Good Friday Morning! It’s the final countdown (cue Europe montage) to the 2020 general election! As of Friday morning, there are four days left. We’re almost to the finish line, America. Just a few more days.
This is also the last newsletter until the election. In the next issue, I’ll be breaking down what happened and why. I’m torn on a prediction. I still maintain there are only two outcomes for this election: a Biden blowout, or a narrow Trump win with Pennsylvania’s election laws ending up at the Supreme Court.
I haven’t quite decided on a map yet, but my prediction for this race is a Trump victory. I’ll cover more of this in detail on this week’s podcast, which will go up late Sunday night. But I’d phrase it like this: I think Biden is absolutely leading the polls, but I don’t think Biden’s campaign has done the work necessary to capitalize on that lead. For instance, Biden’s lack of a ground game has him ill-equipped to compete in any state with a close margin. Florida Democrats are freaking out right now because Miami-Dade county is severely lagging behind 2016, and the Biden campaign hasn’t done much to fix it. And second, Trump is polling either the same or slightly better than he was in 2016 across key battleground states.
There are more reasons, which I’ll cover in the podcast. Both Trump and Biden have red flags everywhere for their potential paths to victory, but Biden’s warning signs present more uncertainty heading into Tuesday. But we’ll see. I wouldn’t call this a high confidence prediction. If we emerge with a Biden victory, I wouldn’t be shocked.
This week, I’m going to talk about why the 2020 election actually is a pivotal election. This issue is a bit longer. It was originally meant for a larger online publication, but they dropped the ball on publishing it, so you get it here. I go through what’s at stake for each party, and what is likely to happen in both parties post-2020.
Where you can find me this week
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Who votes in a pandemic? – The Conservative Institute.
Trump and Biden’s final debate pitches – The Conservative Institute.
Why this actually is a pivotal presidential election.
Both Democrats and Republicans claim the upcoming election is crucial. And with the Supreme Court at the center of the election, again, it’s hard to downplay it. But both parties were emphasizing this point before Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death and Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination at their conventions. Joe Biden said, “All elections are important. But we know in our bones this one is more consequential. America is at an inflection point.” Donald Trump followed suit, saying, “This is the most important election in the history of our country. At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies, or two agendas.”
Of course, this is nothing new. We expect it. Politicians renew this point every election; forgetting if every election holds such vast consequence, then, logically speaking, none are. However, just because this mantra is self-defeating doesn’t mean a given election lacks significance. Some elections are more important than others, though we don’t always know it at the moment.
Measuring by the stakes of the parties involved, this election does have more consequence than most. We know this because of the factions involved. While we think in terms of Democrat versus Republican, the coalitions that make up the parties are more important. Some factions are all-in on this election, while others are not. That means, by extension, some factions are going to get wiped out after this election, while others will gain power. That’s where we find the stakes and importance.
The 2016 election dramatically altered both parties. For Democrats, Trump’s victory was costly. Trump dramatically ended the house of Clinton in Democratic politics. The Clintonian faction of the Democratic Party was first thwarted with Bush’s victory in 2000 and Al Gore’s effective exile from party politics. The Washington Post reported in February 2001:
Gore forcefully told Clinton that his sex scandal and low personal approval ratings were a major impediment to his presidential campaign. Clinton, according to people close to him, was initially taken aback but responded with equal force that it was Gore’s failure to run on the administration’s record that hobbled his ambitions.
Gore was more perceptive here than Clinton. Gore diagnosed that while Bill Clinton was personally liked, his name was politically toxic. The Clinton’s were unphased, as reporting shows. But the Brookings Institute sided closer to Gore in their analysis at the time, saying, “Clinton’s high job approval rating may not have captured the public’s more nuanced assessment of his presidency … he never regained the personal standing he enjoyed before the scandal.”
This blind-spot never left the Clintons, even as they attempted to hold power over the party. Hilary Clinton struggled with this in 2008 and lost to the comparatively unknown Barack Obama. In 2016, leaving nothing to chance, the Clintons rigged the primary process in their favor. Don’t take my word for it, that’s the opinion of former DNC head Donna Brazile, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Vox Media Founder Ezra Klein, who wrote after the election:
To the extent Democratic primary voters feel like they were denied a broad range of candidates in 2016, and that party officials tried to clear the field to coronate Clinton, well, they’re right. Democratic elites, defined broadly, shaped the primary before voters ever got a chance to weigh in, and the way they tried to shape it was by uniting behind Clinton early in the hopes of avoiding a bruising, raucous race.
When Trump won, he didn’t just defeat Clinton — he destroyed the entire Clinton political machine and its vision of America. The Clintons defined Democratic Politics for three decades, and now the entire project sits in ruins. In Hilary’s first year as Secretary of State in 2009, the Clinton Foundation brought in $249 million. In 2019, that number was a dismal $30.7 million, and the foundation has run “roughly $16 million in losses every year since 2015.”
The loss of a major party pillar like that creates a political power vacuum. Where the Clintons no longer exist, the Obama faction has stepped into the void. The New York Times reported that Obama’s lack of an early endorsement in the 2020 primaries was about “keeping his powder dry” and “maintaining credibility.” It’s clear from Politico reporting that Obama never believed Biden could win, and the hesitation was more about preserving Obama’s political power. If there’s one character on the Democratic side who refuses to get pushed into an all-in position, it’s Barack Obama.
That doesn’t mean Obama is impartial. Everywhere, from his endorsement speech for Biden to his DNC speech, Obama has spent time warning of “the electoral consequences of leftism.” Looking at the young protestors and their beliefs, Obama warned them in his DNC speech, “this president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism.” Leftist cynicism tarnishes the Obama legacy and diminishes the ability for the party elders to maintain control over the party (Exhibit A: Nancy Pelosi). This is why when the Democratic primaries came down to Biden versus Bernie, Obama aides “now concede that behind the scenes Obama played a role in nudging things in Biden’s direction at the crucial moment when the Biden team was organizing former candidates to coalesce around Biden.” A Bernie win would have subverted Obama’s power in the party by shifting towards a non-Obama coalition.
If 2016 was about Trump versus the Clinton power structure of the Democratic Party, 2020 is all about whether or not Trump can defeat the Obama wing of the party. Joe Biden is the Democratic Party’s best shot of duct-taping and WD-40ing the Obama coalition back together for one more ride. A Bernie Sanders nomination would have forced them to ask questions about their coalition they were not ready to confront.
The extent to which the Obama faction of the Democratic Party is all-in on this election depends on one ace card that remains unplayed: Michelle Obama. If she ever decides to run for higher office, she’d clear a primary in an instant. If she doesn’t run for office, then the Obama faction has more chips in this election than they want to admit. And for Trump, this represents a chance for him to severely cripple the Obama wing. Trump correctly says of Obama, “He’s the reason I’m here!” With a victory, Trump will have immediately followed Obama, overturned several elements of his legacy, and then defeated Obama’s Vice President. Leftist cynicism towards the Obama legacy, already icy, would skyrocket with no clear way to rekindle that magic.
Here’s how. If Joe Biden loses, there’s no other clear successor to the Obama legacy in the Democratic Party outside Michelle Obama. Obama was great at getting himself elected, but never built a legacy of politicians to follow in his stead. The Democratic Party fought hard over this dilemma in the primaries. The other candidates, in attacking Joe Biden, often ended up attacking the Obama administration. Politico reported in August of 2019 that Democrats in the Obama wing were “seething” over attacks on Barack Obama; other candidates flashed indignation right back:
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker accused Biden of invoking Obama more than any other candidate on stage Wednesday. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.” But Booker wasn’t the only one to call out Biden. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio asked Biden if he used his power as VP to stop the deportations.
In debates after that, the Democratic candidates trimmed their attacks on Obama and followed advice Barack Obama was giving in public. In his acceptance speech at the DNC, Biden made sure to include an obligatory shout out to the former President:
And speaking of President Obama, a man I was honored to serve alongside for 8 years as Vice President. Let me take this moment to say something we don’t say nearly enough. Thank you, Mr. President. You were a great president. A president our children could — and did — look up to.
A Biden win re-establishes the Obama legacy and builds that power structure in the party. If Biden loses to Trump? The duct tape falls off and the Clintonian power vacuum gets compounded by a weakened Obama faction. With the Clinton and Obama hold on the party gone, we’d get to see just how deep the fissures run in the party.
The Clinton-Obama bipolar power structure (in the cold war sense) worked hard to mask intra-party discord. But even with it, we’ve seen some fights bubble to the surface. In 2017, people were already saying there was an intra-party civil war happening, and some sites like Salon had writers calling for one. Democrats might be due for the true chaos Republicans experienced during the early Tea Party years where the elders got thrown out and the party convulsed with an influx of new factions.
Who do the Democrats go to with no Biden, no Clinton, and an Obama legacy defeated twice at the polls? Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement of Joe Kennedy didn’t work, he lost his Massachusetts race. And as Varad Mehta and Noah Rothman have argued, she’s not the master strategist her reputation claims. Politico reports even moderates are mad at her over her refusal to pass COVID-19 relief funding. She’s going to age out of that position soon. Chuck Schumer isn’t far behind, and he’s far less adept at his job than his predecessor.
Compounding these defeats for Democrats, not only has Trump ended Clintonian rein, and now threatening to hamstring the Obama base of power, but now Trump has replaced Ruth Bader Ginsberg with Amy Coney Barrett. It’s another of the major touchstones of Democratic politics that has changed. With Clinton and RBG gone, the Democratic Party faces a near-complete leveling of the party leadership — politically and ideologically — with Joe Biden as the only remaining hope. If Biden fails, there’s nothing left.
Trump defeating Biden opens up the real possibility for a Democratic Party in utter disarray. There’s no clear direction or path in the wake of a Biden defeat. And, most importantly, there’s no unifying figure of power who can readily unite all the factions (sans Michelle Obama). Democratic Party leadership is all-in on this election, which explains why they pushed hard on Biden after South Carolina. Obama, depending on his wife, could be more all-in than he desires long-term. Ironically, the radicals (the Squad et al.) are in the safest position. They wanted to go all-in with Bernie, but with party elders holding them back, they’ll be ready to fight another day. If Biden loses, they’ll hold more chips, power, and cultural sway than any other group in the Democratic Party.
For Democrats, the stakes of the election are extremely high. That’s why their rhetoric is elevated and will continue going up. Trump doesn’t represent an extinction-level event, those rarely exist. However, a Trump victory represents a near-total reset of all Democratic Party politics, from the ground up across all branches of government. Factor all this together, there’s a reason the political violence is increasing on that side of the political aisle.
Republicans carry the ironic position of holding the Presidency, Senate, and Supreme Court, but an ideological consensus in none of them. Jonah Goldberg’s description of the moment fits best, “Trumpism isn’t a political or ideological movement so much as a psychological phenomenon.” What it means to be a Trumpist is an open proposition, unlike say, a Reaganite. Writing in National Review, Matthew Continetti identified four distinct ideological groups vying for control over what constitutes Trumpism. Along with those four groups, you also have the usual factions of fusionism, libertarianism, and neo-conservatism in the background.
Trump and his administration appear aware of these fissures on the right. It’s worth noting, with the latest additions to Trump’s Supreme Court List, three of the four Senators that Continetti references are on Trump’s shortlist: Senators Mike Lee, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley are all included. The inclusion of Ted Cruz also attaches Trump to the potential leader of traditional Reaganite conservatism/fusionism. In short, Trump has attached himself and his political legacy to many future GOP leaders (this includes Nikki Haley, who was part of Trump’s administration). The one person Trump leaves out from Continetti’s list: Marco Rubio.
Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his 1957 essay, “Conservative as an Ideology,” that conservatism had to be understood from its position. There’s no such thing as a universal conservative utopian society, compared to things like progressivism, socialism, or technocratic neoliberalism. Conservatism in America looks different from conservatism in France, which is different from Germany, and so on. They conserve different ideas, traditions, and institutions. Writing of the problems in the Tory party of his day in 1844, future UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put the issue like this, in his novel Coningsby, or the New Generation:
The leaders indeed might profit by their eminent position to obtain power for their individual gratification, but it was impossible to secure their followers that which, after all, must be the great recompense of a political party, the putting in practice of their opinions; for they had none.
There was indeed a considerable shouting about what they called Conservative principles; but the awkward question naturally arose, what will you conserve?
The conservative Tories of Disraeli’s day had political power, but for what? They had no principles or ideas to implement. And the question for every conservative movement remains simple: what are we conserving? The election of Trump in 2016 exposed modern conservatism’s lack of consensus on this question for all to see. The Emperor has no clothes and Trump wrecked the illusion. However, he’s not bothered to fill the resulting ideological power vacuum. Trump is a grand reset on conservatism. That’s the ultimate irony of the Trump era, Republicans hold near-complete power but still have an ideological power vacuum.
And it’s in that vacuum where you find where people have placed their chips. What’s primarily at stake in 2020 is the pole position on who gets to define the conservative project long-term. Whatever politicians and groups can seize the moment and define it will be the perceived clubhouse leaders.
Some groups are all-in. The most ardent of anti-Trump factions, The Lincoln Project, Republicans Voters Against Trump, and the people behind them are all-in on defeating Trumpism. If they lose, they’re banished to the phantom zone of politics. Though, it’s also unclear what they get if they win. Since they don’t have an ideological consensus on why they oppose Trump themselves, their opposition wholly revolves around the man. They want to burn things down without realizing the illusion that’s crumbled around them. They’re incapable of defining the next ideological consensus of conservatism, and they don’t have a single politician or faction to rally around. If your chips don’t have value, does it matter if you’re all-in?
Other groups who are now all-in: the conservative legal movement, evangelicals, and anyone that has the Supreme Court at the top of their issue list. Whatever arguments that existed prior to Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death saying issues like abortion weren’t on the ballot in 2020 are dead. For these groups, the political reality is very simple: “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Amy Coney Barrett and a 6-3 conservative court are worth the political price for these groups. If Trump loses, they still see him as a resounding victory. And if Trump wins, that only politically legitimizes the past four years.
Other than factions and politicians, there’s also the legacy of Trump at stake. If he wins re-election, he’ll have done something no other Republican has come close to accomplishing. He’ll have defeated the two main political power structures of the Democratic Party from Clinton to Obama. He’ll have also dismantled the post-Reaganite consensus on the right. And he’ll have radically altered the direction of the Supreme Court. Just as he’s bragged about defeating Hilary Clinton and all 16 of his primary opponents, he’ll brag about beating Biden, the Obama legacy, anti-Trump groups on the right, and doing for evangelicals on the Supreme Court what no one else ever did. It’s not hard to imagine those future tweets, rallies, and television appearances.
After that, he has a better position than anyone to shape the future of the GOP. Where other Republican presidents have shied away from endorsing, Trump will not only endorse candidates in primaries going forward — politicians will seek out and beg for his endorsement. Tim Alberta’s superb book American Carnage detailed multiple vignettes of politicians in the 2018 midterms seeking a Trump seal of approval. That dynamic won’t go away anytime soon. However, the candidates he endorses are more likely to be real ideologues compared to him. That dynamic will set the opening terms for the factions vying for power on the right.
Trump has also positioned his family to continue the Trumpist impact on future elections. People joked about the Bush and Clinton clans having this impact, but the Trump family will make that seem quaint by comparison. Along with the Trump family, those who can claim the closest spot to Trump will have sway too, unless Trump rejects them. Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and others like them will have the capacity to capitalize on this dynamic.
Perhaps more impactful than all of that: we’re in another presidential campaign with rumors of Trump starting his own cable news network. The 2016 rumors were around a potential start-up, whereas the 2020 rumors have linked the Trump family to private equity acquisitions of OANN. Whatever the fire to smoke ratio here, the real consequence would be a Trump-driven news network that could divide center-right audiences even further. That would make it harder for any future fusionist or consolidation in the Republican Party.
And even if Trump doesn’t create a new cable news network, he can use that threat to manipulate news organizations to give him what he wants. In February of 2016, CBS News head Leslie Moonves quipped, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” … Moonves called the campaign for president a “circus” full of “bomb-throwing,” and he hopes it continues.” Those same news networks and outlets now face the end of the “Trump bump.” If Trump is good for business, these networks will be incentivized to either give Trump a platform or find a new “Trump.”
That’s the related threat for conservatives to consider. It’s long been argued that the only reason Trump won the 2016 primaries is that he got billions of dollars in free media. It’s not uncommon for Trump-critics to blame the media for this presidency. Whatever truth to that there is, the danger is that the national media, if they believe they did create Trump, would be incentivized to do it again. Recent revelations about Jeffrey Zucker, head of CNN, revealed he did just this in 2016, and even floated a weekly Trump show. As Matt Taibbi observed, “Zucker loved Trump for the same reason baseball owners once loved the juiced-up homers hit by Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire: he put butts in seats.” What happens when CNN needs those eyeballs post-Trump? What does Zucker or those like him do next? The GOP could lose ideological control to an attempt by the media to inflate another candidate the press likes; Trump and several in his administration have come directly from the sets of CNN — why not more in the future?
Most of these points are true whether Trump wins or loses. If Trump loses, his political impact will lessen only insofar that he won’t hold political office and the cultural power that holds. It won’t be a dramatic drop-off. Modern American presidents continue to have an impact on politics long after they leave the office. Both Bush Presidents are the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. After he lost in 1932, Herbert Hoover spent the next 32 years attacking and criticizing every administration. Richard Nixon wrote multiple best-selling books and presidents and politicians sought his input and advice. Jimmy Carter has never been shy about calling George W. Bush’s presidency the “the worst in US history,” or saying Trump is “illegitimate.” George H. W. Bush lost his race in 1992, and his sons, Jeb and George W., both became governors of Florida and Texas only a few years later.
The point is this: the belief that Trump will go away — win or lose — ignores the political reality that no President has “gone away” except by choice. Nixon is instructive here — if not even Watergate can end the political power of a former president, then what proof is there a Trump election loss would do the same? It would be remarkably easy to blame a Trump loss on COVID-19, the media, riots, or more — all of which conservatives of various stripes would believe. Future presidential candidates will seek out Trump’s advice and approval on winning the primaries. Trump won’t reject that attention. And there’s not a shred of evidence Trump will take the Bush path of leaving the public eye.
This point is true even of the last few presidential and even vice-presidential candidates in the Republican Party. John McCain lost his race and continued his legacy in shaping the Senate, including stopping the repeal of ACA. Mitt Romney is in the Senate and is currently the only Senator to vote to impeach his party’s president. It’s an open question over whether Romney has any real political power, though. Both McCain and Romney families are involved in politics at a national level at various capacities. Sarah Palin, for all the talk about how she sunk the McCain ticket, was for a time one of the biggest proponents of the Tea Party, helping raise money, speaking at events, and touring the country to build support.
The 2020 election finds the Republican Party with a slogan of Make America Great Again or Keep America Great, but without a unifying ideology that explains what is great or needs conserving. Various ideologies are fighting over pole position to define that question, and Trump’s win or loss will impact those groups. It likely won’t impact the degree to which Trump has an impact himself. In a way, Trump represents the perfect distillation of the modern Republican Party, he doesn’t have a governing ideology, and neither does the party. A convention without a party platform is the perfect distillation of that point. And if you’re one of these factions vying for future power, no platform is the best news of all. That means the future is truly up for grabs.
Perhaps the most conservative position of all is seeing the future of an institution up for grabs as an existential threat. That would explain the endless hand wringing over the topic. But it’s also an opportunity. And to conservatives engaged in this struggle, I’d remind them of the ending to Disraeli’s Coningsby novel:
They stand now on the threshold of public life. They are in the leash, but in a moment they will be slipped. What will be their fate? Will they maintain in august assemblies and high places the great truths which, in study and in solitude, they have embraced? Or will their courage exhaust itself in the struggle, their enthusiasm evaporate before hollow-hearted ridicule, their generous impulses yield with a vulgar catastrophe to the tawdry temptations of a low ambition? Will their skilled intelligence subside into being the adroit tool of a corrupt party? Will Vanity confound their fortunes, or Jealousy wither their sympathies? Or will they remain brave, single, and true; refuse to bow before shadows and worship phrases; sensible of the greatness of their position, recognise the greatness of their duties; denounce to a perplexed and disheartened world the frigid theories of a generalising age that have destroyed the individuality of man, and restore the happiness of their country by believing in their own energies, and daring to be great?
Links of the week
Third Surge Brings Record-Breaking Case Rates Across the Nation, This Week in COVID-19 Data, Oct 29: Unlike the spring and summer outbreaks, the third surge is geographically dispersed, and counts are up in every region of the country. An increase in testing is not sufficient to explain the numbers. – COVID Tracking Project
‘We’ve got to stop the bleeding’: Democrats sound alarm in Miami: Party officials in Florida’s most populous county are sweating weak early voting turnout among several key groups. – Marc Caputo and Matt Dixon, Politico
NY Post’s ‘Smoking Gun’ Hunter Biden Email 100% Authentic, Forensic Analysis Concludes – Andrew Kerr, The Daily Caller
Glenn Greenwald On His Resignation From The Intercept: The Pulitzer winner founded the Intercept to challenge official narratives and protect editorial freedom. When editors abandoned those principles, spiking a controversial story, he was forced to quit – Matt Taibbi
Article on Joe and Hunter Biden Censored By The Intercept: An attempt to assess the importance of the known evidence, and a critique of media lies to protect their favored candidate, could not be published at The Intercept – Glenn Greenwald
Potentially thousands of requested mail ballots lost in Butler County, official says – Jamie Martines, TribLive
Cyberattack hits Vermont network, including 6 hospitals – Lisa Rathke, Associated Press
Health Care Workers Help Drive Gun Surge, New Study Says: Gun buying also rises among minorities amid pandemic – Stephen Gutowski, The Washington Free Beacon
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Anonymous Top-Level White House Official Revealed To Be Jussie Smollett – The Babylon Bee
AOC Calls For Doubling The Size Of The Court By Adding 3 Judges – The Babylon Bee
Woman So Pale She’s Technically Haunting Herself – Reductress
Thanks for reading!