Political Animal

It Actually Does Matter What Biden Believes About Republicans

My colleague Brendan Skwire believes that Joe Biden is insulting our intelligence when he says that Republicans know what they’re doing for Trump is wrong and they’ll behave better when he is president. Kevin Drum thinks all of Biden’s critics are almost inexplicably clueless and that Biden shouldn’t be taken literally. Could they both be right?

For many people, including Skwire, it’s important to know if Biden is just saying these things because he knows people want to believe that bipartisanship is still possible, or if he’s actually dumb enough to think the senators in the modern GOP will work with him in good faith. But Drum isn’t interested in having that debate.

…Biden isn’t an idiot. Of course he knows what the modern Republican Party is like. But like Obama before him, he also knows that lots of people really like to hear paeans to bipartisanship. We political junkies may hate it, but ordinary people who don’t inhale cable news are suckers for the idea that we can all get along if we just give it a try—and there are way more of them than there are of us. Biden knows this, so that’s what he tells people. Whether he really believes it or not matters not a whit.

What’s interesting about Drum’s position is that he basically concedes that Biden is insulting our intelligence, but he approves of this because he considers it good politics. That settles one aspect of the dispute, but then Drum goes on to say it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not Biden actually believes what he’s saying.

There are two main weaknesses in this argument. The first is that Drum creates a tension when he insists that Biden is not an idiot and he’s merely telling “suckers” what they want to hear, but then is agnostic about whether Biden is actually a sucker himself. I don’t think you can have it both ways and think you’re actually engaging in the debate rather than trying to sidestep it.

The second weakness is that Drum basically argues from authority that it “matters not a whit” whether Biden believes what he’s saying. He doesn’t make any effort to explain why it doesn’t matter. He simply insists that it does not.

While Skwire could be right that Biden is insulting our intelligence and Drum might be correct that his detractors are as naïve as they claim Biden to be, that still doesn’t settle whether or not we should care what the former vice-president actually believes.

One of the more attractive aspects of Biden’s personality and political career is his relative lack of cynicism. He’s known for erring on the side of saying too much, not too little. He’s known for being a little too transparent about his internal thought processes rather than leaving people guessing about his true motives. If he’s being as manipulative as Drum claims in this instance, it’s off brand at a minimum. If there’s another side to Biden, that seems relevant to how voters should judge his ability to take on Donald Trump.

I also have difficulty understanding why it wouldn’t matter if a new president entered the office with completely unrealistic expectations about the kind of cooperation and dealmaking that will be available from the Republican side. They might get rolled repeatedly by the opposition and suffer major political setbacks as a result. They might waste precious time at the outset of their term when they have the benefit of a honeymoon in pursuit of deals that have no prospect of coming to fruition. They’d have to learn the hard way how to get things done and come up with a plan on the fly, rather than beginning with a plan already in place.

In fairness to Biden, he does have excellent relationships in the Senate. He is respected as a good man. if not necessarily a first-rate intellect. by virtually everyone he’s ever worked with. The Senate Republicans would certainly treat any Democratic president as the second coming of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, but they’d actually believe that in the case of Warren or Sanders. In Biden’s case, they’d only be pretending to believe it. There has to be at least some difference in how that would play out.

And the Americans who desperately want to believe that some degree of functionality and normalcy can be restored in our Congress shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as hopeless rubes. There’s no question that defending Trump brings out the worst in people, and without that as part of their daily job description, Senate Republicans should be expected to behave at least modestly better. They could reasonably be expected to greet an open hand from Biden with more receptiveness than a clenched fist from Warren, for example.

The problem is that we’re talking about a tiny sliver of degree that is more about the intensity and sincerity of Republican opposition than the substance of it. If Biden thinks his personal relationships and professed goodwill are going to get him very far, then he’s the sucker who is naïve.

This is why I have a real problem accepting Drum’s reasoning here:

This is an example of something that’s sort of amused me for a long time. If you ask people about politicians, you’ll almost invariably hear nothing but cynicism. They lie constantly. They tell people what they want to hear. They flip-flop. They say different things to different audiences. They’re always repeating talking points. Etc.

And yet, in real life, most people take politicians at 100 percent face value: if they say something that’s not obviously preposterous, we simply accept it. Cynicism goes straight out the window. (Unless it’s someone whose guts we hate. Then everything they say is automatically a lie.)

I have no idea what Joe Biden “really” believes about working with Republicans. But I will say this: he’s a politician. There’s zero reason to think he truly believes what he’s saying here. There’s also zero reason to think he doesn’t believe it. The fact that he said it is simply a null input.

I actually agree with the first two paragraphs of that argument. I saw people take every bipartisan statement from President Obama literally when it was often clear that he was merely positioning himself as “the adult in the room” and making “concessions” that he had the luxury of knowing would never be accepted. I found the resulting criticism very frustrating. Obama was a more cunning strategist than his supporters often gave him credit for being, and that was the result of a certain lack of sophistication and justifiable cynicism.

In this case, I think, contra Drum, there are reasons both for believing and disbelieving Biden’s sincerity. And I think the truth of the matter is important for predicting how he’d perform in a one-on-one matchup against Donald Trump and also how he’d perform at the outset of his presidency.

On the flip side, perhaps Skwire should give more credit to the possibility that Biden is more cunning than he appears. It’s not impossible.

Texas Republicans Are Worried About Their State Turning Blue

I’ll admit to having a fascination with Texas politics. It isn’t just because I spent many of my formative years in the state. There is a realignment that is happening in southern politics that will play out over decades. And while that is affecting several states like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona, the impact will be greatest in the state with the second highest number of Electoral College votes.

Nothing has done more to wake the body politic up to what is happening in Texas than the senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke. But it didn’t start there and it won’t end there. Back in 2012, Jeb Bush warned that, unless Republicans reached out to the growing Hispanic population, the state would turn blue. No one, especially in the GOP, paid much attention.

But apparently the 2018 midterm elections made some of the wealthy Republicans in Texas a little nervous. David Drucker at the conservative Washington Examiner has the story.

Wealthy Republican donors are preparing a multimillion-dollar effort to register more than 1 million new GOP voters in Texas for 2020 amid anxiety that President Trump could be in more trouble in this reliably red state than some in the party realize.

Richard Weekley, a Houston real estate developer and veteran Republican campaign contributor, is spearheading the new group, dubbed Engage Texas. According to GOP sources, the organization was set up as a 501(c)4, political nonprofit organization and plans to raise and spend $25 million by Election Day next year.

True to form, Mr. Weekley and his friends assume that the threat they face in Texas can be addressed by spending massive amounts of dark money. They claim that there are as many as 2 million unregistered Republicans in the state who can be mobilized. But here are the obstacles they face:

Republican insiders in Texas are worried about the impact of a potential political realignment that could see affluent, college-educated voters in the suburbs permanently defect from the GOP to the Democratic Party. Additionally, they fret that thousands of Americans who move to Texas every month, attracted by the booming economy and low cost of living, will bring their liberal politics with them.

As I chronicled recently, four metropolitan areas in Texas—Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio—are among the top 15 fastest growing in the country, with Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston occupying the top two slots. Republicans are beginning to recognize that that kind of migration to the state poses a threat to their dominance.

To the extent that college-educated suburban voters are defecting to the Democratic Party, while more liberals migrate to the state, Mr. Weekley and his friends don’t seem interested in promoting policies or candidates that would persuade them to vote for Republicans. Instead, they are focused exclusively on mobilizing unregistered voters.

Given all of the media attention that has been focused on whether Democrats should emphasize persuasion or mobilization, the same questions aren’t being asked of Republicans in a state like Texas. I would assume that, with a man like Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, persuasion is not an option.

Republican Governor Greg Abbot handily won reelection in 2018 by 13 points, so obviously, turning Texas blue is still an uphill climb. But for 2020, Quinnipiac polling has already indicated that the presidential race in that state could be extremely close, while Trump’s approval rating has dropped seven points since last summer. In the long term, the fact that O’Rourke beat Cruz by almost 20 points among voters who were 18-40 years of age spells big trouble down the road for Republicans. As that voting group continues to grow, Republicans will need every one of those one million unregistered voters just to keep up.

Inoculation As a Form of Propaganda

With so much focus on Fox News providing a propaganda platform for Donald Trump, national news outlets haven’t been paying as much attention to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group—which has been trying to take over local broadcast news.

It is worth remembering that a 2018 report from Emory University found that “when Sinclair buys a local station, its news program begin to cover more national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative, and viewership actually falls — suggesting that the rightward tilt isn’t enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion effort.” In other words, Sinclair has become the local right-wing propaganda network.

True to form, Eric Bolling’s show on Sinclair recently featured an interview with Peter Schweizer. You might remember him as Steve Bannon’s partner who authored the book Clinton Cash, which was weaponized by the Trump campaign in 2016. More recently, Schweizer wrote Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. His discussion with Bolling represents a form of propaganda we’re seeing quite often these days.

“The problem is the corruption is being globalized,” Schweizer said. “What that means is that foreign governments and foreign oligarchs are looking to recruit the family members of politicians because they believe by striking commercial bargains with them—helping politician families become rich—that they’re going to get favorable treatment.”

“And Joe Biden has been a major recipient of that kind of largesse from them,” Schweizer added.

As he did with Clinton Cash, Schweizer backs up his allegations of corruption with inferences and innuendo, but zero actual evidence. What struck me most was the fact that stories about “globalized corruption” in the form of allegations about countries like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia have been rampant when it comes to Donald Trump and his family. As a matter of fact, this story broke at about the same time as Schweizer’s interview.

A real estate company part-owned by Jared Kushner has received $90m in foreign funding from an opaque offshore vehicle since he entered the White House as a senior adviser to his father-in-law Donald Trump.

Investment has flowed from overseas to the company, Cadre, while Kushner works as an international envoy for the US, according to corporate filings and interviews. The money came through a vehicle run by Goldman Sachs in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven that guarantees corporate secrecy.

Kushner, who is married to Trump’s elder daughter Ivanka, kept a stake in Cadre after joining the administration, while selling other assets. His holding is now valued at up to $50m, according to his financial disclosure documents.

When right-winger’s like Schweizer level these kind of charges about the Bidens, they are obviously forms of hypocrisy and projection. But it’s also a type of propaganda that we could call “inoculation,” because they introduce the disease into the body politic as a prophylactic against accountability. To mitigate charges of corruption against Trump and his family, similar charges are leveled against their opponents. As we’re seeing now with Attorney General William Barr’s investigation of the investigators, that ultimately leads to charges being met with countercharges in an attempt to confuse the public and ward off accountability.

The reason that kind of propaganda works for Republicans is because low-information voters—spurred by a media obsessed with bothsiderism—tend to respond by saying “they all do it,” which promotes cynicism and a disengagement from the political process. As Barack Obama once wrote:

A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.

As with all forms of propaganda, this one is not easy to combat. But the first step is to recognize what’s going on. From there, taking personal responsibility for staying grounded in facts and evidence, no matter where they lead, is the only possible antidote.

Could Justin Amash Play the Role of Spoiler in the 2020 Election?

In the 2016 election, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson came in third place with about four and a half million votes, which amounted to only 3.3 percent of all the ballots cast. Yet, this was possibly enough to change the outcome of the election. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Johnson/Weld ticket pulled 146,715 votes which made for 2.38 percent of the total. That dwarfed the 49,941 votes gathered by the Stein/Bakara ticket which only accounted for 0.81 percent. Trump won the state by under 45,000 votes.

Some people say that Johnson actually helped Hillary Clinton while others say he handed the election to Trump. The theory in favor of Johnson hurting Clinton involves him creating a safe harbor for Republicans to participate without having to cast a ballot for a man they didn’t respect or trust, or a woman they had spent decades reviling. In the end, it’s impossible to know for certain how many votes would have been cast in what proportions for the main two candidates if the third party options had not been available. It’s not a reach to speculate, however, that the result would have different in one direction or the other.

Likewise in 2020, strong third party candidates have the potential to flip states and thereby potentially decide the ultimate winner. There are shortlists available online of potential Libertarian Party candidates. The most intriguing but probably ridiculous name I’ve seen floated is Mitt Romney. I think he’d definitely have a big impact if he ran, but he’s ensconced in a safe Senate seat from Utah now and I see no reason why he’d want to run a spoiler campaign.

The name that has been coming up with increasing frequency lately is Rep. Justin Amash from the Grand Rapids area of Michigan. He’s the only Republican member of Congress to say that Trump should be impeached and removed from office, and now he’s facing a serious primary challenge that he may not survive. He also quit the Freedom Caucus this week, saying that he didn’t want to be a distraction. One advantage of Amash over Romney is that Amash is actually a libertarian, so he wouldn’t be hijacking the party for his own vanity project. Beyond that, though, there’s little to recommend him as a vote-getter. Certainly, Romney would have vastly more potential for splitting votes off from both major party candidates. As a far-right Republican, Amash’s appeal to the left would be limited to a small subset of people who are primarily interested in the surveillance state and privacy issues, and those who agree with Amash’s critiques of America’s bipartisan foreign policy. Many of these people’s first choice will be the Green Party candidate.

In any case, Rep. Amash is not discouraging this speculation:

There has also been speculation Amash might challenge Trump in 2020 as a libertarian candidate, something he did not rule out at a recent town hall.

“I’ve said many times, I don’t rule things like that out,” Amash said. “If you’re fighting to defend the Constitution, if you find a way to do that that’s different and maybe more effective, then you have to think about that.”

Normally, you’d expect the libertarian candidate to cut more deeply into the Republican candidate’s base than the Democrat’s, but that is not a certainty. It might even cut in different directions depending on the state. A lot will depend on how comfortable the Democrats’ affluent white suburban professional base is with the their nominee. They may seek a middle option to register their disapproval, just as many are suspected to have done in 2016. Romney would be an easier landing place for them than Amash, but he might also soak up #NeverTrump votes that would otherwise go to the Democrat.

When we talk about whether the smarter Democratic strategy is to run to the left or the center, the answer could depend on who the Libertarians are running and what kind of support they can pick up in different scenarios.