The Midterms Weren’t As Underwhelming As They Felt

Watching the midterm election results come in on November 6 was somewhat of a letdown. Democrats took back the House, but they lost seats in the Senate and the 3 most talked-about races of the year. It certainly did not feel like the stinging rebuke of Donald Trump and the Republican Party that so many were hoping for.

However, the weeks since the election have shown that Democrats–and Independents and Republicans who care about the future of our democracy–have much to celebrate. A few House races remain undecided, but Democrats have already picked up 40 seats and won by the largest margin of victory for either party in midterm history. They held their Senate losses to 2, which means that taking back the Senate in 2020 remains feasible. At the state level, Democrats gained 7 governorships, including surprise victories in Kansas and Wisconsin.

3 of those governor wins–in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania–are particularly encouraging for Democrats’ prospects of defeating Trump in 2020. Those are states that the Democratic nominee will absolutely need to win, especially given Florida’s apparent drift to the right.

Even more important than these top-of-the-ticket races are the gains that Democrats made in state legislatures and on ballot referendums. Democrats gained a net of about 300 state legislative seats, taking control of 7 chambers and increasing their number of state trifectas (where they control the governor’s office and both legislative branches) to 14. More control at the state level will allow Democrats to push back against voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering, which, in turn, will greatly increase their chances of winning more races in 2020 and beyond.

There were also many progressive policy victories in the form of ballot measures. Voters in 3 red states approved Medicaid expansion, while in 2 other conservative states they agreed to raise the minimum wage. 3 states passed referendums that will limit partisan influence in redistricting. And, in addition to Florida’s much-watched Amendment 4 that restored voting rights to felons, 3 other states approved measures to make registering to vote and casting a ballot easier.

These state-level gains are perhaps even more consequential than winning the House. In addition to allowing Democrats to fight back against efforts to suppress young and minority votes, they will give the party a chance to sell their vision for a progressive future. As we’ve seen with Obamacare, progressive policies tend to be highly popular once people get a taste of them, so Democrats now have two years to build evidence for the case they’ll be making in 2020.

The Democratic Party has tended to neglect state and local races, so this also marks a distinct opportunity to build a deeper bench of candidates. This is an area where Republicans have long held an advantage, but it appears that the grassroots energy sparked by Trump’s election is helping to level the playing field.

It might not have felt like a Blue Wave on election night, but the results should certainly be seen as a signal that a majority of the country is unhappy with the state of our politics and willing to give Democratic policies a try. We still face significant structural disadvantages going into 2020, but we at least now have a roadmap for success.

Republicans Know They’re Wrong, but That Might Not Matter

If there’s any comfort to be found in the growing attacks on our democracy these days, I find it in the fact that Republicans seem to know that they’re on the wrong side of the issues. There has been a lot written about the conservative echo chamber and how it has allowed Republican politicians to fool themselves about the value, popularity, and constitutionality of their policies and behaviors. Recent actions, however, suggests quite the opposite: leaders on the Right know full well that their proposals would not stand up to open and informed scrutiny and so are going to whatever lengths necessary to avoid it.

Why else would they be waging such a forceful (and expensive) campaign to undermine each and every one of our democratic institutions? Despite repeatedly having their voter fraud theories debunked, they continue to push for stricter voting laws that will make it harder for people to participate in elections. They have taken gerrymandering to a new level by drawing ridiculous legislative maps engineered to minimize the power of left-leaning voters. When those efforts have proved insufficient, they have gone so far as outright refusing to hold elections.

Thankfully, in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, the courts have stepped in to restrict these blatant attempts to manipulate or impede the electoral system for partisan advantage. But rather than accept the rule of law they pretend to defend so strongly, Republicans have instead begun to attack the judiciary itself. In red states, they have sought to turn what should be independent courts into another partisan body, pouring millions of dollars into judicial elections and requiring that judges list their party affiliation on the ballot. In cases where the courts have still proven uncooperative and refused to sign off on Republicans’ unconstitutional actions, the party has tried to strip the judiciary of its power by limiting its jurisdiction, imposing term limits, and even seeking to impeach judges who rule against it.

In a functional democracy, this is where the press would step in, informing voters about the Republican Party’s attempts to manipulate the system to ignore both the will of constituents and the Constitution. Republican politicians have tried to get around this “problem” by flooding the airwaves and campaign trails with claims of media bias and fake news. They have taken every opportunity to discredit journalism, foment a mistrust of expertise, and sow confusion about what should otherwise be accepted facts.

This is not the behavior of a confident party. Taken together, these attacks suggest that Republicans don’t believe they can win if they have to face any actual checks and balances. They know that on a host of issues–gun control, health care, taxes–a clear majority of voters (including conservatives) disagrees with their policies. They know that many of their attempts to limit rights and freedoms would be struck down by an impartial judicial system. They know that much of Republican doctrine is built on tricking constituents into ignoring established facts and scientific consensus.

And so, rather than reevaluate their ideological convictions, the Republican Party has instead decided to wage an all-out war on democracy. My hope is that this is a last, desperate attempt to fight off the truth and cling to power and that the result will be a party exposed for the fraud that it has long been. My fear is that they’ll get away with it, and our country won’t survive.

Michelle Wolf Reminds the Press That It’s Not Doing Its Job

As I’ve read the reactions to Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, I’ve been reminded of the feeling I had after watching “The Post.” That movie, detailing journalists’ historic fight to publish the Pentagon Papers and defend press freedom against a White House intent on stifling it, left me thinking that 2018 demands a similar revolution in the fourth branch of government. Wolf’s speech and the commentary that followed make it clear why.

The publishing of the Pentagon Papers represented a seismic shift in the relationship between the press and the government. What had once been cozy and mutually beneficial was no longer possible in the face of corruption and cover-ups. But, as “The Post” makes clear, this change wasn’t inevitable. It took a great amount of courage and integrity on the part of journalists to stand up for free speech and defend the press’s role as the government’s watchdog, not its propaganda machine.

While it’s not yet clear if we’re facing Nixon-level corruption (any day now, Robert Mueller), we are certainly at a another major crossroads in regards to the role of the press in our democracy. And I would argue that a shift on the scale of the Pentagon Papers is called for if our country is to make it through this crisis.

We have a White House that is not only uninterested in facts but that also purposefully distorts the truth without any apparent concern for the long-term damage. We have cabinet members and executive appointees who are violating every rule and ethical norm they think they can get away with. We have a party in power that regularly denies established science and history in order to justify a platform that serves nobody but their wealthy donors.

In the face of these threats, an independent press is the only check on power we have left. And yet, as Wolf pointedly laid out in her speech, the press is failing us. Journalists have neglected to adequately call out the lies, distortions, hypocrisy, and corruption that have been dragging our government down since long before Donald Trump was elected.

The problem is the priority journalists place on appearing balanced and objective in their work. The underlying assumption is that there is, in fact, balance within government, but that is simply no longer the case. The ease with which modern-day Republicans ignore facts, commit outright falsehoods, and apply their supposed values selectively is something unseen on the left. For the press to pretend otherwise only validates those distortions, making it harder for voters to tell the difference.

Wolf’s words were hard to swallow because they were true. The negative reviews coming not only from Trump’s cronies but also journalists themselves only highlights the fact that the press still doesn’t recognize the moment we are in or how much is riding on whether, like in 1971, it makes a bold stand to hold this new type of government accountable.

Why Government’s Biggest Beneficiaries Are Its Biggest Opponents

“Keep government out of my Medicare” was a ridiculous rallying cry during the original Obamacare debate, but it perfectly demonstrated the contradictions in many voters’ beliefs about federal benefits. The inconsistency was again on display in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, with Houston residents unbothered by their lawmakers seeking billions of dollars in government aid after having voted against similar relief for New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy.

People often explain their stances on federal programs and taxation in terms of conservative versus liberal values, but it is clear that one side is drawing their conclusions from faulty information. The truth is that many of those who typically oppose “big government” (aka Republican voters) are the same people who rely most heavily on federal spending. Much has already been said about the irony that Trump’s white working-class base stands to lose the most if he manages to follow through with his campaign promises to cut government programs. Rural, less-populous states (which usually lean heavily conservative) receive far more in benefits than they pay into the system through taxes–with more liberal urban states left to make up the difference.

This group of voters has essentially been brainwashed. Modern Republican Party leaders have built their base by knowingly lying about their policies–and those of the opposition–and whose interests they serve. They have successfully trained millions of voters to so reflexively oppose “big government” that they repeatedly and unknowingly vote against their own well-being. Even more sinister, they have accomplished this by stoking racial and cultural hostility–spreading images of the black welfare queen and government-paid doctors murdering unborn children. Through this combination of outright lies, race-baiting, and fear mongering, Republicans have engineered a constituency that is ignorant of how much it depends on public programs and how much it could gain if those programs were expanded.

If the disastrous attempt to repeal Obamacare wasn’t enough, Republican leaders will soon further betray their disregard for the majority of their party as Congress turns to debating the budget and tax reform. Whatever plan comes out of Washington in the next few months, initial indications are that average taxpayers will suffer in the name of giving huge cuts to the rich. Since Republicans have full control of the government and thus no one else to blame, one might hope that conservative voters would finally realize that they’ve been conned. Unfortunately, though, party leaders have built an insurance policy by fomenting widespread distrust of the media and experts, so I wouldn’t be too optimistic.

Democrats Have a Win-Win in Supreme Court Vacancy

With Hillary Clinton looking increasingly likely to win the presidency, Democrats are finding themselves in a win-win situation in regards to the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia. President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland for the seat in March, but Senate Republicans have refused to even hold a hearing on the nominee, let alone a confirmation vote.

Republicans have defended their actions by claiming that the vacancy came too close to this year’s election and therefore should not be filled until after voters have had a chance to express their preferences in November. This stance has no legal basis or historical precedent. The real reason Republicans have put off the confirmation is that, at least back in March, party leaders were hopeful that they could retake the presidency and thus the power to fill the court seat with a more conservative judge.

As Election Day approaches, however, the party is less and less confident that its candidate, Donald Trump, will prevail against Clinton. In terms of the Supreme Court, this fact puts Democrats in a highly favorable position. Obama’s pick of the moderate Garland–meant to increase the chance of his being confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate–was a disappointment to many progressives who wanted the president to take advantage of a rare opportunity to shift the balance of the court for years to come. Should Garland’s nomination go unconfirmed, Clinton is widely expected to indulge the left wing of her party and nominate a more liberal candidate.

At that point, Republicans would no longer have a credible excuse to postpone a confirmation hearing. And if Democrats are able to take back control of the Senate–now a very realistic possibility–Clinton’s liberal nominee would almost certainly be confirmed. The Republican strategy of obstruction would, in that case, have backfired in the worst of ways, leading to a court far more to the left than would’ve been the case had they just moved forward with Garland.

Fearing this outcome, some conservatives are now hoping to cut their losses and allow Garland’s confirmation to go through. So far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t budging, but at this point even a Republican attempt to limit the damage will be a victory for Democrats. The Court would still see an ideological shift to the left with Garland, albeit not as far as many progressives would have liked. Republicans, for their part, would be left trying to explain why their position–supposedly based on principle, not politics–changed only once it became clear that their candidate would not win in November. The Right would once again be exposed for its partisan obstructionism and failure to govern.

Trump’s candidacy has opened up rare opportunities for Democrats across all three branches of government. It’s now up to the party–and its voters–to take advantage of the moment.

North Carolina Law Exposes Hypocrisy in Republican Ideology

The new North Carolina law removing anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals may seem like a victory for conservatives, but it actually exposes a crack in their central political philosophy. This can be seen by focusing not on the bill itself, but on how it was passed. The state law was a reaction to an anti-discrimination measure in the city of Charlotte that would have allowed people who are transgender to use public bathrooms aligning with their gender identity. Following passage of that law, the Republican-controlled state legislature stepped in and prohibited cities from making their own local rules to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.

This is interesting because it is the exact opposite of what conservative ideology–with its fear of big government and dedication to local control–would seem to demand. Republican opposition to many laws and regulations at the federal level starts with the argument that states and cities should decide how to govern themselves. National programs and policies are reflexively opposed based on a dedication to individual self-determination and the belief that big government is inherently ineffective.

The Republican Party has used the doctrine of local control to justify resistance to things like education standards, environmental protections, and the new health care law. It is an extremely effective strategy, as it allows politicians to oppose legislation without taking a stance on the actual issue at hand. During the fight for passage of the Civil Rights Bill, conservative lawmakers were able to shield themselves from accusations of racism by claiming it wasn’t that they were opposed to racial equality, they just didn’t believe the federal government had the right to force that equality on cities and states.

However, it turns out that this steadfast dedication to federalism and local control only applies when it is convenient, as illustrated nicely in North Carolina. Cities like Charlotte have the right to pass their own laws, but only when they serve the interests of the state Republican Party.

This hypocrisy is not unique to North Carolina or to anti-discrimination measures. Recently, several states controlled by conservative politicians have been pushing laws that would pre-empt city and county governments from enacting local policies related to labor. In the face of inaction at the state and national level, cities have begun passing laws to provide more protection to workers and address income inequality. Examples include raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing access to paid leave, and requiring reasonable advance notice of workers’ hours. Voters overwhelmingly support these policies, and in many cases are the ones driving the process through referendums. However, just as in North Carolina, conservative lawmakers have quickly responded by passing laws at the state level prohibiting cities from writing local legislation on these issues.

Republicans have justified their actions by arguing that having different laws from city to city would be confusing and hard to navigate. (Which, by the way, is typically the liberal argument.) However, it is clear that the party picks and chooses when to apply the basic principles of conservatism. In this case, the party’s opposition to big government is superseded by its even bigger opposition to LGBTQ equality and laws that would protect workers at the expense of company profits.

This is not to say that political philosophies cannot be fluid depending on the situation. It is simply to note that when Republican politicians oppose things like anti-discrimination bills, fair labor laws, environmental protections, and access to affordable health care, they should no longer be allowed to hide their unpopular, self-serving, and discriminatory positions behind obscure ideologies to which they are only half committed.

Time for US to Rethink Saudi Arabia Alliance

President Obama’s response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shiite leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was, unsurprisingly, reserved. The United States remains rigidly committed to orthodox thinking when it comes to much of its Middle East policy. Such traditional views hold that Saudi Arabia is an invaluable ally whose support is critical to US interests in the region. And so, while other world leaders and international bodies condemned the Saudis for executions that raised human rights concerns and inflamed sectarian tensions with Iran, Obama responded by meekly asking for calm on all sides.

Saudi Arabian leaders have long been accused of human and civil rights abuses. The country funds schools that teach the kind of Islamic extremism that is at the root of terror groups like ISIS. It engages in proxy wars that increase instability and harm civilians. Yet for decades, the US has been committed to the dogma that the country does more good than harm and thus deserves deference instead of criticism.

This maxim–that the Saudi Arabian alliance must be protected at all costs–is more than just outdated; it is false. In the past, the “interest” the US was so committed to protecting was oil. This justification is largely irrelevant now as domestic oil production has increased dramatically in recent years, but it has been replaced with the argument that Saudi Arabia is vital in the fight against ISIS.

The US is right to believe that it needs Sunni allies to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The group draws its support from disaffected Sunnis who feel repressed by Shiite regimes, so convincing moderate Sunni groups that there are alternative ways to gain protection and representation is a fundamental strategy to countering the extremists. But Saudi Arabia is doing little to support the fight against ISIS and is, in reality, taking actions that could make that fight more difficult.

While the US has requested Saudi Arabia’s help in battling ISIS, the country has instead focused its military resources on stopping Houthi rebels from taking over in Yemen. The Saudis’ bombing campaign there has caused massive civilian deaths and displacement, has created a power vacuum that is allowing Al Qaeda to grow, and is justified on the false premise that Iran was behind the original Houthi takeover. Further, by executing al-Nimr this past weekend despite repeated warnings about the impact it would have on Sunni-Shia relations, Saudi Arabia has created a new sectarian flash point that runs directly counter to the US goal of drawing Sunni groups into the anti-ISIS coalition.

Obama’s caution about alienating Saudi Arabia is based on the belief that the defeat of ISIS, and Middle East stability in general, cannot be achieved without its support. This assumption about the importance of the country is wrong, and recent events suggest that the Saudis’ actions are actually counterproductive to US interests in the region. It is time for the US to abandon its orthodoxy and hold Saudi Arabia responsible for its behavior and the disruption it engenders.

Republican Party Facing Consequences of Campaign Finance Changes

Up until this summer, the influx of big money into political campaigns following the 2010 Citizens United decision was undoubtedly benefiting Republicans more than Democrats. Lately, however, there are signs that the Republican embrace of unlimited spending through Super PACs may be coming back to haunt the party.

Following Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, Republican leaders made structural changes to their party’s presidential nominating process that they hoped would lead to a shorter, cleaner primary season. Primaries are always a challenge for both parties, since the people who participate are typically more ideologically extreme than the average voter. Long, competitive primaries therefore tend to pull candidates further to the right or left, leaving them less appealing to more moderate voters during the general election.

Republican leaders’ plan was to speed up the process so that a clear front runner could emerge before being forced so far to the right that he or she would stand no chance of winning over a majority of Americans come November. What has actually happened, however, is quite the opposite, with candidates taking ever more conservative stances on critical issues like immigration and women’s health. After 2012, Republican strategists knew they needed a politician who could steal Hispanic and female voters from the Democrats; instead, they got Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina.

The problem for the Republican Party is that the constructive changes they made to debates and delegate allocation are being more than counteracted by the forces that Citizens United has unleashed. Before the explosion of Super PACs, money for campaigns was largely controlled by political parties, giving leaders significant influence over the candidate pool. Now, however, presidential hopefuls can raise virtually unlimited funds from private donors, so people with very little chance of winning can still hang on in the primaries indefinitely with just one or two wealthy supporters. This keeps the field crowded and messy and allows extreme candidates to continue shaping the conversation far longer than party leaders would prefer.

Further, with candidates relying more and more on individual donors–as opposed to the party–for financial support, they are no longer constrained to having to cater to the will of the establishment. Republican leaders want to mold a nominee who can take the White House, but they are finding that they no longer have the financial leverage needed to push out candidates who ignore their preferences or who care far more about ideological purity and celebrity than electability.

It’s still early in the season, so how much impact big money will ultimately have on the Republican Party’s prospects remains to be seen. It is clear already, however, that changes in campaign finance law are no longer hampering only Democrats. The question is whether Republican support for unlimited spending will be tempered by how much it is impeding their effort to reform their party into one that can actually win a modern presidential election.

Republicans Take Big Risk with Early Legislation

The Republican leadership, trying to figure out how to manage being in control of both houses of Congress, is making an interesting bet. Despite public statements claiming that Washington is finally going to start functioning again, the first actions of the new legislature have all been ones guaranteed to go nowhere. They have passed bills stripping President Barack Obama of his authority to decide on the Keystone XL pipeline, increasing the number of hours worked at which employers must provide health care coverage to 40 per week from 30, and removing protections from deportation for undocumented immigrants. To nobody’s surprise, Obama immediately threatened to veto all of them.

Republicans were quick to claim vindication, saying that Obama’s veto threats prove his unwillingness to compromise and therefore his culpability in the lack of legislative action since 2010. This weak attempt to pass the blame is so transparent that it is almost insulting. Obama has made it abundantly clear that he would block legislation similar to what Republicans have chosen to focus on so far this term. Even if he had not, nobody would expect a president to sign into law bills dismantling two of his main priorities (health care and immigration reform) or transferring executive power to the legislature (which is the problem Obama has with the Keystone bill).

The obvious narrative is that the Republican leadership, rather than work on issues that have bipartisan support, is starting off the term with stubborn acts of political posturing. I have no doubt that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner know that they cannot let their caucus behave this way for the next two years if they have any hope of winning in 2016. So why start the year off like this?

Despite their success in fending off far-right challengers in the primaries, Republican leaders still do not appear confident that they can contain the extreme members of their party. The bet Republicans seem to be making is that they can placate their most conservative legislators with a few highly-partisan votes. Then, once they have allowed the right wing to stomp their feet in protest of Obama, they will move on to actually governing.

This is a big risk for a party that has a lot to prove before 2016, and it is one that I think they will regret taking. Considering that the Republican-controlled House has voted over 50 times to dismantle all or parts of the Affordable Care Act and that 24 Republicans voted against Boehner for Speaker, it does not appear that the far-right wing can be easily appeased. This is a group that has proven to be rigidly committed to its principles, regardless of the political repercussions.

Alternatively, it might be that Republican leaders are betting that they can get away with another do-nothing Congress after Democrats all but rolled over during the 2014 midterms. If that is the case, Obama’s passionate and forward-thinking State of the Union address should give the party serious cause for concern. Obama certainly knows that few (if any) of the initiatives he proposed will make it through a Republican legislature, but he was concerned about more than defining his own legacy. His speech shows that he is seizing the initiative (a rare and welcome move for a Democrat) in framing the national debate leading into the 2016 election. After Obama confidently invited the country to move forward into a new era of prosperity, Republicans will have a hard time convincing voters eager to shake off the recession to let them continue rehashing the failed battles of the past.

With Obama free from the constraints of campaigning and intent on going down swinging, Republicans will need to change their approach quickly if they have any chance of overcoming the already long odds of them taking the presidency in the next election. The party’s leaders better hope that now that their right-wing members have gotten an inch, they won’t come back demanding a mile.

The Appeal of Elizabeth Warren

Republicans aren’t the only ones failing to heed the lessons of recent elections. Even though much of the post-midterm analysis has emphasized the fact that Democratic candidates offered almost no defense of their party’s policies or successes, many on the left continue refusing to take credit for the achievements that have occurred during the Obama administration.

The November jobs report should have been extremely favorable to Democrats–321,000 new jobs and finally a promising amount of wage growth. But instead of using the news to remind voters of how well they have handled the post-recession economy, many in the Democratic party wanted to brush it aside. Their fear is that middle class families who are still struggling will see the left as disconnected if it starts celebrating prematurely.

So far, their self-conscious cautiousness has done nothing but hurt Democrats, as voters (rightly) see them as a party that doesn’t even believe in itself. However, this defeatist attitude could paradoxically turn out to be good news for liberals. After years of Washington dysfunction, voters are eager for someone who actually wants to get things done. They don’t find the message of either major party appealing, but so far nobody is offering them much of an alternative.

This is where the recent buzz surrounding Elizabeth Warren comes in. While Warren insists that she will not run for president in 2016, advocacy groups and voters hungry for change are becoming more vocal about their wish that she would.

The reason why Warren is appealing is obvious. As she demonstrated most recently with her ardent disapproval of the spending bill that rolls back some financial regulations, Warren does not hesitate to challenge the status quo in Washington. But in contrast to members of the Tea Party who themselves frequently make forceful stands, she does not seem like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum.

Warren’s policy positions are to the left of what many establishment Democrats are typically comfortable supporting. Indeed, in any other climate, Warren might easily be dismissed as a radical socialist. But right now, with both mainstream Democrats and Republicans incapable of giving voters any reason to feel optimistic about the future, Warren’s impassioned pleas for the interests of the middle class come across as rather refreshing. She has a positive vision that she believes in and that she is willing to fight for, and that is something that voters have not seen much of since 2008.

This is not to say that there will be a rush of disaffected conservatives wanting to change their party registration. But, for the large number of moderate voters who might otherwise be wary about policies from the far left, Warren just might be able to gain their trust enough to start pulling the country back from the rightward shift of recent years. Even if she does not enter the 2016 presidential field, she has still created a rare opening for liberals; the Democratic party just needs to lift its head up to see it.