Yes, democracy is messy. Yes, the making of congressional legislation is as messy as the making of pork sausage. But there’s messy — and then there’s the current state of American politics.
To put it simply in terms the military likes to use, we’ve entered the FUBAR zone in our current story arc of American politics. (This is a family column, but inquiring minds can look up what comes before “beyond all recognition” in “FUBAR.”)
There are two competing forces shaping our current political situation and pushing us from the usual messy to something more dysfunctional.
There’s former President Donald Trump’s rhetorical control of the right-wing information ecosystem, which seems to force otherwise well-meaning GOP elected officials to go against their own beliefs (and even their own negotiated bills, in the case of the proposed bipartisan border deal) and fall in line for fear of losing their jobs or being canceled by the right’s noise machine.
And there’s President Joe Biden’s rhetorical inability put his opponents on the defensive and connect the dots for the public — and in public — about congressional GOP intransigence. Biden’s absence from the public debate has essentially allowed the right to dictate a false narrative, be it about the border, about Ukraine or about the Middle East. As usual, the White House and its allies are hoping someone else does their job for them, whether it’s the media or anti-Trump Republicans, rather than attempt to participate in good old-fashioned speech and debate themselves.
This helps explain the current polling situation, which shows Trump consolidating his coalition faster than Biden is. And this frame also helps explain why Congress can’t function: because the only pressure points being applied against GOP elected officials are from the Trump wing, not the shrinking governing wing of the party nor the mainstream of the American electorate, which simply wants both parties to make a serious effort at working out compromises.
As much as we’d all like to think members of Congress will always do the right thing, regardless of the political fallout, we know all too well that isn’t true. What does work in keeping Congress functional is to create “win-wins,” so that in a closely divided government, everyone can get something out of a bill’s actually getting passed.
It was in that spirit that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., decided to force a linkage between the border and Ukraine aid. In the political era that incubated McConnell’s rise in politics, this type of quid pro quo was standard operating procedure, and it mostly worked. He knew Ukraine aid would be easier to sell politically if it came with dramatic increases in enforcement of the border.
But there’s a bigger trend here — what if the public that cared about the border issue was being fed a narrative that any compromise legislation was not going to work? What if that segment of the public was gaslit to believe that the current border policies were actually part of some bizarre left-wing conspiracy to grow the liberal electorate over decades to eventually “replace” conservatives in America?
What if that same portion of the electorate was then told that passing this legislation was going to help Biden politically and make it harder for Trump to win? And what if this narrative had been used and abused by every Republican running for office for decades, all to appease a hard-core base in the party that believed the most nefarious and xenophobic things about immigrants and immigration in this country?
It is this decadeslong gaslighting of the American right that has allowed our border and immigration policy to get to this. Assuming McConnell and Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the GOP’s border negotiator, fail to get enough Republicans on board with their national security supplemental (which includes aid to Israel and Ukraine and funding for the border), this will be at least the fourth time in the last 20 years when the GOP’s information ecosystem leapt in and stopped a bipartisan immigration compromise from being enacted. This proves that, for now, this is the lone issue that can’t be solved by the usual “each side gives a little” to get anything done.
In fact, this border deal would give the GOP about 80% of what it wanted and the Democrats about 20% — and yet, that 80-20 split is still not good enough for the so-called “governing” wing of the GOP to vote for it. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a loud and vocal constituency for compromise, but there is one for sticking to a “my way or the highway” approach.
It was Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the then-smaller right-wing media that led the charge to derail President George W. Bush’s attempts to reform the immigration system in 2007. (Back then, we called it the talk radio world.) Six years later, a larger right-wing ecosystem (though still led by Limbaugh) helped derail the so-called Gang of Eight proposal that was led by Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Look where that group is now. McCain died in 2018. Flake serves in the Biden administration. Rubio has tried to memory-hole his role in that compromise attempt and steers clear of the immigration issue now. Only Graham still stays involved in the various attempts to reform the system — though I’m not sure he would go out on any new limb for the legislation, at least not while the Trump wing controls the South Carolina GOP.
These same right-wing information distorters also helped derail the potential “Wall for Dreamers” deal Trump and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York verbally agreed upon, which brings us to the present and what appears to be the fourth instance in which the power of the false right-wing narrative about immigrants and immigration and the border will derail much-needed legislation.
An opportunity for Democrats, if they can take it
As I wrote last week, this decision by the congressional GOP to, essentially, walk away from trying to govern in order to focus on the campaign is filled with risk. The public is exhausted from political dysfunction and cynical, politically inspired decisions. And elected Republicans’ behavior on the border is about as cynical as it gets. It’s ripe for exploitation by Democrats.
One assumes Democratic ad-makers are collecting all the statements from elected Republicans in 2023 demanding Biden and Democrats come to the table on the border if they cared about Ukraine — only to have those same Republicans suddenly decide they can’t vote for the legislation they demanded to have written! Set the entire ad to Monty Python music and it could be an effective message to the group of voters who simply want a functional government but also distrust either party to govern alone.
But for this messaging to be effective, the Democrats need a leader to deliver it. Whatever one thinks of the current state of the GOP, it’s clear it has a leader who can deliver an effective message, even if it’s one that undermines the basic functionality of the political system. Can the same be said for Biden?
In fact, the concerns about Biden’s ability to lead clearly hang over the results of the most recent NBC News poll, which features Biden’s lowest job rating of his presidency. The simple fact that voters collectively are more concerned about Biden’s age than Trump’s various legal entanglements shows how much Biden’s public performance (or his perceived inability to perform) is hurting his ability to bring his coalition back together.
Keep in mind that this new all-time job rating low comes even as these same respondents see an improving economy. The voters either haven’t connected the improving economy to Biden or, worse, they’ve already decided Biden isn’t up to the job for a second term, no matter how good things are now.
I fear we are witnessing another disconnect inside Washington and the Democratic Party bubble like in 2016, with the folks in and around the White House and the party convinced everything’s going to be fine because the election will be a referendum on Trump. Right now, the results of the NBC News poll indicate that plenty of voters are prepared to make their decisions based on Biden.
Is it possible Trump’s legal troubles and his own chaotic behavior will allow for an anti-Trump coalition to, once again, unite around a Biden candidacy? There are days that I’d argue it’s not just possible but probable that the anti-Trump coalition that united around Biden in 2020 — first the reluctant left, in March, and then the reluctant middle, in November — will do so again.
But things don’t happen organically in politics. Biden’s team is missing a cohesive message and messenger. It appears to me they are coming up with a message that isn’t too reliant on a messenger. On the surface, it makes sense, because Biden has never been the first choice of some key parts of the Biden coalition, namely young and progressive voters. But they have to get out of their own way.
The easiest from-the-sidelines recommendation to ailing politicians is to let them be themselves. Let Obama be Obama, let Trump be Trump, let Clinton be Clinton! But guess what: The reason it’s the easiest recommendation is that if done right, it usually works!
Right now, the only time Biden gets to be “Biden” is at his closed-to-the-cameras fundraising events. It’s at these fundraisers that how he talks about Trump in private almost leaks out or where he is blunter about his advice to world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The efforts this White House makes to keep Biden from being front and center are astonishing at times. It is acting like a White House that fears Biden in any unfiltered settings, and everything it does feels a bit risk-averse and overcalculated right now. For instance, while we can debate whether doing a Super Bowl interview is a good idea or not (do voters want politics with their football?), to me there’s no debate about having America’s commander in chief speak to the nation from the White House about his decision to order military strikes into at least three countries in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria and Yemen) over the last two weeks.
This is a classic prime-time address moment, especially since the situation in the Middle East is so messy and hard to follow. He should be speaking clearly and even using some visuals to help the public understand what he’s doing.
Why did the White House decide against informing the American public on camera about the rationale behind these airstrikes? Perhaps Biden and his team thought it would bring more attention to Gaza — but he could then try to explain why he stands with Israel against Hamas and also explain why he stands for a Palestinian state. You know what doesn’t work? Not explaining your rationale to as wide an audience as you can command.
Of course, the Gaza issue appears to also be a big problem for Biden’s coalition. His lowest job rating by age group was among voters under 35, at just 29%. In fact, when you look at all of the key Democratic groups Biden has to overperform with to win re-election, young voters and Latinos are clearly huge issues right now.
Over the last few election cycles, we’ve identified the following demographic groups as key parts of the Democratic coalition: young voters (ages 18-34), Black voters, Latino voters, urban residents, Biden 2020 primary voters, Sanders/Warren 2020 primary voters, post-graduate degree-holders and white women with college degrees.
And one question we’ve been asking annually, no matter who is president, is whether the current president has brought “the right kind of change,” “the wrong kind of change” or “not much change at all.”
Well, among those eight key Democratic voting groups, six believe Biden has brought the “right kind of change” over the “wrong kind of change.” But Biden is upside-down on this change question with two key group: Latinos (39% wrong kind of change, 22% right kind of change) and voters under 35 (38% wrong kind of change, 13% right kind of change).
That’s a 25-point gap between wrong and right with young voters. In January of last year, the gap among young voters on that question was just 7 percentage points. So even as the economy and inflation specifically have gotten better, young voters’ perceptions have gotten worse. What’s the other issue that resonates with younger voters? Gaza.
This brings me back to the question of communication — or the lack of communication. The only way these numbers improve is if voters have more confidence in Biden to lead than Trump. And to win that comparison, one must actually attempt to communicate with them.
The continuing hiding of Biden behind news releases and quick Q&As to and from his transportation is doing a disservice to him. Voters haven’t gained confidence in Biden’s ability to lead since the start of his presidency; they’ve lost it. Losing that confidence is actually a very difficult thing to do for a president, simply because being in the job over time builds confidence in the ability to do it. I put the blame on the White House for leaning into this “do no harm” communications strategy.
Trump has done very little to improve his political standing with key swing voting groups, but the one thing he has done is consolidate his party’s base. He’s actually a very weak nominee compared to years past, but to tweak a phrase Biden is fond of saying, don’t judge Trump against the Almighty but the alternative. And the reason Trump looks stronger than Biden does politically is that the swing voting groups (and some key Democratic groups) have soured on Biden.
These aren’t likely future rump voters. But Trump’s core base is larger than Biden’s core base, so these swing voters are more decisive for Biden than for Trump. If anything, the Biden camp has to persuade these voters to show up at the polls. And not only are swing voters not enthusiastic about Biden, but one of his key base demographics has little interest in November right now. Just 32% of voters under 35 called themselves highly interested in this election. That compares to 82% of voters over 65 — a 50-point gap. In July 2020, the difference between those two age groups was 33 points (89% vs 56%).
The path to a Biden victory isn’t that difficult to navigate — assuming everyone has confidence in the person navigating.
The GOP divide: Governing vs. theater, part 2,024
Here’s GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who notably didn’t endorse anyone in the GOP presidential primary, earlier this week: “I wish we had given James [Lankford] the benefit of the doubt to take a look at the text before we started speaking our opposition. But with that being said, it’s out there now, it’s already influenced the public, and so we have to take that into consideration as we move forward.”
Meanwhile, GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, according to a Politico report, appeared to share a fundraising link in the middle of an evening Senate GOP conference meeting about the border bill, leading some anti-Lee GOP senators to wonder whether he violated ethics rules against soliciting donations on the grounds of the Capitol.
These two senators epitomize the divide in the Senate these days. Lee does everything he can to perform for the Trump base, almost like a court jester of sorts. Instead of acting like an elected official (which he did up until sometime during Trump’s term in the White House), the social media version of Lee is simply an avatar of the uninformed right-wing crank sitting at the end of the bar yelling about conspiracies. He’s never involved in any of the serious negotiations anymore because many fellow senators from both parties simply don’t know which Mike Lee they are working with — the thoughtful senator they first met in the early ’10s or the guy they are stuck following on X.
As for Ernst, she’s part of the “you know how I feel so I’m not going to repeat myself” caucus hoping the right-wing theater machine doesn’t try to cancel her. What is she likely to do with this border bill, which she probably would like to vote for eventually? She’ll vote against it, as will Sen. Chuck Grassley, her fellow Iowan, who perfected the art of voting against an idea he was negotiating (see Obamacare, circa August 2009).
Some will argue Ernst should put herself out there, politics be damned. That’s easier said than done when you’ve already witnessed what’s happened to other Republican senators who stood on principle — their careers in the GOP have essentially ended. If there is a silent plurality out there for functional governance in the GOP, this wing of the party needs to speak up more and fight louder and harder. Because sitting in silence and acquiescing to a public that has been intentionally misled is no way to lead.
This headline from The Times of Israel probably does more than anything else to explain why America is more divided over Israel than ever before: “Attacking Biden, Ben Gvir says Trump would have been more supportive of Israel.”
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir is part of the far-right coalition Netanyahu had to put together to secure a governing majority. Ben Gvir represents an ideology within Israel that doesn’t believe in a two-state solution and, perhaps, doesn’t even believe in a true democracy, if that democracy allows non-Jews to have voting rights.
And while Netanyahu tried to push back against this specific comment about Trump and Biden, since he knows how much political risk Biden has taken on to support Israel, make no mistake: It’s still a political narrative that was created by Netanyahu. There’s a reason Israelis and Americans view support for Israel in such political terms these days. It’s a situation Netanyahu created and exploited for his own political gain.
Netanyahu’s decision to involve himself in a domestic partisan dispute over American foreign policy (specifically the Iran nuclear deal) helped create the appearance of a binary choice for voters when it comes to support for Israel.
In fact, I’d posit the one of the reasons many Democratic voters under 40 aren’t knee-jerk supporters of Israel is Netanyahu’s behavior toward and treatment of former President Barack Obama. Clearly, the two leaders didn’t get along personally, and neither really believed in the other’s worldview. But Obama largely navigated the relationship in the same direction as his predecessors, the only difference being Obama was more comfortable criticizing Israeli policies in public.
But the division of that relationship, and specifically the disagreement over Iran, created the political prism of today. Whatever benefit of the doubt Israel would normally have had with base Democratic voters evaporated during the Netanyahu years, and I’d argue it’s mostly because of the decision he made to wade into Obama’s domestic politics and participate in the partisan-izing of America’s relationship with the Middle East’s most successful democracy.