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Stirewaltisms: An Experiment in Negative Partisanship
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Stirewaltisms: An Experiment in Negative Partisanship

If nothing else, the State of the Union highlighted how our awful politics got that way.

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)

I take a back seat to no one in my disdain for the State of the Union address as an institution. 

A televised pseudo-event in which the chief executive comes to Congress to instruct its members in how to conduct their business is so bad for small-r republicanism that it’s no surprise that the current form owes so much of its structure to noted stinkers Woodrow Wilson, who broke more than a century of tradition and delivered his report as a speech, and Lyndon Johnson, who moved the event to prime time to better his 1964 campaign kickoff.  

I have preached that gospel for more than a decade. But this year at least gave us a useful microcosm of the current political situation. It was almost like a controlled experiment to show the effects of negative partisanship.

President Biden came into the speech with serious concerns about the left flank of his party. Weak incumbents tend to draw primary challenges, and with fewer than a third of Democrats looking for Biden to run again, the appeal for Sen. Elizabeth Warren or another big-name progressive to get in the race is high. That meant Biden needed to show strength and a commitment to causes important to the party’s activist base. But Biden couldn’t afford to be seen as a radical lefty to the persuadable voters who won him the presidency in 2020 and spared his party its expected shellacking in 2022. 

That’s quite a pickle, but fortunately for Biden, there’s Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine Biden had given his speech full of bipartisan bonhomie and appeals to cooperation, but Republicans had sat and listened politely, even offering applause at key points. How would the Congressional Progressive Caucus have reacted to the speech differently? How would Warren be thinking today about her chance to take on Uncle Joe?

But the Republican hecklers, particularly Greene, inexplicably attired in white fur like she was chasing the Pevensie children through a snowy forest, made sure Biden didn’t face any left-wing backlash for his outreach. Biden was instead allowed to sound reasonable and conciliatory without increasing his primary vulnerabilities. 

The substance of the speech was so full of progressive policies and big government initiatives that Biden-skeptical Democrats could feel the love, even if it was all pie in the sky. Greene & Co. gave Biden the chance to look moderate to moderates but sound progressive to progressives. And that’s very much how 2020 and 2022 went down for the blue team.

I would still love to see the next president scrap the practice, but this year’s address at least let us see a perfect snapshot of how our screwy politics got that way.


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 44.4%
Average disapproval: 51.8%
Net score: -7.4 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.8 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↑ 2.2 points

[Average includes: ABC News/Washington Post: 43% approve-53% disapprove; CBS News: 45% approve-55% disapprove; Fox News: 45% approve-54% disapprove; Monmouth: 44% approve-49% disapprove; Marist: 45% approve-48% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: HE STAYS GROUNDED 

New York Times: “[George Toma] is 94 now, but among groundskeepers he is immortal: The God of Sod, they call him, or the Sodfather, or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man. Toma — who is planted so deeply in the N.F.L.’s root system that he is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — has never missed a Super Bowl. He has worked in outdoor stadiums from Miami to San Diego and domes in Detroit, New Orleans and beyond. He has persevered through torrential downpours, droughts and, most vexingly, increasingly elaborate halftime shows that befoul his beloved turf. … On Sunday, hundreds of millions of football fans will watch the Super Bowl broadcast from Glendale and see Toma’s handiwork without realizing it. These days, he is an emeritus groundskeeper, advising his brethren on how to prepare a field worthy of the biggest event in American sports …”


TRUMP’S GOES FULL PEDOPHILE IN DESANTIS ATTACKS
Puck: “[As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis] takes more obvious steps into the ’24 arena, Trump has begun to preview the more incendiary tactics he’ll use to firebomb any challengers. Over the past few days, Trump has taken to Truth Social to post scurrilous insinuations about DeSantis’s stint teaching at a Georgia prep school in the early 2000s. … The Truth campaign appears to gesture at some perceived irony regarding the DeSantis administration’s gratuitous use of the term ‘groomer’ … This is all utter nonsense, but this is how vicious grassroots MAGA political battles are waged at the fringes, unfortunately, in the sub-MyPillow ranks. And Trump, of course, isn’t above the vile. … The DeSantis-Trump war was inevitable, but it had at least been civil up to now: In recent months, the leading influencers and intellectuals within this nationalist-populist ecosystem have begun to factionalize over their views on the future of the movement.”

DeSantis preps for late spring campaign launch: The Hill: “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is on the cusp of making a final decision on a 2024 presidential run. … His advisers have begun reaching out to and interviewing potential hires for a campaign and are gaming out the best time to announce his intentions. … A formal campaign launch is still months away, they say, and won’t likely come until after the state legislature wraps up its regular session in May. Two sources familiar with the plans said that the Florida governor could announce his presidential bid as early as late May or early June. … Nevertheless, there’s already a robust outside effort to lure DeSantis into the 2024 race. … One group, Ready for Ron, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission last month declaring its intent to spend more than $3 million on television advertising and phone, mail and digital promotion through late June.”

Poll: Most Americans dread a Biden-Trump rematch: Washington Post: “President Biden and former president Donald Trump may have each drawn a record number of votes in 2020, but at this early stage in the 2024 election cycle, Americans show little enthusiasm for a rematch between the two well-known yet unpopular leaders. … Neither Biden nor Trump generates broad excitement within their own party, and most Americans overall say they would feel dissatisfied or angry if either wins the general election. … More than 6 in 10 Americans (62 percent) say they would be ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘angry’ if Biden were reelected in 2024, while 56 percent say the same about the prospect of Trump returning to the White House for a second time.”

Club for Growth disses Trump: New York Times: “The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group that spent nearly $150 million in the past two election cycles, has invited a half-dozen potential Republican presidential candidates to its annual donor retreat next month — but not Donald J. Trump. … ‘The party should be open to another candidate” [David McIntosh, the president of the group] said, suggesting that Republicans had already lost too many elections with Mr. Trump as the face of the party. … Still, Mr. Trump remains the front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination, and his typical fund-raising strength is in small-dollar donors. And, if he were to capture his third consecutive nomination, Mr. McIntosh said his group would support Mr. Trump against Mr. Biden in 2024.”

Koch network ready for fight: Financial Times: “The US donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch has signalled it will oppose Donald Trump’s bid to secure the 2024 Republican presidential nomination in the latest rift between wealthy conservative backers and the former president. ‘The best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter,’ Emily Seidel, chief executive of the network’s political campaign group, Americans for Prosperity, wrote in a statement. … She added the group would support a candidate in the presidential primary ‘who can win.’ Announcing AFP’s intention to get involved in more primaries, Seidel said the Republican party was ‘nominating bad candidates who are advocating for things that go against core American principles. And the American people are rejecting them.’ This left Democrats free to respond with ‘more extreme policies,’ Seidel said.

Inching closer to 2024 run, Sununu touts independent appeal: Boston Globe: “Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire is confident that he is good at his job. He is confident his sunny, back-to-basics conservatism could boost his Republican Party after a string of losses. … Sununu will need every ounce of his blithe self-assurance if he jumps into the 2024 presidential race. … At first glance, it is not obvious how influential Sununu can be… He has called himself pro-choice, unlike many in the GOP, and believes his party needs to temper the very pugilism and culture wars that have animated the careers of its brightest stars. He tries, he says, to be ‘normal.’ … And yet, Sununu is one of the more popular governors in the country … and he has a perch in an early primary state.”

BRIEFLY

Crime dominates chaotic Chicago mayoral race—Politico

Raffensperger supports Georgia primary switch in 2028, not 2024—USA Today

Dianne Feinstein’s long, messy exit from the Senate—Politico

Trio of special election victories hands Dems the Pennsylvania House—New York Times

WITHIN EARSHOT: BO-JO TAKES WASHINGTON

“I don’t rule it out.”—American-born former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responds to a reporter’s question about a move from 10 Downing to 1600 Pennsylvania during Johnson’s recent trip to Washington to rally support for the Ukrainian war effort. 


MAILBAG

“I see the Koch campaign arm is prepared to pick a candidate, ABT: Anybody But Trump. How come nobody has done a poll of likely GOP voters who will never vote for Trump? Might that dissuade him from running if he cannot count on a percentage. Even if it is only 5%, he is doomed.”—Earl King, Colts Neck, New Jersey

You know perfectly well, Mr. King, that the only polls Trump believes are the ones that show him winning. The Koch network, aka “the Koch-topus,” could certainly be important in picking a nominee later on, but the far more important work they could do would be in using their resources to start softening up Trump long before there is a clear alternative. Trump is uniquely susceptible to negative television advertising because of the age and other demographic characteristics of his core supporters. He is really a TV figure more than the social media use that got so much attention in 2026. A long television campaign softening up Trump starting in the late spring or early summer of this year could be extremely damaging for his chances. 

“I thoroughly enjoy your perspectives on the political scene. However, in your latest missive, I must object to one point. You say that Republican voters in Iowa picked three straight ‘clunkers.’ Mike Huckabee (2008), Rick Santorum (2012) and Ted Cruz (2016). As a longtime resident of Pennsylvania, and a HUGE fan of Mr. Santorum, his performance in 2012 was anything but disappointing. He won in Iowa, although the credit was given to Mitt Romney, with the full results not known until a couple weeks later (AFTER New Hampshire). He went on to win five other states and over 200 delegates, and was given a prime speaking slot at the convention. Don’t know what we’re in for next year, but I am firmly in the Never Donald camp.”—Michael Frank, Wapakoneta, Ohio

I meant no reflection on the personal attributes of any of previous Iowa winners, Mr. Frank. They are very different kinds of men and politicians. The clunkiness I referred to was as viability as potential nominees. Huckabee won 278 delegates and finished first in eight contests in 2008, Cruz got  551 delegates and won 11 contests in 2016 , and as you point out, Santorum finished first six times and won 245 delegates. All three ended up with a quarter or fewer of the total delegates. Santorum’s underdog struggle was impressive, but in all three cases, Iowans picked candidates who could not go the distance. In the piece, I expressed sympathy for Iowa’s tendency to pick what we might think of as preemptive protest candidates. By throwing over the mainstream thinking in the party, Iowa Republicans scramble the race and make new kinds of thinking possible. Had Iowa picked John McCain, Romney, and Donald Trump in the past three cycles, imagine how differently the races would have gone. In 2008 and 2012, the frontrunners would have had much easier paths to the nomination. Of course, in 2016, Trump winning Iowa might have sharpened the thinking about the gaggle of candidates honking like geese for attention rather than reinforcing the idea of Trump’s purported weakness. Certainly, though, Cruz’s win there no doubt pushed Trump to the right on social issues important to many Iowa caucus goers.

“According to recent reports there are 10-11 million open jobs in the country. When an administration claims to have ‘created’ 223,00 new jobs, have the number of available jobs declined by 223,000 or are they truly ‘created’?”—Jim Delzell, Chicago, Illinois

I will do you one better, Mr. Delzell: Presidential administrations don’t create any jobs. Employers and market demands do.

“So, I still miss seeing you on TV. It’s rare to hear or read real analysis of politics and politicians these days. I counted on you and [Charles Krauthammer] and you’re both gone, one way or the other from TV. That said, I am enjoying your columns in The Dispatch. Anyway, I’m hoping you can craft an insightful story about the border and educate everyone on the true motivations the Dems have for leaving it wide open, lawless and hoisting crime and cost onto the border states and across the country. It’s one thing for El Paso to grieve, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to see NYC brought to its knees. Is the motivation to get more future voters? Is the motivation to reverse anything and everything Trump did? Or, is the motivation actually heartfelt to help humans in dire need? Regardless, the actual outcome for our country is terrible and it prevents us from shifting focus to legal immigration, perhaps based on merit rather than family attachment. Like many countries, we need more people here due to low birth rates as you know. Just look at Japan and China. Let’s open a true, fact based dialogue about the border and immigration and the outcomes we are achieving or could achieve, with a different approach. Can your pen get us started?”—Rick McGee, Naples, Florida

Mr. McGee, I am hardly deserving of inclusion with my friend, Charles. He is a role model for me, but a standard I will never meet. I don’t like to be so self-promotional, but I do feel obliged to say that I am very happily part of the team at NewsNation, the fastest-growing news channel on cable thanks to what really is, if you will excuse me, fair and balanced coverage. I will even go so far as to offer this link, which will allow you to watch online or search for our channel on your cable or streaming provider. As for the more substantive question, I would only encourage you to think about the premise. Democrats don’t believe that they are leaving the border open at all. Indeed, many in the party are livid over new policies from the Biden administration refusing sanctuary for migrants from Central America who cross into the United States illegally. One of the reasons for the pitiful state of America’s southern border and our chaotic immigration system is that neither party seems able to acknowledge the broad areas of agreement on the issue. In a battle between straw men, no blows are truly landed. Americans overwhelmingly support strict enforcement of existing laws and a pathway to citizenship for most of those who have been here illegally for long periods. Our failure to solve these problems is related to the perverse incentives of a duopoly, not the lack of a popular policy.   

“When filling in for Jonah on The Remnant a couple years ago, Chris and some guest were talking about diet soft drinks. I can’t remember the guest, but whomever it was shares my affliction for Diet Dr. Pepper and was recommending trying the Diet Maine Root cola. I finally found it. … I have to vehemently disagree with that take.  Yuck. I’ll bring my own water when I go to Cava.”—Michael Johnson, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

That was the great Harry Enten, and despite his keen political insights, I don’t really disagree with you on that cola. But I wonder, Mr. Johnson, why you would drink any diet cola other than Cheerwine, given your location in the heart of the Cheerwine-Sun Drop Belt. And a further query: Why are you eating lunch at Cava instead of Pulliams or Mr. Barbeque or Honky Tonk Smokehouse? 

“Since we’ve been shooting down balloons in airspace since 1917, can you opine on why the Chinese would send balloons over our airspace at 60,000 feet which is majorly vulnerable to being shot down when the Chinese have all sorts of spy satellites ringing the earth and can peek on anyplace or anybody?  Did they lose battery power on their satellites?”—Ron Smith, Larned, Kansas

If I knew that, do you think I’d be here writing about diet cola and barbeque, Mr. Smith? Wait, don’t answer that …


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the writerly Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!



CUTLINE CONTEST: RUDOLPH WENT FOR YANG

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg prepare to caucus for him in a school gymnasium on February 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg prepare to caucus for him in a school gymnasium on February 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This was an extraordinarily hard choice! A great tableau from the star-crossed 2020 Iowa caucuses drew *ahem* a bumper crop of funny responses, some simple and punchy, and others more involved. But, at the risk of inviting even more poetic pandering in the future, our winner again this week employs verse to make their joke.   

Winner:

“Excerpt from A Visit from St. Pete: 

. . . When what to my wondering sight did appear,

But a phalanx of voters their eyes strong and clear,

More rapid than eagles these citizens came,

And the small-city mayor he called them by name:

“Now Excellence, Responsibility, Belonging and Boldness!

On Substance! On Discipline! Through Iowa’s coldness!

To the churches and gyms—fear not to be raucous!

The way to the White House is Iowa’s caucus!”—Larry Cooper, St. Paul, Minnesota

Runner up:

“Hey, it looks like we’re missing competence!”—Richard Bross, Stafford, Virginia

Winner, The Man From P.E.T.E. Division: 

“People for the Ethical Treatment of Ethanol realize that it was a mistake to schedule their annual convention in Houston.”—Robert Culwell, Denver, Colorado

Winner, Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Kang Division:

“Supporters of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg mistakenly hold signs bearing the campaign promises of rival candidate, alien invader Kodos.”—Jaren Tankersley, Austin, Texas

Winner, Transfarency Division:

“Hi. We’re actually here for the 2020 caucuses, but we flew Southwest.”—Nathan Wurtzel, South Riding, Virginia

Winner, Vote Malachi Division: 

“Man, the ‘Children of the Corn’ did NOT age well.”—Tripp Whitbeck, Arlington, Virginia

Winner, See Ya, Sioux City Suckers Division: 

“And that’s when I started walking to Nebraska.”—Matt Dunning, Cincinnati, Ohio

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


DO ORCAS EVEN HAVE BASEMENTS?
NPR: “In a paper out this week in the journal Current Biology, [Michael Weiss, the research director at the Center for Whale Research] and his colleagues looked back across four decades of life history records of Southern Resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. The trend was clear: ‘Killer whale mothers pay a really huge cost to take care of their sons,’ says Weiss. … Male orcas are massive, and so are their appetites. They’re also less maneuverable, which may make it harder for them to catch prey. All this means that a male like K35 needs help getting enough food. So his mom will often dive down, says Weiss, ‘catch a salmon, and bring it up to the surface and actually bite half of the fish off and leave that half for her son.’ … In recent years, the population has cratered to just 73 animals. And what these orcas really need right now is more reproductive females.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a new book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.