The Veep is down, the mayor is up.
It was all hands on deck last month at the home of Washington, D.C., powerbroker Kiki McLean, according to the irrefragable Jonathan Swan of Axios. Some of the Democratic Party’s most experienced and influential female political operatives—Donna Brazile, Jen Palmieri, Stephanie Cutter, Minyon Moore—gathered for dinner to discuss a germinating crisis within their party. “These were old friends getting together for the first time since the pandemic began, and celebrating a Democratic president after the Trump years,” Swan reports. “But the dinner had an urgent purpose.” Its object was to salvage the career of Vice President Kamala Harris. I hope there was plenty on hand to drink.
The brain trust arrived at two conclusions. First, Harris should emphasize her years as California’s attorney general, thereby reducing her exposure to the charge that the Democrats are soft on crime. Second, the poohbahs decided that much of the criticism of Harris’s job performance amounts to sexism. “Many of us lived through the Clinton campaign, and want to help curb some of the gendered dynamics in press coverage that impacted HRC,” a source told Swan. The problem with ascribing your candidate’s difficulties to “gendered dynamics,” of course, is that it doesn’t work. A candidate is truly “impacted” by their own attributes and competence. Sexism didn’t bury Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton did—with a big assist from Robby Mook.
The subtext of Swan’s article, and much of the Harris commentary these days, is the 2024 election. President Biden is 78 years old. Professional Washington appears convinced that he will decide against running for a second term. Harris, as vice president, is Biden’s presumed successor. But the enthusiasm for her candidacy is not exactly overwhelming. Indeed, one of the most entertaining sideshows in the nation’s capital since January has been the steel cage match between Harris and her rival within the cabinet, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The prize is the Democratic Party. At the moment, Mr. Secretary can say—in seven languages—that he’s winning.
Recent months have not been pleasant for Harris. Her policy portfolio, consisting of voting rights and the southern border, has seen diminishing returns. Neither the unconstitutional “For the People Act” nor the anachronistic “John Lewis Voting Rights Act” is headed for passage. The Justice Department lawsuit against Georgia’s recent election reform is likely to be tossed out of court. Meanwhile, illegal immigrants continue to cross the border in record numbers. Immigration is Biden’s worst issue—thanks, Kamala—and the ploy to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America is diversionary and futile.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas) recently teamed up with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and called on the president to install Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security, as “border czar.” It is unlikely that Biden will follow their advice—the rebuke of Harris would be too obvious. But Cuellar’s desperation is impossible to ignore. “Democrats would do well to remember that public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security,” writes demographer Ruy Teixeira in his invaluable newsletter the Liberal Patriot. And Democrats would do well to remember Vice President Harris’s approval rating: It’s upside down.
Buttigieg, by contrast, is cycling his way toward a bipartisan success. It’s true that transportation wasn’t his first pick: He wanted, by all accounts, to be U.N. ambassador. But there was no way Harris was going to let Biden park Buttigieg in the Ritz-Carlton in New York City, where he could spend four years burnishing his diplomatic credentials and wining and dining the financial services crowd that funds presidential campaigns. The U.N. job went to a career foreign serviceofficer instead.
As it happens, though, the transportation gig is working out for the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg’s interviews are as gaffe-free (and as somnolent) as one might expect from someone who as a youth tested talking points in the mirror and dressed up as a “politician” for Halloween. The legislation with which he is most associated—the 2,700-page, $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework now under debate in the Senate—has a good chance of becoming law. And it’s popular.
Could Buttigieg leverage his experience managing a mid-level department into a winning presidential bid? Stranger things have happened, I suppose. What must keep Buttigieg up at night is his utter lack of appeal to the Democratic Party’s most important constituency: Recall the CNN poll from the summer of 2019 showing him with zero support among black voters. True, he tied Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucus. But Iowa doesn’t make Democratic nominees—South Carolina does. And Buttigieg placed fourth in the Palmetto State.
Then again, Harris doesn’t have much of a track record with black voters, either. She dropped out of the Democratic primary before the voting began, so it’s hard to judge her against actual results. Which raises this conundrum: How can the Biden Democrats succeed—or even exist—without Joe Biden?
Harris and Buttigieg, the two most prominent options in 2024, are gentry liberals with tenuous connections to working-class Democrats and suburban independents. It’s fun to watch them one-up each other. But Democratic professionals, including Kiki McLean’s dinner companions, must be wondering who else is on offer. Or might it be the case that President Biden has set up his heirs for failure on purpose, so that his party three years from now has no choice but to renominate his 81-year-old self? Sure, Joe Biden is a little crazy. But maybe he’s crazy like a fox.
Nevada Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed into law Friday a bill that would make the Silver State the first in the nation to hold a presidential primary during a general election year.
The measure, which passed both chambers in the Nevada state legislature last month, changes both the manner and date of the Nevada contest. Previously a caucus, delegates to the national nominating conventions would be chosen in a primary held on the first Tuesday in February, The Hill newspaper reported.
Despite Sisolak making the move law with his signature, the major national political parties will still have to approve the calendar change. A refusal by either party to agree to the move puts the state at risk to lose its delegates to the 2024 national nominating conventions.
The move also sets up a fight with New Hampshire, which traditionally and by state law is currently home to the first-in-the-nation primary. At the time this story was written, Gov. Chris Sununu had yet to comment but it is unlikely he and the members of the state legislature will allow its historical role to be eclipsed. Legislation moving the New Hampshire primary to an earlier date so that it would come before the new date set for Nevada is likely.
The Nevada move would also likely push the Iowa Caucus back to an earlier date. Voters there traditionally meet to show support for nominees before the New Hampshire primary. Any contest between these three states (and others that might wish to move their nominating dates toward the beginning of the process) has the potential to move the first balloting for the next presidential race back into 2023.
The Hill reported the initiative to move to a primary in an early position on the calendar was pushed by state Democrats including former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid who, despite his retirement remains a powerful force in state politics. To justify the move they cite at least in part problems with the Iowa caucuses in 2020. In his first and thus far only televised White House press conference, President Joe Biden affirmed he plans to be a candidate for re-election in 2024.
There are certain words one never associates with former President Donald J. Trump. One of them is “coy.” Yet there he is, dancing around the question of whether he’ll run for president in 2024 like a young girl who is asked out for the first time.
Trump remains a power in the GOP, but it’s not certain he’ll run again. In 2016, his carefully crafted image as an outsider bent on shaking things up tapped into the public’s frustration over the way government continually fails to solve problems and, in the process, makes many of them worse.
The Republican presidential field in 2016 was fertile ground for the seeds he would plant. But 2024 is not 2016. Trump’s pathway back to power is not as straight as his overwhelming popularity among likely GOP primary voters makes it appear to be.
Before getting to that, however, it’s useful to review how he originally became the GOP nominee in 2016.
First, because just about everything he said made heads explode at the headquarters of the elite New York media, Republican primary voters immediately concluded he was a trustworthy conservative.
Second, coverage of Trump being outrageous and combative sold papers and generated ratings. Promoting his candidacy became an issue of financial self-interest among the media conglomerates who make and break American presidential candidates.
Third, a cohort of media stars supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid to become the first female president helped Trump along because they thought he was the Republican it would be easiest for her to beat.
Fourth, no other Republican running in 2016 could have taken down Trump without ending his or her own candidacy. Rather than alienate the voters warming to his message, the large field of Republicans mostly took the punches he threw without punching back. They let him define them. “Little Marco” and “Low-Energy Jeb” worked because Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) were too timid to push back hard enough when it still might have mattered.
Trump has had a good week. His recent speech to a statewide gathering of North Carolina Republicans was generally well-received. And the release of a government report exonerating him of charges that he ordered demonstrators occupying Lafayette Park in May and June of 2020 tear-gassed and dispersed so he could stage a “photo-op” gives his supporters one more media lie to point to.
The other Republicans who want to be president already understand that winning the nomination requires going through Trump. They’re going to have to play rough like him—which, in a much smaller field than the one in 2016, changes the calculation in their favor, not his.
Consider former Vice President Mike Pence, who’s already out making speeches and will soon visit the critical early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He’ll never say so publicly, but most everyone in GOP circles knows his relationship with Trump is currently frosty and only likely to grow colder. Trump is an anchor around Pence’s neck, whether he runs or not. It’s in the former veep’s political interest to start drawing distinctions early.
If he does, other potential GOP candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will also have openings to differentiate themselves from Trump. Former Trump-era Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley already tried, but did it too early, got slapped for it politically and has had to keep her head down while she repairs the damage.
The thing most likely to keep Trump from winning the nomination is his need for vindication. He keeps talking about voter fraud being responsible for his loss in 2020 without offering verifiable proof that it occurred on the scale he claims. There probably was some fraud—there always is—and the vehemence with which the Democrats try to shut down any discussion of it is puzzling. Nonetheless, it’s an old story that’s getting older by the day. Americans like to look and go forward. They aren’t that much interested in backing up if Bidenflation has wiped out their savings accounts and sent their job overseas.
If Trump wants to be the next GOP presidential nominee, he needs to talk more about what he’ll do to win in 2024 than why he lost in 2020. The chances of that happening, say many GOP insiders, is minimal.
Former vice president Mike Pence announced Thursday the formation of Advancing American Freedom to promote “the pro-freedom policies of the last four years that created unprecedented prosperity at home and restored respect for America abroad.”
To lead the group, he’s chosen Dr. Paul Teller, a highly regarded former congressional staffer and member of his vice-presidential staff. Teller’s policy chops and conservative contacts are hard to match. Pence has also attracted other conservative heavyweights—like former Heritage Foundation presidents Dr. Ed Feulner and Kay Coles James, Arizona governor Doug Ducey, Ambassador Calista and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former senior Trump advisers Larry Kudlow and Kellyanne Conway and important organizational leaders like Lisa Nelson, Penny Nance and Marjorie Dannenfelser—to serve on AAF’s advisory board.
If you think this looks like a presidential campaign in all but name, you’re not wrong. Pence says he wants AAF to blend “traditional conservative values with the Make America Great Again policy agenda that propelled the nation to new economic heights, and unprecedented strength and prosperity.” That’s a fancy way of saying “take the best of Trump, jettison the baggage and create an agenda the American people—especially the formerly reliable Republican suburban voters who helped put Joe Biden in office—can embrace.”
It’s a smart formula that relies on addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division. As GOP political consultant Roger Stone used to advise, anything a campaign does that isn’t focused on growing its share of the vote is a waste of time.
The question is whether Pence can pull it off. As a House member, he was a GOP star, perhaps in line to be speaker someday. As Indiana’s governor he was a solid, if not exactly inspiring, chief executive who on the ideas front could never quite outshine his immediate predecessor, Republican Mitch Daniels—who is now president of Purdue University.
Pence has a chance to shine now, to step into the spotlight and show America what he’d do and how he’d inspire voters to embrace conservatism redefined. He could bring back the sunny optimism and hope that defined Reaganism—strong and not defensive but also not obnoxious.
On paper that sounds easy. In real life, it will be hard. The media elite already have their guns out for Biden’s potential 2024 challengers. Look at the hatchet job CBS‘s 60 Minutes just tried to do on Florida GOP governor Ron DeSantis, another possible presidential candidate, by alleging that in exchange for campaign contributions he let the Publix supermarket chain dispense the COVID-19 vaccine. The story landed with a thud—but it’s likely just the first of many drive-bys the media will try.
Let’s face it; the elite media helped put Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in office and have a vested interest in seeing them stay there. That means the knives are out for Pence, DeSantis, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and any other Republican who wants the nomination. This will make it especially tough for the former vice president as The New York Times, CNN and others try to tie him to the former president.
The challenges Pence faces on his way to the White House are threefold. First, he must separate himself from Trump enough to allow the Never-Trumpers to consider voting for him while not alienating the MAGA movement. Second, he has to come up with a bold agenda for growth and reform that will get the country moving again to counter what the Democrats offer during Biden’s term. Third, Trump has to decide not to run.
Since the third point is out of his control, Pence would do best to concentrate on the other two. The team he’s assembled so far represents a top-tier mix of MAGA conservatives and Reaganites, meaning that when he runs, Pence will be a force to be reckoned with.