Happy Monday! Andrew’s back from paternity leave today. He’s thankful to his bosses for company policies that prioritize family, his newsletter colleagues for picking up the slack while he was out, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for axing the Senate’s longstanding dress code over the weekend to permit gym shorts and hoodies in the chamber. It’s important to ease back into these things gradually.
Up to Speed
- Voter concerns over President Joe Biden’s age continue to mount. A new CBS News poll released Sunday found that only 34 percent of registered voters think he would complete a second term if reelected, compared with 55 percent who believe former President Donald Trump would be able to serve out a second term. Trump, at 77, is more than three years younger than the 80-year-old Biden.
- In an interview on NBC News’ Meet the Press that aired Sunday, Donald Trump denounced the heartbeat bills signed in recent years by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other pro-life governors, calling a six-week abortion ban “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” He suggested he could support a less strict ban on abortion at the federal level—“it could be state or it could be federal, I don’t frankly care”—and portrayed himself as a unifier on the topic: “We will agree to a number of weeks which will be where both sides will be happy. We have to bring the country together on this issue.” More on this below.
- House Speaker Kevin McCarthy found himself in a familiar position over the weekend: trying to berate and cajole his fractious caucus into a unified team going into a fight over a piece of must-pass legislation. Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate have to compromise on spending levels fast if they want to stave off a government shutdown at the end of the month, but McCarthy doesn’t yet even have a solid open negotiating position. A short-term package negotiated by a group of House conservatives and centrists to achieve caucus consensus was revealed Sunday night, then immediately panned by enough hardliners to scuttle the bill should they ultimately vote to oppose it.
- Nikki Haley is proposing to eliminate the federal gas tax as part of a broader economic plan to reduce inflation and boost consumer spending, the underdog Republican presidential contender tells Newsmax. “We’re going to put that money back into the pockets of the taxpayers,” the former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says.
- Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert apologized over the weekend for a bizarre incident in which she and a man were kicked out of a Denver production of the musical Beetlejuice for disruptive behavior. Boebert, one of the House’s loudest MAGA firebrands, said Friday that she “fell short of my values” and attributed the incident to “going through a public and difficult divorce.”
Biden’s ‘MAGA’ Messaging
President Joe Biden can speak off the cuff in public remarks and occasionally wander off course, which at times muddles his message and upstages his intended headline.
So it was instructive Friday to hear two prominent members of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board—Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Jennifer McClellan of Virginia—frame the president’s reelection pitch in crisp, carefully scripted political prose. Warren spoke first during a morning video conference call with reporters, focusing on the economy. Next came McClellan, talking about abortion rights. Both Democrats had one thing in common: Each cast the 2024 contest as a battle between “MAGA extremism” and the good old fashioned American values of freedom and fairness.
“The contrast is sharp. MAGAnomics is about policies that cut taxes for the rich and pass along costs to working Americans, while Bidenomics is all about fighting to rebuild the economy from the bottom up and the middle out,” Warren said. “That’s Bidenomics in action, building an economy that works, not just for the wealthy and well-connected, but an economy that works for everyone. That’s the progress the Republican presidential hopefuls are trying to reverse with MAGAnomics.”
“The majority of women are concerned about the MAGA agenda to ban abortion and restrict reproductive freedom,” McClellan added. “During last year’s midterms, the American people went to the polls and rejected MAGA Republicans’ anti-choice positions and this year’s elections in Virginia and the presidential race next year will be no different.”
MAGA, of course, is shorthand for “Make America Great Again,” the campaign slogan popularized by Donald Trump in 2016 and dusted off by the former president for use in his White House comeback bid. Biden has used “MAGA” with increasing frequency dating back to last year’s midterm campaign. That election worked out quite well for Democrats, who held the Senate and governor’s mansions in key battleground states and suffered only minimal losses in the House.
Listening to Warren and McClellan, it seems the president and his party intend to wield “MAGA” like a pejorative bludgeon. The aim is to bruise Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, and every other Republican on the ballot. As McClellan noted, this includes Republicans running in the upcoming, November 7 off-year legislative elections in Virginia, and all of the federal and state races taking place next year.
Democrats say they believe this strategy accomplishes several tasks. It undermines Trump and any other Republican running for president that might beat him in the primary by lumping them all in the same “MAGA” basket; and it divides traditional Republican voters uneasy about conservative populism from the MAGA contingent of the GOP base. In the months ahead, it might seem as though Democrats are using the moniker in their political messaging as much as, if not more than, Trump.
Incidentally, Warren and McClellan signaled that Biden’s reelection message will primarily draw a contrast with the Republicans on the economy—“Bidenomics vs. MAGAnomics”—and abortion rights. It may yet work. But at the moment, Biden is suffering through a late summer swoon of horrible polling. Trump is matching his successor, or beating him, in a raft of fresh polls testing a hypothetical rematch and now edges him in the RealClearPolitics average.
So if the contrast between Biden and “MAGA” this-or-that is so clear, and so favorable, why is the president in this position?
“First of all, it’s early, and at this point, most people are not focused on the presidential election, they’re focused on their everyday lives,” McClellan said in response to a question from Dispatch Politics. “But when we communicate to people about his record, about Bidenomics, about what’s at stake in this election, we see those numbers move and I think we will see that here as well.”
“I’ve never spent time paying much attention to polls,” Warren added. “What I pay attention to and what the American people pay attention to are the things that people accomplish and who they say they’re fighting for. President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris have already accomplished an enormous amount for the American people.”
Will Trump’s Abortion Position Alienate Pro-Lifers?
Donald Trump expressed his new, third-way stance on abortion in perhaps the most emphatic way yet during a lengthy interview with NBC News’ Kristen Welker, which aired Sunday on Meet the Press.
“Pro-life, look, just so you understand—it’s pretty much 50/50. It’s a 50/50 issue. Amazing,” the former president said. “I was able to do something which gave at least pro-life people a voice. Now it’s going to work out. Now the number of months will be determined. … I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something that’s acceptable.”
It was already clear, in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections, that the honeymoon between Trump and the anti-abortion movement was over. Trump had awkwardly but enthusiastically embraced pro-lifers in his 2016 run and often billed himself as the most pro-life president in history, a claim he backed up by appointing three Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade. But when Republican abortion restrictions sparked a major electoral backlash last year, Trump adopted a new posture, which could be summarized like this: I delivered for pro-lifers, and now they should be happy with what they’ve got.
That view permeated his interview with Welker. If reelected president, would Trump be willing to sign a 15-week federal ban? “I would sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.”
Trump may have been vague on what he wants, but he was specific on what he considers too much: The early bans passed in recent years by the likes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “I mean, DeSantis is willing to sign a five-week and six-week ban,” Trump said. “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
The response from some pro-life activists and social conservatives was harsh.
“When a leader doesn’t have convictions on the most basic right of all, the right to #Life, this is what you get. Ugh. The ‘let’s make a deal’ message isn’t a win for babies,” wrote Iowa conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
The editors of National Review called Trump’s comments “terrible” and said “he hasn’t given the matter a moment’s thought” about his post-Roe abortion policy.
Others were more muted, including a statement from Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, when asked by The Dispatch about Trump’s comments on Meet the Press.
“We’re at a moment where we need a human rights advocate, someone who is dedicated to saving the lives of children and serving mothers in need. Every single candidate should be clear on how they plan to do that. It begins with focusing on the extremes of the other side, and ambition and common sense on our own. Anything later than a 15 week protection for babies in the womb (when science proves they can feel pain) as a national minimum standard makes no sense,” reads the statement.
The statement notably does not call out Trump directly, though a second statement provided to The Dispatch praises Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for signing into law the heartbeat bill Trump criticized.
Will any of it matter for Trump in a Republican primary in which he remains far ahead of DeSantis or any other rival? It’s worth remembering that earlier this year, Dannenfelser’s organization went after Trump for the former president’s preference that abortion be decided exclusively at the state level. “Holding to the position that it is exclusively up to the states is an abdication of responsibility by anyone elected to federal office,” Dannenfelser said at the time in a statement.
Weeks later, Dannenfelser met with Trump, calling their discussion “terrific.”
Notable and Quotable
“Everything he says is, like, a lie. It’s terrible. Even his handicap in golf. He said he’s a six—he’s not a six.”
—Former President Donald Trump on President Joe Biden to Kristen Welker on Meet the Press, September 17, 2023