Tom is back with the December, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.
you ever watched curling? Yes, I do mean
the Canadian sports addiction that became a bit of a “thing” to watch during
the 2022 Winter Olympics. For those of
you have never seen the game, a granite stone is pushed slowly across slippery
ice toward a target; while the stone is in motion, players sweep the ice ahead
of it, often furiously, to try to change the path or speed of the stone, in an
attempt to direct it to the center of the target. Fanatics find it fascinating to watch those
machinations, but the subtle pleasures of curling remain lost on most.
December, 2023 was notable for the pragmatic machinations Joe Biden made, and continues to make, to course correct in the face of very early, but very alarming, 2024 polling that shows him trailing Donald Trump in many swing states. This is what politicians usually do in reelection years -- recalibrate. The Republicans, on the other hand, instead have offered up a baffling array of their own machinations, giving every evidence that they are doubling down on their worst issues, while deflecting attention from their best ones. One might think that the GOP was swept up in the holiday spirit in gifting issues to the Democrats, but actually the entire year has been an exercise in the GOP putting its worst foot forward.
Arguably, this has been the GOP’s method of operation since 2016, when the party first lashed itself to Donald Trump, a fate they cannot seem to escape. Sometimes they put forward truly terrible candidates, often endorsed by Trump, who lose easy-to-win elections; at other times the MAGA-controlled (given three Trump appointees) Supreme Court weighs in with a clunker; and for most of 2023, it has been the GOP House that is leading the charge to destroy the party’s 2024 chances, setting up yet another opportunity to blow what might have been (and still could be) a winning cycle for them. After Trump won in 2016, the GOP has lost every election cycle, losing the House in 2018, the White House and Senate in 2020, and performing well below expectations in the 2022 midterms (failing to flip an easily flappable Senate and nearly losing the House). This losing streak continued throughout 2023, when the Democrats outperformed prior recent results in a series of state special elections and referendums, culminating in a near-perfect Election Day performance when they flipped the Virginia legislature among a number of key wins.
Biden has famously, and remarkably successfully, brought back 20th century techniques to these modern times. “Bipartisan legislation,” thought to be anachronistic, if not oxymoronic, has made a comeback under Biden, and, for him, the solution to at least some of his current political woes is to cut a deal. The deal he has in mind is to OK a relatively hardline immigration reform package in return for a significant aid package for both Ukraine and Israel. (It is Ukraine support on which the GOP is balking.) Senate negotiators appeared to be making progress on such a deal prior to the holiday break, but they ran out of time and will resume discussions in January.
Such a package would outrage progressives, of course, on the immigration front, and the left is already unhappy with Biden for his full-throated support of Israel given Hamas's horrific terrorist attack on October 7, as he left no room for any sympathy for Gaza civilians based on past (and potentially future) Israeli treatment of them. His no-holds-barred support of Israel may have been smart diplomacy at the time, as Biden sought the most possible leverage in tempering Israel’s response. But while he achieved a measure of success in achieving a 7-day “pause” that saw 105 hostages released and humanitarian aid flow into Gaza, by that point the Israeli military had already killed too many Gaza civilians to retain broad Western support. With hostilities resuming, the death toll in Gaza has now surpassed 20,000, a truly breathtaking figure. (Since Hamas embeds themselves among Gaza civilians, there is simply no way to avoid innocent deaths.) Thus that smart diplomacy has now translated into bad politics, and Biden has lost material levels of support among key U.S. electoral constituencies, most notably the youth vote, which is now, remarkably, more or less split between Biden and Trump. Global support is also waning, as the U.N. has proven in passing a humanitarian aid resolution on which the U.S. voted to abstain, and only then by ensuring the language of the resolution had been measurably watered down.
Biden is now, predictably, talking tough to Israel, pressuring for an end to the war, finally recognizing that the needle cannot be threaded. That is, there is simply no way that Israel can eliminate Hamas, it’s stated goal, without continuing to kill Gaza civilians at an alarming rate. Whether the Israeli’s listen is Biden's next problem, but Biden is at least making clear the distance between him and Benjamin Netanyahu on any number of issues, including both the prosecution of the war and the post-war configuration of the region.
It remains to be seen whether these various machinations, Biden wielding his curling broom, will heal some of the damage he has taken on immigration, Israel and Ukraine (Biden’s support of Ukraine is, of course, at risk, given lack of GOP support). But at least Biden is taking practical steps to address his issues. That is more than can be said for the GOP.
What to make of the Grand Old Party when it comes to 2024? About the only thing they are doing that makes any sense is clobbering Biden on immigration. The rest of it is simply hard to imagine, but all explained in terms of the party’s helpless addiction to Trump and acceding to his demands.
We can start with the pending coronation of Trump to be the 2023 GOP nominee for president. The unpopular former President’s various legal troubles – 91 criminal counts and four criminal trials, not to mention a slew of pending rulings on how each will proceed -- will detract mightily from the story the GOP wants to tell throughout the campaign. That story is one of alleged economic incompetence under Biden, the aging incumbent. That story has traction, despite Biden’s obvious vigor and the fact that every important statisitic points to a robust economy, and more so with each passing month. But even if the story was valid, there is simply no oxygen in the room for it.
Polls aside, does anyone really doubt that Nikki Haley would be a stronger candidate than Trump against Biden in 2024? Of course she would. But no one except Chris Christie will say what needs to be said about Trump out loud, that is, expose the full weight of Trump’s sins and his vulnerability as a candidate. Haley has a needle of her own to thread, which is how to dislodge the frontrunner while refraining from attacking him.
The other problem with Trump is that, he is simply getting even weirder. In his never-ending quest to fire up the base, he is, if possible, darker and more apocalyptic than ever. It was not a good look for Nixon when he felt the need to make clear that he was “not a crook.” What can one say about a candidate who has to clarify that he has “never read Mein Kampf”? And yet that is what Trump had to do after asserting that immigrants were “poisoning our blood,” a line straight out of Hitler’s Aryan race playbook. Then, when a sympathetic interviewer attempted to give Trump an easy out on charges that he was planning a dictatorship for his second term, Trump did not take the gift, instead proclaiming that he would indeed be a dictator on his first day in office. Trump then decided it would be a good idea to quote that noted political scientist Vladimir Putin on the state of American democracy. He appeared to think that Putin’s anti-American critiques are somehow a valid indictment of Biden. All of this may fire up the base, but Trump has to do more than that to win, and his darkest moments truly freighten the persuadable middle, and also tighten the purse strings of the donor class of the GOP.
If Trump is a disastrous candidate, what adjective might one use to describe the GOP-led House of Representatives? This august body spent the entire year tormenting and then disposing of their hapless Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, only to see the no-name they hired to replace him, Mike Johnson, cut nearly the exact same spending deal with the Democrats that caused them to get rid of McCarthy. But while they busied themselves with leader-cide, they managed to pass only 27 bills in 2023, compared to 248 passed under Nancy Pelosi in 2022. They busied themselves with speaker votes, censuring Democrats, trying to (ultimately successfully) expel one of their own, George Santos, and passing spending bills that were DOA in the Senate. Essentially, the GOP could not possibly have made a stronger case for their own dysfunction, and their dismissal next November.
For an encore to the various Speaker and spending debacles, guess what the GOP House is now focused on? Why Hunter Biden, of course, having now voted – unanimously, no less! – to formalize McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry without an iota of evidence that links the son’s global income to any misconduct by the father. The strategy appears to be an attempt to offset the Trump trials with some 2024 anti-Biden legal counter-programming. But as has been endlessly pointed out by left and right alike, Biden has his own set of weaknesses and is trailing Trump in swing-state poll after poll – shouldn't the GOP instead focus on Biden’s actual vulnerabilities (age, grocery prices, immigration, etc.) instead of publicly failing to prove this ludicrous case in the most visible forum in politics, an impeachment trial? Why put such a focus on a fishing expedition that is very likely to fail? The New York Times neatly dispensed with the flimsy – nay, pathetic -- set of Hunter Biden text tidbits that form the basis of the “investigation,” and one can’t help but wonder, after all these years – is that all ya got?
In one of the texts, Hunter Biden tells his daughter that at least he (Hunter) wasn’t making her give half of her income to him, as Joe Biden had done to him. But Hunter Biden was not referring to the elder Biden garnishing his global consulting income in recent years as alleged – rather he was talking about what father Joe made him do with his summer income as a college student over three decades ago, to help pay for room and board expenses! Payments that various family members have made to Joe Biden – portrayed nefariously by the GOP as payoffs for political favors -- have instead turned out to be the repayments of loans Biden made to them. This proves only that in the “enriching” business, Joe Biden was not on the receiving end of the largess, he was rather on the giving end, trying to help troubled family members stay afloat.
But the real point is that the impeachment is almost certainly going to be a losing issue for the GOP, specifically for the 18 House members who serve in districts that went for Biden in 2020. Their vulnerability is very real, and at some point they will be called on to vote to actually impeach Biden – that is where this is headed. And that vote could very well cost them their seats in 2024, and with them the GOP majority, and Mike Johnson’s sad speakership will end.
But that’s not all, not nearly. Come January the GOP will return to the spending bill fiasco, another losing issue, and finally face the unhappy choice that has vexed Speakers McCarthy and Johnson alike. Johnson will have to either pass bills without massive cuts, with Democratic help -- which will once again outrage his far right flank, of which he is a card carrying member -- or go forward with a government shutdown. That shutdown will be blamed squarely on the GOP, will be highly unpopular in swing districts, and will, of course, once again deflect attention from “better” GOP campaign issues.
But even that is not all. We have not even begun talking about the third branch of government, which is also under firm GOP control, and that is the Supreme Court. SCOTUS has decided to join in on the fun of burying the GOP’s 2024 hopes by once again taking on the current third rail of GOP politics – abortion. Sometime next June, the Court may very well place severe limits on the usage and/or distribution of the abortion drug mifepristone. While Dobbs was a disaster for reproductive health rights, it has since been electoral magic for the Democrats, the defining issue of the 2022 midterms and those special elections and referendums in 2023 – the engine that has driven unexpected Blue win after win, outperformance after outperformance.
If Dobbs started a Democratic electoral bonfire, an adverse decision on mifepristone in June, 2024 could pour gasoline on that still raging inferno, in electoral terms. There is little doubt that further abortion access curtailment would be an electoral disaster for the GOP.
The high court will also play a direct, active role in electoral politics by virtue of rendering judgments on cases directly involving candidate Trump. They will have to take a stand to resolve competing decisions on the 14th Amendment; Colorado’s state supreme court and Maine’s secretary of state have both determined that the insurrection clause prohibits Trump from appearing on their state’s primary ballot, while Michigan, Minnesota and California have all ruled otherwise (for various reasons) and are allowing his name to appear.
Jack Smith failed in his quest to fast-track to SCOTUS (bypassing an appellate review) the issue of whether Trump is immune to prosecution for crimes he may have committed as president. But the case will likely come back to the high court at some point in 2024. And in yet another case, the Court will have to decide whether part of the federal obstruction law was properly used to prosecute some of the January 6th rioters, a case that has implications for Trump’s own prosecution in the DOJ case as well.
These decisions, all separate from the four trials themselves (though critical to some of them), guarantee that Trump’s legal troubles will dominate the campaign cycle. Trump has obviously been effective in both messaging his prosecutions into an effective campaign pitch, playing the victim, and will also surely monetize the trials themselves, But when these cases (both Trump’s own trials and the SCOTUS decisions) actually become a non-stop reality, with solid evidence of crimes reported day after day, the limits of that approach may be exposed, especially since Trump is not at all popular among the persuadable middle.
Done yet? Nope. Not to be outdone, the Texas Supreme Court decided to make some abortion headlines, affirming Texas law that denied an abortion to a woman who had an unviable pregnancy (the fetus was afflicted with a genetic disorder that would result in near-certain death within weeks of birth) that also threatened her future ability to have a child and her own health. An appellate judge had granted her relief, but the state high court overturned it (hours after she decided she could not wait for the verdict, and left the state). The publicity generated by this case, and other case studies that lay bare the heartless nature of GOP abortion laws, will provide more electoral motivation for Democrats, and Independents, and certainly suburban women.
Want more? Even Nikki Haley cannot avoid mind-bending statements that will give any persuadable voter pause. At a town hall in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley was asked what caused the Civil War. Here is her answer: “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do….I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They need to make sure that you have freedom. We need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.”
The questioner responded by saying it was “astonishing” that her answer did not mention the word slavery.
Haley walked it back, or rather sidled sideways, in subsequent
damage control. But her response echoed
fellow candidate (and battle for #2 status in the field) Ron DeSantis’ efforts
to portray slavery as a productive learning experience for slaves. This is the way the GOP plans to capture some
slice of the Black vote? And so goes the
party of Lincoln, the furious machinations of its leading candidate pushing the
clock ever backward, now driving it deeper into the past, past Roe and now back into Jim Crow.
All in all, it would be a struggle for the GOP to get the electorate to focus on the issues it ostensibly wants to highlight to defeat Biden, flip the Senate and hold the House. But with all the self-inflicted noise around impeachment, the continued political perils of the post-Roe abortion environment, and the tsunami of Trump-based legal battles royale, and the gaffes of Trump’s challengers, there is not much oxygen left – especially with an improving economy undercutting the GOP’s Number One anti-Biden message.
Joe Biden’s approval rating in December inched up a point versus November, from 39% to 40%. His issue ratings, however, were generally lower, though that may be because there were a greater number of polls by pollsters who typically have lower Biden numbers, and therefore more of a weighting issue than a true sign of further erosion.
The generic ballot continues
to show a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.
The "Bidenometer" rose again, from +57 to +60, notably driven by a rise in both the stock market and consumer confidence, and further falling of gas prices. The +60 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see 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
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 +60 for December, 2023 means that, on average,
the five measures are 60% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see
the chart below). With a
Bidenometer of +60, 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 +60 under
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