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Stirewaltisms: Dems Forget How They Got Here
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Stirewaltisms: Dems Forget How They Got Here

The party’s only mandate was to stop the crazy cavitations of the Trump era.

The good news for President Biden and his party is that they have come out of August in far better condition than they began it. The bad news is that they are now well aware of that fact but mostly oblivious to the reasons why.

The two flattering self-deceptions that are most irresistible in politics are 1) our side lost because we were too virtuous and unwilling to lie, cheat, and steal like the other guys, and 2) our side is winning because voters really like us. 

The Republican Party has been gagging on the first one for almost two years and is consequently unable to either articulate a message about the future or temper the darkest, angriest voices inside the GOP. Democrats for most of the same period have been struggling with the second self-deception. In our time of intense negative partisanship, voters are more likely to be casting ballots against a candidate or party rather than for them. That was particularly the case in 2020, when the race was a referendum on the fitness of the incumbent. Donald Trump lost that election far more than Biden won it.

But since then, Democrats have struggled to understand that their party’s only discernible mandate was to stop the crazy cavitations of the Trump era. Surprise victories in Georgia’s Senate runoff elections handed Democrats the Senate and fed into the party’s self-congratulatory vibes, and helped obscure the truth: that Georgia and other red states weren’t as much getting more progressive as they were rejecting Republican kookism. What resulted was a mostly wasted year of Democratic internal debates over progressive priorities even as swing voters were making it clear that they were mostly worried about inflation and public safety. 

A surprise loss in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election and months of dire polling helped members of the blue team get the message a little bit. Those woes persisted well into this summer. 

A month ago, Biden’s approval rating in our weekly Statshot was almost 20 points underwater, and he was generally performing as badly or worse than any president in the history of modern polling in the summer of his second year. Now, Biden has climbed up enough so that he is only normally unpopular, with a net score of about negative 14 points—better than his predecessor at this point but very much in line with previous presidents who took brutal midterm thrashings in 1982, 1994, and 2010.

What hasn’t really changed has been the so-called generic ballot, in which Democrats have held a small but stable lead since late June on the question of which party voters would rather control Congress. Remember, a tie in this measure actually represents an advantage for Republicans. Because of Republicans’ advantages from being the party of rural voters (for example, five of the seven states with only one seat in the House are Republicans), and slightly higher historic performance in midterm turnout, Democrats would need to see an edge of 5 points or so before we could have confidence that they could keep the House. 

But Democrats’ edge of 1.7 points heading into Labor Day weekend  is massively better than their deficit of 2.6 points just before Memorial Day. At the start of the summer, I was looking at trends that pointed to Republican gains of more than 30 seats. Now, it looks like half of that, if not fewer. 

Once all the special elections to fill vacancies are done and the winners sworn in, Democrats will hold their majority by a razor-thin five seats. A massive midterm wave for the GOP could have taken them back to the huge advantages the party enjoyed in the final years of the Obama administration, when the red team had 30 seats to spare and could still pass legislation. Now, it looks more like the Republican majority will  be of the narrower kind that has made it hard for Democrats to keep the peace internally. Given how horrid the ongoing fights are among GOPers, a narrow Republican majority would be hard to manage for a skilled tactician, to say nothing of Kevin McCarthy

The Senate scene in the spring wasn’t a slam dunk for Republicans, but it was pretty good. As we know, candidate quality matters more on statewide races and, especially with a bunch of open seats, it was no sure thing. But a reasonable person would have seen a small Republican majority in the Senate  as the most likely scenario. Now, the opposite appears to be true. Republicans came limping out of brutal primaries into a general election in which the biggest issue for the Senate relates to the Supreme Court and access to elective abortions. Add in the fact that the most important issue in those primaries was usually a fight over who was the most slavishly devoted to a very unpopular former president, and you see why there would be trouble. 

The best news for Democrats this summer is that they haven’t been the news. It has helped the blue team that inflation has slowed and the economy has kept chugging, but the best news for the majority party is that the normal rule of a midterm—that such elections are referenda on the sitting president—was interrupted by a former president. Thanks in part to the January 6 committee and, more recently, the FBI search of Trump’s home, the 45th president would have already been a big part of the story. But Trump, who is out holding rallies and soaking up big bucks from small-dollar donors, is running a presidential campaign while his party is still trying to win a midterm. 

So what did Democrats do with this windfall? The same thing they did with their 2020 victories: misinterpret negative partisanship for positive partisanship. 

Starting with the never-say-die passage of the scraped-down version of their Build Back Better plan, Democrats have been feeling much more optimistic. Coupled with the mostly unrelated improvement in the polls, the allure of the second self-deception, “our side is winning because voters really like us,” became irresistible. 

That is what has Biden going on television and barking about “semi-fascism”—which I was disappointed to learn is not a delicious Italian dessert—and what has got him ready to kick off the fall campaign swing at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall tonight like it was the start of his re-election campaign. And this self-deception is what led the president to the remarkable political blunder of rewarding his supporters with student loan forgiveness before the election rather than afterward. 

Student loan forgiveness may put some pep in the step of young progressives, but for the suburbanites who made Biden president and tipped the Senate into Democratic hands, this is political poison. Biden hauling a program for military members to award free money to a favored political group and sticking voters who didn’t go to college or paid off their loans with the bill is a godsend for Republican hopes. 

But worst of all is Biden’s determination—no doubt partly driven by his own vanity and ego—to put himself back in the news. As Democrats increasingly reached the conclusion that Biden could not seek a second term, we see the president going out to assert his presidential prerogative and using Trump’s celebrity to gain attention for himself. 

Republicans are doing quite a bit worse than at the start of the summer. But Democrats talking rot about keeping the House can change that quickly by taking the microphone back. They were better off when they let Trump and the GOP civil war be the story and not Biden’s hot takes on the same subject. 


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: 41.7 percent
Average disapproval: 55.8 percent
Net score: -14.1 points
Change from one week ago: ↑ 1.7 points
Change from one month ago: ↑ 5.3 points 

[Average includes: Marist: 39% approve-57% disapprove; NBC News: 42% approve-55% disapprove; Fox News: 42% approve-58% disapprove; Ipsos/Reuters: 38% approve-58% disapprove; Wall Street Journal: 45% approve-54% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 41% approve-53% disapprove]

Generic congressional ballot 

Democrats: 44.0 percent
Republicans: 42.3 percent
Net advantage: Democratic Party +1.7 points
Change from one week ago: Democratic Party ↑ 0.4 points
Change from one month ago: Republican Party ↑ 0.3 points

[Average includes: NBC News: 45% Democrat, 47% Republican; Fox News: 41% Democrat, 41% Republican; Ipsos/Reuters: 35% Democrat, 33% Republican; Monmouth University: 49% Democrat, 46% Republican; Wall Street Journal: 47% Democrat, 44% Republican; Quinnipiac University: 47% Democrat, 43% Republican]


TIME OUT: IT’S ALL MENTAL

The Atlantic: “Pick a memory. … Hold the image in your mind. Now consider: Do you see the scene through your own eyes, as you did at the time? Or do you see yourself in it, as if you’re watching a character in a movie? Do you see it, in other words, from a first-person or a third-person perspective?  …. But like a story, every visual memory has its own implicit vantage point. All seeing is seeing from somewhere. And sometimes, in memories, that somewhere is not where you actually were at the time. This fact is strange, even unsettling. It cuts against our most basic understanding of memory as a simple record of experience. … This distancing effect has some fairly mind-bending potential applications. … Maybe the most interesting thing about all of this is what it suggests about the human proclivity for narrative. When we shift our memories from one perspective to another, we are, often without even realizing it, shaping and reshaping our experience into a story, rendering chaos into coherence.”


PELTOLA BEATS PALIN, A ROADMAP FOR RED STATE DEMS

Anchorage Daily News: “Democrat Mary Peltola is the winner of Alaska’s special U.S. House race and is set to become the first Alaska Native in Congress, after votes were tabulated Wednesday in the state’s first ranked choice election. … It is an outcome largely seen as an upset. Peltola would be the first Democrat to join Alaska’s three-person congressional delegation since U.S. Sen. Mark Begich lost reelection in 2014. And she defeated two Republicans to do so. Combined, [Sarah Palin] and [Nick Begich III], nephew of Mark Begich and grandson of former U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, commanded nearly 60% of first-place votes. … Peltola ran a largely positive campaign as Begich and Palin traded barbs in the final weeks before the Aug. 16 special election, emerging as the victor with a platform that highlighted her position as the only candidate on the ballot who supports abortion access. … Peltola has also said she is ‘pro-fish’ and emphasized her plans to protect subsistence fisheries in Alaska as salmon stocks decline in the region where she has fished throughout her life.”

Thiel, McConnell scrap over Senate funding: Puck:  “And so, for the last few months, the standoff between Thiel and McConnell has become a game of chicken. But time is running out: It is almost Labor Day, and both of the Thiel-funded PACs supporting [Blake Masters] and [J.D. Vance] are effectively broke, with neither having ads reserved in either Arizona or Ohio for the final weeks of the race. Some G.O.P. insiders and pro-Thiel forces, facing the prospect of fumbling the Senate, are wringing their hands over who exactly will be spending the money needed to beat Mark Kelly in Arizona and a surprisingly competitive Tim Ryan in Ohio. … The conflict is not just about money and polls, but control. … The problem, as Thiel himself learned over the past few weeks, is that McConnell is in triage mode. Donald Trump boosted a handful of baggage-laden, neophyte candidates, including Herschel Walker and Dr. Oz, that are at risk of losing otherwise winnable races. Democratic Senate campaign fundraising has outpaced Republicans for months.

Fetterman’s health takes center stage as debates near: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: John Fetterman isn’t about to debate opponent Mehmet Oz, saying his Republican opponent’s Senate campaign thinks ‘it is funny to mock’ his recovery from a stroke. … The Oz campaign had said it would ‘pay for any additional medical personnel’ Mr. Fetterman might need to have on standby, in addition to permitting him bathroom breaks and allowing him to have all of his notes on hand, along with an earpiece to obtain answers from his staff. … While Mr. Fetterman has been leading in the polls since the start of summer, some Republicans — including Mr. Oz and members of his campaign — have viewed his refusal to commit to debates as reason to question his health. Mr. Fetterman said that list of debate ‘concessions made it abundantly clear that they think it is funny to mock a stroke survivor.’”

Born online, Mastriano campaign struggles to expand base: New York Times: “[Doug Mastriano’s] rise from obscure and inexperienced far-right politician to Republican standard-bearer in Pennsylvania’s governor’s race was swift, stunning and powered by social media. Although he is perhaps better known for challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election and calling the separation of church and state a ‘myth,’ Mr. Mastriano built his foundation of support on his innovative use of Facebook in the crucible of the early pandemic, connecting directly with anxious and isolated Americans who became an uncommonly loyal base for his primary campaign. … ‘He is a Facebook power user,’ [Kyle Tharp of the FWIW newsletter] said. But Mr. Mastriano’s campaign has done little to expand his reach outside his loyal base, even as polls since the primary have consistently shown him trailing [Josh Shapiro], Pennsylvania’s attorney general, albeit often narrowly.”

Swing state GOP candidates dodge abortion: Washington Post: “At least nine Republican congressional candidates have scrubbed or amended references to Trump or abortion from their online profiles in recent months, distancing themselves from divisive subjects that some GOP strategists say are two of the biggest liabilities for the party ahead of the post-Labor Day sprint to Election Day. … ‘The Dobbs decision has clearly energized Democratic voters to the point where they have closed the enthusiasm gap with Republicans,’ said Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster. … Some Republican strategists cautioned against getting into debates over abortion with Democrats. ‘The more Republicans are explaining their position on the Supreme Court ruling, the more they are playing in the field of battle that the Democrats want,’ said John Brabender, a veteran GOP communications consultant. ‘I do think we’re letting the Democrats frame the issue, and candidates are falling into that trap in too many of our races.’”

BRIEFLY

Dems talk up Demmings’ chances against Rubio—The Hill

Poll: Oz closes gap in Pennsylvania Senate race—Susquehanna Polling and Research

Crist’s resignation leaves Dems with just 2 seat House majority—Tampa Bay Times

Dems go negative on Walker in new domestic violence ad—NBC 

Billionaire developer Caruso’s campaign for L.A. mayor withers quietly—Politico

WITHIN EARSHOT: NEW YORK’S OWN THANOS

“We sometimes forget that stones gather energy. Stones and metal gather energy. That energy is still here.”—New York City Mayor Eric Adams describing the City Hall building. 


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 dauntless Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack! 


CUTLINE CONTEST: OFF THE PRESS, ON THE PRESS, PRESSING ON

We were, ahem, inward facing for the last week of August’s formidable cutline contest, but you rose to the occasion. First, this week’s winner:

Broke: Accidentally orders a second copy of “Broken News” when trying to return the first. Woke: Orders a second copy of “Broken News” to loan one to friends. Bespoke: Pre-orders two copies of “Broken News” in case the first gets worn out.”—Jonathan Mahlum, Orting, Washington

Honorable Mention:

“Missed getting a book interview on Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter by that much.”—Hunter Hustus, Stockholm, Sweden

Winner, Dennis Miller Layered-Reference Division:

“‘I chose a picture of D.B Cooper for the cover of my book because—like Cooper—the media used to be a staid man in a tie … but that guy took the money, jumped out of a plane, and hasn’t been seen in years!’ – Chris Stirewalt at Book Soup in Los Angeles”—Tripp Whitbeck, Arlington, Virginia

We can also now announce the winner of the August contest. Reader Leo Algminas of Wilmette, Illinois, is taking home the title with a callback to the scandals of yore. For a picture of a local police officer working crowd control outside of former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, Mr. Alumina offered the following: “No, Stormy Daniels has not been found yet.” Please write us with your address so we can send you your prize: A 1974 AP wire photo of then-Rep. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas and his associate, Fanne Foxe, an Argentininian stripper whose splash in the Tidal Basin will live forever in Washington scandal lore.

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! 


SOMETIMES PPULSUC

Virginia Public Media: “Blink and you’ll miss it: a bad pun, a cryptic joke, a reference to a favorite movie or hobby. Virginia vanity license plates blanket the roadways and have tested motorists’ wit and ingenuity since they were first introduced in 1981. … A trove of thousands of rejected vanity plates from 2019, 2020, and most of 2021 … highlights drivers’ continued interest in pushing the boundaries of what’s allowed on roadways. There’s the celebratory (“YEHAWMF”), callouts (“DMNGRL”), memes (“TFKAREN”) and self-congratulatory (“PRTTYAF”). Perennial favorite topics include poop jokes (“OHHPOO” “FARTCAR” and, in a possible nod to an iconic Seinfeld episode, “POOPMAN”), drug references (“REEFAH,” “COCAIN,” and “SHROOMZ”), slights directed at other motorists (“CYALUZR” “PPULSUC”) and a slew of unrepeatable sex references. … It’s a constant battle to keep up with motorists’ knack for stretching the rules, [DMV spokesperson Jessica Cowardin] said. ‘Just when we think we’ve seen it all, something new comes through,’ Cowardin said. ‘Do we miss a few? Sure. Are we sometimes overly cautious? You bet.’”

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.