do not believe that PED-tainted players should be in the HOF.  Accordingly, we stipulate that although the eight PED-tainted players have HOF credentials (though Andy Pettitte and Sammy Sosa are subject to debate on that score), we have omitted them from the following analysis, since their stats are obviously inflated.

 

BY POSITION ANALYSIS

Catcher

A. J. Pierzynski, somewhat to my surprise, has a set of traditional stats that hold up pretty well against HOF catchers and the “next ten.”  But the advanced stats smoke him out, with a considerably lower OPS+ and WAR than the HOF catcher or “next ten.”  Plus, A.J. was only selected to the All Star team twice, and never landed a top 10 slot in the MVP voting, which is a sure indicator that he was not viewed as one of the great catchers of his time.  Thumbs down for A.J.


First Base 

First base is very busy on the ballot, with the holdover Todd Helton, and four new candidates that put up some impressive numbers in their overlapping careers.

Todd Helton is one of those exceptionally difficult cases – the hardest one on the ballot, in our view.  You have to take into account the “Coors Field” high altitude effect that inflates any Rockies’ stats.  WAR is a park adjusted figure, though, and Helton's 61 falls between the average HOF and the borderlines.  His OPS+ is down with the borderlines, and if you break this down further, Helton’s home/road OPS’s are 1.048/.855.  That .855 is a problem – a fine number but not HOF-esque.  We think Helton is a tough thumbs down.

Mark Teixeira is the best of the new first base bunch.  He smacked over 400 homers, which is a terrific figure, but none of his other stats exceed the “bottom half” or “next ten” group, and in fact his batting average, hits and OPS+ are below both groups.  Tex was a five-time All Star and a three time Top 10 MVP vote-getter, but an underachiever in postseason play.  Thumbs down on Tex.

Justin Morneau, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard are actually fairly similar candidates to each other, all putting up excellent numbers for a decade or so, before injuries abruptly ended their careers at ages 32, 35 and 36, respectively.  Morneau and Howard won MVP’s, and Howard, in particular, seemed destined for Cooperstown with six consecutive Top 10 MVP vote-getting seasons.  But for all of their power and run production, all had surprisingly low WAR scores, and average to low OPS+.  And thus none of them really approach the level of immense production one needs to be in the HOF given a relatively short career (see: Ralph Kiner, who in 11 years won sven home run titles and finished with a 149 OPS+ and a WAR of 48).  Thumbs down to all three.



 

Second Base 

Jeff Kent is the all-time leading home run hitter among second baseman, and is third in RBIs behind Rogers Hornsby and Napoleon Lajoie.  He also won an MVP once, was a Top 10 in the MVP balloting three other times, and a five-time All Star.  He hit three homers and had seven RBI’s in his only World Series.  He was simply one of the greatest power-hitting second basemen ever and the best in modern times.  His WAR may be a bit low, but it is better than the borderline groups, and his OPS+ is above the average HOF second basemen.  If he had been a little nicer to sportswriters over the years, he might be doing better in the voting to date.  But he is unquestionably a Hall of Famer.  (By the way, for you Helton fans smarting over our snub, Kent’s home/away OPS splits are .853/.857 – in other words, he has a higher OPS than Helton on the road, while playing a middle infield position.)







Shortstop 

Omar Vizquel did well in the balloting in his first three years, establishing a track record (37% in his first year, 43% in his second, 53% in his third) was likely to lead to enshrinement.  The abuse charges have likely put an end to that.  But we’ve never thought Vizquel was HOF-worthy.  His OPS+ of only 82 is well below both the bottom half of HOF shortstops and the Next 10. He did bang out 2,877 hits, but it took him 24 seasons to do it, a classic accumulator.  He was a fine player defensively, with 11 Gold Gloves, but no Ozzie Smith or Mark Belanger; Vizquel had 129 “runs saved” in his career versus their 239 and 241, respectively (Craig Counsell had 127.)  He made only three All-Star teams and was never a Top Ten finisher in the MVP balloting.  Thumbs down.

Jimmy Rollins is a very difficult case, a guy who just might clear the hurdle of being ahead of the bottom half and next ten – but maybe not.  The real stoppers to his candidacy are his low OPS+ (at 95, which means he was a below league average hitter for his career), and only three All Star selections.  I think Rollins will get some support, but HOF-worthy?  The view here is thumbs down.








Third Base 

Scott Rolen made the mistake of having a career that almost completely overlapped with Chipper Jones, and in the same league, no less.  And, maybe he should have avoided playing third base, a position the HOF does not favor (there are fewer third basemen in the HOF than any other position).  Rolen was a terrific, if underrated player.  Chipper may dominate Rolen in every category, but Rolen in turn is solidly above the average third base HOF’er in all the power categories, right in line with the average HOF third basemen in OPS+ and WAR, and he was a great fielder, too.  Not to mention seven All Star selections.  The Golden Era committee snubbed Ken Boyer; time for the BBWAA to recognize an even better Cardinal third sacker.  We give Scott Rolen a thumbs up.







Outfield/DH

Andruw Jones is an interesting case, with those 434 homers and a 63 WAR that also reflects his outstanding defensive skills.  He had 253 "runs saved," an astounding number exceeded only by Brooks Robinson.  That is truly impressive.  His relatively low 111 OPS+ is the big knock, but we think the power, defense and WAR – plus five All-Star selections and two Top Ten MVP vote totals -- add up to a thumbs up.

Bobby Abreu is another difficult case.  His power stats are above average for a HOF outfielder, but his OPS+ and WAR are borderline.  And when you throw in the fact that he only made two All Star games in his career (though he did put on quite a display in the Home Run Derby in one of those years) and never once was a Top 10 MVP vote getter, it’s hard to make a case that he was one of the very best players of his generation.  Thumbs down for Abreu.

Torii Hunter is a very similar candidate to Andruw Jones, in that both were excellent fielders and solid hitters.  Jones had more power, while Hunter hit better for average.  But while Hunter was a fine fielder and won 9 Gold Gloves, Jones was, as noted, among the greatest defensive players of all time.  Hunter trails Jones in WAR as well, largely due to the defensive gap.  Jones was also the superior postseason player; both have extensive postseason resumes.  We can find room for Jones in the HOF because of his defensive prowess, but we have to give Hunter the thumbs down.

Carl Crawford was a fine player who stole nearly 500 bases in an era where the stolen base became a lost art (or even a negative, given the potential to give away a precious out).  But his overall stats are simply not compelling, especially for an outfielder.  Thumbs down for Crawford.



 






Starting Pitchers 

Curt Schilling is perhaps my least favorite player, and I am hardly alone.  I’m not talking about the ketchup sock or his Red Sox years.  I’m not talking about him being a conservative Republican, plenty of them in MLB.  I’m talking about his racist, transphobic and generally incendiary comments over the years, the cozying up to white supremacists, his expressed desire to “hang journalists,” his support of the January 6 insurrection and on and on.  Unfortunately, though, on the field, Schilling sports a sterling ERA+ of 127 and his WAR is a hefty 80, both up there with the top half of HOF starting pitchers.  And you also have to consider his postseason performances, which were sublime, with an 11-2 record and 2.23 ERA.  Hate him or hate him, Schilling merits induction; I’m holding my nose and giving him a thumbs up, but I’ll be happier if he gets denied again and we don’t have to consider his case next year.

Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson are, along with Schilling, members of a dying breed, the 200+ career win pitcher.  Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Jon Lester are the only active pitchers who have achieved that milestone, and they will likely be joined by Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.  But then it will likely be a stat of the past, with the possible exception of Gerrit Cole.  In a few years we will surely drop wins as a stat to consider for the HOF.  You can make a case for both Buehrle and Hudson as HOF-worthy; both have stats that match up well with the “bottom half” of HOF pitchers, each made 4-5 All Star teams and Hudson has 4 top ten Cy Young finishes (neither pitcher ever won one).  But still, they are borderline candidates, and we are tough on that group.  So we say thumbs down. 

Jake Peavy, in his first year on the ballot, is nowhere near Buehrle and Hudson on any statistical measure, so he of course is a thumbs down.

Tim Lincecum is an interesting case, a pitcher who was the best starter in the game for a few years, with a four-year streak of All Star appearances, top ten Cy Young ballot appearances, including copping the Cy Young award in consecutive seasons.  Others with brief stretches of brilliance have made the HOF; perhaps the most famous among starting pitchers is Sandy Koufax.  But Lincecum’s era of dominance was far too short (Koufax excelled for six seasons, won four Cy Young’s and an MVP, and managed 165 wins to Lincecum’s 110).  Thumbs down for a shooting star.










Relief Pitchers 

There are only 31 relievers who have saved 300 or more games in their careers, including three who are active (Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman).  Of the 28 retirees, only 8 are in the HOF.  We use 300 saves as a standard because 7 of the 8 HOF relievers have achieved that mark.  Only Hoyt Wilhelm had fewer, and he toiled in an era when the term “closer” was not even in use; indeed, the save was not even an official stat (it became one in 1969, very late in Wilhelm’s 21-year career.  But nonetheless Wilhelm compiled a 50 WAR, a figure that has been exceeded among relievers only by the incomparable Mariano Rivera.

The role of closer has also evolved, from a rubber armed, multi-inning stud to a specialist who toils only in the ninth inning.  Yankee HOF closers Rich Gossage, who averaged 1.8 innings per appearance in his career, and Rivera, who averaged 1.2, embody this transition. The closer role may evolve further in the coming years, as managers have started to questions the logic of saving their best reliever for the ninth inning when, say, the heart of the order is due up in the eighth.

So defining what it takes for a reliever to make the HOF is a moving target, and not an easy one.  And we are presented this year with three candidates who are not necessarily instant recognizable outside of their home towns to casual fans, but had excellent careers worthy of HOF consideration.  Given the paucity of relievers in the HOF, for them we offer two (not four) comparison groups:  the relievers who are in the HOF, and the relievers who recorded 300+ saves who are not in the HOF.

Billy Wagner’s statistics are amazing, and voters are now finally catching on, as Wagner has advanced in his seven years on the ballot from 11% to 46%.  He has well over 400 saves and a 1.00 WHIP that is – incredibly – equal to Rivera’s (and better than Trevor Hoffman’s 1.06).  His stats compare favorably to the average of the eight relievers in the HOF.  Wagner is a thumbs up – he is simply one of the greatest relievers of all time.

Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan are very similar candidates, as their stats attest.  Neither are quite in Wagner’s class as relievers (or, accordingly, as HOF candidates) but they present solid credentials.  Nathan was a particular surprise to me; I knew he was a fine reliever, toiling away in obscurity for decent Twins teams in his prime (he pitched for four other teams in a 16-year career).  But he is actually a stronger candidate for the HOF than Papelbon, who was a high profile closer on some excellent Red Sox teams.  Both exceed the accomplishments of the non-HOF group, so that would seem to push them both over the top, but still, I’m not quite ready.  Perhaps it’s because eight HOF relievers is actually quite a few for a position that only has a roughly 50-year history of prominence.  (There are only 12 third basemen in the HOF, a position that has been around from the start)..  I’m going to be tougher on relievers until this shakes out for a while.  So, with some reluctance, especially for Nathan, thumbs down for both.







That’s it!  We’ll be back after Tuesday, January 26, 2021, when the selections will be announced and see how we did!  Comments welcome, of course.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

BTRTN: The Insurrection Next Time

It does not seem to be a question of “if.” We’ve got a good inkling about the “when.” The real question of 2024 is “who will be doing it?” And all we know for certain is this: now is the time to be thinking about it.

 

It is troubling that no one is talking about what could very likely happen on Tuesday, November 5, 2024 and the weeks that follow.

You know… when the next insurrection happens. The fire next time.

This prediction is not that hard to make.

Certainly not as hard as when BTRTN alone accurately predicted that both Georgia Democrats would win the run-off races in January 2021. Not as complicated as our August 1, 2020, post entitled “How This Election Gets Stolen,” a reasonably accurate forecast of Trump lawyer John Eastman’s memo about how to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Not requiring the prescience of our post of January 3, 2021, entitled “14 Days of Living In Danger of All the Spite,” which speculated on the unhinged behaviors that might occur in the final days of Trump’s presidency… three days before the lunatic fringe exploded in the Capital.

Sadly, it is pretty easy to predict a scenario in which Election Day 2024 is the day when all hell breaks loose in America.

It might be smart to recognize this possibility and begin to think hard about what we should be doing now to minimize it, if not avoid it.

It’s not hard to sketch out a scenario in which misinformation and malignant manipulation of our elections cause vast uncertainty and doubt about the real winner of the 2024 Presidential election. This uncertainty could, in turn, trigger an epic power struggle to determine the Presidency that becomes completely detached from the election itself. Regardless of which candidate is ultimately declared to be the winner, the opposing party will completely reject the legitimacy of the President of the United States. Then things get ugly in a way that makes January 6 look like a Muppet movie.

Really?

Yeah, really. Here’s how it could go down…

For over a year now, Trump and his lackeys have been screaming into microphones that elections in the United States are rigged and fraudulent. Should Trump run in 2024, this charge will essentially be the first and only plank of his campaign. Other Republicans may urge him to talk about the economy, Covid 19, China, Russia, Iran, burgeoning debt, inflation, and the border, and Donald Trump may mention such talking points in the course of an hour long MAGA rally speech. But on the matter of what is the central issue of the campaign, he won’t budge: he will keep coming back to his contention that the election of 2020 was the greatest robbery of all time.

Don’t believe it? Mitch McConnell just announced that there would be “no Republican legislative agenda” for the 2022 midterms. Indeed, the Republican Party never offered an official platform for the 2020 Presidential race. This is a free and clear concession that the only thing the Republican Party stands for is what Donald Trump said five minutes ago.  And these days, what are the only things Donald Trump talks about? That the 2020 election was stolen, and that he is out to destroy every Republican who does not support this position.

Don’t believe it? Check out the race for the Republican nomination for Governor of Georgia. Once considered one of Trump’s most ardent acolytes, current Governor Brian Kemp is being challenged in the primary -- essentially because he failed to bend to Trump's pressure to overturn the election results. Kemp’s opponent in the primary is former Senator David Perdue, who has been endorsed by Trump. Perdue was recently quoted by Axios as saying the he would not have certified the Georgia election results. In that there has never been the slightest evidence of material voter fraud in Georgia, Perdue’s assertion is a stunning proclamation of his willingness, and perhaps intent, to manipulate the 2024 election results in Georgia.

Would Trump really try to turn the 2024 campaign into a single issue debate about the legitimacy of the 2020 election? Pundits who are governed by reason might think that such a strategy is foolish. What such pundits fail to understand is that the “stolen” election has long since transcended beyond logical, left brain analysis and now must be viewed through the prism of pure symbolism. There are two immensely powerful symbolic messages embedded in the concept of a “stolen election.”

On the one hand, the idea that the 2020 election was stolen preserves Trump’s essential brand message that he is a “winner.” Throughout his life, he has striven to convey a notion that he is a man with a Midas touch, that every deal he makes is a winner, and that he always emerges triumphant. To acknowledge that he is a “loser” would be kryptonite for his brand. He must declare that the 2020 election was stolen to in order to preserve his essential identity, and he may now view running – and winning – in 2024 as the ultimate vindication of his position.

But at perhaps an even more significant level, Trump trumpets the “stolen election” to stoke feelings of victimization in his white, Red State, rural, and less educated base. These people feel that their jobs, their status, and their very way of life have been “stolen” by minorities, immigrants, coastal intellectuals, and Washington insiders. The Republican Party has become the party of white grievance, victimhood, and resentment – and the notion that the election was “stolen” plays perfectly into the mindset of a Trump base that believes it has swindled out of jobs, status, retirement security, and the rightful President of what Congressman Jim Jordan now calls “real America.”

Will is work at the polls? Ironically, the “stolen election” concept has the advantage of being the one crystal clear policy position of the Trump administration. Trump may try, but he will have a dicey time claiming superior policy success on the economy or the coronavirus. He’d have a tough time campaigning about a wall that never got built. Trump can complain about Biden’s foreign policy, but withdrawing from Afghanistan was his idea, and Trump’s cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal has only brought Iran closer to building a bomb.

If he focuses on the issue of the legitimacy of the election, however, he has only upside and no downside. It’s his opinion vs. the fake news media.  

In a sense, Trump’s “Big Lie” has already been wildly successful: approximately one third of Americans believe that Joe Biden won the Presidency because of voter fraud, according to a Monmouth University poll in June, 2021. And a great many people are really angry about it.

All of that anger and symbolism is going to be stoked to a frenzy as Election Day, 2024 unfolds.

But here’s the really weird thing.

In their own way, Democrats, Progressives, and Liberals are also now messaging to their own constituencies that the elections of 2022 and 2024 may well be “stolen.”

The difference, of course, is that they are right.  But when both parties assert that our elections are fixed, that cannot be good for democracy.

The Democratic version of the “fixed election” message is correctly focused on the plethora of voter suppression laws that are being passed in Republican Legislatures all across the country. As of October, the Brennan Center for Justice – the “go to” source for monitoring voter suppression laws -- noted that 19 states have passed a total of 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote. Moreover, there are hundreds of proposed laws working their way through state governments across the nation.

The Republican assault on election law is well-documented and has been the subject of a number of recent feature stories, but it remains maddeningly low on the list of concerns, even among Democrats. To infer from headlines, Washington Democrats are urgently focused on finishing the “Build Back Better” soft infrastructure bill, all with an eye to providing tangible economic benefits and support to a vast majority of voting Americans. The status of Roe v. Wade remains front and center, and climate change was the concern-du-jour during Glasgow. News of yet another variant has vaulted Covid 19 back to the top of the list of worries, and the endemic pandemic feels more and more like a societal chronic disease rather than a temporary condition that can be cured. It remains job # 1 for Biden.

Voter suppression doesn’t seem to make the “top ten” of concerns, even in the Biden administration.

But it is the voter suppression laws that are on a trajectory to undermine the Democratic agenda – and American democracy -- far more effectively and permanently than Krysten Sinema, Joe Manchin, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Kevin McCarthy, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Donald Trump combined.

A significant amount of this legislation may feel like small ball: much of it is designed to disenfranchise minority voting by limiting mail-in voting, voting hours, and reducing access to drop boxes. But the reality is that when Texas has one drop box in Harris County – home to 4,713,000 voters, 43% of which are Hispanic and 20% are Black – the impact on Democratic voting is profound.

Even scarier measures are the laws that change the chain of command in local elections, enabling state legislatures – invariably Republican – to overrule traditionally non-partisan local election officials.

In aggregate, these laws have the power to dramatically shift the results of elections in the swing states that decide Presidencies and the majorities in the House and Senate.

But beyond changing the outcome of elections, these laws will cause liberals to not trust the results of the 2024 elections any more that Republicans trust the results of 2020 – or 2024.

You see, it’s one thing to simply count ballots, determine that only a microscopic number of ballots were “fraudulent,” and declare a winner. But in 2024, Democrats may be stunned to realize that tens of thousands of ballots – votes that could swing the election results in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin – were never counted because they were never cast. They were prevented from being cast by Republican laws.

If eligible citizens are prevented from voting by laws that were designed specifically to thwart one party, then elections are no longer a simple matter of counting ballots.  How do you quantify the impact of the votes that were blocked from being cast?

Both Republicans and Democrats will head into 2024 believing that the other side is determined to steal the election.

By Election Day of 2024, the suspicion, vilification, and vigilantism will be a toxic cocktail. Expect incidents of physical confrontation to be reported at polling places across the nation. Count on Tucker Carlson to report “massive” voter fraud in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. CNN, in turn, will report on how the voter suppression laws that have been enacted throughout the south are dampening Democratic turn-out.

In Georgia, a new law has given the State Legislature – controlled by Republicans – the power to intercede in local elections, and supersede the authority of local election officials. Expect a Georgia Republican legislator to appear on Fox News and express outrage at supposed fraud, raising the specter of invoking the legislature’s authority to alter or ignore local election results.

Indeed, it is possible to imagine MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki putting a laser focus on quantifying the issue of voter suppression in Red States. What if 2024 voting data proves that Democratic turn-out in Blue States is at or above the tally in 2020 – but Democratic turn-out in Red States in ten percent lower than 2020? Would that not be dramatic proof that Red State laws had effectively repressed Democratic vote?

And what if that ten percent swing was enough to make the mathematical inference that Republican voter suppression laws changed the Presidential election in enough states to swing the outcome in the Electoral College?

What will happen next? What always happens in the egregiously litigious United States of America?

As election eve wears on, court challenges – authored by legions of lawyers paid by partisan PACs long before election day – will be filed all across America by Republicans and Democrats alike, demanding that voting machines be impounded and that records of voting processes be turned over for investigation. Dozens and dozens of court documents, long since drawn up to cover a myriad of possible situations, will flood the legal zone, creating a molasses of legal uncertainty.

Only then will Democrats finally grasp the implication of a new Arizona election law that changed the responsibility for handling election litigation from the Secretary of State – a Democrat -- to the Attorney General, a Republican.

In short, the suppression of minority vote, coupled with the actions of newly empowered Republican state legislatures, could actually reverse the outcomes in Georgia and Arizona. Throw in one state – Wisconsin? Pennsylvania? – actually flipping red, and voter suppression laws in Georgia and Arizona will actually change the outcome of the Electoral College, putting Donald Trump back in the White House.

The avalanche of legal challenges across the nation also favors the Republicans, who argue that cases should be immediately railroaded to the highly politicized Supreme Court, which will certainly rule in favor of the Republican position.

Should the mid-term elections shift majorities in the House and Senate to Republicans, there exists that further possibility that a Republican Congress could actually successfully reject Electoral College votes from Blue States, further sealing a Republican victory. Meaning: they could actually accomplish what they tried but failed to achieve in 2020.

In such an environment, who would blame desperate Democrats from resorting to Republican tricks? What if the Democrats make a last ditch effort to reclaim the election by asking Stacey Abrams – who, we hope, is elected Governor of Georgia in 2022 –to “not certify” the Republican legislature’s election fix -- just as the would-be Republican Governor Perdue openly spoke of doing earlier this week?

And what if that Hail Mary fails? Here’s an unnerving scenario: in 2024, Kamala Harris will be in the exact same place that Mike Pence was in 2020… the sitting Vice President who must formally announce the results of the Electoral College. But unlike Pence, Harris knows that the election really was stolen. What does she do?

Bottom line: it is 2020 all over again, except this time it won’t matter who “wins” – the opposing party will categorically refuse to accept the outcome, no matter what.

And the insurrection next time may not be a few thousand lunatic fringe right wing armed vigilantes with face paint storming the United States Capital. Or even hundreds of thousands of Kyle Rittenhouse wannabees exploding in anger if Trump loses again.

It may be millions of Democrats marching on Washington, protesting a stolen election.

In vain.

Because by then, it will be too late. Trump will be back in the White House, now determined to finish the job he started, installing utterly unqualified loyalists, sycophants, and lackeys in every position in government, and using the powers of government to destroy enemies. Democracy will be gone before we ever get to 2028.

What’s to be done?

How about we start by demanding that Democrats put the passage of Federal voting rights laws at the top of their agenda? HR 1 – the bill designed to protect every citizen’s right to vote – is already written. It is simply not getting priority attention from Democrats in Congress or in the White House.

Which is a disaster, as much of the scenario laid out above is already unfolding before our eyes.

The voter suppression laws that could swing the electoral college results in Georgia and Arizona are already in the books. The laws that could prevent Texas from turning blue are already in the books. The Supreme Court that will decide the appeals has already been packed by Mitch McConnell.

Joe Biden appears to be taking the tact that it is better to focus on the health of the economy and the pocketbooks of all Americans than to tackle Federal voting rights legislation. And, yes, we can all agree that the trifecta of economic stimulus bills that Biden hopes to have enacted by year’s end will have a real impact on the lives of everyday Americans.

But candidates always say that they have to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” These days we’d be happy to have a government that could either walk or chew gum, let alone synchronize. Joe Biden simply cannot punt on voter rights and focus solely on the Build Back Better bill.

Without Federal voting rights legislation to level the playing field and ensure that all Americans have equal access to the voting booth, our elections themselves will be drained of meaning… for both sides. Republicans will be free to suppress votes. Democrats will not believe the outcome. If no one trusts that elections are free and fair, no one will feel bound to abide by their outcome. The rule of law will give way to the rule of an authoritarian regime, enforced by weapons, violence, and the silencing of protest.

What is blocking the passage of HR 1? Round up the usual suspects: Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema. Each opposes abolishing the filibuster. If these two Senators agreed to abolish the filibuster, Democrats could pass HR1 without a single Republican vote.

These two Senators fail to grasp that in their supposed desire to preserve the arcane institution of the filibuster, they are enabling Republicans to take a sledgehammer to the vastly more sacred principle that every eligible citizen in the United States is entitled to vote.

If there ever were a time for Joe Biden and Democrats to come down like a ton of bricks on these two Senators, now is it. If the Democratic vote is suppressed, the entire Democratic agenda goes with it: climate change, income and wage inequality, abortion rights, gun control, immigration policy, endemic racism, and eradicating the coronavirus – all will be crushed by an authoritarian government focused wholly on white supremacy, wealth concentration, and the preservation of Republican power.

All Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema need to agree to is to a carve-out that eliminates the filibuster on this one legislative issue.

Biden must make every possible effort to twist those arms.

Because if this nation does not operate under a single, common set of rules about its most central, sacred, crucial, and basic right as a citizen, who are we kidding? Are we really a single country?

If Blue State voters choose their elected officials, but Red State elected officials choose their voters, are these United States united in any real way at all?

Or does the very existence of this debate demand that we finally examine the underlying issue: that the United States has actually become two entirely separate countries that currently occupy the same geographic space?

Political polarization in the United States is now so completely and thoroughly baked into our society that Red and Blue America have diametrically opposing viewpoints on just about everything: how to navigate a pandemic, social programs, gun control, immigration reform, taxation, abortion rights, concentration of wealth and income, the role of the United States on the global stage, whether embedding societal racism is real, whether scientists and health professionals should be respected and heeded… and, indeed, whether there is even such a thing as objective reality and fact.

Our political polarization is functioning like centrifugal force that rips orbiting objects further and further from the center. There is no effective counterweight. Fed by highly partisan news networks, the polarization continues to grow more and more extreme. And now, one political party is centering its entire identity around a “Big Lie.”

Blue America and Red America now even appear to disagree on whether the country should be a democracy or an authoritarian dictatorship controlled by one party. If we cannot even agree on the form of our government, are we one country… or two?

And now, as we face the possibility that we can no longer execute free and fair elections, we must ask whether one country within the United States can co-exist with the other… or is it seeking to permanently rule and subjugate the other?

For now, we must be able to look ahead and clearly see the crisis that is looming. We must not wait until what is unfolding is allowed to occur.

One of the most important things that decent people must be able to do is recognize and deal with evil.

The Republican Party of Donald Trump is pursuing a clear strategy of subverting democracy in America by denying minority citizens access to the vote.

If you don’t understand that or recognize that it is evil, then you are being na├»ve. You are failing to recognize evil, and failing to deal with it.

Now is the time to deal with it.

Not after it happens, when Donald Trump is back in the White House, and Eric Trump has been named Secretary of State and Attorney General Rudy Giuliani has pulled the broadcasting license of NBC.

Not when it is too late.

Get rid of the filibuster. Now.

Vote for HR 1. Now.

Save our democracy. Now.

What can you do? Call your Congressional representatives. Tell them that it is time to prove that they can walk, chew gum, and save democracy in our nation all at the same time.

And, just in case they really only can do one, make sure they know which one is most important.

 

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