In This Episode
Going into Tuesday’s midterm elections, polls forecasted a close race, while Republicans and the media promised a red wave or even a red tsunami. But then the votes came in and it was basically a tie, and the phantom red tsunami was replaced by a storyline that Republicans really blew it—by banning abortion, rejecting democracy, and latching to extreme ideas and candidates. And while Democrats are mostly relieved, they also chose to cautiously hedge their bets instead of maximizing their advantages on those issues. Both parties are making choices, but are they the smartest choices? And what do these choices say about how they plan to govern? New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie joins to talk about the election results and the choices facing both parties that will affect us all.
Brian Beutler: Hi everyone. Welcome to Positively Dreadful with me, your host, Brian Beutler. People are really good at constructing arguments or theories about things that they wish were true, and for that reason, going into election day Tuesday night, you could have told yourself anything you wanted about what was likely to happen, but two versions of events were rooted in more than just raw, motivated reasoning. One was that the election was shaping up to be very close because that’s what the polls kept saying. Another was that Republicans were poised to win big because that’s been the pattern in recent midterms and because that’s what newsmakers and media figures kept saying publicl. People’s top issue is inflation, well, that’s bad for Dems. Republicans promised a red wave or red tsunami. Democrats began a round of preemptive recriminations or pre-recriminations, whatever you wanna call ’em.
[news clip]: Voters have told us all year what they care about. And I think we have focused on other things. I was talking to a political strategist this week, a Republican who said to me, you know, the president is out there saying, trust me to get you out of the ditch that I put you in. And that’s a very difficult sell cause I know. You’re smirking at me, but that’s what people believe is that it’s his fault. It may not be right, but—
Brian Beutler: And then the votes came in and it was basically a tie. And as we record this, it seems like Republicans are narrowly favored to win a very small majority in the house, and Democrats are pretty well situated to either keep their 50 vote Senate majority or add a seat. And the storyline that’s taken over the phantom red tsunami is that Republicans really blew it, which they quite certainly did. They paid dearly for banning abortion. They paid dearly for rejecting democracy. The tax they paid for lashing themselves to those extreme ideas, and to Donald Trump. Just canceled out the advantages they entered the contest with. Obviously there’s no scientific way to measure this, but generally speaking, there seemed to be a correlation in most places between how tightly candidates associated themselves with abortion bans and authoritarianism and Donald Trump, and how badly they underperformed. And so against that backdrop, a few things are happening. First, Democrats are mostly just relieved things didn’t go the way they feared they’d go, but they also don’t seem to have contemplated how to proceed. What, if anything, they should change about their politics, how they should conduct themselves if they end up in the minority in the House or the Senate, or both? And with Republicans, it’s kind of the inverse. They’re freaking out, the right or die Trumpers are rip shit angry at any number of scapegoats.
[news clip]: I have never seen anything more flacid and linguini-spined than the way that corp, the corporate GOP approach to this very winnable election.
Brian Beutler: And the vestiges of the pre-Trump right wing are livid that Trump saddled them with tons of weak candidates and so much reputational damage. Many of them seem to have gotten high on their own supply of propaganda and convinced themselves that they really were shoe-ins for huge majorities. But they’ve given almost no indication of what they intend to do about any of it, about the reasons they under performed or what they would do with the power they seemed poised to inherit. So it’s this weird kind of 2020 ish vibe, but inverted where the ostensible winners are paralyzed by recriminations, and the ostensible losers feel like they’ve dodged a bullet, and the political press has just turned on a dime from anticipating that Democrats would be wiped out to the reality that maybe people really do care about the rights wide ranging abuses of power and their radicalism. It’s in the nature of an election that you can only run at once. So we can’t say for certain whether Republicans staved off an even worse night for themselves by seeding the story that they were poised to win in a landslide. Or if Democrats cost themselves victories, maybe enough to have won the house outright by letting Republicans mind fuck them in this way. qAnd that’s too bad because how the parties reason with themselves about what’s working for them and what isn’t has a lot to do with how they will choose to conduct themselves going forward. And to be clear, it is a choice. If Democrats think their cautious bet, hedging is a source of real resilience rather than an impediment to maximizing their potential, it’ll affect how they continue to resist the fascism rising within the GOP. If Republicans think their puffy chested propaganda is a source of strength for them rather than part of the reason independent voters don’t like them, it’s gonna impact how they choose to govern and it’s all in their hands. In the New York Times this week, columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote a great piece called No One Forced Republicans to Do Any of These Things, in which he explains, quote, “Many, too many political observers speak as if Republican leaders and officials had no choice but to accept Donald Trump into the fold. No choice but to apologize for his every transgression, no choice but to humor his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and now no choice but to embrace election denying candidates around the country. But that’s nonsense.” Well, they’ve reached another time for choosing and we should be clear-eyed as they proceed that they are making those choices for all of us. And Jamelle is here to talk about what those choices might be. So Jamelle Bouie, welcome to Positively Dreadful.
Jamelle Bouie: Thank you for having me.
Brian Beutler: Okay, so let’s actually start In the summer, the Supreme Court overturns Roe. Abortion becomes illegal in half the country. Democrats have some unrelated policy successes. Their media coverage improves, their polling improves. They put all this wind at their back to the test and start winning special elections, uh, which they had been losing. Um, then by fall the wind sort of comes outta their sales. Uh, polling narrows again and punditry and election coverage are becomes suffused with this idea that people had sort of like, changed their minds, reconsidered, that they’re more concerned about inflation and crime than about abortion and democracy. Um, the idea becomes that Republicans are probably gonna sweep the midterms just like they did in the Obama years, and then it’s, it’s just a wash. So I’d like you to tell me a story that you think best fits those facts. Like what explains why things felt so volatile but then ended up kind of even?
Jamelle Bouie: That’s a good question that I haven’t actually thought about. I mean, I think, uh, Iha have come to, um, uh, really lean towards the idea that. So much of this is just shaped by who captures the initiative in terms of media coverage, which is to say who provides the press with the story that the press finds interesting, um, or exciting or full of drama or whatever, right? And so in the wake of Dobbs, uh, in the wake of the inflation, uh, what’s it, The Inflation Reduction Act, which was a big surprise, right? Like no one expected, uh, the administration and the Senate to pull out, uh, any kind of, um, you know, final legislation on climate or, or whatnot.
Brian Beutler: It was presumed dead. It was, everyone kind of thought it was dead.
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah it was presumed dead. And so I think that I, I think that the surprise of those things, um, the extent to which they necessarily, and especially the IRA, um, necessarily generated a bunch of coverage on, well, how did this happen? Who were the key players? It looks good for Biden, so it generates like general good press about his ability to, you know, to, to, uh, manage the Senate caucus. Um, all these things really, uh, put the press in a more or less a favorable disposition towards Democrats, or atleast generated a ton of stories that captured a lot of attention that were pretty positive about Democrats. The same goes for the student loan debt relief, positive stories that benefit Democrats. Um, but then that got boring, it got boring to have positive stories that benefit Democrats. And so the, and, and, and thanks in part to Republican, um, you know, politicians and Republican, uh, campaign strategists and sort of all those folks doing a very good job of, um, uh, uh, putting out their view and their message, uh, that the midterms were in the bag for them. I think the press coverage changed accordingly to this kind of, you know, democrats and potential disarray. Uh, you know, inflation is a voters think, voters believe, uh, that the economy is in a recession, inflation’s high, you know, everything’s gonna fall apart for Democrats even though underlying conditions hadn’t changed, right? Like, this is the key thing. The actual objective conditions of American politics from Dobbs to Tuesday did not really change—
Brian Beutler: Except that like gas prices went down, like— [laughter]
Jamelle Bouie: Gas prices went down. Right? And so, uh, what changed was just the extent to which the press, uh, uh, thought that, thought that, I mean, this is, I think they thought that the story of Republicans winning a smashing midterm victory, another 2010 or another 1994. Um, that was gonna be exciting, that had a lot of drama because there’s a lot of drama about the internal Republican caucus, right? Kevin McCarthy, speaker who’s gonna have leadership positions. Is it gonna be internal struggles? There’s sort of a ready made story of kind of like Democrats in disarray. Are they gonna, how are they gonna respond to this? How are they gonna, um, discipline the left? Which is a thing that low-key political reporters seem to like, just want to happen for substantive reasons, uh, or some political reporters do. And so there’s these ready made storylines, this sort of drama that is, uh, hard to resist. And so, what was interesting to watch was in this, this last week before the election, the final polls coming out of nonpartisan outlets, coming out of media outlets were showing a close, basically tied race. They were showing that the, the public was evenly divided, who they wanted to control Congress. Uh, and that was so incongruous with the narrative that people expected to be running with after the election that they kind of just ignored it. To me, like there’s a lot, been a lot of like recrimination over the failure, over the polls. To me, it’s kind of funny that the polls didn’t really fail all that much. At least sort of like the high quality polls, like they were actually pretty much on target. Uh, what failed was media expectations and media narratives, and I think, I think you’re possibly onto something to think of the extent to which those narratives and expectations shaped democratic behavior. You know, pretty much we have the results outta Wisconsin, right? And Mandela Barnes will, it will blue as to Ron Johnson by like a percentage point narrow defeat. How much of that, and he, he was swamped on the airwaves in like the last month or didn’t have enough money. How much of that is a function of Democrats believing, well, it’s gonna be a wave against us, so why bother?
Brian Beutler: Right. I it’s a, so I, I agree with your sense of things. One thing I’m certain about, or as close to certain as I can be is that from like approximately the Afghanistan withdrawal to approximately the Dobbs decision, Democrats were like rudderless spinning their wheels. Inflation was climbing, um, gas prices were high and it was like a nightmare, right? Like they were losing special elections. It wasn’t just like the polls were bad and the vibes were bad, but like when people went to vote in weird elections during that stretch, Republican or Democrats were losing badly. And um, it looked like that was going to carry through to the midterms and they were gonna lose in a landslide just like in 2010 and 2014. And then the other thing I’m sure about is that approximately after Dobbs, um, that flipped and they started winning the special election, so, there’s almost like, it’s almost like a, a test case. And, and you, you can tell that the environment definitely shifted. I guess from there it’s, you could sort of tell two different stories. One is that the election was going to be pretty even all along after Dobbs. Um, and these narrative swings that you were just describing were kind of arbitrary and misleading. Um, but then another, and it’s, I think it’s the one that I believe is that if the election had been held, like in August, Democrats would’ve just won. But Republicans then, like they fought it to a draw with superior media manipulation tactics. And to the extent that Democrats and and reporters sort of fell for those same tactics themselves. They might have compounded them, right? Like you had Democrats going on TV and, and renting their garments about how we, you know, we really put too much stock in abortion and democracy and not enough in, in inflation and crime, and we’re gonna pay for it. Well, like if, if that’s what the TV box is saying day in and day out, it’s probably not like gonna affect things dramatically. But like a 1% swing is huge when an election is close.
Jamelle Bouie: Right, right. The sense to which elections really for the past decade have been just very close fought where a half percentage point or percentage point can mean the difference between control of congress or not the presidency, or not. Even if these narrative shifts are on the margins, those margins still matter a great deal.
Brian Beutler: So it turns out abortion does move votes. Um, democracy or abstract appeals about democracy also moves votes. Um, what should Democrats make of that? Like how should they tinker with their political approach in order to incorporate what we’ve just seen demonstrated?
Jamelle Bouie: That that’s, so I’m not a strategist [laughter] so I, I don’t think I have any, you know, particular advice. I mean, I think that, you know, Republicans seemed at their, at their most defensive in the wake of Dobbs when the really awful stories of women and children trying to get abortion care trickling down and kind of forcing Republicans to get on the defensive and kind of either defend their policy choices or deny that it was happening in, in the same way. I mean, it just makes them look bad. Um, and, and sort of likewise, you know, a candidate like Mastriano, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania was often on the defensive just because he would say crazy things and, and the democratic campaign there, um, Josh Shapiro’s campaign made sure to highlight them. And I think that, you know, one implication of that is it is actually quite important to, um, not just be on the offensive, be on the offensive in a way that does like, capture attention and allows the press to kind of like, focus on it and tell a story about it. Um, I, I, I’m a firm believer that the press is not gonna care about something unless you make them care. Um, they’re not gonna report on something unless the Democratic candidate makes it an issue. So if you want, or they’re not gonna report about it beyond kind of what is, you know, the immediate news. So if you want there to be consistent, focus on the worst parts of the Republican agenda on Republican scandals. The democratic candidates actually need to just make them a focus and not, it doesn’t have to dominate their rhetoric. It doesn’t have to be the only thing they talk about, but it should be the kind of thing. You know, for example, if you’re Raphael Warnock, uh, and, uh, you know, there’s a, there’s get another story of Herschel Walker, you know, abusing someone or, um, uh, you know, paying for their abortion or whatnot, just like make a snide remark about it. [laugh] Say something that will catch people, will catch the ears of the press and get them to talk about it, because that’s what they’re gonna talk about.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Um, and, uh, that is gonna shape sort of the media environment around your opponent. I think it is. I mean, I think, I think, I’m not the first person to say this, but I think the Fetterman campaign is actually great example of this, sort of, from the start, really just going after, um, Oz, Dr. Oz in a really aggressive way and defining him aggressively and creating a narrative about him that even when things got more negative for Fetterman, especially in the wake of the debate, you know, people were still cracking jokes about Oz being from New Jersey. Right. That’s, that’s, that’s effective messaging—
Brian Beutler: Right.
Jamelle Bouie: —Um, it, it sort of, it, it defines the candidate in ways that the candidate cannot escape. And I would not be surprised if, you know, Fetterman, I think end up winning by about four points. But I would not be surprised if we, if we kind of find that Fetterman’s ability to, uh, uh, uh, sustain himself in the wake of questions about his ability to do the job, um, is tied to the campaign’s successful effort to, uh, uh, make Oz look like an interloper.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Um, by, by, by never letting up about it, right? By never saying, well, we’ll just let the press take care of it. And by taking responsibility for creating narratives for reporters and observers and other people to latch onto.
Brian Beutler: The, the period when he was polling best, right? When he had like these 11, 12 point leads over Oz, like after he had the stroke, but before Republicans had started trying to exploit the stroke, um, in part because I think they didn’t know what the damage to Fetterman was. And so Fetterman, Fetterman was just laying into Oz all the time, defining him as this like New Jersey interloper rich guy who hangs out at his various mansions. Um, and then it became clear that Fetterman had some residual damage from the stroke, that that seems to be improving, but Republicans were, you know, they latched onto it and they made the media focus on that. And it, it had an effect, but it, that wasn’t, it wasn’t just like a clash between those two things like Fetterman railing against Oz as this, uh, out of touch weirdo celebrity guy and them hit punching back at Fetterman as this like damaged sick individual. Fetterman continued to sit to like, make the fact that that Oz was doing this to him was like spearheading these attacks as like what kind of doctor like wishes that somebody was, stayed sick.
Jamelle Bouie: Right. And, and just to, just to add to that, the Fetterman campaign continued to make its sort of substantive argument too. It just didn’t let the substantive argument kind of crowd out the other stuff, right? Like it’s, it’s, we talk a lot about the nationalization of campaigns and how it’s difficult for candidates, um, on the national stage to kind of present different faces to different audiences. It’s a very hard thing to do now, but I actually think that on the state level it’s still possible. I think at Virginia you saw Glenn Youngkin pull off that trick, right? Sort of present himself in different ways to different sets of voters. Um, in part, I mean, kind of in part because who is really, controlling coverage of candidates in the state level. It is the candidates themselves cause of the collapse of local news, right? The collapse of local news creates this unusual opportunity for candidates to kind of like control how they’re perceived at the very local level. And so, Fetterman can go to rural Pennsylvania and talk about fracking. Um, he can go and talk about, you know, I’m sure they talked about worldwide broadband up there. Democrats do that everywhere. Um, you know, whatever set of issues. And it’s never gonna get national attention. It’s like, it’s just like doesn’t, no one cares. Um, but it may shape perceptions of the candidate. In the region, in the locality, but then when it comes to sort of your Twitter feed or your press releases or the stuff that national politician, national, uh, reporters are gonna pay attention to, then you can do all the other stuff. And the thing is, is the other stuff is what ends up, because everyone’s watching cable news, or not everyone, but they’re watching cable news, they’re paying attention to these things. Um, that’s gonna also have an important effect for the voters who just aren’t paying that much attention. Period.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: And you can kind of triangulate between the two things to shape your own image and shape your opponents.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I I think if you like, sort of zoom out from Fetterman to, to see a contrast with the, the national strategy of both the Democratic and Republican parties actually is you, you, I can sort of see exactly what you’re talking about, where we’ve had several years of rising crime in the country. Like Barack Obama was at pains to be like, this started under Donald Trump. And it’s, it’s actually getting better now. Like crime is falling, but Republicans. Decided they wanted to make this a central focus of the closing days of the campaign the same way they did with caravans in 2018. And you know, this, this is just how they do politics, right? Uh, and, and so they, you know, and it helps that they have Fox News that helps them do this, but they just mind news, like local news coverage for stories about crime in cities, um, and made sure that everyone was aware that this was happening on whatever channels they, they could find. And any, any venue, any camera they could look into, they would talk about some assault that happened in New York or like New York is uninhabitable now. Where, where Democrats had like this different issue where they could in theory be just as sort of evocative without all the like fraught racist implications of what Republicans were doing, was the abortion issue. Is that—
Jamelle Bouie: Right.
Brian Beutler: —after, after Dobbs you had these horrifying stories in. All kinds of, you know, in, in, in almost every state where abortion became illegal and no systemic effort by the Democratic party to make sure that every time a story like that was like tailor made for the news, that they figured out a way to, to elevate it and keep it elevated. Like, no, no congressional hearing with, with somebody who needed to, who almost died because they weren’t able to get an abortion in their state. Um, and in the absence of that kind of all consuming, I don’t know, like information saturation, the crime story caught on, and that’s what Republicans said was gonna drive the election. And that’s what reporter said was gonna drive the election. Um, and, and so something fills that void.
Jamelle Bouie: Right.
Brian Beutler: And, and Fetterman is good at filling the void, but nationally Democrats don’t seem to be.
Jamelle Bouie: Right, right. No, ideally, I mean, this is, this is, I feel like this is so crass, but, you know, whatever. [laughter] Right. You know, the first kinda awful story to come out of the post Dobbs environment was of that 10 year old girl in Ohio who had to go to Indiana to get an abortion. And Biden, um, Biden, the next day after that story broke mentioned it in like a, a news conference was just sort of like, this is what Republicans are doing. Uh, and it created something of a splash, right? Like, Republicans were like, Really? How dare you accuse us of this? The laws don’t do that. It was like a whole thing. Like they got really defensive. I expected Democrats to do more of that. Like that’s what you want.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamelle Bouie: Right. What you, I think it was last year during the whole attempt to pass a voting rights bill that Biden like said, do you wanna be on the side of Bull Connor or whatever? And Mitch McConnell’s like, I am not like Bull Connor. And it’s like, yeah, you, you want these people to have to say out loud, I do not want 10 year old girls to have to give birth. Right.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Because like, once they have to say those words out loud, they’ve lost the battle—
Brian Beutler: it’s the LB it’s the, it’s the maybe apocryphal LBJ thing. Like accuse my opponent of wanting, of being a pig fucker. Not because it’s true, but because I want to hear him deny it.
Jamelle Bouie: Right. Exactly. [laughter] It’s, it’s like a very elementary thing about politics that I feel like the National Democratic Party has lost sight of that. No, it’s not high minded. Right. No, of course not. But it works.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: It works to make your opponents have to deny. Uh, terrible things. And in the case of the Democratic Party, it helps that the actual Republican agenda for the country is grotesque. [laughter] And so—
Brian Beutler: And I look like I, I, I am definitely projecting here because, um, because I, I don’t have a way to measure this and I don’t think data can actually capture it, but like, when Biden goes on TV and says, this is what Republicans want to do to, to everyone in the country, right? Like, this is the, they wanna make this national, like republicans want 10 year old rape victims who become pregnant. To, have to carry the child to term. Like I feel like he’s representing me. I feel grateful and relieved that somebody is taking them to task for what they’re doing. And I feel like abandoned and left to fight in the lurch by myself when Donald Trump does something horribly corrupt. And Democrats decide not to investigate it, to avoid, you know, riling up his supporters in, in Abby Spanberger’s district or whatever. Um, and I think that like it’s unmeasurable, but the demoralizing cascade has an effect. And that, and that what, what Republicans do as like a strategy year in year out is try to make their base voters feel like. The party on top of it, or if they’re not on top of it, we’ll scream real loud, and they’ll get on top of it. Um, but, but like, they will hold hearings into Hunter Biden’s laptop from hell, and Donald Trump will storm Fox News and talk about whatever like, they will make sure that the issues that bother us get vented in some way.
Jamelle Bouie: It’s worth saying that Republicans, if we’re doing exactly this in the lead up Tuesday, and it may have not been all that effective. And maybe the reason there is that it is important for the issue or the area to have like real public resonance, right? To be like the, the, the insight of the popularist that you should like talk about popular things, I don’t think is wrong, but the way you talk about popular things is by basically scaring people about your opponents doing, doing unpopular things, right? Sort of like, it’s not so much, you’re talking about how your abortion policies or your economic policies are like in line with the median voter. It’s saying, oh, well if they get power, they’re gonna make sure that your grandmother has to eat cat food every night, [laughter] because they wanna cut social security. And it’s like if, if Kevin McCarthy has to go to a podium and say, well, I don’t want your grandmother to eat cat food, then like, congratulations, you’re winning that. You’re winning that political battle, right?
Brian Beutler: Like this is exactly why I asked the question in the first place about like, what should Democrats take from realizing that abortion and, and democracy are, are galvanizing issues. There are two reasons actually, but this is one of them. Like to suss out what valence democrats should attach to these ideas to get the most out of them. Right? Like it’s one—
Jamelle Bouie: Right.
Brian Beutler: —it’s one thing to. For example, uh, give us the House and Senate and we’ll restore the right to abortion. Like we’re Democrats, we stand for this and we’ll do it. If you give us the power. Or to say that democracy is on the ballots, vote for us we’ll protect democracy. It’s a very similar thing, but obviously sounds much different to say they will force you to give birth force your daughters to give birth if they’re raped or if they have an unwanted pregnancy. Um, and they will lie and cheat their way into power. Like those are both abortion appeals and democracy appeals just in completely different, um, affects.
Jamelle Bouie: Right.
Brian Beutler: And, um, democratic rhetoric is sort of to the extent that Democrats were willing to focus on abortion and democracy, were in that positive tone, like high aspiration rhetoric and less in the, like, those guys. Are, you know, like I remember when Joe Biden was campaigning in 2016 and he said something for, for Hillary Clinton, I think, and he said, You know, they wanna put you in chains. I may be getting the, the election year—
Jamelle Bouie: That was, that was 2012—
Brian Beutler: 2012.
Jamelle Bouie: —that was Biden talking to the NAACP conference. And he, teah, I remember that too. Because, because in a testament to it’s effectiveness, conservatives are so, so angry.
Brian Beutler: Yep. Pissed about it. Yep, yep. [laughter] It’s a decade later. Yeah. So, so I mean, I, I feel like we’re agreeing too much, but like—
Jamelle Bouie: No, it’s okay.
Brian Beutler: Just, just—
Jamelle Bouie: I, I can just say more outlandish things to kinda illustrate the point.
Brian Beutler: So, so like, I, one takeaway that Democrats could have is next time around when you have issues that aren’t in, you know, about dollars in your pocketbook directly. Right. Um, A, you can, you can, you can milk those for votes, but B, you can maybe milk them even further if you present them in a way. Not just that’s flattering to yourself, but that’s denigrating to your opponent.
Jamelle Bouie: Right, right.
Brian Beutler: Okay. So that’s that’s my way of trying to boil it down that insight. The other reason I asked the, oh, do you, go ahead.
Jamelle Bouie: No, I just had an example of this from like the 19th century. [laughter]
Brian Beutler: Okay, lets hear it. [both speaking] Do that. Jamelle is like the most historically literate columnist in the punditrys, so this will be good.
Jamelle Bouie: Um, no, it’s just, you know, you know, people talk about the Lincoln Douglas debates all the time. Like no one, very few people have actually kind of read them because they’re kind of honestly pretty boring.
Brian Beutler: They’re long.
Jamelle Bouie: Um, they’re very long. Uh, and it’s like, it’s like, I mean it’s funny cuz it’s, it’s a lot of, it’s like hyper specific, like hyper-local to Illinois politics in like 1858. So it’s sort of like who cares? Um, but. One thing that Abraham Lincoln was very good at was exactly this, like framing his, uh, his values, framing his preferred policies. Not in terms of how high minded I am, but like this is what my opponents will do. Right? It’s not so much, it’s not, it’s not. I want to. I want to vote or I want to, uh, uh, restrict the expansion of slavery. It’s that those people want slaveholders to control your life.
Brian Beutler: Yep.
Jamelle Bouie: Um, that’s just a more effective way of talking about it. Cause it, it communicates the values, but it also does generate emotional energy, right? Like, it makes people feel something. Um, and if they can connect that feeling to you, the candidate, uh, and, uh, the sense of relief that you might be the one who stops it to you, the candidate, and a sense of fear to your opponent, then you’ve done your job. And like there’s a place for positive messages. But I think the place for positive messages is like book ending a campaign, right? It’s sort of like when you start it, talk positively. When you end it, talk positively. But when you’re fighting it—
Brian Beutler: Fight it.
Jamelle Bouie: —first of all, fight it, right?
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: No one’s paying attention, uh, other to the positive stuff. And that gives you, that lets you, that lets you just, you know, I’ll say this. Ron Johnson, who I mentioned is gonna win reelection in Wisconsin. I’m sure that his victory speech will be full of positive rhetoric about what he wants to do for—
Brian Beutler: I know where you’re going with this. Go, go, go.
Jamelle Bouie: The campaign he ran was breathtakingly racist. [laughter] It was so bad.
Brian Beutler: Oh, so there, there was a specific thing that I, that I recall that I was just like, I can’t believe he did that. Right. Um, which I mean, and it wasn’t explicitly racist and it wasn’t even as racist as like what he put in his ads and stuff, but it was, they had this debate and the moderators asked the, the dumbest question any moderator ever asked, which is like, say something nice about your, your opponent. And Mandela Barnes said something like, he’s a, seems like a good family man. Good to his kids, good to his wife, you know, clap trap, but like genuinely nice. They asked Johnson the same question and he is like, you know, he seems personally very nice. I just don’t understand why he hates America so much. And like everyone gasped and everyone like booed and you know, I, I don’t know if it helped him or hurt him in the election, but I do know that like millions of people around the country, outside of Wisconsin and in heard Ron Johnson say my opponent does like, hates his country even though he is a good person. Like what, what is the value of that? It’s really hard to say. Um, but it’s not nothing. And like I, you know, I don’t, I don’t know that just being unflappably nice in the face of that is good compensation for it.
Jamelle Bouie: Right, right.
Brian Beutler: So the, the other reason I asked, um, beyond the, like looking forward to the next election, what lessons should Democrats take from the fact that values based things beyond, um, economic policy, like, like. Explicitly economic policy, uh, can be effective, uh, bears on what Democrats do under this new alignment for the next two years. Um, so I think I mentioned the introduction as we record this. It seems like Republicans are probably gonna have a very small house majority and Democrats will have either an unchanged 50 50 Senate or a 51 49 Senate. Um, and you know, I think the Democrats of 2019 through this year, assuming that’s how it shakes out, would use that power, their power in the Senate, uh, to make sort of like a studious policy contrast with Republicans where Republicans are doing whatever they’re doing in the house. Democrats in the Senate are trying to pass drug pricing bills or, or whatever. Hopefully they’ve now learned that there’s more to politics than that. But I’m, I’m wondering how you apply. You would apply the insights that we’ve just been talking about to like the conduct of legislative politics starting in January?
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah. I mean everything, I mean, everything really does rest on whether Democrats hold the house, which is not. It’s not likely, but it’s also not impossible.
Brian Beutler: Mm-hmm.
Jamelle Bouie: I mean it, but not impossible. It’s tooweak. It’s sort of like it’s at this point, it kind of is a coin flip. Whether or not they hold the house, that’s, that may not be what the needle at the time says, but in practice, we’re at this point where, you know, we just gotta count the votes. And there are, there’s a, a real chance that Democrats run the table on the outstanding races in California. And that’s, that’s it. There’s a, the 2018 sorry, 218, 217 house.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Jamelle Bouie: Uh, with Nancy Pelosi, uh, as speaker again, and in that, in that environment where you, you essentially have no margins for error in terms of just like what Democrats should do. I think they should just, they should A, fulfill promises. I think this is, absolutely important. It is vital for the Democratic party’s long term policy goals and political standing for voters to understand that when Democrats say they’ll do X and you elect them, that they do it, that you want voters to know without a doubt that if a Democrat says, elect us to a majority and we’re gonna pass this policy, that they then pass it. They make a big deal about passing and they talk about it constantly and they sort of like really drill down that we did this because you, because you gave us these seats, you wanna just reinforce it all the time. And so that means that they gotta, they gotta codify Roe, you know, if there’s, if there’s 51 Democrats in the Senate, which looks like very possible, uh, they gotta come to some arrangement with one of Sinema or Manchin to kind of say, Let us codify Roe, uh, and get this on the books. Um, my preference would be for them to find some way to pass a narrow election bill that like shores up the electoral certification process and also begins to like limit partisan gerrymandering. Because if Republicans do, to the extent that Republicans have a chance of holding the house, it’s entirely to do with like the districts. It’s not really to do with the you know, the—
Brian Beutler: The popular will. Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Right, right. So, uh, I would, I would, I would immediately get to work on that. Uh, and then, you know, this is my hobby horse, like the child tax credit, just like kinda get that done. Um, but I think the codifying Roe is sort of the big thing and it, it goes back, like I said, to reinforcing a particular, um, narrative for voters. I think, it’s like, I don’t think Democrats are wrong. Again, this is sort of like, this is like the popularism insight, but you have to sort of like, uh, apply it correctly to how people actually process information. It’s like you, you shouldn’t pass on popular policies like Republicans, Republicans, you know, whatever Republicans do, try to like, take an ax to uh, uh, social insurance programs. It’s like, it turns out miserably for them because it’s very unpopular and you know, the press talks about it because it’s notable and it just, it weighs you down. So you, you gotta do the popular things, but you gotta frame the popular things in terms of loss aversion, right? Sort of like we’re codifying where we’re fulfilling a process, we’re we are fulfilling a promise and we’re also making sure that Republicans can’t do these things to your family. And that’s the message we are getting rid of. We are trying to eliminate partisan gerrymandering because it’s, it’s unfair for politicians to pick their voters. We wanna make sure that your voice is heard and the Republicans don’t, you know? There you go. Easy peasy.
Brian Beutler: This is, yeah, this is such a great insight. This, this idea that, that the policy agendas that candidates and parties espouse are not valuable insofar as the, the, the specifics in the white papers poll well, when you ask people, they’re important insofar as what they tell the public about your values and the values of the people who oppose them.
Jamelle Bouie: Right. I mean, this is why all of the, um, all of the consternation about the student loan debt relief—
Brian Beutler: Mm-hmm.
Jamelle Bouie: —was just very, to me, very shortsighted because I kind of just missed the point. It’s like, maybe this is not the most optimal policy. Maybe this is not the most like perfectly, you know, fair or distributive policy, but politically it actually sends a really important message. It does two things. First, it’s Biden fulfilling a promise.
Brian Beutler: Yes, yes.
Jamelle Bouie: He said he would do this and he did.
Brian Beutler: Promises, promise.
Jamelle Bouie: It’s really important. It’s really important for voters to be able to get that message. You, I told you I would relieve some of your student debt. You elected me. I’m sorry. It took some time. We had to get this just right, but I did it and here’s the result. And the second thing is it tells, It tells voters this is who this person stands for. Biden stands for your 24 year old who has a bunch of debt that they’re trying to get rid of. Right? Like Biden stands for you, young person, uh, for your interest and the people who opposed this stand against you.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Jamelle Bouie: Like it tells a story about who your allies are and who your enemies are.
Brian Beutler: And I think it works on even a third level related level, a second and a half level. I don’t know where it’s like. Biden is the kind of president who, when he can’t get a bill through Congress, that will help you, he will sift through his tools to find something that will help you help as many people as he can.It might not be everyone all the time, but he’ll always be looking, That’s the kind of person who, who is, is leading the government right now. Like that’s a very valuable thing to be able to communicate to people.
Jamelle Bouie: And it ends up, in Biden’s case, being synergistic with like his general brand already, which is like, oh this, yeah, he’s old and he’s sort of dottering, but like he really cares about people. He really wants to comfort people. And so sort of like you can do things policy wise that just continue to reinforce what your, what’s your images.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Um, and I think, I think, I think, I think Democrats have lost some sight of this in insofar that they look at the policy piece of it. It’s just doing well. We’ll just do the popular stuff we’ll, we’ll do the infrastructure bill. And people will reward us. It’s like the infrastructure bill doesn’t tell a story. It’s like, nice. It doesn’t tell a story. And you kind of need these things who tell a story.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Yeah. I was, I was just kind of wondering if, if Biden was gonna try to, you know, every, every presidential candidate since, uh, George W. Bush has been like, I wanna stop spending money on wars abroad so that I could spend money on rebuilding at home. And like Biden did it, Biden, Biden ended the war in Afghanistan. Like the, the, the way it was covered in the media made, like, was really damaging to him. But he did it and he can, he can boast about it separately. He can also boast about having passed these bills. That, but like, that’s the story if he wants to tell it. Not like—
Jamelle Bouie: Right.
Brian Beutler: —not like go to, to New Hampshire and point to a place where bridge is going to be in, in five years or whatever. And just like to your, to your general point, like, yes, yes, I want the Democratic Party to like, stop overthinking certain things like we are about to be in the, in the lame duck session of Congress and Democrats could, for instance, neutralize the Republicans threat to hold the debt limit hostage. Um, and when I say they could, as they have the, the, the power under current rules, and they have the numbers, they have 50 plus one votes to, to moot the debt ceiling one way or another, uh, through through the budget reconciliation process. But the people who are in place currently reject that idea almost out of hand, um, because they think too hard. They think in 20 months they’re going to have to answer for TV ads about how they got rid of any limit on our debt, even though that’s not what it means. Right. Okay. But same action, the same chess move. They could frame it themselves as Republicans have been threatening to harm the country, to hurt America by abusing this tool and we’re not gonna let them do that. Right? It, and if you talk about it like that, it’s like, it’s active, it’s bold, it puts the opposition in its place, right? Like, like lets them know that the Democrats we won’t be trifled with. Um, and you know, it seems when you frame it that way, and also when you think about what harm Demo— Republicans can do by taking the debt limit hostage, it seems. It seems like obvious, but you need people who will treat it that way. And if you have people who will treat it that way, then like it opens up this whole other realm of possibilities, right? Like Democrats could, not these Democrats but like 50 Democrats plus whatever, it’s 221 house Democrats in this lame duck could grant statehood right now to DC and Puerto Rico. Um, and that would add a few seats to the house and maybe tip the balance and they would win the house instead of Republicans. Um, and like they won’t do it for a number of reasons, the filibuster, whatever else, but also cuz like they’re scared to be accused of a power grab and like not creative enough to, to think through how to make that seem like we’re fighting for people, like we are fighting A, like to prevent Republicans from having all kinds of power to do all kinds of bad things to the country. Um, but also like we’re doing it to give equal political rights to all Americans, including the ones in DC and Puerto Rico. Um, and then throwing it back in the faces of tutting media figures or Republicans who would be furious and, and like saying, do you wanna dis keep these people disenfranchised? Um, and so like, I think they’re just gonna ride out the lame duck. Um, without doing either those things, like the easy one, the, the debt limit one or the hard one, the statehood one. Um, And then like, we’re gonna get into the new Congress. Republicans are gonna have the house, and everyone’s gonna be like, Oh yeah. We really should have done something about this. [laughter]
Jamelle Bouie: Right. Right. I mean, I think just talking about making things too complicated. Americans like winners. Americans will tolerate a lot of shit from people who they think win.
Brian Beutler: Mm-hmm.
Jamelle Bouie: And so it’s like you make DC a state, and yes, you’ll get some tut-tutting from pundits and political observers. I mean, you’ll get plenty of tut-tutting, but you know, if you can frame it as like A, this is the right thing to do for your fellow Americans, but also sort of like, I don’t know, we won. We’re gonna do this. We care about this and, uh, this will help us. This will doing this will help us deliver to you the American people. Then like, all right, and if you do it and then you pass some agenda items into law, you’re like, look, we were lying to you. We didn’t, we did this because the, the American people say they want. Uh, Roe v. Wade codified in the law, and this is how he had to make it happen. And so, you know, if you’re upset about that, sorry. But the result here matters more than the process and by the, by the process was totally above board. There’s nothing illegitimate about this just because it’s not normal doesn’t mean its illegitimate.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: So—
Brian Beutler: Maybe we should run the place, maybe we should [both speaking] insurrect the Congress and take over.
Jamelle Bouie: Again. Like I, like I said at the beginning, I’m not a strategist.
Brian Beutler: I know, I know.
Jamelle Bouie: But I, I, I do think that there’s just sort of lessons about politics that you can psych yourself into forgetting. You can sort of like get so preoccupied with seeming respectable, seeming like the party of consensus that you miss that even that kind of party needs to be able to sort of like take an aggressive pose, right? Like the Republican Party. The Republican party is literally the party of oligarchs, bosses and assholes who want to tell you how you, how to live your life, right? Like it’s the party of hierarchy and capital. That’s what it is. Uh, but somehow they’ve been able to portray themselves as a populous party of insurgents—
Brian Beutler: And they win half of elections.
Jamelle Bouie: Right. [laugh] So that tells you that your actual, your like actual objective position within the political and social system, uh, is only tangentially related to how people perceive you, right? Like, the Democratic Party represents a large swath of the American public that benefits from more egalitarian society and wants to see that happen within the limits of existing American capitalism, right? Like, not a bunch of socialists, but people who just want a more egalitarian capitalism. Um, doesn’t mean you have to like, behave like you’re Mother Teresa. Doesn’t mean you have to all respect to Michelle Obama. It doesn’t mean you have to go high when they go low. It can mean that you go low too [laugh] and you do it knowing that you have the better of the moral and ethical argument.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I I also am not a strategist, like never worked in campaign politics or, or, or, or legislative politics a day in my life, but I covered it for 15 years and like you’d start noticing some stuff, right? And, and like I’ve noticed that Republicans were able to turn what, for most of the race, seemed like a dead heat midterm in 2014 into a wipe out because they just decided, hey, like we can capitalize on this Ebola outbreak in West Africa and scare people about it. And it worked, right? Like, and you just, you go through cycle after cycle, legislative fight after legislative fight, and you start noticing. Certain things repeating themselves and some of them work and some of them don’t. And it’s like, okay, so, so then you, you know, years later you’re like on a podcast and you’re like, what should Democrats do? It’s like, well, I’m not a strategist, but like, I haven’t taken leave of my senses either. And sometimes I look at them and I’m like, Why aren’t you doing, cuz you’ve been watching too. You, you should know. [laugh] And, and so like, I, I feel like the, the like passing along of just observed in, uh, reality and, and minor insight just takes on the hue of strategery, um, when like really I’d love nothing more than to be able to go back to writing about the merits of this or that healthcare policy, but like, I can’t do it. [laugh]
Brian Beutler: Okay, let’s talk about Republicans. Um, most of them right now seem pretty furious at Donald Trump and Trump Loyalists are trying to deflect blame back to the GOP leadership and to Fox News and for now, like for all I care, like, good. Let them fight. Um, your most recent column was about how we should not treat Republicans as helpless in the face of this dilemma that they are facing. Right. Um, so let me ask you like this, what do you think Republicans are going to choose to do about this dilemma and the albatross of Donald Trump in this like new crossroads and why?
Jamelle Bouie: I mean, so I think it’s clear that Republican elites are really going to, they’re finally, you know, having, having, um, they may win the house. They may gain the house, but I think you can say they lost these midterm elections, right? When the president, when, when I think Biden will end up, you know, maybe losing 10 or 11 seats in the house, uh, 12 seats in the house, which is an historically excellent performance for an incumbent president. Like, you know, the, the best, the best is Bush in 2002, gaining eight seats. But beyond that, you’re looking at Biden kind of outperforming all of his peers. So that’s a loss. You, you, you, that’s, that’s a loss. And so they are, they, you know, they blame Trump and Trump’s influence for the loss, and I think you’re already seeing Republican elites trying to coalesce behind Ron DeSantis as the guy who can, um, knock Trump out. And in that sense, they are acting with some agency. They’re, they’re kind of implicitly accepting that it’s their, uh, support for Trump over the years. It has enabled him to have so much power and influence within the Republican party. Um, you know, the question is whether, A, this will be successful in terms, let’s say that Republican elites are actually able to act collectively to do this, will it work? And B, I think you can’t just assume that they’ll be able to act collectively to do this. I don’t think it’s a given. There are other Republicans with presidential ambitions out there. You can just name off the top of your head. Larry Hogan, former governor of Maryland. Uh, Glenn Youngkin, current Governor of Virginia, Josh Hawley, Senator from Missouri. Um, what’s that, Kristi Noem, Governor of South Dakota. I mean, you can kinda just go on the list. There are Republicans who would really like to be president, um, and who see an opening. And so even if they, even if you can kind of anoint DeSantis to an extent, he still has to fight his way through a primary, um, and so who knows if you can do that? I myself am just skeptical that Republicans will be able to muscle out Trump this way for the simple reason that, uh, you know, the party has spent not just like, what, seven years now behind Trump, but like hyping up Trump as basically the, you know, the living representation of all Republican values, right? And hyping him up as almost like the embodiment of the party itself.
Brian Beutler: They’re too pregnant with him to now say, oh, he actually doesn’t represent us at all. Like—
Jamelle Bouie: Right, right, right.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Can’t this is this, this is, uh, uh, this is, this is the equivalent of a late term abortion. [laughter] you can’t, yeah.
Brian Beutler: We’re not cutting that. No like, you can’t pay, you can’t pay me enough to cut that. [laughter]
Jamelle Bouie: Uh, And beyond that, I mean, like, I don’t, I actually, the way Republican elected are talking about it the way they’re like, oh, Trump should just step aside, or we just gotta get behind DeSantis. I’m not actually sure they understand what they’ve created, um, or what they’ve helped create, which is, it’s not simply that Trump is a guy with a bunch of super fans. He has a cult of personality, he has a cult of personality, a substantial portion of the party’s base that will not support anyone who is not him or who is not aligned with him. And, you can maybe you can successfully coordinate most Republican voters away from Trump into some other candidates, to Ron DeSantis, but as long as Trump has that hardcore and importantly, Trump has, Trump himself has no particular commitment to the Republican party. He doesn’t care what happens to it. Um, he only cares in so far that it serves him so, you’re kind of just hoping that either he slinks away, you can cut some deal with him or something, um, and his voters will, uh, uh, uh, join the fold, or, and I think this is more likely option. He either says, I’m just gonna do whatever. I’m just gonna, I’m gonna, I’m gonna run and if I don’t win, I’m still gonna run and my voters will come with me. Or the voters who are with him just don’t come out to vote because—
Brian Beutler: Or he tells them not to like, yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Right. I mean, I think, I think Republican elites are imagining they can make a clean break, but it’s just, it’s too late for a clean break.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: So it’s, it’s gonna, I think that’s the, the DeSantis hope is that you can segue seamlessly to a new guy, but I don’t, however this goes, it’s gonna be ugly.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. And, and, and it’s, it’s, it gets even more like maybe Ron DeSantis secretly hopes that, um, Merrick Garland, uh, stops dragging his feet and indicts Donald Trump and takes Trump off the game board for him. But like, now Republicans have the house, what are they gonna do if Garland indicts Donald Trump? Are they, are they gonna like, keep quiet and not try to spoil that prosecution? Or are they gonna circle the wagons around Trump again? And so like, there’s, I think an even, like another layer of complexity beneath the, like they, they’re, they’re, they’re too identified with Trump to make a clean break. Is it even in the places where they can work to sort of nudge the party away from him? Um, like they, they don’t have as many degrees of freedom as, as they normally would, right? Like if there’s a collective action problem in that, if Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell and Rupert Murdoch were all to say, we’re done with him, like Republican party done with Donald Trump. Like he’s, he’s like now more trouble than he is worth. Like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ted Cruz and Tucker Carlson can come along and say, you know, like hell we are. Um, and then what actually happens is Kevin McCarthy loses the speakership, uh, while Republicans remain united behind Trump. But there are these, like, there are these moments and like if Trump gets indicted, that’s one moment, but where the, the power is sort of in the hands of the, of the, like, of the leaders. Like, is Speaker McCarthy going to listen to Donald Trump, or is he going to put a bill to raise the debt limit on the floor? And if that bill ends up on the floor, it’s gonna pass because Democrats will, will get right. And I, I guess the, I have my suspicions based on seven years of experience watching Republicans not break with Donald Trump. Um, but I, I guess the question I’m, I’m slowly circling around is like, are, are in these moments where he’s out there saying, go on the attack, commit, sabotage, wreck, everything. If that’s what it takes to help me and help, help the GOP, is McCarthy gonna listen to him or is he gonna listen to this, like Mitch McConnell, the, the people who are like, let’s leave that guy on the island?
Jamelle Bouie: Right. Uh, um, I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t know. I, I think, I think that it is, I think it’s sort of genuinely unpredictable. Um, and, you know, to, to, to elaborate on an earlier point, the, the time to cut Trump loose cleanly with no trouble was either, In 2018 with that first impeachment or in 2021 with the second. After Jan sixth, easiest time right? Just be like, you know what? We’re done with you. And you can, you can, you can, you can vote to impeach him. Vote to convict him. He can’t run again. He’s basically, you know, don’t gotta worry about it. And, um, you know, that option’s gone and now, you know, you have, uh, you don’t really have a particularly strong leader within the Republican party other than Trump. Um, and yeah, no, I mean, I think after 2012 there was, you know, there’s the, the now infamous, you know, Republican autopsy that was, you know, promptly ignored. Um, and in 2016 right, it was clear that there was like real division and um, internal turmoil within the Republican party. And in a funny way, Trump helped paper over it, right? Like Trump sort of sheer force of personality helped forge something like unified Republican party. But I, I kind of have always thought that was only on the surface and that there really is still this sort of like leadership vacuum within the party. And I think we may be about to witness, um, what the implications of that, right? Like when they’re, when things are contested, like what, what actually happens.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. And, and I guess I’m a, you know, I think mostly Republicans are just gonna do what they’re gonna do, but. Part of the reason why I frame this whole conversation in this way is because I’m, I’m interested in what Democrats can do to sort of affect what Republicans choose to do. Right? Like, so, so I, I think, I think you’re right that like the second impeachment was the, the last real opportunity to, to just say you’re done, you’re, you’re off the island. And they didn’t take it. But like, I would like a Democratic party who that was like, okay, it’s, it’s lame duck. Now you guys say you’re pissed at Donald Trump. Um, welcome to the party. You should have, uh, taken us up on the opportunity to get rid of him, uh, in 2021. But we’re gonna look, we’re gonna put legislation on the floor, um, uh, stemming from our, uh, 14th amendment powers to disqualify him as, as as an insurrectionist and as a somebody who, uh, fomented a seditious conspiracy against the United States, and if this bill passes, he can’t run again. He’s, you’re, you’re done with him up to you. Like you can choose how you want to like, do you wanna continue to define yourself, uh, as like, just appendages of this guy?
Jamelle Bouie: Right.
Brian Beutler: Um, like debt limit, same story, right? Like, like, I don’t, I want a Democratic party that’s like, we’re not gonna let you hassle us.We’re not gonna let you, like, shake us down. So instead of having some sort of game of chicken in, in six or six months or a year over the debt limit, we’re just gonna take it outta your hands, right? Um, investigations. If, if Republicans decide after, uh, four years of, um, like giving Trump impunity to, to not comply with compulsory investigatory processes, then and now they want to come in and say like, we’re gonna like turn over every stone in the White House and in Hunter Biden’s house and whatever else. Like, okay, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We are gonna match you subpoena for subpoena, and if you continue to flout the ones we issue to your folks, then we’re just gonna have this standoff. Um, or we can use our oversight powers to like genuinely try to root out corruption in America. Right?
Jamelle Bouie: Right.
Brian Beutler: I guess I have some, some doubts about whether the tie between we won the midterms because of Dobbs and Democracy and Donald Trump connect that to, like, we, we can continue to influence how Republicans behave by exploiting our advantage on, on, uh, on those issues. And just the, the nature of like political contestation in itself. Um, but I think it’s possible, like I think that that. Uh, you know, um, if you, if like, it kind of gets out into the, into the slip stream of political analysis that Dems sort of have a say in this still, even if it’s mostly in the hands of people like Kevin McCarthy and Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell. Um, that, uh, that they’ll try to think a little bit more creatively about how to, how to help nudge Republicans away from these disaster scenarios. But I don’t know.
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I’m sort of, I’m, I guess I’m a little skeptical that I think there’s much Democrats could do. I think sort of just like partisan realities and partisan feeling is just gonna like, prevent Republicans from ever joining with Democrats in that kind way, or even accepting the help as it were. Um, I do think that this is a thing Republicans are gonna have to decide to do on their own. They’re gonna have to like, figure out how to navigate this on their own to the, to the extent that they want it. And so far, it’s not clear to me that they want it enough to really kind of do, um, as far as getting, you know, getting rid of Trump, um, doing something about Trump. It’s not clear that they wanted enough to really run the kind of scorched earth campaign you’re gonna have to run to make it happen. Because doing that jeopardizes your ability to win in, in the, you know, the eventual election. So I, I just think the party is kind of like between a rock and a hard place. Um, uh, and there’s no, because there’s no real leadership that makes it difficult to kind of figure out what direction to go in.
Brian Beutler: Well, that’s a really depressing note to end on. Do you have anything nice? [laughter] Anything nice to say?
Jamelle Bouie: About?
Brian Beutler: Any of it, any of it really.
Jamelle Bouie: You know, I, I think, like I said, this, these, these midterms are a remarkable success for Biden, the Democratic Party. Um, there are things to learn, right? Things to pick up on the, the Michigan sweep, uh, ought to be studied.
Brian Beutler: Mm-hmm. That’s such a, that’s such an important point. Yep.
Jamelle Bouie: Um, I, there there’s, there’s, there’s a lot to pick up on the, the extent to which there needs to be someone to clean house in the New York State Democratic Party, which is becoming like a national, a problem for national Democrats is also sort of like, those are the two things. Like Michigan, what can we learn? New York State, how can we fix it? But—
Brian Beutler: Maybe Florida, maybe Florida too is like our party has completely collapsed there. What are, meaning there, like, Democrats seem to have completely collapsed in Florida. What can, what can they do about it?
Jamelle Bouie: On the main, this Tuesday was good for Democrats and if they do hold the house, um, and they end up with 51 seats in the Senate, there’s a real opportunity not to do anything big and expansive, but to do the kind of modest things that will, I think make a real difference. Right?
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: Like codifying Roe, um, some sort of, you know, basic voting, voting, uh, really kinda election law and, uh, the child tax credit, right? That, like, that hits three bases right there.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamelle Bouie: That’s a good, that’s, and you know what, not many, very many presidents get two bites at the apple, right? And so like, if you’re getting, you got, you got, you got a second chance to pass some legislation, you gotta go for it. Um, and uh, yeah, it’s. That’s the pos that’s the positive, right? Like the, the macro situation for American politics still not great, but having, um, those majorities if they, if they, if they materialize, gives Democrats another two years to figure out something.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. And like, and to, to bring it full circle to your column, like, yes, it’s important for people in our line of work to not treat Republicans like they’re, these, these hapless pawns swept, swept up in forces they can’t control. And that they do have some say over how this turns out, even if it’s hard, right? Like Republicans manage to manipulate the whole national mood with a bunch of shotty data and, uh, agitprop, um, to convince people. Lots of people that like democracy and abortion just weren’t import— important to people, at least not as important as, as inflation and crime. Like that was agency, they chose to do that. They ran a play. And I, I think, again, can’t, can’t prove it, that it, um, maybe helped them win the house even if only by one or two votes. Um, you know, knock on wood may maybe they, maybe they didn’t even get that far, but like if they can do that, Democrats can do that. It is within their power—
Jamelle Bouie: Right, Right.
Brian Beutler: And even if they don’t have, uh, the house anymore and thus can’t hit the three bases that you mentioned, they can still think creatively about how to make even more people, um, than turned out to vote for them on Tuesday or in this election. Um, You know, see the real stakes of politics and if they can like make that happen. It’s kinda like a whole new world.
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: All right. Jamelle Bouie is a New York Times columnist and host of a 1990s movie podcast called Unclear and Present Danger. Jamelle, it’s always really great to talk to you.
Jamelle Bouie: Likewise.
Brian Beutler: It’s great catching up.
Jamelle Bouie: Nice to catch up, man. [music break]
Brian Beutler: Okay. Here’s a quick observation that sort of ties all the threads of this conversation together. So after the election was over, by which I mean after national political journalists had bought into GOP spin about how things were gonna turn out, but then it became clear that Republicans were just bluffing. The Associated Press ran with a headline that read a mid midterm show of strength warnings for Biden. After that story hit the wires. Ron Klain, whose Joe Biden’s White House chief of staff, tweeted a screenshot of the headline and said, it’s almost self parody at this point. And on one level, he’s right. The Beltway media has become addicted to these Democrats and disarray storylines, and so even in victory, end up with that AP headline or with a New York Times Wednesday front page that you might have expected to see if Democrats had been wiped out. But on two other levels, it’s wrong for Democrats to be dismissive, first of all Biden really does have stuff to worry about, both vis-a-vis what Republicans might do with their power and with how the electorate is changing, and we shouldn’t want Biden to give short shrift to those things. Second, the media is a parody of itself because of how Republicans work to game it. There’s no set of tactics Democrats can adopt that will make the national press write stories painting Republicans as out of touch, although they are and struggling with defeat after defeat, though again, they are. But you might be able to incept those storylines into their brains and turn them into real and lasting national conversations if you say and do the kinds of things that get those same reporters addicted to another kind of substance. [music break] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our producer is Olivia Martinez, and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.