Priority #1

The New York Times editorial board usually publishes bland editorials. This one isn’t bland. It calls for action on an issue that is surpassingly important to the future of this country, simply because the ability to vote affects just about every other issue: 

Far too many Republicans are players in a cynical pantomime: They say that the new voting restrictions being passed across the nation are designed solely to thwart widespread voting fraud, when the reality is that widespread fraud does not exist and the new restrictions’ purpose is to frustrate and disadvantage voters who lean Democratic — especially minority, young and lower-income voters.

Are Democrats going to do a darn thing [or a goddamn thing] about it? We’ll soon find out.

Republicans in Congress have repeatedly rejected measures to make voting fairer, more accessible and more secure. In state after state, the party has spent this year pushing laws that tighten ballot access — at least for certain groups — and that make the system more vulnerable to partisan meddling.

This antidemocratic (and anti-Democratic) agenda began before President D____ T____, but he supercharged it. Now, the former president and his supporters — who tried unsuccessfully to overturn the last election by lying about fraud and trying to strong-arm state officials and Congress into flipping electoral votes — have continued their crusade against democracy at the state and local levels.

In the recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, Republicans began floating bogus claims of fraud long before the votes were tallied. “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?” Mr. T____ charged Monday, on the eve of Election Day. Urging voters to mistrust the system and to reject the outcome if they dislike it has become standard operating procedure for the G.O.P. [an acronym that needs to be abolished — there’s nothing grand about the Republican Party, a collection of miscreants very different from Republicans in the era of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant].

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats rolled out a reform bill aimed at curbing the madness. The Freedom to Vote Act, introduced by Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, would address longstanding flaws in the electoral system along with some of the Republicans’ recent machinations. It is a compromise proposal of sorts, crafted by a coalition of moderates and progressives after a more sweeping reform bill, the For the People Act, was blocked in June by a Republican filibuster.

This slimmed-down package jettisons some of the more controversial elements of the earlier plan. It would not, for instance, restructure the Federal Election Commission or mandate the use of nonpartisan commissions for congressional redistricting. It is nonetheless an ambitious, urgently needed corrective to Republicans’ ongoing assault on the franchise.

The package’s provisions range from making Election Day a public holiday to protecting local election officials from partisan interference. Partisan gerrymandering and voter caging, a sketchy method of purging voting rolls, would be banned. Same-day voter registration would be available in all states, as would automatic voter registration systems. A 30-minute wait-time limit would be imposed for in-person voting, and uniform, flexible ID requirements would be established in states that require voter IDs. The list goes on.

Federal voting protections wouldn’t just protect voters in red states. Blue and purple states with less liberal standards would have to up their game as well. For instance, neither Connecticut nor New Hampshire currently provides for early in-person voting, nor does New Hampshire have online voter registration. Wisconsin has a strict photo ID law. New York does not have same-day voter registration (though voters have the opportunity to move to change that in November). Federal standards would serve all voters in all states and of all electoral hues.

“Put simply, if the new bill is enacted, more citizens will be able to register to vote, vote in person and by mail and have their votes counted,” asserted Marc Elias, one of the Democrats’ top legal champions on voting rights. “And, those of us fighting suppression laws in court will have the tools necessary to achieve fast, consistent victories for voters when states fail to follow the law.”

Merits aside, . . . to avoid death by filibuster, it needs the support of all 50 Democrats plus 10 Republicans. Absent that, Democrats will face a hard choice: Let this crucial legislation die or eliminate the legislative filibuster in order to pass the bill on a party-line vote [actually, there’s no need to eliminate the filibuster — they simply have to create an exception to the filibuster, like the Senate has already done for “reconciliation” budget bills and judicial appointments].

This is a better dilemma, at least, than Democrats had to deal with over the summer, when they didn’t even have their entire caucus on board. While 49 Democratic senators supported the For the People Act, one, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, opposed it. As a conservative Democrat representing a deep-red state that Mr. T____ carried by close to 40 points last year, Mr. Manchin’s policy priorities [and his ridiculous whims] often clash with those of his Democratic colleagues.

But while there were some pieces of the For the People Act that made Mr. Manchin uneasy, his primary objection was that it lacked buy-in from Republicans. . . .

Bipartisanship is a big issue for Mr. Manchin — unsurprising, since his job security depends on appealing to voters who typically support the other party. He is correct that, even in today’s Senate, there can be agreement in areas where both parties are committed to making progress. . . .

But there are limits to bipartisanship, and the system comes up hard against those limits on the issue of voting rights. Yet Mr. Manchin has continued his search. In June, he put forward an alternative framework for reform that he felt had more bipartisan promise. Key Republicans promptly dismissed it.

Meanwhile, their colleagues in the states are seizing the moment. Republican-controlled legislatures already have passed laws restricting ballot access in at least 18 states. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas recently signed a raft of measures that the head of the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank in New York, declared “the most extreme of the voting restrictions passed by legislatures this year.”

Undeterred, Mr. Manchin, at the behest of Senate leadership, huddled with colleagues to hammer out the revised plan that’s now on the table.

Having waited for Mr. Manchin to get behind a bill, the majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is now eager to move forward. He says a vote on the new package could take place within the week.

Mr. Schumer has also made clear that he considers this Mr. Manchin’s moment to try to drum up whatever bipartisan support he can. “He has always said that he wants to try and bring Republicans on, and now, with the support of Democrats and this compromise bill — which Senator Manchin had great input into — he can go forward in that regard,” Mr. Schumer said Tuesday.

No one expects Mr. Manchin’s gambit to succeed. But if his earnest outreach to Republicans fails, where does the senator go from there? Will he simply shrug and sacrifice voting rights on the altar of bipartisanship? Will he bow to a minority party pursuing antidemocratic measures to advance its partisan fortunes?

. . . Bipartisanship can be a means to an end. But when voting rights are being ratcheted backward by one party, bipartisanship can’t be an excuse for inaction.

President Biden is said to be ready to enter the fray. “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls,” he recently urged Mr. Schumer, according to Rolling Stone.

Now, Mr. President, is the time to act boldly. Make those calls. Set up those Oval Office chats with Mr. Manchin and any other Democrats who might still need persuading. Bring all the powers of persuasion and the weight of the office to bear on this issue before further damage is done.

Having lost the White House and the Senate last year, Republicans appear intent on rigging the game in their favor before the midterms. Protecting the integrity of America’s electoral system and the voting rights of its citizens should be priority No. 1 — not because it helps Democrats, but because it helps preserve democracy.

Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive

Here’s an example (this one is from Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post, with my comments in italics):

How much does President Biden’s proposed agenda cost?

This seems like a straightforward question, but the answer varies wildly depending on your accounting method. And this has caused headaches as Democrats try to lock in crucial . . . votes within their own party.

In recent years, there has been something of a budgeting double standard in the framing of Republican and Democratic economic proposals. Consider Republicans’ signature achievement during the T____ era, their 2017 tax cut. This bill was usually referred to as a “$1.5 trillion” tax cut because that was the initial estimate for its net cost over a decade.

A bill’s net cost refers to the price if you add up all the provisions that raise money, subtract all the provisions that lose money and then see how it all washes out. For the 2017 tax bill, the net result was forecast as a $1.5 trillion increase in deficits over a decade. (This was later revised upward, to nearly $2 trillion.)

If, however, we had counted only the law’s gross costs (i.e., without offsetting revenue-raisers, such as the cap on state and local tax deductions), its price tag would have looked multiple times more expensive.

But that’s exactly how most politicians and journalists are tallying the “cost” of Democrats’ safety-net-and-climate legislation.

As Republicans did in 2017, Democrats are trying to pass their legislation through “reconciliation,” a process that requires only a party-line vote. Most references to the Democrats’ package describe it as costing $3.5 trillion.

That number reflects the gross costs of Democrats’ agenda items, such as paid leave, health-care expansions, universal pre-K and child tax credits.

In other words, the $3.5 trillion headline refers to only one side of the ledger. However, Democrats plan to pay for at least some of these priorities with various offsets, such as higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Once you include the offsets, the net cost will be lower.

How much lower? That’s TBD. Democrats are still fighting over what will make it into the bill, including various tax hikes.

We know the maximum possible net cost, though. When a bill goes through reconciliation, lawmakers must commit in advance to a ceiling on how much the bill can raise deficits.

Last month, lawmakers agreed to a maximum deficit increase of about $1.75 trillion over a decade. They could ultimately choose a smaller number. The White House says it’s aiming for a fully paid-for bill — i.e., with a net cost of zero — though that outcome seems unlikely.

The $1.75 trillion maximum net cost has gotten almost no attention, while the $3.5 trillion gross figure dominates news coverage. This has irked White House officials, one of whom complained to me that “ ‘$3.5 trillion’ is disconnected from any kind of meaningful measure of what this developing legislation is,” since it doesn’t reflect the bill’s deficit impact or even the total size of its spending items. (The proposal cuts some taxes, too.)

And the framing matters because it has been distorting congressional negotiations.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) reportedly has drawn a red line for the bill’s “size” at no more than $1.5 trillion. If he were focusing on a net cost of up to $1.5 trillion, Democrats could cram a lot of priorities in the bill, so long as they also include substantial pay-fors. But Manchin has apparently anchored his demands around the bill’s gross costs [ignoring how the bill would be paid for!].

That severely constrains what programs Democrats can create or expand, no matter how enormous the offsets are.

How come Republicans got to use bookkeeping that made their legislation seem less costly, while Democrats are saddled with metrics that overstate their fiscal profligacy?

. . . [One explanation is that] some Democrats emphasize their agenda’s gross costs because they want to play up the scale of progressive ambitions. When comparing an agenda to the New Deal, it helps to make it sound larger. And recent polls suggest Democratic voters increasingly like the sound of Bigger Government.

So progressive leaders don’t guide the debate away from that $3.5 trillion gross figure, and reorient discussions toward (smaller) net costs, as White House officials might prefer; after Manchin’s downsizing demands, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declared that $3.5 trillion is “the very least” the plan should cost [even though it wouldn’t cost that much!]. . . .

Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this morning I was on my way to the World Trade Center as part of my regular commute. The conductor announced that it appeared a small plane had hit one of the towers. So I took a different train under the Hudson River and got off some blocks north of the Trade Center. Standing on Broadway, I watched the building burning and then got on a subway. By the time I’d gotten to work, the other tower had been hit. I could see them both burning from a window on that side of our building.

I reacted differently than most people, partly because it affected my job. We had to deal with the stock exchange being closed that week. But I didn’t watch any of the endless TV coverage and immediately feared that the president would take advantage of the situation, which he did in disastrous fashion. The air around the site was acrid and stayed that way for a surprisingly long time.

From David Roberts (@drvolts on Twitter):

3,200 on Thursday. 2,400 yesterday. On average, Covid is killing around as many Americans as died on 9/11 every single day. 

The very same people who were willing to send American children to war, spend trillions of dollars nation-building, commit war crimes, torture prisoners, & build a massive domestic-surveillance regime in response to 9/11 are unwilling to wear masks to stop a daily 9/11. 

What’s uncomfortable to talk about is that, especially for the loudest post-9/11 voices, it wasn’t really about the lives lost. It was about ego injury, about being hurt by a group of brown people we’d been socialized to think of as primitive & weak. 

The whole ensuing cascade of horrors was mostly about repairing the injury to the large & tender egos of America’s self-style Manly Men. The official elite discourse somewhat obscured this, but it was very, very clear when you read the war bloggers or watched Fox. 

Why does this 9/11 20th anniversary feel weird & muted? Because the real historical significance of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the US, as a democracy & as the dominant global superpower. We’re too close to that, to *in it*, to reckon with it. 

And, just to bring it full circle, this explains the utterly hysterical reaction of US political elites & media to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. It wasn’t about lives, it was about *humiliation*, the “Big Dog” running home with its tail between its legs, in failure. 

Responding with Cool Reason to the Negativity About Biden’s Summer

David Rothkopf of The Daily Beast uses Twitter to inject some cool, refreshing oxygen into this summer’s frequently stifling political analysis (with a few comments from me):

And now, the latest Biden report from the Conventional News Network…

It’s been a rough summer for the president folks because

–Job growth slowing slightly (although yes, Biden has created more jobs in his first six months than any president in history) [I’d rephrase this to say that coming out of last year’s lockdown, we’ve had the fastest job growth since such things have been measured, which is at least partly the result of Biden’s recovery and stimulus programs]

–COVID spiking (although yes, the administration performed a miracle getting the vaccine out & the Republican Party has systematically undermined admin efforts to save lives)

–Afghanistan exit chat (although yes, the president ended a futile 20 year war and the administration managed to evacuate 125,000 people so far in one of the biggest humanitarian airlifts every, and ending wars is chaotic by nature)

–Infrastructure plans face opposition (although yes, that’s the way Congress works, the infrastructure bill represents a bipartisan breakthrough and much of the opposition is posturing)

–Fires, floods and storms! (although yes, Biden has put together an aggressive plan to combat the climate crisis, undone the huge damage done by his predecessor, gotten the US back into the Paris Accords, and made this a priority in the way no prior president has) [plus, you know it’s the weather, which presidents don’t control]

–Biden draws on his own personal experience while expressing compassion (although yes, the previous president was a sociopath and the story that being a genuine human made people uncomfortable was a cynical political spin job by the opposition…like much of the above)

Record economic growth, record job creation, record appointments to the court, the most diverse administration in history, massive effort to undo the damage done by predecessors, ushering in a new future oriented foreign policy and ending the disastrous post 9/11 era…

Restoring compassion, competence, a respect for the rule of law and a commitment to governance…although yes, we get it, he’s not perfect, not every goal is achieved, sometime his opponents succeed in blocking him, sometimes mistakes are made but he’s actually having a great year.

But let’s be honest, a slight dip in public opinion polls is inevitable when there’s so much misinformation and false bothsidesism in media coverage and what’s really important–support for his core policies remains high and bi-partisan.

Oh..and one more thing..the opposition does not offer any kind of credible alternative policies, focuses on obstruction, remains loyal to the most corrupt, incompetent, malevolent demagogue in US history, are systematically carving away the rights of American women and voters and are conducting an assault on democracy in the United States that may yet succeed. Biden is hugely successful if imperfect and much remains to be done. His opponents represent a threat to everything we have cherished about America’s values and our institutions.

But sure…let’s go with that old conventional wisdom, that easy if entirely inaccurate set of takes that are so popular these days. Who cares if it makes terrible outcomes in our country’s future more likely? Who cares if it is deeply misleading?

(P.S. This is not directed at any one media organization. There are many great journalists at work at almost everywhere you’d watch or read, if you don’t watch Fox or OANN. But among them, there are others who are helping to create the problem flagged here.)

Unquote.

Adding my two cents, I’m not sure if the Democrats should have bothered negotiating infrastructure with the Republicans, or just put everything into one big reconciliation bill that could pass with no Republican support. My big problem with what Biden has done so far, or hasn’t done, is that he hasn’t been able to get Senate Democrats to create an exception to the filibuster to protect voting rights. I’m also not sure Merrick Garland was a good choice for Attorney General, since Garland doesn’t seem very interested in what went on in the previous administration.

Presidential Approval in a New Gilded Age

I wrote about a long book last month, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, and noted how some of that period’s major issues were much like ours. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times writes about Biden’s approval rating and how its recent decline of roughly 11% shouldn’t be surprising. (The hysterical reaction to our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a major factor.)

One of the most consistent findings from the past 20 years of public opinion research is that each new president is more divisive than the last. George W. Bush was more divisive than Bill Clinton; Barack Obama was more divisive than Bush; D___ T___ was more divisive than Obama; and Biden may well end up more divisive than T___, at least in terms of approval rating by partisan affiliation. Some of this reflects circumstances, some of it reflects the individuals, but most of it is a function of partisan and ideological polarization. Modern presidents have a high floor for public opinion but a low ceiling. [I think he means their approval ratings stay in a narrow middle range, not very low and not very high.]

This is a major change from the 1970s and 1980s, when the public was less polarized and numbers could swing from the low 30s (even the 20s) to the high 60s and beyond. At the peak of his popularity, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, George H.W. Bush had a job approval rating of 89 percent, including 82 percent among Democrats and 88 percent among independents. Those numbers are just not possible in today’s environment.

Biden’s slide is noteworthy, but it is also exactly what we should expect given the structural conditions of American politics in the 21st century. But this cuts against the unstated assumption that a president should have an approval rating above 50 percent. It’s an assumption that, as Sam Goldman, a professor of political science at George Washington University, observed, is “another example of how we’ve adopted the deeply exceptional midcentury interlude as our baseline — partly because it remains our vision of normality, and partly because that’s when reliable data start.”

The “deeply exceptional midcentury interlude” — roughly speaking the years between the end of World War II and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 — is the source of a lot of our normative understandings of American politics, despite the fact that the conditions of that period are impossible to replicate. When politicians and political observers pine for an era of bipartisanship, they are pining for the 1950s and 1960s (and to an extent the 1970s).

If we were to look farther back in time, to say, the late 19th century, we might find an era that, for all of its indelible foreignness, is closer to ours in terms of the shape and structure of its politics, from its sharp partisan polarization and closely contested national elections to its democratic backsliding and deep anxieties over immigration and demographic change.

We don’t have polling data for President Grover Cleveland. But we do know that he won his victory in the 1884 election by 37 votes in the Electoral College and a half-a-percent in the national popular vote. His successor, Benjamin Harrisonlost the popular vote by a little less than 1 percent and won the Electoral College by 65 votes. Those narrow results suggest, I think, a similarly narrow spread for presidential approval — high floors, low ceilings.

American politics eventually broke out of its late-19th-century equilibrium of high polarization and tightly contested elections. In the 1896 presidential election, William McKinley became the first candidate in decades to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, beating his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, by 4.3 percent. He won re-election in 1900 and after his assassination the following year, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would win in 1904 by the most lopsided margin since Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election victory.

What changed in American politics to produce more decisive national victories? Well, that’s not a happy story. Suffrage restrictions of immigrants in the North, the rise of Jim Crow in the South, and the success of capital in suppressing labor revolt and setting the terms of political contestation had removed millions of Americans from the electorate by the turn of the 20th century. Political power was concentrated and consolidated in a bourgeois class (mostly) represented by the Republican Party, which, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s twin victories in 1912 and 1916, held the White House from 1897 to 1933. It would take another catastrophe, the Great Depression, to change that landscape.

As for the tectonic force that might break our partisan and ideological stalemate? It is impossible to say. Oftentimes in history, things seem stable until, suddenly, they aren’t.

Unquote.

We might think their failure to deal with the pandemic, now amounting to actual sabotage, would destroy the approval ratings of Republican officials. Or their refusal to accept Biden’s win, followed by insurrection at the Capitol, which some of them now celebrate. Or their longstanding denial of the climate crisis. Or coddling the rich. But none of that seems to be making a difference, not these days.