Tom with the BTRTN December 2022 Month in Review.
December, 2022 was the post-midterm interregnum when Washington crams in unfinished business and evolves into a New Order with the creation of the 118th Congress. The final aftershocks of the 2022 midterms resounded in December with the AP call of California’s 13th House district, the last unresolved House election, after 23 days of ballot counting; Ralph Warnock’s convincing win over Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate run-off; and the exposing of George Santos, the serial liar who flipped a crucial House swing district in Nassau County in New York’s Long Island on the basis of presenting voters with an utterly false life. We haven’t seen a liar of the magnitude of George Santos since, well, the days of Donald Trump.
Santos’ public fraud is so clear and so sweeping – he lied about his employment, his education, his religion, his real estate portfolio, the alleged fate of several alleged employees of his alleged business in 9/11, a fraud case in Brazil, even his mother’s death, and more including potential campaign finance fraud -- that booting him before he takes the oath (which he will do today) seems obvious. Indeed, how will he possibly utter these words? “I, George Santos (or Anthony Devolder, a name he sometimes uses), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” Solemnly swear? True faith? Without purpose of evasion? So help me god, indeed.
The twin evils of Trumpism and polarization have long buried any shred of dignity that existed within the party of Lincoln, and the party of Hugh Scott, Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes. They were the distinguished, solemn establishment trio who went to the White House on August 7, 1974 to tell President Richard Nixon that he had lost the support of Congress. (Nixon resigned two days later.) But the 21st century version of the Grand Old Party could never bring itself to do the same to Donald Trump, despite two impeachment opportunities, and now they cannot even eject Santos, a virtually unknown fabulist. The simple truth is that wannabee-Speaker Kevin McCarthy needs every single vote he can get, and, with his silence on Santos, he crawls even deeper into the abyss, dragging this once proud party with him.
The Santos saga (or, if you prefer, the Devolder drama), was probably welcomed by Donald Trump, since it deflected attention from what has been quite possibly the worst start of a presidential campaign in history (or at least since Scott Walker, the erstwhile Wisconsin Wonder who managed a 70-day “first-to-worst” campaign in 2015). December saw Trump being castigated one last time, with the defeat of Walker, for his midterm idiot-backing madness; ridiculed for launching a set of Trump digital trading cards (on sale for $99 each!); had his Trump Organization found guilty of tax fraud; lost his six-year battle to keep his taxes out of the public eye; and, oh yes, was referred for criminal prosecution by the January 6 committee on four different charges related to The Big Lie. All this came after his ill-timed post-midterm-debacle launch announcement in November, when Trump blowback was white hot, and his high-profile dinner with two of the leading anti-Semites of our age, Nick Fuentes and Ye (nee Kanye West). Perhaps the best part of Trump’s December, apart from the Santos deflection, was that another month went by without an indictment. That streak just might end in January.
Trump remains the only announced candidate for president, and now we await the decisions of President Joe Biden and Trump’s main potential GOP challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Biden has said he will make his intentions clear in early 2023 (likely no sooner than mid-February), but any thought that Biden might hang it up ended when it was revealed that Jill Biden supported a reelection run. Biden himself had a fine month, with inflation now steadily receding, economists raising the odds that the U.S. might avoid a recession altogether, and Biden, Schumer and Pelosi conjuring more legislative magic with bi-partisan passage of a $1.7 omnibus spending bill. (This got through because the GOP Senate was terrified of what might happen if they had to rely on the GOP-controlled House to pass one in the new session.) With all that and the continued glow from the better-than-expected midterms (and the Warnock exclamation point), Biden saw a small but material increase in his approval rating, from 41% to 43%. In these times, that qualifies as momentum.
Which brings us to DeSantis and his decision. It may surprise readers to consider that he might not run, because there is one terrifically good reason why he should – it appears to be his “time.” He is fresh off that stupendous 20-point reelection win in Florida, and he will certainly recall the lesson of Chris Christie, who demurred in 2012 when he was cooking on gas, only to see the flame burn out by 2016. But there are at least two pretty darn good reasons why DeSantis might take a pass anyway, and they are named Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Assuming Biden runs (which as noted is almost a foregone conclusion), he will run, of course, as the incumbent, a huge advantage, and a pretty well-positioned one at that. Biden has already built a solid track record of accomplishment both domestically and overseas; he may be riding a rising economic tide by 2024; and he’ll still have that decent, likable, centrist, high-integrity Middle American profile that got him elected in the first place. That adds up to a pretty formidable position, assuming, of course, he handles the next two years well and maintains his reasonably vigorous level of health (neither a given). From DeSantis’s perspective, running against an incumbent is a risk, and it is notable that the only ones who have been successful at it since FDR’s time are Jimmy Carter, who was running against an unelected president, and Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden, both of whom, at their ages, did not have time to wait. Such is not the case with Ron DeSantis, who is a mere 44 years old, only four years older than Pete Buttigieg.
The other factor to consider also poses grave challenges to DeSantis -- the Trump factor. While Trump is clearly wounded, that could very well be when he is most dangerous. He still has a firm grip on at least 30% of the GOP, probably higher among those who will participate in the primaries, which will make him a formidable opponent. Trump will doubtless denigrate DeSantis mercilessly during his campaign, contuning his propensity of making a mockery of Ronald Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment (“thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican”). DeSantis will become Trump’s sworn enemy the day he throws his hat in the ring. If DeSantis loses the nomination to Trump, he is political toast, and if he defeats him for the nomination, he will somehow have to win over the Trump faithful to have any chance of beating Biden. He certainly cannot count on Trump’s support in the general election; indeed, he may face Trump’s full wrath and perhaps even an independent run.
No matter what happens in 2024 in a Trump-Biden repeat, the field will be clear in 2028. No matter who wins, they will serve a second term and then be done. If Biden wins, the Democrats will have served for eight years, and the country will be ready for a change. Only George H.W. Bush defied that metronome-like swing when he won in 1988 after eight years of Republican rule under Reagan. If Trump wins, he will be eternally grateful to DeSantis for supporting him, and probably anoint him in 2028. (If Trump loses, he could conceivably run again in 2028, but that seems highly unlikely.)
DeSantis’s biggest risk in this wait-for-2028 scenario is that Trump may tap him for Vice President. DeSantis would hardly want to lash himself, Pence-like, to Trump by accepting, but obviously, if he declined, it would elevate a competitor for 2028. DeSantis may offer Trump a deal – I’ll back out in 2024 if you don’t offer me the VP slot, and take no sides in 2028.
DeSantis may also be waiting to see what Biden does. If Biden decides not to run, that shifts the calculus, in that one obstacle – running against an incumbent – will be removed.
All in all, it is no laydown that DeSantis is running. He is nothing if not astute in reading political terrain, and there is little doubt he is considering all of these factors as we head into decision season. The odds on choice is that he will make a go of it, because, apart from political astuteness, DeSantis appears to have a healthy supply of hubris, and thus the lure of the moment will win out, with the sense that he can handle the obstacles as they arise.
Next up: today’s vote on McCarthy’s speakership, with GOP dysfunction fully on display. Stay tuned.
As noted, Biden’s approval rating edged up to 43% in December, in the aftermath of the unexpected showing by the Democrats in the midterms. His issue ratings were unchanged, except for some slight upward movement in “direction of the country.” While the monthly movement was modest, + 2 points, and the absolute level now is still low at 29%, it is noteworthy that the measure has climbed +10 points since July.
The “Bidenometer,” our BTRTN aggregate record of economic performance, made another significant jump upwards from +41 to +47, as gas prices continued to fall and consumer confidence improved (more on the Bidenometer below).
The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.
The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points: the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP. The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.
The +47 for December, 2022 means that, on average, the five measures are 47% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below). With a Bidenometer of +47, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office. Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger. On the flip side, gas prices have soared (as has overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component).
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery. Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it. Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +47 under Biden.
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Notes on methodology:
BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters. The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.
For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.
The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office. The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.