Thanks to all of The Dispatch members who submitted questions for December’s Monthly Mailbag! I’ll separate each question, or consolidated set of questions, in bold font so you can skip around.
On Growing Up in Wisconsin:
“Where is the best place to get fried cheese curds?” asks a member with the username, “Ask me about my dog, not when I’ll finish my dissertation.”
As best I can recall, the best fried cheese curds I’ve ever had were at the St. Croix County Fair. If you aren’t in a position to get the perfect beer-battered fried cheese curds at a state or county fair, the most important thing you’re looking for at a restaurant is that the breading should be light and flaky—i.e. the curds should look like this. That is why, as shocking as this may sound, A&W has better cheese curds than Culver’s. Any fried cheese curd with breading approaching the thickness of mozzarella-stick breading is suboptimal at best.
Dan O: What small town in [northwestern Wisconsin] did you grow up in?
BikerChick: Why would you leave the greatest state in the U.S. (let me guess…career) and will you ever come back?
I grew up 19 miles from the Minnesota border in Baldwin, where the population is now north of 4,000 people—double what it was when I was a kid. It was a lovely place with very friendly people, but my family didn’t have deep roots there.
My parents are both from Wauwatosa (the same Milwaukee suburb that was home to Steve Hayes), but they moved to northwestern Wisconsin in the 1970s—perhaps I should say because of the 1970s. After his service as a U.S. Marine concluded, my dad was persuaded by John Denver lyrics and a friend caught up in the back-to-the-land movement to buy a little plot of land in the country. Farming, even as a hobby, turned out to be much more difficult than John Denver ever let on, and shortly after I was born my parents moved the family off the farm to Baldwin, where my dad worked as a lawyer and sole proprietor for more than three decades. I liked to tell college classmates from the East Coast that my dad was just like Atticus Finch, except he was paid in wheels of cheese instead of sacks of potatoes.
No, not really. But, yes, some people believed me.
I was very interested in politics from a young age, and I left Wisconsin after high school to attend college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. My career in political journalism has kept me in the D.C. area ever since. So long as lurking in Capitol hallways remains part of my job (and enough of my friends stick around), I expect to spend most of my time here. I do, of course, make multiple trips back to Wisconsin to visit family every year, and I’m grateful the door-to-door trip from northern Virginia to Milwaukee or Madison by plane is not longer than childhood trips from Baldwin to Milwaukee by car. I am writing to you all after Christmas from my parents’ home, which is now located in Madison, just a few minutes’ walk from their two young grandchildren, my younger sister, and brother-in-law.
BrooklynExpat: What is your favorite beer and/or adult beverage made in Wisconsin? Bonus points if it’s available outside the greatest state in the country?
My favorite beer is New Glarus’ Spotted Cow, but it’s a bit more enjoyable in the summer than the winter. New Glarus’ Moon Man is a close second. Neither is available outside of Wisconsin, so I will share with you the recipe of a McCormack Manhattan:
2 oz. affordable brandy, such as Korbel or E&J
1 oz. sweet vermouth, such as Martini & Rossi (but you won’t complain if your son gives you Carpano Antica as a present)
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash maraschino cherry juice
Serve on the rocks, garnished with two maraschino cherries and a half of a thick slice of orange.
I usually prefer bourbon to brandy, but Wisconsin has the highest brandy consumption per capita in the United States, and this is the drink of choice of my father and his father before him.
Jack: I’m from Missouri, and I have a question. How is Wisconsin better than Missouri?
I will not publicly draw any negative contrasts with Missouri because my wife is from St. Joseph, but I will say that she thinks there is something special about the friendliness of Wisconsinites and natural physical beauty of the state—particularly Lake Michigan and the Oostburg/Sheboygan area.
On Joining The Dispatch:
Several members asked me to answer, in effect, “Who am I? Why am I here?” And what makes me excited to join The Dispatch?
The answer begins with the fact that I worked at The Weekly Standard for nearly a dozen years before it was killed off, and I absolutely loved my time there. I’m excited to get to work with several of my old TWS colleagues again, and I’m really impressed with this new, amazing place that Steve, Jonah, and the rest of The Dispatch gang have built up since 2019.
National Review, where I worked for nearly five years after the Standard, was a very good fit for me. There are precious few publications in America where a journalist could press John Eastman with challenging questions about January 6 and press congressional Democrats with challenging questions about late-term abortion. I’m truly grateful for my time there, and I wish my old colleagues all the success in the world.
But I do see The Dispatch as the institution that is the best fit for me to do the best original reporting I can—now, and hopefully for years to come. Here are some lines from The Dispatch’s mission statement that appealed to me:
We don’t apologize for our conservatism. Some of the best journalism is done when the author is honest with readers about where he or she is coming from, and some of the very worst journalism hides behind a pretense of objectivity and the stolen authority that pretense provides.
We will be timely and topical, but we won’t be slaves to the relentless pace of the news cycle. We will slow things down, deliberately—because we think the times require more deliberation. Whenever possible, we want to pause and think before we react, to research and report before sharing our views. The daily race to be wrong first on Twitter can be entertaining and instructive, but we have no interest in entering the competition. In short, we aim to zig in an era of zagging.
On a personal level, what I missed most about The Weekly Standard was all the laughter that filled that office. It may seem like a small thing, but I’ve found that producing political journalism (especially when the state of our national politics is bleak) is much more enjoyable when you can laugh with your friends and colleagues about the many absurdities of politics, journalism, and daily life. Those are interactions that can’t be perfectly replicated in a Slack channel or a Zoom call, so it feels good to be back seeing colleagues, at least a couple days a week, in person.
On Donald Trump and the Republican Party:
Bel: “Maybe I’m asking you to write a book, not answer a question, but given your insider’s experience of D.C. and conservative publications, what is your hypothesis of how we ended up with Trump as the standard bearer for the right?”
That is indeed a question that could be treated with a book-length response, but I’ll try my best to offer a brief answer.
Trump’s victory in the 2016 GOP primary can be attributed to many factors, but the most important ones were his celebrity status/showmanship and the failure of his opponents to consolidate the non-Trump vote early in the voting process.
Yes, ideology mattered. The portion of GOP primary voters who were not deeply committed to Reaganite policies (and not insistent on a standard bearer who demonstrated basic personal decency) was larger than many people assumed (myself included). It helped Trump that he could easily win over the more populist Buchananite and Perot voters. But Trump was ideologically all over the map—vacillating, for example, between opposing U.S. involvement in the war against ISIS and calling for 30,000 American ground troops to defeat ISIS. If principled non-interventionism was what GOP primary voters really wanted, one would have expected Rand Paul to be polling above the single digits when Trump launched his campaign in June 2015.
So Trump’s capture of the 2016 nomination depended much more on building up a cult of personality than building up an ideological movement. Trump’s signature 2016 issue—build the wall—did not make him ideologically unique. It was primarily a success of branding. A border fence was a broadly popular bipartisan idea before Trump, but he was able to make it his signature issue by dominating the airwaves with his made-for-reality-TV personality—by stirring up controversy with incendiary comments and implausible boasts.
I’ll never forget how, in August 2015, I was sitting on the set of a Fox News program while all three cable networks were airing a run-of-the-mill Trump rally for a solid hour from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., and the Fox host was worried the network was lose viewers to CNN and MSNBC if Fox simply cut to commercial break as scheduled. “TRUMP: I LOVE THE BIBLE,” read the chyrons on CNN and MSNBC that night. By the spring of 2016, Trump had received $2 billion in free media coverage—many, many times that of his rivals. All that earned media by itself was insufficient to hand Trump the nomination. He lost Iowa but was able to win New Hampshire and South Carolina roughly one-third of the vote in each state. The split between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio went on too long, and it allowed Trump to build enough momentum to become unstoppable in 2016.
I could now spend a lot of time talking about how four years of President Trump transformed the GOP, but I’ve perhaps already gone on longer than I should have about 2016. So suffice it to say, the story of the 2024 primary is that a solid 30 to 40 percent of the GOP primary electorate was always committed to voting for the previous Republican president, and the only candidate whose polling ever suggested he had a realistic possibility of defeating Trump in the 2024 primary collapsed. We could debate how much Ron DeSantis’ freefall had to do with his own weaknesses vs. Trump’s innate strength among GOP primary voters, but, whatever the cause may be, that collapse is the main reason why Trump went from polling in the low 40s nationally in the spring to the low 60s now. Nikki Haley is now the only candidate with a realistic chance of beating Trump in an early state, but even if she pulls off a New Hampshire upset, it would take a shocking national realignment among GOP primary voters nationwide for Trump to lose the nomination.
On Abortion Policy:
Mark Holmlund: John, regarding abortion, why have Republicans, at least the ones arguing for a federal restriction after 15 weeks, not been able to frame the issue as a disagreement over the length of time during which abortion would be permitted? In other words, why is the proposed federal legislation with a 15-week restriction labeled a ‘ban,’ but laws in states like California where abortion is legal until viability or Nevada with a 24-week restriction considered “pro-choice”? And do you think the pro-choice movement will end up regretting not supporting federal legislation with a 15-week restriction (or eventually warming to it), given its own statements that late-term abortions are extremely rare?
Mark is right: It would be much more accurate to describe the proposed policy as a 15-week limit rather than a ban. But the Republican party writ large was not prepared for the end of Roe. One reason Republicans have failed to draw an effective contrast with Democrats on late-term abortion—even as blue states like California are effectively erasing their nominal limits on late-term abortion—is that the default position of most congressional Republicans is that the issue should be left entirely to the states. Starting in 2013, in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell trial, almost every Republican in Congress (plus a few Senate Democrats) favored a federal 20-week limit on abortion with exceptions in cases of rape and when the life of the mother was in danger. Post-Dobbs, however, most Republicans were too spooked to embrace any federal legislation. Those that did back a 15-week limit—such as Marco Rubio in Florida and Ted Budd in North Carolina—paid no discernible price at the polls for it in 2022. Republicans running on a 15-week limit in blue Virginia fell just short of a majority, but those Virginia Republicans nevertheless carried districts that Biden won by eight points or less.
It has also proved more difficult for Republicans to convey that they merely want a federal late-term limit on abortion when many red states have passed laws protecting life at conception or six weeks of pregnancy.
In the current political environment, most advocates for a right to abortion don’t feel any pressure to support any limits, but I think that will be a political liability for them in the long-run.
On Covering Congress:
Crunchdoc: Do you feel Congress has any chance of really solving any of our pressing problems without being confronted by a crisis situation?
It is really hard to think of a recent example of Congress solving a pressing problem without first being confronted by a crisis. In 2022, Congress came together to pass the Electoral Count Reform Act, but no one thought the law was a pressing concern until the crisis presented by Trump in the run-up to January 6, 2021. There is a reasonable chance Congress passes something regarding border security in response to the current crisis, but I’m skeptical it will truly solve the problem.
Perhaps the best example of Congress at least trying to solve a big problem before the crisis fully hits was Paul Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare for younger Americans in order to put the national debt on a sustainable course and preserve the program for those who need it most. The Romney-Ryan loss to Obama in 2012 and Trump’s victory in 2016 have convinced many Republicans there’s no reason to even talk about entitlements without bipartisan buy-in, and it seems unlikely Congress will ever get serious about confronting the debt without a crisis forcing them to do so.
Chipwatkins: Which member of Congress has given you the best long-form interview? Why was it the best?
That’s a tough question. “Magazine journalism is a perishable medium,” as my former Weekly Standard boss Bill Kristol once observed, and “political and social commentary is the most perishable magazine journalism of all.” But I hope some of my reported articles about how elected Republicans handled Trump’s takeover of the party have held up. If I had to choose just one profile to highlight, it would be of John Kasich, the former congressman and governor of Ohio, because he’s kind of a goofball, and it was the most fun to write. While Trump was in office, I also profiled Jeff Flake, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, Dan Crenshaw, and Ben Sasse. Profiles of Chip Roy and Elise Stefanik after Trump left office might be of interest as well.
On Living With Dispatch Senior Editor Mike Warren:
Don Batts: More on the “flophouse” experience.
From about 2011 to 2013, Mike and I were working at The Standard and living in Arlington, Virginia, in the same four-bedroom townhouse, with a revolving cast of young lawyers, aspiring young lawyers, and journalists as housemates.
The best financial advice I have for college grads trying to make it in an expensive city on a modest salary is that they need at least two or three housemates to split the rent, and lawyers make the best housemates because they are almost never around and you never have to worry that they will pay rent on time.
One fun fact about Mike is that he does great impressions—someone on Dispatch Live should definitely ask to hear his Gollum/Smeagol voice sometime. A more shocking revelation is that Mike might be the only journalist I’ve ever known well who isn’t at least a little bit nuts—not even a little bit neurotic or petty despite working in a profession dominated by self-important neurotics.
We didn’t throw many parties, but I did manage to break my arm during one in 2012. I wish I could tell you this injury was sustained because I did something cool, like jumping off of a rooftop into a pool while shouting “I am a golden god!” Alas, the truth is that I was sprinting through a tile-floor basement in wet shoes—trying valiantly to save the brats on the patio grill from being burned—when both feet went completely out from under me. I landed very hard palms down, sparing my tailbone but not my ulna. I was not then, nor have I ever been, on illegal drugs, but the fracture did require self-medicating by switching from beer back to gin.
The woman featured in the photo attached to this article was kind enough to take me to the hospital when the self-medication wore off, and kind enough to marry a man who was klutzy enough to break his arm while grilling bratwurst.