Tuesday, November 21, 2023

BTRTN: Hey Dems, Wake Up! This is the Issue that Could Beat You in 2024

If the Democrats can land the economic plane by bringing down inflation without triggering a recession, Joe Biden should have a pretty strong hand to play in 2024: big legislative achievements, strong global leadership, and a powerful “get out the vote” issue in Dobbs. It’s shaping up to be a strong messaging platform. But if you've been watching the Republican debates, you know where the Republicans see a big vulnerability...

Joe Biden and the Democrats have had a lot on their plate: Gaza, Ukraine, inflation, ongoing threats of government shut-down, abortion rights, China, Russia, Republican assaults on Democracy and the legitimacy of our elections and our judicial system, and sure, why not? UFOs. Yep, a lot to deal with.

But there is an issue that the Democrats are not dealing with, and if they don’t wake up and do something, it could kill them in 2024. The Republicans, on the other hand, are figuring out how to unify an assault on Joe Biden around a major issue, and they are learning how to message it... simply and effectively.

The issue is the Southern border.

Sure, sure… we can practically hear the administration’s defensive posture now, likely words to the effect of “the Biden administration is working diligently to address the immigration issue in a fair, humane, and comprehensive manner.” Consider this – actual language on the website of the Department of Homeland Security:

“President Biden has called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform since his first day in office. As a result of Congress’ failure to enact the reform, the Administration has been using the limited tools it has available to secure the border and build a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system while leading the largest expansion of lawful pathways for immigration in decades.”

Huh? Biden is waiting for Congress to act? Hey, Joe, Godot is going to show up before that happens.  It is not exactly a state secret that the United States House of Representatives recently displaced the New York Jets as the most dysfunctional, unproductive, and broken organization in the country.  To “wait for Congress to act” is to do punt and do nothing.

Democrats need to face up to the reality that the Biden administration has a real liability in both policy and perception: what is the policy? Is it the right policy? Is it being communicated effectively? Is the message believable, compelling, and supported by actions?

The Democrats are vulnerable on each of these dimensions… they have neither offered a comprehensive new policy nor are they effectively communicating the actions they are taking to address the growing litany of border issues. They are being consistently outmaneuvered on the optics of immigration… and it is getting worse all the time.

Something has to be done… fast.

The Democrats may be asleep at this particular wheel simply because Donald Trump did so much to damage Republican credibility on the border issue.

Back in 2016, Donald Trump framed the Republican gripe about the Southern border in terms of caravans of undesirable immigrants flooding across the Rio Grande to steal jobs from Americans. Trump scoffed at the idea that these immigrants were simply the latest chapter in American history of tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, labeling them as, well, deplorables. Indeed, Trump defined an essential issue of his 2016 campaign on the need to build a wall to keep the trash out.

“When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Trump was crude and insulting about hundreds of thousands of brown-skinned people who were eager to work hard at tough manual labor simply for the chance a better life for their families by living in the United States. Trump cynically propagated the myth that these eager workers and would-be citizens were taking American jobs. Quite the reverse: immigrants play a crucial role in filling gaps in the labor market.

Ah, but in the world of optics, facts are for twisting into optical illusions. MAGA nation loved Trump’s spin on the truth and still more his crudity. For the middle-aged white men who had lost jobs to the global economy, Trump was the guy who “told it like it is” when it isn’t, who blamed immigrants for the loss of jobs, and a government in Washington that appeared more worried about the health and well-being of undocumented nonresidents – “illegal aliens,” in Republican speak -- than its own citizens. Trump justified their sense of victim-hood.

Trump’s instinct for bombast and exaggeration, however, proved self-destructive. Trump made the immigration issue farcical with an inane announcement that he was going to build a vast, continuous wall across our entire south border, and doubled down on the laugh track by promising that “Mexico would pay for it.” Liberals cackled at the obvious naivetĂ© of both the phrasing of the problem and impracticality of the solution.

In four years of office, Trump would build a microscopic stretch of wall, and no invoice was ever mailed to Mexico. The wall became an embarrassment to Trump, as even rabid conservative Ann Coulter, who worshiped him in a book entitled “In Trump We Trust,” turned on him with a raging, angry column on Breitbart entitled “Gutless President in Wall-Less Country.” Quite apart from never building a wall, Trump never bothered to advance a comprehensive legislative plan for dealing with the immigration crisis. He was all bloviated blowhard: all talk, no action.

When he finally did act, it was horrendous. Unable to build the wall, Trump managed to mollify the MAGA maniacs by instituting a heinous policy of separating children from their parents at the border. It was effective in its cruelty: it made would-be immigrants think twice about risking life and limb to get to a country that would take away their children. It was a deep, ugly stain on our national reputation.

The immigration problem would not fully explode under Trump, who benefited significantly from Title 42, a World War II era law invoked because of Covid that empowered the Federal government to immediately return migrants across the border, refusing any consideration for asylum. This reduced the flow of migrants who understood that they would be instantly returned to Mexico.

Taken in sum, immigration could not and would not be a big issue in Trump’s 2020 campaign for re-election. Trump’s foolishness in thinking a wall would solve the problem, his failure to build it, and then his implementation of unspeakably cruel border policy made the entire issue of immigration toxic for Republicans in 2020.  The last thing Trump wanted to do on the campaign trail was talk about the wall that did not get built and the country that did not pay for it.

But that will not be the case in 2024.

Republicans can now point to four years of Democratic leadership producing no tangible breakthrough on immigration policy. Worse, they are now turbo-charging the issue of Biden’s inaction by attempting to add new implications of that inaction… fentanyl, terrorism, and budget trade-offs are all now integral to the Republican focus on the Southern border.

And what has the Biden administration been doing? Not enough.

Very early in his term – March 24, 2021 – Biden announced that Kamala Harris would be his “point person” on immigration. She was tasked with leading the administration’s effort to better understand the “root causes” that lead migrants to abandon their home countries.

Harris took on a tough job, to be sure… but it’s now two and a half years later, and no one has heard a peep from Kamala Harris on immigration. No new policy. No new nothing.

It’s no secret that Kamala Harris has not exactly dazzled in her role as Vice President, and no secret that her tepid performance is now viewed as a liability in Joe Biden’s re-election campaign. That she was given a potentially high-profile assignment for her portfolio and proceeding to go AWOL has not reflected well on anyone. Surely, by now, she should have forged some initiative – some semblance of bi-partisan legislation -- that Democrats could point to as evidence of effort, if not progress.

Here is the curious little secret: it is not like concrete legislative action on immigration is unfathomable, unimaginable, and unsolvable. In 2011, the famed “Gang of Eight” Senators – four Republicans and four Democrats -- came up with a perfectly reasonable bi-partisan approach to the Southern border. Guess what the compromise involved? You got it: Republicans would get increased funding for both border security and policing, and Democrats would get a path to citizenship for undocumented non-residents already residing in the United States. It was the essential nature of legislative compromise: both sides got much, though not all, of what they sought.

Republicans in the House, however, quickly crushed the idea, using the Gingrich/McConnell logic that it is better to do nothing than to hand a Democratic President a legislative triumph. And sure, if Kamala Harris had tried the same legislation in 2022, she might have encountered the same roadblocks. But at least there would have been the perception that the Democrats were doing something, and that their efforts were being blocked by Republicans. Heck, Harris could have proposed a plan that involved building walls in limited strategic sections (as the Biden White House actually authorized last month, spending existing “use it or lose it” Congressional funding) – what Republican would have dared vote against that?

But there was nothing.  Nothing of scale or magnitude, no sweeping legislative proposal that could be branded with Biden’s name.

Nature and politics abhor vacuums, so it is not surprising that Republicans raced into the chamber of silence left by Democratic abdication on immigration policy.  Into the void charged scum-soaked Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who cruelly and shamelessly manipulated migrants to perform a cheap political stunt when he herded them onto a plane heading for the ritzy liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard. That stunt backfired… but Republicans were onto something. Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent busloads of migrants to the huge “Blue State” northern cities… and Democratic Mayors like New York’s Eric Adams would begin chafing at the Biden Administration for allowing the situation to fester and deteriorate. Great…now even Democrats were upset about the Biden administration’s inaction.

Republicans know that border security is Red State red meat. It is an issue that intrinsically works far better for Republicans than for Democrats. Republicans get to talk tough and macho about using force to stop immigration. Democrats always end up in the role of defending the right of immigrants to strive for a better life in the United States. Almost inevitably, this puts Democrats on the defensive for appearing to advocate for “illegal” immigration, for supporting “sanctuary cities,” which most people do not understand but sure sounds like cushy refuge for undocumented non-residents, and for finding “paths to citizenship” for undocumented non-residents while those who followed immigration laws wait patiently. Inevitably, Democrats are viewed as the weenies who are “soft on immigration,” whereas Republicans are the macho tough guys who take action.

Take Greg Abbott of Texas. Please. The Lone Star governor is at his most creative when he is thinking of ways to target immigrants – setting up barriers in the Rio Grande to increase the likelihood that those who would attempt to cross will drown, bussing immigrants to Northern cities, and now passing dubious legislation that allows Texas law enforcement officers to arrest persons on suspicion of illegal entry. Not only would this law essentially authorize law officers to execute aggressive racial profiling and conviction without trial, the new law would also wildly usurp the Federal government’s authority over immigration.

All that said, we must pause and be fair. While many of us have yearned for Texas to follow through on its many threats over the years to secede from the union, we must be sympathetic to the Lone Star State’s plight in the immigration crisis. Simply by virtue of being a border state, Texas experiences the burdens and problems of illegal immigration far more than other states. There needs to be a fair and equitable solution that does not make El Paso ground zero for our national immigration crisis and does not make rogue bussing the solution to a national problem.

But there is policy, and then there is perception, and Republicans are getting a great deal more clever about messaging the border issue.

Those who have been watching the GOP debates have seen the Republicans take a far more comprehensive and frightening narrative to the immigration crisis than Donald Trump ever imagined. It is a compelling narrative that blends China, fentanyl, Ukraine funding, and terrorism into a toxic broth for the Biden White House.

The GOP argument – aggressively spearheaded by Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy in the debates -- goes like this: China manufactures the fentanyl and ships it to the Mexican cartels that manufacture the pills that pour through our porous border, killing tens of thousands of Americans. Hezbollah, Isis, and scores of splinter terrorist groups are sending troves of terrorists through our southern border, where they will plan and execute a 9/11 grade atrocity on U.S. soil.  Sounds scary as all get-out, huh?

Yes, the fentanyl epidemic that is killing thousands of Americans is real, but it is well established that almost all fentanyl flows into the United States through major ports – not on the backs of migrants wading across the Rio Grande.  And that inflow of terrorist organizations? Can’t be proven – or dis-proven. The bottom line: both the fentanyl and terrorist stories are plausible, which is all it takes to create effective messaging. The combination ratchets up the issue of border security from simply a threat to American jobs to an existential, life and death national crisis.

And what, DeSantis and Ramaswamy ask, is Joe Biden doing? He’s spending billions and billions to protect Ukraine’s borders, while failing to protect our own citizens from a scourge of drugs and danger.. Biden is asleep at the wheel! He’s old! He’s senile! He’s out of touch!

You see? It is all becoming one big, ugly fully integrated radioactive message aimed at Biden… and there’s enough plausibility in it to sting badly.

DeSantis uses this logic to whip debate attendees into a frenzy, and then he goes in for the kill, announcing that he would send the United States military into Mexico to destroy the Mexican cartels, glossing over the messy little issue of how we go about invading not simply a sovereign country, but one of our closest allies.  Does DeSantis care about such nuance? Watch the next debate and listen to the ovation Machine Gun Ronny gets when he talks about shooting cartel leaders dead.

All of this, it turns out, plays wonderfully into Red State Nation’s growing impatience with sending billions in aid to Ukraine. Donald Trump made clear that he saw little value in NATO, and when Trump cuddled up to Putin, he signaled to MAGA nation that Ukraine was not our problem. DeSantis and Ramaswamy then put the jigsaw pieces together in an artistic way to make it seem that they were not abandoning Ukraine per se… they simply argued that it was a matter of funding priority. Why are we sending zillions of dollars to defend Ukraine’s borders and failing to defend our own?

No, it’s not just about rapists anymore. Now, the GOP has integrated every possible frightening message into one: Joe Biden’s failed policies are why we have an unrelenting flood of undocumented non-residents, a fentanyl crisis, a risk of an imminent terrorist strike, and no money to fix our own problems while we spend billions on someone else’s.   

Republicans are weaving an argument that unites all of the nation’s perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities around the idea that the Biden Administration has not done a thing about the Southern Border.  Bad news for Joe Biden: now even Democrats are joining the clamor for action.

And in the battle of perception, the Biden Administration is extremely vulnerable to this accusation. Democrats simply cannot point to enough concrete actions taken to address the immigration crisis. There has been no integrated, comprehensive proposal for immigration policy.

What can be done?

It’s not rocket science. It starts with putting an idea on the table. Let it get criticized, let it get debated… heck, let it get defeated by Republicans in the House.

It is better than doing nothing.

Biden should make a key goal for the first six months of 2024 to advance a piece of legislation that aims at accomplishing what the “Gang of Eight” tried to do in 2011 and more: increased investment on border security, aggressive action on fentanyl trafficking, more immigrant processing personnel and facilities, and a sane policy for finding permanent housing for legal immigrants in the United States.

More ambitious still: the idea of a deal that funds all of Israel, Ukraine, and the Southern Border. It would be a double-edge sword for Biden, as such a deal would not be designed to address DACA or paths to citizenship for current undocumented in the U.S. It would not be the deal progressive Democrats want, but it might be a deal that Biden could get. And forging a consensus that creates action on three of the biggest issues currently on our national stage would burnish Biden’s reputation for implementing bold legislative initiatives.

The point: everything that Biden can do now to defuse the Republican attack dogs about the Southern border will pay dividends in 2024. A good example: One outcome of the recent “Xi Loves You” summit in San Fransisco was the initiation of dialog about China’s role in the fentanyl crisis. Biden needs all the arrows he can fit in his quiver to defend his administration’s actions against the DeSantis/Ramaswamy fusillade.

Yes, it is complicated. Joe Biden is trying to manage a full plate of global crises, all with front-burner urgency. It is easy to understand that his is a world in which priorities must be set, and there are only so many hours in a day.

But anyone who has been watching the Republican debates is getting a very clear look at the new Republican messaging on the Southern border and Democrats would be wise to think hard – and fast – about it. There is precious little time to shore up the optics of the Biden Administration’s stewardship of the southern border, and now is the time to act.

Wake up, Dems. This is the issue that could kill us in 2024.

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Thursday, November 9, 2023

BTRTN: Republican Debate... Nikki Haley Wins the "Scum Scrum"

Last night’s Republican debate was generally substantive, serious, and orderly… except for one smackdown for the ages.

“Just scum.”

Every now and again a presidential debate has a vivid, intense moment – a cut, a barb, an insult, or a joke that is remembered long after the tumult and shouting is over. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." “There you go again.”

Maybe not quite scaling that Mount Rushmore of debate moments, we nonetheless heard a zinger for the ages last night. Nikki Haley has made her contempt for Vivek Ramaswamy clear for some time now, having opined in the last debate that “every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say." But when Ramaswamy attempted to brand Haley a hypocrite by telling the audience that Haley’s daughter was a Tik-Tok user, the full outrage from the former U.N. ambassador boiled over, and she squashed the smarmy, glib Ramaswamy like a bug. “Leave my daughter out of your voice!” Haley hissed. Then, sotto voce, but clearly audible on the mic: “Just scum.”

When the debate ended, Ramaswamy made a big show of shaking hands with most of his opponents but went conspicuously out of his way to avoid Haley. My guess: he was worried that Haley would knee him in the groin.

You really had to wonder if Ramaswamy had decided to volunteer for the role of MAGA hit man… the guy who would please the Big Boss and his faithful by taking out the one candidate who was gaining traction. But his clumsy, clunky, ham-fisted, nasty attacks backfired, and turned Haley's otherwise B+ performance into a world-beater. Thank you, Vivek… you handed the evening to Nikki.

We’ll get to who won later, but it is so much more fun – and so much more unambiguous -- to talk about who lost.

Vivek Ramaswamy continued his enigmatic quest to become Donald Trump’s personal bobble-head, a lap-dog grade sycophant apparently seeking to score big on the Trump checklist of plutonium-grade deceit, cowering before authoritarian dictators, and prime-time camera-ready glam.  Ramaswamy effortlessly toggles from resting manic face to sudden geysers of apoplectic looney, and somehow manages to be every bit as spooky and alienating when smiling as when he takes his full-on bulging-eyes pit bull attack stance.  

Is Ramaswamy simply auditioning to be Trump's cutthroat VP attack dog? Or is playing some long game in which he figures that those who dared to trash-talk Trump in 2024 (Haley, DeSantis) will be permanently voted off the island, and Trump himself will be peering out at 2028 from Camp Cupcake, the comfiest minimum-security pen in the Federal prison system. Who can MAGA turn to 2028? Vivek!!

Ramaswamy came out of the gate smoking hot, attacking Republican Party Chairman Ronna McDaniel for allowing a GOP debate to be aired on the radical leftist NBC, where one of the debate moderators (Kristen Welker) apparently arranged for, uh, wha? Oh, for the 2020 election to be rigged. Huh?

It was only the second question of the night when Ramaswamy turned his lurid, manic weirdness on Haley, labeling her (and, we infer, DeSantis as well) as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” A scant five minutes later, Ramaswamy was accusing Haley of personally profiting off American military support for Ukraine. Haley opened her retort by saying that “Putin and Xi are salivating that someone like that will be President.”

Ramaswamy and Haley may indeed be on opposite ends of the Republican spectrum, but it was their personal antipathy that hijacked what was otherwise a reasonably serious, substantive, and orderly debate. Give those leftist demons at NBC credit: Lester Holt, Welker, and Hugh Hewitt were far more successful at managing the candidates and the audience than were the moderators at the two prior debates.  

But when the evening was over, Ramaswamy’s scorched earth policy seemed to have resulted in self-immolation. Face it, Vivek, trying to win over female voters by crudely attacking the parenting skills of the only woman on the stage, demanding the instant resignation of the female head of the party, and lashing out at the one moderator who happens to be a female… it all adds up to weapons-grade stupid.

Loser number one: Vivek Ramaswamy.

Tim Scott may have had a better night than in his two prior debate performances, but with polling numbers stuck in single digits, he needed to do a whole lot more that beat his own low bar. While Haley, his fellow South Carolinian, has enjoyed a sharp uptick in Iowa and New Hampshire, Scott clings to his unimpressive seven points in Iowa polling.

In his first and last remarks last evening, the South Carolina Senator seemed to be making a huge gamble on his Christian faith, and Scott dove deeply into his belief that the United States government must be “restored” to “Christian values.” Scott referenced Bible verse, and bemoaned that our nation was a “faithless and fatherless” society, one in which we “kneel in protest rather than in prayer.” He finished by noting that if God made you a biological man, God meant for you to play sports against men.

Maybe Tim Scott’s religious Hail Mary will score a touchdown in Iowa. No matter. The bet here is that the next time we look at the Iowa polling scoreboard, Tim Scott has the same seven points. Probably worse... he may slide down to a field goal, or just punt

Loser number two: Tim Scott.

There are two reasons people like Chris Christie. The first, of course, is if you do not live in New Jersey, where hating Chris Christie is as essential to selfhood as the lyrics to “Thunder Road” and knowing your exit on the Garden State Parkway. The second is that Chris Christie is the only Republican who knows that somebody had to go full-on kamikaze to try to destroy Trump.

Once again – shockingly – the Republicans generally avoided mentioning the guy who is actually way, way, way out ahead in every poll in every primary state. Why DeSantis and Haley refuse to pummel Trump on his isolationist tendencies in the face of Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan is an utter mystery. But once again, only Chris Christie made any effort to remind the audience exactly who all these candidates were losing to.

Last night, Christie was less goofy, ever more serious, and very good. At no point was he better than when he called BS on his party for its self-destructive stance on abortion. Christie noted that “for fifty years conservative lawyers have been saying that the Federal government should have no role.” Suddenly, Christie pointed out, with Roe overturned, Republicans can’t wait to pursue a Federal ban. He let the irony hang in the room.

Christie asserted that the failure to ban Tik-Tok was "one of the failings of the Trump administration,” and bluntly told the GOP faithful that “a man who is going to spend the next year and a half in courtrooms” cannot lead the party during this extremely dangerous moment on the world stage.  When other candidates wobbled and waffled on continuing support for Ukraine, Chris Christie said that there was “no choice.” “This is the price we pay for being the leaders of the free world.”

As the criteria for maintaining a position on the debate stage get stiffer, Christie may not make the next cut. It would be a pity. Sure, MAGA Republicans may ignore him… but Christie is breathing life into the “non-Trump lane,” daring to say the things that DeSantis and Haley should have been saying for a year.

Break-even: Chris Christie.

Ron DeSantis has been faulted in prior debates for his a robotic, odious, and grumpy visage, and his seemingly endless slide in the polls appeared easy to explain: the more you see him, the less you like him.

DeSantis finally seemed to relax a bit in last night’s debate, and that shift helped. DeSantis was aggressive on foreign policy issues, particularly in his eagerness to use the United States military to defend the Southern border and attack Mexican drug cartels. Indeed, to hear DeSantis, one got the impression that the State of Florida has its very own foreign policy which was being executed with dazzling success. Really?

Fortunately for DeSantis, those leftist NBC moderators did not spend time on the culture wars that define his political brand, so he did not spend the evening defending his book censorship or revisionist American history that slavery had big upsides for Black people. He even managed to effectively duck and cover when the candidates was asked to comment on the fact that Republicans were soundly thrashed in the Ohio vote on abortion access… an issue where Florida’s recent six-week law now appears proven to be wildly out-of-step with the general population.

DeSantis obviously recognized that Nikki Haley has emerged as his main rival, and squabbled with her about real estate deals she had made to help China. But with Ramaswamy launching so much venom at Haley, DeSantis may have correctly assessed that he could only be hurt by the optics of appearing to pile on.

What continues to be most puzzling and disappointing about DeSantis is his unwillingness to make Donald Trump the issue in the campaign. DeSantis has squandered months when he could have and should have been consolidating his role as the dominant figure in the “non-Trump lane.” Except for a few nerf balls last night – and those largely at the prompting of the moderators – DeSantis does not go after Trump.

Ron DeSantis may finally be finding his footing. His polling has been stable. He was better last night than he’s been in the past. He wasn't great, but he held serve and a bit more.  

Not the winner, but a winner: Ron DeSantis.

Perhaps it was in part by default, but Nikki Haley is now the brightest object in the Republican Trump-alternative firmament.

In Wednesday’s Republican debate, she once again won the room, this time by simply by not being just another irksome, annoying male. She is not a wax museum automaton, not a preening poser eagerly showing his MAGA plumage like a horny bird-of-paradise in mating season, not an avuncular lecturer trying to force the party to swallow the medicine of truth, and not a Bible-toting dullard who can’t explain why he is running. 

But she did far more than simply not be an annoying male. Nikki Haley’s superpower is exuding an authentic, level-headed, practical humanity in a party that has become the Chernobyl of angry victimhood, a sinkhole of anti-Washington loathing, and a dystopia of deceit. 

She is gaining ground by mouthing a fair amount of red-state red meat while doing her darndest to sound reasonable, tempered, and, well, sane. It may not be enough to beat Donald Trump, but it is working better than any of the other approaches. Haley's comet is rising. She may prove to be a shooting star that ultimately loses to Trump, but she is clearly becoming the one to watch. 

It is annoying to watch Haley try to act like Republicans are more committed to Israel than Democrats by ignoring the fact that “Palestinians” and “Hamas” are not the same thing. At one point Haley chided the Biden administration for seeking a “humanitarian pause,” which Secretary of State Tony Blinken eagerly sought to prevent world opinion from swinging away from Israel. Haley likes to position herself as the candidate willing to talk tough truths to her party, but the real truth is that her position on Israel and Ukraine is a lot closer to Biden than to Trump.

In fact, Haley is embracing a traditional robust Republican view of America’s role on the global stage at a moment when threats from powerful malevolent actors are at Def Con One. While DeSantis and Ramaswamy excused their reduced support for Ukraine by claiming that the money would be better spent shoring up our southern border, Haley staunchly holds that the United States cannot abandon its support for Ukraine.

If only the GOP would listen to her, Haley continues to articulate a real-politic answer on the abortion question that sounds at once more empathetic and reasonable than anyone – anyone – in the GOP. She insists that talk of national legislation is a waste of time on an issue that will never get 60 votes in the Senate, either way. So she urges her party to accept the real impact of Dobbs – that abortion is now a state decision, and that many Blue states are going to completely disagree with Republican desires on this extremely contentious issue. Most important: Haley urged her party to stop judging and condemning people who have different beliefs on abortion.

The debate winner: Haley.  

If Haley continues to build momentum, it is possible that she could create the one-in-a-thousand scenario that could block Trump from the nomination: she could turn the primaries into a mano-a-womano one-on-one dual starting in South Carolina. In a sea of campaigns that are crashing on the rocks, she alone is rising.  Voters like winners. Perhaps more to the point: donors like winners.

Here’s a simple challenge that Nikki Haley should lay on the gang of four angry men.

She should take the bull by the horns and seize the high ground of truth, telling her opponents that the only way to prevent Trump from taking the election is if the non-Trump lane rapidly consolidates around one candidate.

She should then suggest that all candidates should make a vow – now – that if they do not finish first, second, or third after Iowa, they will immediately drop out.  Then, she should make a similar challenge for New Hampshire: if you don’t finish first or second in that primary, you should vow to drop out.

The goal: get the race down to one Trump and one Trump alternative by South Carolina. See what happens then.

She should be the first to take her own vow… and she should hammer away at it until every other candidate signs on.

It would be a bold play. It would make her look like the true leader of the non-Trump lane. 

It would give a ray of hope to those of us who are desperately seeking a way to fling Donald Trump into the trash bin of history. 

It is a path that could demonstrate that Haley’s comet is on its way up… not just a shooting star. 

 

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Tuesday, November 7, 2023

BTRTN: Why Biden’s 2024 Prospects Are Not Quite as Bad as the NY Times/Siena Poll Would Indicate

Tom questions the headlines of the recent poll shocker. 

Many friends and readers have been freaking out about the NY Times/Siena poll released earlier this week.  It paints a very grim picture of Biden’s reelection prospects based on polling in six swing states.  Their attention-grabbing conclusion is as follows:  If the results in the poll were the same next November, Mr. Trump would be poised to win more than 300 Electoral College votes, far above the 270 needed to take the White House.  They based that on their data that showed Trump ahead of Biden by 4 points or more, among registered voters, in five of those six swing states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania;  Biden was slightly ahead in Wisconsin) .  They are correct in their math:  if those results did not change by Election Day, 2024, then Trump would emerge the winner by a 302-236 electoral vote margin. 

But I don’t agree with that conclusion, based on all the recent polls, and here’s why, state by state: 

·        Michigan.  By the NYT/Siena poll’s own data, Trump may be ahead by +5 in MIchigan among “registered voters,” but the race is a dead heat among “likely voters.”  While it can be a little squishy on how a pollster defines a “likely voter,” there is little doubt that, in any form, it is a better measure than “registered voters,” many of whom do not vote, even in presidential years.  The “dead heat” result in Michigan is also consistent with that of other recent polling (by Morning Consult).   So, Michigan is really a toss-up as of now, not a Trump state. 

·        Pennsylvania.  The NYT/Siena poll also had Trump up in the Keystone State by +5 points.  But there are two other recent polls in Pennsylvania, by Morning Consult, which had Trump ahead by only +1, and another poll by Franklin & Marshall, which had Biden ahead by +2.  If you “aggregate” the three polls, you have a dead heat (Trump +1, within the margin of error).  So, Pennsylvania is also really a toss-up as of now. 

·        Nevada.  Similar story.  Morning Consult has Biden +3, and a CNN poll has Biden +1.  NYT/Siena had Trump ahead by a whopping +11.  That result is so dramatic that it looks like an outlier to me.  This is a state Biden won in 2020.  Before reporting such a number, or even using it in an aggregation, I would wait for a confirming poll.  But even if I use it in an aggregation with the other two polls, that takes Trump’s “lead” down from +11 to +3.  Given the aggregated number’s reliance on the NYT/Siena results, I would call Nevada a toss-up at this stage as well. 

So, summarizing the true electoral picture based on all recent polling: 

·        Trump is ahead in Arizona and Georgia (where other polls confirm the NYT/Siena outcome), and also North Carolina and Florida, which all the other polls would indicate (though NYT/Siena did not include them in their survey), as well as all the other red states he won in 2020.  Trump, of course, won North Carolina and Florida in 2020, so there is no net pickup for him in those states by virtue of being ahead. 

·        Biden is not meaningfully ahead at this point in any swing states, so he gets only the blue states he won in 2020. 

·        Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada are toss-ups (the NYT/Siena poll had Biden +2 in Wisconsin, as did Morning Consult). 

When you do that math, it leads to the following electoral outlook based on recent polling: 







This is not good news for Biden, there is no mistaking that.  But my main conclusion, based on all of the recent polling is:  it is going to be another close election.  Which is not exactly a breakthrough insight.   To conclude, as the Times does, that Biden would lose if the polls don't change is simply not an accurate read of today’s polling environment.  The swing states could very well stay with Biden; he won them all in 2020.  And in that scenario he would win again in 2024, 276-262.

The NY Times is committing the error of relying on a single poll.  They are doing this because they have invested in the NYT/Siena poll and want to highlight their own results.  It is a way to make breaking news on which you cannot be scooped by other media competitors.   But in doing so, they are ignoring the lesson that Nate Silver (and BTRTN) taught everyone over a decade ago:  you get a more accurate picture when you aggregate polls. 

Just for summary purposes, the chart below captures all the various data in recent polling:








You can see the sea of red in the first data column, the NYT/Siena "registered voter" results, moving to a much purpler set of outcomes in the far right column if you average all the recent polling. 

Plus, in my opinion, to talk about any polling result today “holding until Election Day, 2024” is absurd.  The major variables in this (and any) election will proceed in unknown trajectories that could help or hurt the candidates.  No one can guess the direction, status or impact of the various Trump trials, the Israeli-Hamas war, the economy and Biden’s (or Trump’s) health, and that’s just among (as Donald Rumsfeld would say) the “known unknowns.”  

The Times knows this and they should have focused less on the numbers, and more on the underlying reasons for Biden's weakness.  The rest of their data and analysis is quite good, including key findings (confirmed elsewhere) that Trump is gaining strength among young, Black and Latino voters, and that Trump is viewed as better than Biden on the economy.  Biden would do well to heed those conclusions, and doubtless his team is agonizing over them, as they should. 

But Democrats, again, this is going to be a close race and could very well be determined by turnout and thus by get out the vote efforts.  Don’t be discouraged – be angry.  Work as hard in 2024 as you have in all recent elections, if not harder.  This one is the most meaningful of them all.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

BTRTN: A Very Active Presidency in a World on Fire

Tom is back with the October, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.

OCTOBER 2023

We now are living amidst the most troubling and destabilizing era since World War II.  Joe Biden is managing two major, interrelated wars at a time when democracy itself remains under assault at our own doorstep, challenges that begin to approach those faced by FDR in simultaneously grappling with the Great Depression and the rise of the Nazi’s. 

We have long forgotten the punishing circumstances that awaited Biden when he entered office.  Not only were we in the midst of the Covid crisis, with thousands of Americans dying every day, but the new president was also faced with a direct challenge to the legitimacy of his election, and thus to democracy.  He had to cope with a predecessor who refused to accept the free and fair election results and was uncooperative in the transition, instead fomenting an assault on the Capitol in an attempt to halt the pro forma certification process.  And that act was just the last and most visible means by which Donald Trump conspired to overturn the election.  He managed to convince most of his fellow Republicans that The Big Lie was fact, despite exactly zero evidence and dozens of lost court challenges. 

It has only gotten harder for Biden.  While he and his administration quickly rolled up its sleeves and addressed Covid, left the Big Lie and the insurrection to the courts, and moved to reestablish domestic and global norms and normalcy, the hits never stopped coming.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Dobbs decision, countless mass shootings, supply chain shortages and spiking inflation have all posed enormous challenges to Biden.  He has dealt with all of that non-stop, while still proactively reshaping America’s future through the passage of FDR-esque landmark legislation that provided jobs, addressed climate change, put controls on prescription drug prices and much, much more.  While he gets very little credit for what he has accomplished, he certainly has carved out a record to run on in 2024. 

And then came October 7, when, instantly, the world was set aflame, and became more dangerous than at any time in the last 80 years.  With the stunning, unfathomably barbaric Hamas attack on Israel, the immediate Israeli retaliatory airstrikes, and the direct threat of a broader Middle East war, Biden suddenly faced a challenge far beyond all others in his most consequential presidency.

The horrifying Hamas attack on Israel was without precedent, at least back to Nazi Germany, in its utter savagery and craven disregard for humanity (not to mention the rules of engagement).  In their butchering of babies and the elderly alike, the hideous assault on clear civilian targets, the taking of Holocaust survivors and children as hostages, and the use of their own civilians as human shields, Hamas plumbed the depths of human depravity.  Not only is Hamas committed to the destruction of Israel, it appears to want to accomplish that fact in the most grisly manner possible. 

It is hard to imagine the need for some to refuse to support a full-throated condemnation of Hamas.  Even Israel’s worst critics, one would think, would denounce the tactics that Hamas used (especially if these attacks were designed, as some speculated, to deliberately draw Israel into an outsized response).  If Hamas could not be condemned for these heinous attacks, without a “but,” then what could ever be condemned? 

And yet, Biden was handed a draft for his initial comments that left room for equivocation.  Aides fearing the consequences of a no-hold’s-barred pro-Israel response offered softer language – which Biden immediately rejected.  He was unsparing in his condemnation of Hamas and his support for Israel in his initial comments days after the attack, and then returned 10 days later with an Oval Office address that developed many of the same themes and expanded on them, explaining the stakes to the over 20 million Americans who tuned in. 

There are a number of takeaways from the Biden response that are worthy of note. 

The first is that Biden -- and Biden alone – is in charge.  His entire presidency is wildly misunderstood from the outside.  His opponents believe he is a doddering old man, shuffling about in a mental haze.  Many Democrats believe that as well, and crave a new candidate in 2024.  Even Biden’s supporters tend to support the old man narrative by comforting themselves that Biden has surrounded himself with highly capable aides who ensure the right things get done even if the old man is well past his prime. 

All of this belies the truth.  This is Biden’s presidency, and he has made the call on every single issue he has confronted, often, as with Israel, against the advice of his aides.  A new book on Biden’s first two years in office, The Last Politician, by Franklin Foer – a must read for everyone who plans to vote in 2024 -- takes you inside the White House to offer a deeply-reported portrait of Biden.  The book reveals a very different Biden from the public caricature, a man who dominates his administration, not a drooling old man at all.  Nor does he emerge as simply as an active and engaged participant, which would be welcome enough, but actually he is a forceful and not-terribly-kind-about-it leader, displaying his Irish temper as he makes his policy and tactical preferences – check that, directives – very clear.  Biden may be 80, but he is not being led around by the nose.  The staff is not telling Biden what to do; they are struggling to keep up with him.  

The second point is the depth and breadth of his experience.  He has seen all sides of every issue, and the opinions he has developed emanate from decades of detailed involvement in almost everything that could possibly come across the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.  Even when facing unprecedented challenges, he digs into his Rolodex for his favorite problem-solvers (case in point: Biden recruited Jeff Zients, once the fixer of the disastrous Obamacare.gov launch, to turn Trump’s non-existent vaccine distribution failure into a rousing Biden success).  With respect to Israel, Biden first visited the country just before the 1973 Yom Kippur War – yes, 50 years ago -- as a young congressman.  He has known Benjamin Netanyahu for decades, and is intimately familiar with the history and how the players think.  He doesn’t need to cram a briefing on virtually any topic, and he was more than ready to act fast when the bombs started to land in Israel. 

Which leads to the third point: Biden’s response to the crisis was a sophisticated, overarching strategy of Biden's own design:  to embrace Netanyahu publicly, and in full, in order to maximize his ability to influence him privately – very similar to his approach in May, 2021 when Hamas last bombed Israel.  Biden is juggling many competing and nrealy irreconciliable goals in this morass, including supporting Israel's right to defend itself, freeing the hostages, preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, vacating U.S. embassies in dangerous venues, and preparing the U.S. military for the worst.  But most important of all is to contain the war, and prevent it from escalating from Israel versus Hamas to the U.S. (and others) versus Iran (and others).  To achieve as many of those goals as possible requires tempering Israel’s response.  Biden told Netanyahu from the beginning that if this crime had been perpetrated on the U.S., Biden’s own response would have been “swift, decisive and overwhelming.”  And yet, despite those supportive words, Biden is actually trying to persuade Israel to follow a more measured course, to stay within the rules of war, to allow humanitarian aid to get to the Palestinian civilians, for more hostages to be released, to position military personnel and, above all, to remain on the good side of world opinion.  This  is  foreign policy chess at its finest, and the execution of it requires exquisite patience. 

And the fourth point:  the politics.  Over the past few decades the GOP has essentially co-opted support of Israel from the Democrats.  Progressive Democrats (correctly) see Netanyahu as a Trump-clone, and his heavy-handed bid to “reform” the Israeli judiciary by subjugating it to his will has further eroded Democratic support for the once-shining Israeli democracy.  Biden’s embrace of Israel, his motivations notwithstanding, runs against the grain of his own party, but it may be smart politics in an election year, and might win him some support from the middle.  He is clearly distancing himself from the progressives, in particular The Squad, who routinely favor the Palestinians in the struggle, and who voted down the Hamas condemnation resolution because it did not include any mention of the suffering of Palestinian civilians.  But he is already paying a price in plummeting support in the Arab-American community; ultimately, Biden is acting on principle over politics. 

There is no easy out here for Biden, no quick win.  The backlash against Israel will grow with the Gaza body count. The pressure for a pause or ceasefire is already mounting.  The Democratic Party, for all its historic fissures, has been remarkably aligned in the Trump/Biden era, but gigantic tests to that unity have begun.  If this escalates to a regional war, it will define Biden’s presidency and his reelection prospects.  Already, he has become the latest U.S. president to attempt to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy to focus on the Far East, only to get dragged back yet again to the Middle East. 

Regardless of how this latest crisis plays out, U.S. voters of all stripes are too superficial in assessing Biden.  By focusing only on Biden’s chronological age, his shuffling steps and his halting delivery, they do an injustice to the vigor of the man and his mental agility, which are quite impressive by any standard.  Biden’s physical state is evident but it is not an accurate barometer of his ability to govern.  Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, Amy Klobuchar (or Dean Phillips, if you have heard of him) might have equaled Biden’s management of this crisis, pulled off the coalition backing Ukraine, or matched or even approached his domestic legislative triumphs.  Obama’s inexperience certainly showed at times, as did Bill Clinton’s.  Biden, not so much.  

The real contrast here is not with past or future Democratic leaders – it is with the current Republicans.  The month began with Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House and ended with someone named Mike Johnson in the role.  Johnson is a mild-mannered, fourth-term election denier, with mega MAGA credentials, a kind of Jim Jordan in pajamas.  In the minority-rule system that the United States has evolved to, it only took a few crazed GOP representatives to take down McCarthy (led by the vile Matt Gaetz), and a similar margin then denied the speakership to name brands on both wings of the modern GOP (that is, the far right and the even further right).  In a stunning display of leader-cide, similar minorities killed off the speaker dreams of Steve Scalise, the heir apparent Majority Leader, Jordan, and Whip Tom Emmer.  That left the GOP to find someone, anyone, with a slim enough resume to have offended no one as yet, and they found that person in Johnson.  (Even Susan Collins, the Republican Senator from Maine, admitted that she had to Google him.)  It is hard to imagine this man sitting in the chair once occupied by the likes of Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill and Nancy Pelosi, among many other seasoned pols of both parties.  Shameful.  As for the other GOP leaders, Mitch McConnell’s health issues go way beyond Biden’s, and Trump, facing 91 felony counts, is simply a stain than seemingly cannot be erased, desperately seeking a return to the Oval Office for the sole purpose of ridding himself of the charges one way or another. 

The GOP appears to be hell-bent on creating a platform (of a kind, since they don’t have a real one) that is designed to hand the Democrats the House on a silver platter, as well as blowing a real chance to take the Senate, or, of course, defeat Biden.  Instead, they are doubling down on the MAGA issues that lost them the 2018, 2020 and 2022 election cycles.  Banning abortions and ignoring gun violence and climate change are not winning messages for the majority of Americans.  Trump, Johnson, Gaetz, Tommy Tuberville, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos will be the MAGA images lashed to the 18 GOP congresspersons running in districts won by Biden in 2020, and to the would-be-flippers of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats.  Their constituents will also hear about Dobbs 24/7.  That will be a tough set of realities for those non-MAGA GOP candidates to overcome. 

Trump himself, of course, is hardly the ideal candidate to topple Biden.  While a Biden-Trump rematch will be close, a Biden-Haley match-up would be much tougher for Biden. 

Biden essentially promised a return to normal times, when politics were more likely to inhabit the inner sections of the newspaper rather than the front pages.  But, as John Lennon once said, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”  Biden is now astride a planet on fire, and while he is far more prepared than anyone else for that challenge, he will be pummeled simply because we are far from normal times, and he is old.  But he deserves better, and certainly, at this stage, deserves reelection, especially considering the alternative. 

Stay tuned. 


KEY METRICS

Joe Biden’s approval rating in October was unchanged versus September, holding at 41%.  This marked the 26th straight month that Biden has been within the 39-45% range.  The ratings of Biden’s performance on the issues were generally unchanged. 

The generic ballot continues to show a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" rose sharply, from +33 to +52, driven by a dramatic rise in GDP.  The +52 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below). 




BIDENOMETER

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 +52 for October, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 52% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +52, 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 are higher, as is 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 +52 under Biden.

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