For a third straight day, the headlines were dominated by the inflammatory tweets sent by Donald Trump over the weekend (and then reiterated repeatedly by him thereafter). On both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, things happened that wouldn't have been believable if written into a Hollywood screenplay.
Let's start at the western end of the Avenue. Over there, Donald Trump continued to insist that his tweets were not racist:
Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body! The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show “weakness” and fall into their trap. This should be a vote on the filthy language, statements and lies told by the Democrat.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2019
.....Congresswomen, who I truly believe, based on their actions, hate our Country. Get a list of the HORRIBLE things they have said. Omar is polling at 8%, Cortez at 21%. Nancy Pelosi tried to push them away, but now they are forever wedded to the Democrat Party. See you in 2020!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2019
That bit about the President not having a racist bone in his body was repeated by many Republicans on Tuesday, such that it took on the feel of a pre-arranged talking point rather than a meaningful assessment of any sort. And if it's true that none of Trump's bones are racist, well, then they must feel very out of place with the rest of him. In any case, the President's braggadocio about his political strategy ("they are forever wedded to the Democrat Party") is without merit. It's true that a sizable portion of the electorate will enter 2020 convinced that the Democratic Party is made up of pinko commies, but they will think that because they were already inclined to think that, not because Trump caused the Democratic caucus to stand united against his bullying. And finally—and you may want to sit down, or find a fainting couch, before you read this—Trump's claims about the approval ratings of Reps. Ilhan Omar (DFL-MN) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are a gross misrepresentation. You probably didn't need us to tell you that, for example, a district that is 50% Latino and 65% Democratic is not going to be overwhelmingly opposed to their nationally famous Latina Democratic congresswoman. The President probably did reveal something by sharing those numbers, but it's a little different from what he intended to reveal. More on that later.
Trump wasn't the only one producing some wild and crazy spin at the White House. Senior Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway had a very odd exchange with reporter Andrew Feinberg. After he asked, "If the president was not telling these four congresswomen to return to their supposed countries of origin, to which countries was he referring?," she demanded to know his ethnicity. Feinberg observed, quite rightly, that his own ethnicity was not relevant, but she refused to back down. Nobody really understands where she was going with that, or what her point was, but she came off as suggesting that either: (1) She's only answering questions from native-born Americans, or (2) Feinberg was not worthy of an answer because he's Jewish. Later in the day, he came out and said that he did not personally believe that her intent was anti-Semitic, but acknowledged that others felt that way. Whatever Conway was trying to do, it was probably not the best path to go down if she really is trying to convince folks that this administration is not racist. Oh, and as she (badly) made that case, she was arguing against—among others—her husband George, who penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on Monday headlined "Trump is a racist president."
Moving along, there was also quite a lot going on at the eastern end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) introduced the promised resolution that condemns Donald Trump for his racist remarks, and prefaced that with a few choice words expressing her view that the President is, indeed, a racist. House parliamentarian Thomas J. Wickham Jr. ruled those comments out of order, declaring them to be a violation of House rules against making personal attacks from the podium. This sent the chamber into a temporary state of chaos, with people shouting back and forth at one another, reminiscent of the British House of Commons during Question Time. There was a motion to strike Pelosi's comments from the official record, but it was voted down. Eventually, the House got around to voting on the actual resolution, and it passed 240-187, with all 235 Democrats, Republicans Will Hurd (TX), Susan Brooks (IN), Brian Fitzpatrick (PA), and Fred Upton (MI), and former Republican Justin Amash (I-MI) voting in favor, and the rest of the GOP caucus voting against.
There was no equivalent drama in the Senate, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would never allow a vote on a resolution like the one the House approved. However, the GOP senators did face reporters' questions about Trump's tweets, and the responses were all over the place. McConnell, for his part, opined that...wait for it...the President doesn't have a racist bone in his body. Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) who, like McConnell, really needs only white voters' support to keep his job, suggested that it was absurd for anyone to read the tweets as racist (his fellow Georgian, Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement and who has condemned the tweets as racist, would beg to disagree). Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who comes from a purple state and faces a tough reelection battle where he will need to hold Trump close, but not too close, criticized the tweets but stopped short of calling them racist. Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), who also face tough reelection battles in purplish states, did not hedge their bets as Gardner did, and said the tweets were indeed racist. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who needs votes from some of the sort of people who like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, but who will also need some Latino votes, decided there was no way to thread that needle, and so refused to speak to reporters.
In the end, the electoral significance of this story is this: The President is laying the groundwork for his 2020 campaign, and it's going to be ugly. As noted, he says he's trying to force the Democrats into a weak position by causing them to embrace "the Squad" (Omar; Ocasio-Cortez; Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-MI; and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-MA). It's possible that even he doesn't believe that, but whether he does or not, it's just convenient cover for what's really going on here: he's going to run another xenophobic, nativist campaign in 2020, likely one that is even more over the top than the 2016 campaign (since there's no more "crooked Hillary" to run against). That's where the grossly misrepresented polling numbers from his tweets come in: 8% and 21% are not Omar's and Ocasio-Cortez' approval among the voters in their districts, they are the congresswomen's approval among white, non-college men in swing states (in the actual poll, it was 9% and 22%, but this is clearly what he was referring to). It's not surprising that Trump took note of those results, because they speak for the voters that will again be his target in 2020.
The other aspect of the strategy—and this is not something that we saw in 2016, at least not so overtly—is that Trump knows that most people don't want to think of themselves as racist. So, he and Kellyanne Conway, and Mitch McConnell, and countless other Republicans are making the case that hating people like Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, et al., and believing they are not "true Americans," and wanting them to go away, is not "racist." In short, Team Trump (aided by many others in the GOP) is trying to give white voters permission to be hateful without feeling bad about it. The President expects total fealty to this strategy among the members of his Party, and has already chewed out at least two Republican lawmakers for not defending his tweets vigorously enough. As Tuesday's events show, outside of the occasional Susan Collins or Will Hurd, the red team is currently bowing to the President's demands. This was not something Trump was in a position to insist upon in 2016, but it is now.
This strategy may be the best one available to the President. In fact, it may be the only one he can plausibly deploy. And, of course, he won with a strongly xenophobic campaign in 2016. In 2020, however, his approach presents at least two obvious problems. The first is that by demanding that his fellow Republicans fall in line, he's going to put some of them in difficult or untenable positions. Trump might be able to win with almost exclusively white voters, but senators and representatives from states like Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, etc. cannot. If someone like Martha McSally must eventually choose between angering a sizable percentage of the electorate in her home state or angering Trump, that might be a "Sophie's choice" where there is no good option.
The second problem for the President, and this one is particular to him, is that the 2020 electorate is going to be a little different from that of 2016. The Pew Research Center estimates that the percentage of non-white voters will reach almost 34% (up from 31% in 2016), and that the percentage of Generation Z voters (ages 18-23) will be about 10% (up from 5%). The growth of these groups, as a percentage of the electorate, will largely come at the expense of the "silent" generation (born before 1946), which will shrink from 13% of the electorate to 9%. Generally speaking, older folks are a bit more responsive to Trump's rhetoric, while non-white and young voters are considerably less responsive to it. If he runs a similar kind of campaign, or one that is even more overt in its "us vs. them" verbiage, these demographic changes alone might doom him. As we have noted many times, and will note many times again in the future, he won by only 77,000 votes in three key swing states, so he likely has very little margin for error. (Z)
On Monday, the Trump administration announced a new policy on asylum-seekers, declaring that anyone who crosses Mexico to get to the United States won't be allowed in, because Mexico is a "safe" state and refugees should be asking for asylum there, instead. Since nearly all asylum-seekers from Central America cross Mexico, the new policy would have the effect of almost entirely shutting down the United States to folks from Guatemala, Honduras, etc.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union officially filed suit to block the policy. The only surprise is that it took them a whole business day to get it done. Obviously, this is not going to be resolved anytime soon, and it probably won't be resolved prior to the 2020 election. If it somehow is resolved, the decision will almost certainly go against the administration, since the President himself has publicly declared on many occasions that Mexico is not "safe." This all leads, once again, to the conclusion that the new policy was political theater for the benefit of the base, and was never really intended to go into effect. (Z)
Based on the Q&A questions we've gotten, quite a few readers have noted that the various House committees are moving awfully slowly when it comes to the various subpoenas, findings of contempt, etc. being leveled against members of the Trump administration. Certainly, much of the Democratic base has noticed, particularly the progressive and activist folks, who want action now.
The answer, as it turns out, is exactly what you would expect. Given that the fellow in the Oval Office has provided object lesson after object lesson in what happens if you rush headlong into things that involve tricky legal principles, they are moving cautiously. The blue team's concern is that if they haul, say, Kellyanne Conway to court, they might get an unfriendly judge, or the White House counsel might come up with a plausible argument for Conway. On the other hand, if House Democrats have two dozen cases where members of Team Trump have defied subpoenas, the case will be pretty close to bulletproof.
While House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) & Co. have not firmly committed to a date by which they will move forward, the upcoming testimony of former special counsel Robert Mueller is viewed as an important line of demarcation. He'll be chatting with Nadler's and Schiff's committees on July 24, which is just a week away, so those who are impatient with the lack of action probably won't have to wait much longer. (Z)
All of the presidential campaigns that were required to submit fundraising reports to the FEC have done so. Here are the final takes for the second quarter of 2019:
|Bill de Blasio||$1.1m|
Joe Sestak and Tom Steyer, as very late entries to the race, will not be required to submit a report until the end of the third quarter.
Here are the three main takeaways from the Q2 results:
Obviously, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend), Joe Biden, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) are in a position to keep things going for a long time. An additional group (mostly the senators) can keep themselves viable, if they so choose, by transferring money they've raised for other campaigns to their presidential accounts. And a few (Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and maybe Marianne Williamson) can get out their checkbooks and foot the costs of their campaigns, if they wish.
Once the next round of debates is over, though, a sizable number of these folks are going to have to think long and hard about where all this is headed. In particular, it takes a lot of money to be viable in first-in-line Iowa, because it is really necessary to have campaign workers and offices in every one of its 99 counties. It's true that the Hawkeye State does not always determine who the nominee will be, but it does tend to determine who it won't be. Nobody has ever finished outside the top four in Iowa and gone on to win their party's nomination. The same is basically true of second-in-line New Hampshire (where the only exceptions are the wonky years of 1952 and 1968, when incumbent Democratic presidents threw in the towel after the primary, clearing the way for a candidate who was not even on the ballot in the Granite State). The upshot is that the Democratic field is about to get smaller, and probably a lot smaller. (Z)
At the moment, only one "name" Republican is challenging Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. That would be former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, whose campaign is not exactly on fire (see fundraising totals above). There may soon be another entrant to the race, though, as former South Carolina representative and governor Mark Sanford said on Tuesday that he's seriously considering a run.
Barring a Watergate-like collapse for the President, neither Weld nor Sanford is going to knock him off. However, Sanford is a somewhat larger fly in the ointment for the Donald than Weld is. As the former Massachusetts governor is a liberal, pro-choice Republican who just ran for VP in 2016 as a pro-marijuana-legalization Libertarian, it is easy enough for conservatives to ignore him as someone who is not a "real" Republican. Sanford, on the other hand, is a fire-breathing True Believer—a candidate who was beloved by the Tea Party until he was caught hiking the Applachian trail (in Argentina) with a woman not his wife. If he criticizes the President—say, for being racist—it will be harder for conservatives to dismiss. Further, the more "name" candidates that enter the GOP primary race, the likelier it is that the RNC has to organize primary debates, and that states like South Carolina can't cancel their primaries. None of that would be good news for Trump. Sanford says he will make a decision in the next 30 days.
The biggest real threat to Trump, however, is that Justin Amash decides to run for president on the Libertarian ticket. That could siphon off just enough votes to hand the Democrat all the swing states in the Midwest. So far, Amash has not signaled his future plans. (Z)
John Paul Stevens, whose 35-year tenure and skillfully written opinions made him one of the giants of Supreme Court history, died Tuesday of complications from a stroke. He retired just less than a decade ago (yielding his seat to Elena Kagan), but had remained active in retirement, including making numerous public statements critical of Donald Trump.
We don't always mention the passing of prominent figures around here. However, we bring up Stevens because he's one of the most notable examples of a justice who moved leftward over the course of his time on the bench. Appointed by Gerald Ford shortly after the Watergate scandal took down Richard Nixon, the Justice was regarded as a reliable conservative. However, over the course of the Reagan years, he emerged as one of the Court's swing votes, and by the time Bill Clinton and George W. Bush occupied the White House, Stevens was a reliable vote with the Court's liberal bloc. He always insisted that he had not changed; the parties had. In any case, the seating of Brett Kavanaugh led to bushels of articles about how the conservatives can be expected to control SCOTUS for a generation or more. Maybe so, but as the case of Stevens illustrates, you never know for sure. We are certainly not suggesting that Kavanaugh is a closet liberal, though. The person to watch is Chief Justice John Roberts. He might vote with the Democratic appointees more often than conservatives would like, just to preserve the reputation of the court as unbiased. (Z)